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Japan quietly seeks global leadership niches

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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.

But Japan's cultural dynamism stands in sharp contrast to its domestic political and dip- lomatic profile – one that hampers Japan's ability to wield clout in more traditional spheres of influence.

That's something Ichiro Asahina, an idealistic and animated 30-something official with Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, hopes to change.

After a stint at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, Mr. Asahina concluded that Japan's bureaucracy, long the destination for the best and brightest, was failing to help blaze a path out of Japan's domestic economic and political troubles.

He and like-minded colleagues started brainstorming how best to nudge change within Kasumigaseki, Japan's ministerial hub. In 2005, Project K, as the group dubbed itself, ratcheted things up – publishing a book that pitched mission statements, a national strategy office, and other reforms to help ministries become more dynamic and open to frank discussion. They developed an acronym – PEATH, for peace, environment, art, technology, and human resources – to describe where the group, which now claims some 50 members, thought Japan could be most influential.

Their activism proved a magnet for criticism – and plaudits. "Things are moving toward change," Asahina asserts, noting that their tome sold a surprising 10,000 copies. "Many Japanese young people want a stronger role for Japan in the world – we think Japan can do a lot for the world's prosperity."

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