Japan has a major international image problem

February 21, 2014, 11:08 PM UTC
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Davos

FORTUNE — From unrepentant dolphin slaughter to dangerous panda baiting, Japan’s image is taking a global beating. Even with Tokyo nabbing the 2020 Summer Olympics, Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s bold economic agenda, and Fukushima seemingly under control, the country can’t help shooting itself in the foot. When it comes to national prestige, Japan’s leaders can’t help but screw it all up.

Take Shinzo’s Abe’s recent attempt to score global PR points for his country’s “traditional” killing of cetaceans. And at Davos, the English-speaking Japanese prime minister (a sight as rare as buttered sushi) offered his reasoning for a Yasukuni war shrine visit — it was to pray for peace, he said — and warned the audience about a militant, belligerent China. These comments were overshadowed by a blunder no spin doctor could wriggle out of: Abe compared the recent Sino-Japan spat over his shrine visits and competing territorial claims to the tense relationship between Britain and Germany in the run-up to World War I.

The Financial Times’ Martin Wolf called this “far and away the most disturbing experience I have had in Davos in years.” Abe’s office placed the blame on the shoulders of a hired interpreter. Abe’s appeal, designed to ease fears of a possible Sino-Japanese war and promote his brand of economics, merely added more tension to the touchy Asian relations and ended up alienating allies.

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Abe may have got off to a good start with his Abenomics reforms when his party took power in Japan just over a year ago, says Jochen Legewie, a PR consultant based in Tokyo, but now he risks straying from the message and damaging his country’s interests. “The success of the Abe government so far owes much to a well-orchestrated messaging and communications strategy,” he says, pointing to the leader’s relative popularity at home. “But Abe’s singular remarks on history and Japan’s place in Asia offer his opponents room for attacks and thus pose a risk factor to his government and policy.”

Japan tries to portray China as the region’s biggest threat to peace. “It is not Japan that most of Asia and the international community worry about; it is China,” insists Kenichiro Sasae, Japan’s U.S ambassador. But lately, Japan is starting to look less “sensible” in international opinion. According to a poll by the BBC World Service, which conducted face-to-face and telephone interviews with randomly selected people in 25 countries using a market research firm, “views of Japan’s positive influence declined considerably in 2013, halting an improving trend that had been going for several years.”

So why is Japan, which has so much going for it, so lousy at PR? “Japan has absolutely no clue of how to manage the press, and this is typically because they’re not used to being questioned, that is to say they’re proud and feudalistic,” says Japan business pundit Terrie Lloyd and long-term Tokyo resident. “Feudal, because imagining that might is right, and that the world has no option but to listen. Pride means rewriting the history books and burnishing one’s image with meaningless propaganda, while reason and balance are cast aside.”

This poses a major problem for Japan as it now desperately seeks to court world opinion while bolstering its military alliance with the U.S, all while facing up to a newly muscular China and a vacillating, Sino-friendly White House. (The U.S. has a treaty with Japan in which it pledges aid in any war, but seems to want to see a less antagonistic Japan, while it seeks to contain China.) Abe’s Dec. 26 visit to the Yasukuni shrine, where 14 convicted war criminals are honored and which houses a museum glorifying Japan’s Pacific War, is seen by the U.S. as irresponsible. Such visits along with repeated denials of Japanese wartime atrocities — a public broadcaster boss was the latest to contribute on that front — drives a deeper wedge between China and Japan.

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Mutual animosity has yielded a cold war between the world’s second- and third-largest economies. Both are now using world media as a battleground. The two nations have deep business ties and engaged in bilateral trade worth nearly $334 billion in 2012, according to Japanese figures. As their repective propaganda machines whirl into action, China appears to have the upper hand in the international battle for hearts and minds. Although neither side scores points for common sense. Witness the increasingly bitter spat over territory and interpretations of recent history. Launched last month in the British media, a classic tit for tat ensued with first the Chinese envoy to the U.K. comparing Japan to Lord Voldemort, the fictional villain from the Harry Potter series. The best Japan’s ambassador could do was to churlishly rebuke the Chinese with “No, you are Voldemort!”

Such desperate PR efforts are driven by Japanese vulnerability in the face of Chinese military superiority, says Tokyo-based PR consultant Daniel Fath. Japan needs to get its allies firmly on its side in any conflict and territory row, but its policies are at risk of backfiring. It’s all down to Japan’s cultural blind spots, Fath explains. “Not expected to explain themselves clearly to domestic audiences, Japanese spokespeople can come off sounding evasive and not entirely clued in to the expectations of non-Japanese audiences,” he says. “There is also a lack of emphasis placed on communications as a strategic tool.”

As the war of words ratchets up between China and Japan, Japanese leaders will need to correct its course if they wish to win peace in this region.