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Japan quietly seeks global leadership niches

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Japan's promotion of a changed image was underscored earlier this year by the ascension – a cutesy gesture, perhaps – of a cartoon character, Doraemon, as the country's roving cultural ambassador.

The animated cat's job, said then-Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura at the March announcement, was to "deepen people's understanding of Japan so they will become our friends." For his part, Doraemon – who is as familiar to young people in Asia as Snoopy was to generations of young Americans – promised to share globally "what kind of future [Japanese] want to build."

To Kenjiro Monji, it's one small piece of a diplomacy that is crucial to that future – influencing the public as well as opinion leaders by presenting ideas and policies more effectively. Japan's director general of public diplomacy, he points to polls by the BBC this year that gave Japan the No. 2 slot in terms of positive image among global respondents.

"The image of Japan is very good, and not just in cultural areas. It is seen as contributing to stability as well," he says.

Still, Mr. Monji says Japan could do far more to capitalize on its deft touch with practical and whimsical technology alike as well as popular culture. He is enthusiastic about the startup of an English language TV broadcast – a BBC-like program by Japan International Broadcasting – that aims to reach most corners of the globe by March 2009.

Plans are also in the works to open more than 100 language centers around the world to spread the study of Japanese, an effort funded by the Japan Foundation. Cultural grant aid is another target.

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