In the social media age, nothing ever really dies. A poster from 2011 by the Jinja Honcho, a Shinto association, has been stirring controversy on Twitter for weeks after someone tweeted an image of it in April. The poster, which promotes patriotism by celebrating being Japanese, is apparently still on display in various locations around Kyoto. It has drawn scornful comments from many Japanese observers, with some deriding it for carrying an outdated and even dangerous sense of nationalism, and others comparing it unfavourably to Trumpism and the US president's dubious promise to 'make America great again'.
The issue received a new burst of energy last week from reports that the model next to the slogan ‘I’m proud to be Japanese’ is in fact Chinese. The image is reportedly from Getty Images, and has also appeared on a website about skin damage remedies.
As laughable as that makes it, the episode is bigger than the cheaply produced poster and offers numerous lessons to people in the communications business. Firstly, the fact that a large proportion of the commentary on social media takes a negative stance on the poster’s message is a reminder that overt patriotism is best avoided in Japan. But more importantly, it's a reminder not to patronize people.
An independent Japanese PR consultant Campaign spoke to who did not wish to be named said it she did not find the poster to be offensively nationalistic. But she took offence at the way it tried to instill feelings. “We don’t want to be told, ‘be proud’,” she said. “[Being proud] is a feeling that comes from inside. If it’s forced, it’s not good.”
The discovery that the model is not Japanese as suggested might annoy a few nationalists, but otherwise has little bearing on the poster’s effectiveness or ineffectiveness. But the conversation around it suggests the changing meaning of national identity is a topic people are genuinely interested in. One representative comment noted: “The model is Asian and [the image] was produced in Beijing. It makes me feel that nationality doesn’t really matter.”
The poster may have done little to achieve its original goal (at least this time around). But many brands would be envious of the conversation it has managed to spark. As Tokyo 2020 approaches, tapping into national pride will be tempting for brands both in and outside Japan—but if they are going to do so, they must tread very carefully.
At the same time, identifying and playing up tension points can be very effective. Opening conversations around Japan’s changing cultural makeup (as Toyota did last year) and diversity has the potential to engage and create differentiation. But in doing so, brands must be aware of the risks, and as this example shows, that any blunders may return to haunt them years later.