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There is a concern among some African nations that they will get mired down in big power rivalries. General Stephen Townsend, Commander of the United States Africa Command, has said that "China and Russia do not ignore Africa, and that alone should say something." True, but Africa matters to the world beyond geopolitical rivalries and is home to many people in need of immediate intervention. It will also be one of the world's leading development partners.
Japan's educational exchange agreements seem to be stuck in time, as if the clock stopped ticking in 2020. Throughout this limbo period, Japan-bound students are now choosing other countries for their international exchange. Who can blame them? They are being treated more like superspreaders of the COVID virus instead of the superspreaders of global education that they are.
Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida spent ages six to eight at P. S. 13 elementary school in Queens, New York. The recently designated "world's borough" is considered the most culturally diverse county in the United States. This boyhood experience left an indelible mark on Kishida because you can draw a line from living among a potpourri of people from all walks of life to his preference for person-to-person diplomacy. That, and his affection for Hiroshima, a city that educates the world about the devastating effects of nuclear weapons, may well explain why the new prime minister places a premium on international communication. As a young boy in the mid-1960s, Kishida would have noticed even then that he was living in a setting among people who have a global reputation for being communicators, especially direct and forthright ones. New York native sociolinguist Deborah Tannen once observed: "New Yorkers seem to think the best thing two people can do is talk. Silence is OK when you're watching a movie (though it might be better punctuated by clever asides), or when you're asleep (collecting dreams to tell when you awake), but when two or more people find themselves together, it's better to talk. That's how we show we're being friendly."
At this point, there seems to be no reversing the arrival to Tokyo of tens of thousands associated with the Olympics and Paralympics. All spectators are now banned, creating yet another level of access absurdity at the prospect of broadcast media showcasing empty stadiums and arenas but for the VIPs and sponsors in attendance to cheer on the athletes. Homegrown protesters have been heard but largely ignored. Even the present emperor's words of worry about the spread of the coronavirus during the Olympics received the government brushoff, ignoring the important diplomatic role that the Imperial family plays in representing Japan's nation brand to the world. Japan is finally making up for precious lost time with the vaccination rollout, but the damage has been done in reputation costs. Every conversation I have with my Japan-curious friends revolves around "What's going on with Japan? Why did it take so long to vaccinate its population?"
After Suga's meeting in Washington with Biden failed to produce a big reveal such as an announcement of an accelerated Marshall Plan-style vaccine rollout during the countdown period, global public pressure is likely to burst the protective bubble of confidence to hold the Summer Olympics. The signs are tilting now in favor of cancellation or a second postponement. Rapidly rising cases from the fourth wave of infections have forced the Olympics torch rally to be all but hidden from public view.
A gradual reopening is also something that might allow for more strategic communications and planning. Global connectedness and integration should proceed at a brisker pace across digital platforms. This is an opportune time for the Suga administration to embrace international science and technology collaboration along with more gender balance.
Since March 11, 2020, when the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak to be a pandemic, we have been living with what seems like a global nightmare. It is reasonable for Japan to be a model of slow-going with reopening its borders. But it also needs to keep its eyes on the prize -- defeating the virus, not the person.
In crisis times, leaders are either helpers in common cause or obstructionists and self-preservationists. They are credited only when they help to build up confidence or when they make a population feel united behind a common cause. Abe must make that common cause. The prime minister is effective at making persuasive appeals when he wants to win something big, like the right to host the Olympics. He now needs to put that winning effort into addressing the personal sacrifices of the people. This should matter more to him than his own political survival. A healthy dosage of gratitude and humility, even an acknowledgment of Japan's slow start, would do much to narrow the credibility gap between public and politician.
This global pandemic is forcing all of us to revisit the social meaning of sports competition. No doubt, even if by the most optimistic account the pandemic cools down by May and June, by July and August every affected nation will still be reeling from the collective trauma of social distancing. The White House made that crystal clear today. Travel, entertainment, hospitality – all niche sectors to global sports will be barely awake from a months-long deep coma. How will this fare with Japan’s brand, reputation, and the “wow” buzz that Japan expects to gain from the event? Japan is facing two clear choices: either stay happy with the hard-earned reputation of organizing global events at the cost of a financial loss, or risk losing both. Unlike a half-full glass as a metaphor for positive spirit, a half-full stadium will not make Japan proud, but become a haunting image that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will wish does not exist in the meme trafficking of the Internet. To avoid such a nightmare, Japan is better off asking the IOC to cancel the event or at least postpone it as far as it can, today, right now.
The public is seeing this for what it is, a system that serves the government leadership first, the political economy second, and the citizenry third. In the coronavirus era, citizens come first. The government must stop making this crisis about Abe. In good public relations, you must respect your audience and play to its interests, not yours. The narrative of how Japan is fighting COVID-19 is being swallowed by political grandstanding. Every time a government official speaks, balance that with an everyday citizen sharing how she or he is personally responding to the coronavirus. Surely the government can tap into grassroots best practices in response to coronavirus and promote them. Emphasizing the importance of these stories at home and abroad would both motivate Japanese citizens to take tougher measures and show the world that Japan is truly facing the problem.
Japan's government has failed the coronavirus communications test. Instead of data and reassurance, Shinzo Abe leads with aloofness
Japan is seen as a leader in soft power, the ability to attract and persuade rather than coerce, but is this the result of government initiative? In "Japan's Information War," public diplomacy and propaganda specialist Dr. Nancy Snow takes an inside look at brand Japan's inner workings. The result of two years of intensive research as an Abe Fellow at Keio University in Tokyo, Dr. Snow makes a critical analysis of Japan's global diplomacy and gives insights on how Japan could improve its nation branding strategy.