The Courteous Charmer: A Hard Look at Japan’s Soft Power in Southeast Asia

The Courteous Charmer: A Hard Look at Japan’s Soft Power in Southeast Asia
18 October 2023 -

Beyond the attractiveness of its popular culture, Japan’s multifaceted soft power implementation hinges on one other crucial element: its leadership in addressing common challenges. The 1997 financial crisis that struck Asia emphasised the risk of contagion effects that ASEAN’s economic instability could have on Japan. In response, Japan supported ASEAN countries through disbursements of official development assistance (ODA) – bilaterally and as a collective. Japan solidified its support for ASEAN and the bloc’s community-building efforts through initiatives such as the Japan-ASEAN Integration Fund (JAIF) launched in 2006.

More recently, Japan supported ASEAN’s COVID-19 Response Fund. This included donations to the JAIF to address the health emergency, supplies of health equipment and vaccine doses, training of health officers from ASEAN countries, and contributions to the ASEAN Centre for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases (ACPHEED).

Recognising the region’s vulnerability to climate-induced disasters and extreme weather events, Japan has also leveraged its technical expertise to strengthen ASEAN’s disaster management response. Its support to the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management (AHA Centre), has helped establish an integrated information and communication technology (ICT) system and the Disaster Emergency Logistic System for ASEAN (DELSA), both of which have provided strategic coordination and facilitated resource mobilisation to countries facing post-disaster emergencies.

On security, Japan was ASEAN’s first dialogue partner to align its free and open Indo-Pacific vision with the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP), announced during the 23rd ASEAN-Japan Summit in 2020. During the 26th ASEAN-Japan Summit in September 2023, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced a new contribution of USD100 million to JAIF, which is expected to implement key areas under the AOIP. This supplements the previous contribution of USD243.6 million from Japan to JAIF since 2006, to support ASEAN connectivity and regional integration.

Japan’s soft power dividends have helped build a robust relationship with ASEAN over the last 50 years – one that has evolved from a donor-recipient dynamic to one of equal partnership based on mutual understanding.