Pokemon and Soft Power Part 1: A Brief Introduction to Soft Power

This week I’ve been thinking about soft power. I first came across the term in my second year at university, and I haven’t really thought too much about it since until now. It can be argued that Pokemon has had a huge impact on how Japanese culture has spread and is perceived international in the past 18 years or so, and thus has contributed to Japan’s soft power.

So what is soft power exactly?

Let’s begin with the definition of hard power. “Hard power” can be thought of as the “A coercive approach to international politicalrelations, especially one that involves the use of military power (Oxforddictionaries.com, 2014). Countries can sometimes obtain the outcomes they want without the tangible threats of hard power. This indirect method is often referred to as “soft power”Soft power rests on the ability to shape the preferences of others.  It must be noted that soft power is a difficult thing to both obtain and to measure in a sense. Unlike hard power, soft power relies on the ability of a nation to influence others tends to be associated with intangible assets such as an attractive personality, culture, political values, institutions and policies that are seen as desirable or legitimate (Ey.com, 2014).

Joseph Nye could be considered the soft power Guru, and explains the concept quite well in this VIDEO.

Recently I found an article by Nissim Kadosh Otmazgin (2007) that examines the nature of the Japanese soft power that derives from the proliferation of its popular culture in East Asia. Otmazgin notes that the Japanese government has been examining ways to promote the country’s cultural exports, in order to generate economic benefits and nurture positive appreciations of the country overseas, through investing in Japan’s cultural industries including food, fashion and content production. By cultural production I refer to the Japanese television, film, music, print and gaming industries. It is no surprise that the success of Pokemon has contributed to Japan’s soft power. The franchises’ success over the past two decades has helped to change the attitudes of nations around the globe towards Japan and Japanese culture.

After reading the article, I’ve have tried to reflect by asking myself “how do I explore Japanese/Pokemon related soft power in an auto-ethnogrpahic sense?”

The more I tried to answer this question, the more difficult the task seemed. That was until I realised that I’ve been exploring Japanese soft power throughout my entire auto ethnographical journey. If soft power can be measured by the ability of a nation to influence others relations with cultural assets, like, for instance, Pokemon, then my exploration of Pokemon fan art online is in itself, an expression of Japanese soft power. Fan art produced online that is able to circulate and thus, be appreciated globally, shows the extent of the influence Japanese culture has had on my own online experience as well as thousands of others. People from around the globe who come together online to discuss, create and explore Pokemon online are participating in an expression of Japanese culture.

I’ll call this Part 1 of my discussion, as i feel like there is so much more to be said.


Ey.com, (2014). Rapid-growth markets soft power index:Soft power defined. [online] Available at: http://www.ey.com/GL/en/Issues/Driving-growth/Rapid-growth-markets-soft-power-index-Soft-power-defined [Accessed 27 Sep. 2014].

Otmazgin, N. (2007). Contesting soft power: Japanese popular culture in East and Southeast Asia. International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, [online] 8(1), pp.73-101. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/irap/lcm009 [Accessed 27 Sep. 2014].

Oxforddictionaries.com, (2014). hard power: definition of hard power in Oxford dictionary (British & World English). [online] Available at: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/hard-power [Accessed 27 Sept. 2014].



  1. For the group assignment my group and I are talking about Pokémon and part of my topic is the Pokémon fandom. I’d never thought about it in terms of soft power but you’re definitely right. Not just the Pokémon fandom but the entire world of Pokémon from the anime, game, manga, toys etc. I think could all be considered “soft power” as it’s an example of Japanese influence on the west. I like that you’ve narrowed it to online fan art specifically because looking at Pokémon in general is really overwhelming because there’s just so much stuff that comes along with it.


  2. Hi,

    What an interesting link you have formed between Japan’s soft power and Pokémon. It is certainly evident that Pokémon has had a global effect, especially on generation Y as we were brought up in the age of the merchandise. It also has helped shaped our understanding of Japan and their culture. When you think about it, the battle’s which the Pokémon have, are similar to the art of Karate. The show also gives insight into the way that Japan is founded upon strict ideals of respect. Though in saying this, only till I went to Japan, did I truly realise what this meant.

    You are definitely right in saying that Pokémon has had an influence on our understanding of Japanese culture and I think that focusing on one particular aspect, such as the fan art, is a great way to measure this effect. I look forward to reading part 2 of your discussion.


  3. It’s interesting that you raise the point of fan art being a soft power. I have to say that I have never really thought of it like that before. However now that you mention it I fully agree. I would like to raise one point about Pokemon and soft power however. As a child who grew up watching Pokemon I never related it back to Japan. To me, Pokemon was a made up world, with made up cultural beliefs and customs. It wasn’t until I was older that I began to understand the cultural aspects of the show. Even just two days ago I saw a child holding a Pikachu stuffed toy. Do you believe that the anime can allow a child to see the elements of an entire culture? I mean surely there are some parts that the child would understand someday to be purely Japanese, however they may just always see it as some far-away magical land.


  4. I’ve always thought Japanese culture to be one of the most unique popular cultures in the world. I never considered the “soft power” aspect of their culture and that they would be purposefully influencing other cultures to buy into their products. In terms of Pokemon then, what do you think it is that has made it so easy to accept for Western cultures? Especially compared to other anime and video game brands which are still more niche. Pokemon has become a globally recognised brands out of Japan, so it’s probably one of Japan’s most successful soft power methods. I don’t have any theories myself, other than it being a multi-platform brand, covering video games, anime, manga and of course, the enormous range of merchandise. It may be successful purely because of how accessible it is. Also because it’s had an huge retention of fans. Kids who played Pokemon games in the 90s are still rushing to buy the new titles in 2014.


  5. The concept of soft power, and the fact that the Japanese government is both aware of and taking advantage of it, makes me much more afraid than I really should be. It reminds me of a game mechanic in the Civilisation game series where you can win by basically making every other country love your culture. The fact that we’re studying asian culture in class is a sign that this soft power is influencing our lives at all levels, which is actually kind of cool. I guess the only way to really analyse this from an autoethnographic stance is to try and find all the soft power that is placed upon you in your average day. Good luck!


  6. As with many here, I never looked at soft power in a Japanese context before, but the initial reaction was how widespread Japanese fan culture has spread. There are many essays on the spread of Pokemon that show exactly what is popular where. For example France has historically been one of the biggest consumers of Pokemon cards and it was the catalyst for a gender equality movement in Isreal. Not to mention the small little things like Pikachu appearing on the training jerseys of the Japanese football team at the world cup this year. It definitely garnered the team some supports from such a simple act of advertisement.

    Funny, it is exactly as prevalent as you say.


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