Japan–ASEAN relations move towards co-creation

Author: Kitti Prasirtsuk, Thammasat University

There has been a remarkable transformation of Japan’s relationship with ASEAN over the past fifty years. In the 1970s, anti-Japanese product campaigns and protests were common across the region. Today, Japan is the most trusted and familiar power among Southeast Asian opinion leaders and the public in ASEAN countries, according to ‘The State of Southeast Asia’ annual survey conducted from 2019 to 2023 by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

Malaysians and Japanese living in Malaysia dance during the Japanese Bon Odori festival in Shah Alam, Selangor, Malaysia, 16 July 2022 (Photo: Reuters/Hasnoor Hussain).

Whatever difficulties and troubles there are in the relationship today, appear trivial alongside those 50 years ago. There is now a deep foundation of business and people-to-people, social and cultural ties built on largescale economic interdependence that anchors Japan’s dealings with its Southeast Asian partners.

Japan has apparently won the hearts and minds of Southeast Asians through cultural exchange, official development assistance, foreign direct investment and soft power. This was reflected keenly in in the aftermath of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. ASEAN nations eagerly organised donation campaigns to support Japan. The overwhelming response of citizens — even in the slum districts of Bangkok, Manila, and Jakarta — reflected the goodwill generated by Japanese NGOs which have contributed to Southeast Asian communities for several decades.

According to the Japan National Tourism Organization, in 2023 Southeast Asian tourists accounted for a quarter of the 1.3 million tourists that have flocked back into Japan since the easing of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some cultural and social frictions undoubtedly persist, especially in newer ASEAN members states where Japan has fewer first-mover advantages but there is a sound base of Japanese soft diplomacy on which to expand and re-fashion Japan’s ASEAN diplomacy.

The occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Japan–ASEAN relationship provides an opportunity to build on their existing relationship through ‘co-creation’. This involves working together more closely to synergise and blend social and cultural elements and interests. In the area of soft diplomacy, cultural industries like food, pop culture and tourism are areas of obvious potential.

The interaction between food cultures is already an active area of cultural innovation. Japanese beef bowls are localised with Thai spices and seasoning, while several Thai chicken rice stores have been opened in Japan, for example. In 2022 there were more than 5000 Japanese restaurants in Thailand, many of them locally owned. This is a phenomenon affecting many Southeast Asian countries. As Southeast Asian cuisine becomes increasingly popular globally, there is an opportunity for the co-creation and export of Japanese fusion cuisine to other countries around the world.

Japanese pop culture, such as manga and karaoke, has spread across Southeast Asia rapidly. In fact, ASEAN nationals often win Japanese Manga awards, with many of them advancing to work for the Japanese manga and animation industries — an early example of co-creation.

With increasing competition from countries like South Korea, Japan needs to focus on marketing the attractiveness of its pop culture. Japanese movies, TV series and vocal groups tend to be homogenous, featuring only Japanese performers and mainly catering to domestic audiences. Japanese pop culture could seek diversity by incorporating Southeast Asian elements, through co-produced movies and television productions or boy bands and girl groups comprising performers of different nationalities.

These groups have attracted huge worldwide popularity. Joint productions led by Japan’s robust pop culture and content industry have the potential to facilitate the development of Southeast Asian subsidiary industries and cultures to the world stage.

Tourism also offers high potential for co-creation between Japan and Southeast Asian countries. Japan has been successful in developing its tourist destinations in various regions, with tourism now no longer confined to only major cities. Japanese local governments and communities are instrumental to tourism development, which tends to be comprehensive in offerings, including food, local products, souvenirs and storytelling. Using the ‘one village, one product’ project from Japan’s Oita Prefecture as a model, Thailand has developed its own version, ‘one tambon, one product’, in the past two decades. The project assists each rural district to develop its local product or food through the provision of funding, knowhow and marketing channels.

Japan’s experience would benefit ASEAN countries that are keen to advance their tourism industries, particularly in eco-tourism and tourism to non-major city destinations. Japanese tourists are a significant component of the tourist market in ASEAN and ASEAN tourists occupy an increasingly large share of the market in Japan. There are incentives on both sides to co-create tourist attractions to match each other’s tastes in the development of regional tourism.

An initiative on the 50th anniversary to step up soft diplomacy and move beyond cooperation and towards co-creation with ASEAN could help cement people-to-people ties.

In the 50th year of ASEAN–Japan friendship and cooperation, Japan can step up its soft diplomacy to move beyond cooperation and towards co-creation with ASEAN. Southeast Asian countries have grown considerably and can function not only as a market for Japan but also as a partner in various socio-economic aspects. Food, pop culture and tourism represent promising areas for co-creation. Partnering and co-creating will allow Japan and ASEAN to continue their healthy relationship, which will contribute to prosperity and stability in the region.

Kitti Prasirtsuk is Professor of International Relations at Thammasat University.

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