Mr. Kenko Sone
Deputy Cabinet Secretary for Public Affairs
Director of Global Communications
JAPAN and the WORLD interviewed Mr. Kenko Sone to talk about the Japanese Prime Minister’s idea on expanding communication networks of Japanese people abroad.
—Mr. Sone, please tell us about yourself and your work at the Prime Minister Abe’s Global Communication office?
I am originally from the Foreign Ministry and I have worked there for more than 25 years. I was assigned to study English in the United States and spent two years in college there. I was then sent to the Japanese Embassy in Washington DC. After coming back, I was assigned to work on Japan-US security issues. I would deal with Asian and European countries. I was then posted once again in Washington. After that, I came back and dealt with President Obama’s visit in 2014. I have since been assigned to work my current position. I never really dealt with communication issues.
We mostly focus on the English version of SNS communication. Prime Minister Abe believes strongly in the messages that he would like to deliver.
There are several things my office does. We provide information to the foreign press and we manage our website, as well as provide SNS (Social Networking Service) information through Twitter or Facebook. Those projects were started even before I joined this office. We mostly focus on the English version of SNS communication. Prime Minister Abe believes strongly in the messages that he would like to deliver.
—What is the Japan Brand today? What would you say are the strengths and weaknesses for Japan in terms of branding?
Prime Minister Abe has been really trying to promote Japan. Traditionally, Japan has strong content that can be shared with the global community, which we should be proud of. Generally, the good aspects of Japan are being delivered to the world. Also, there are so many tourists visiting Japan and some even go to places that Japanese people normally do not go. I watch several news programs and saw that when they stay in small towns, they support by doing chores and living a Japanese lifestyle. Those experiences are then spread throughout the world through Facebook or Twitter. The weakness, I would say, that foreigners find, is that Japanese are not good at showing off or explaining themselves. It is kind of the Japanese culture or tradition. We tend not to say much. That is one aspect and the other one is English. There is a very limited amount of English translated books. Even though we study English for many years in school, we still have difficulty communicating in it. Sometimes we have to be more open-minded or try to explain ourselves in English, but we need more training or experience.
While I have been dealing with Japan-USA bilateral relations, we realized that the number of Japanese exchange students has been decreasing so much. In 2014, between Japan and the US, we agreed to double the number of students that study abroad. We are always wondering about the reasons as to why Japanese students are not studying abroad. One of the reasons is maybe that the Japanese economy is stagnated, so they are worrying about their jobs. They think maybe they should stay in Japan and look for work opportunities at companies. Learning English does not necessarily help with getting a job at Japanese companies.
Recently, we talked to some college students who are interested in studying abroad. We are hoping that the younger generation will have the chance to visit foreign countries. Also we are getting more tourists from foreign countries and maybe that is giving more incentive for Japanese to study abroad. That is also what we have been doing at the Foreign Ministry. We have been supporting exchange programs.
—What sort of word would you like people to have in mind when they think about Japan?
There are so many different aspects when thinking about Japan: culture, tradition, food and technology. So perhaps this word would be “takumi” (artisan) since it has transcended from the old traditions and craftsmanship. This can be brought down through the generations.
—Is there any specific program, aside from regional programs, where Japanese are concerned about promoting the Japanese brand?
I think the Olympics are a good chance for Japan to be more visible, to get more people to visit and to know about Japan. So right now, I think we are trying to provide foreigners with more information. Of course, media has been approaching us at several events asking for programs they would like to promote, related to urban thinking, and tradition. Plus we need to remember that this sport event will happen not only in Tokyo but also around Tokyo. We also have to think about after the Olympics. We would like to level up the Japanese brand so that people from around the world can better understand Japan. Also, that could make Japanese people more proud of Japan and realize how Japan can be part of the world. So what we hope is that the 2020 Olympics can be a way to build more connections and understanding.
We would like to level up the Japanese brand so that people from around the world can better understand Japan.
—Are there any specific areas of the world where you put more efforts in branding Japan?
Our policy is “diplomacy that takes a panoramic perspective of the world map”. Personally, I have some attachment to the United Sates and knowledge about the US, where people look at to get information. So the US is always a key part in promoting Japan and that information can be spread all over the world. There are also the Asian countries like China and South Korea with whom Japan has a natural bond of working for trilateral cooperation.
Of course we have been working directly with Europe and TICAD in Kenya. The first time I was in Washington, I was involved in this TICAD process, supporting the Foreign Ministry’s officials in the US. At that time, the partner was the Global Coalition for Africa. They had an office in Washington DC. That was the beginning of this process. Japan is maybe the first country to focus on African development and the whole idea is that we would like to be a partner with African countries. That is the original concept of the TICAD.