JSPS Quarterly
No.58 2016 Winter

Research and Life in Japan by a JSPS Fellow (40)

Dr. Marco Pellitteri
Dr. Marco Pellitteri

Soft Power of Japanese Culture and Images of Japan in Europe

JSPS Postdoctoral Fellow, Kobe University, 2014–2016
The Japan Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow, Kobe University, 2013–2014
Honorary Research Fellow, London Metropolitan University, UK, 2011–2013

Coming to Japan from Italy, Dr. Marco Pellitteri has been conducting research with his host, Prof. Kiyomitsu Yui at Kobe University under a JSPS Postdoctoral Fellowship. We asked him about his research activities and life in Japan.

Q: What have you been researching under the JSPS fellowship?

My main research topic and goal under the JSPS fellowship was to survey, analyze and measure the relationship between the success of contemporary Japanese media and popular culture within the European context vis-à-vis the ways in which notions of Japan as a nation and a people (depicted in public opinion and mainstream media) have changed under that cultural input and influence.

Through this research, I will be able to say something about the concept of “soft power,” a notion that is very popular among people in the Japanese government, especially in the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), and is one of the reasons why the government decided to launch the “Cool Japan” initiative to promote Japanese culture overseas. One of the major points of my research is that Japan’s alleged “soft power” is, in practical terms, much weaker and limited than many people tend to (or want to) believe. I find that, as a matter of fact, many of the old stereotypes of Japan continue to hold a strong grip in the minds of most Europeans, and that the popularity of Japanese contemporary culture has, at best, created newer stereotypes of Japan.

Practically speaking, this means that— although I myself greatly respect Japanese culture and am a very fond reader of manga and watcher of sci-fi and war anime which I often find emotionally engaging and culturally compelling—“Cool Japan” promotion committees could or should consider, in the near future, using additional cultural strategies and scenarios of Japanese culture if they want to give full expression to the nation’s immense cultural heritage. I am inclined to think that when considering ways to do this, the committees could also seek advice from foreign experts, as doing so would be helpful in further enhancing “Cool Japan” policies and practices.

Q: What is your opinion of Prime Minister Abe being shown in a promotional video as “Super Mario” in the closing ceremony of the Rio Olympics?

I think Mr. Abe’s nice performance was meant to be a demonstration of Japan’s soft power aimed at advertising the country to the rest of the world. The idea was to show Japan as a cool and friendly, but also strong and independent, country. I believe that the choosing of an anime or game character was not the best idea. Those industries are a colorful but tiny part of Japanese culture. I think what Japan could show the rest of the world is more about its people and their accomplishments, instead of pop culture.

Q: When and where did you encounter your research subject?

Even before I started doing research here in Japan, I had already published in the 2000s a variety of books and essays, some of which dealt with Japanese manga and anime, back in Italy. I thank my host researcher and senior friend and colleague Prof. Yui for making possible those opportunities. During my years as a PhD student at the University of Trento (which hosts the highest ranked sociology department in Italy), I joined an international research team based in Paris and directed by the French scholar Jean-Marie Bouissou, a group which Prof. Yui also soon joined. From then, I started to collaborate at an international level with the group members, until Prof. Yui kindly encouraged me to apply for research grants from JSPS and The Japan Foundation.

Dr. Pellitteri with his colleagues
Dr. Pellitteri with his colleagues

Q: What is your impression of Japan’s research environment compared to those of Italy and other European countries?

There are aspects that strike me as positive, others as negative. First the negative: It appears that very few people can speak English fluently. Staffs, students and professors either do not know how to express themselves in English, or prefer not to because they are afraid to make mistakes. This is not a healthy attitude, as academia is an international environment in which English proficiency is very important.

In this sense, many aspects of the Japanese academic environment reveal, up to a point, Japanese universities to be overall selfsecluding. Many Japanese scholars publish papers in Japanese only, as one example. Many Japanese universities, especially national universities, are not thoroughly internationalized. Also, the Japanese research environment has too many men and too few women. Female researchers appear to be a neglected resource in Japan.

Positive aspects: First of all, there is much more money allocated for research in Japan than almost anywhere in Europe. Research and development are taken very seriously here. Researchers are given ideal conditions in which to work and produce knowledge. They do not have to struggle with daily needs. This is an enormous advantage for researchers, not just in practical terms, but especially in psychological terms: Researchers who work in Japan feel cherished, nurtured, and appreciated. This allows researchers to work with heightened satisfaction and gratitude—at least in my case. It’s also because of this environment that researchers can attain good results. In many European countries (and especially in countries like Italy…) the situation is quite the opposite.

Q: Could you please give some advice for young researchers who may be thinking about doing research in Japan?

I would suggest that you learn some Japanese before coming and during your research tenure in Japan. You should also try to make as many Japanese acquaintances (colleagues, friends, drinking buddies) as possible so as to improve your language skills. I am sure this must be one of the most frequent comments by JSPS fellows who answer this question!

But the most important virtue for a foreign researcher to have when working in a Japanese university is to assume a zen attitude toward bureaucratic procedures and paperwork! It may be frustrating at times as administrative personnel do not speak English as a rule. If, however, you are kind and patient and follow the rules thoroughly showing respect for the system (however complicated and “twisted” it may seem to a foreigner), the staff, who are always very professional, will become a great asset in your research, helping it to proceed smoothly in all administrative aspects: travel reimbursements, budget allocations, and so forth.

Final tip: If you come from a country where manners are rather casually observed, please be aware that in Japan manners are taken very seriously. “When in Rome do as the Romans do.” Good luck!

In talking with Dr. Pellitteri, we found his research to be rather bold as it also focuses on the performance of the Cool Japan initiative. Being quite detailed and complex, the Cool Japan “mission” still has a long way to go before being fully implemented. Dr. Pellitteri’s research, which intersects the program at this stage of its development, finds that because of conceptual and implementation shortcomings “Cool Japan” might not fully achieve its intended impact when applied in European countries. Dr. Pellitteri is working to create an evidencebased proposal for improving this situation, one that includes greater participation by foreign experts who can contribute innovative concepts and a wider spectrum of ideas when devising strategies to move the overseas component of the program forward. As Dr. Pellitteri says, Japan has immense cultural assets. We admire his efforts to expedite their wider and deeper promulgation within the global community.

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JSPS Quarterly No.58 2016