Artificial intelligence will also be harnessed to monitor social media and see what is being said about Japan abroad. This will give the Foreign Ministry a chance to respond to “wrong information,” the Mainichi newspaper reported.
Many countries set aside money for international image-building, but Japan’s latest move strikes many critics as ill-timed, especially as part of an emergency economic relief package in the midst of a pandemic.
It’s a typically defensive reaction from an administration “obsessed with its international image,” said Nancy Snow, a professor of public diplomacy at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies.
“This is a conservative government that does not take kindly to any dissent internally or externally,” she said. “Their solution is always this simple, ‘let’s put some money aside,’ because that seems less daunting than handling the real situation.”
Criticism initially centered on Japan’s handling of infections on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship in February.
Passengers and crew members fell sick in their hundreds, and at least 12 died. A leading infectious disease expert, Kobe University’s Kentaro Iwata, criticized the lack of infection controls on board. But Japan’s government responded with a stubborn refusal to admit it had mishandled the outbreak.
Iwata, the government claimed, was a maverick who has misunderstood conditions on board — and pressured him into rescinding his complaints.
Hundreds of passengers were then allowed to go home without any additional quarantine, while health workers who had helped out on board were refused coronavirus tests even after several fell sick.
Another round of criticism followed when it appeared the Abe administration might be downplaying the severity of the coronavirus outbreak, in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to prevent the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics.
But it is Abe’s more recent handling of the coronavirus outbreak within Japan that has really damaged his reputation at home.
Despite emotional appeals from the leaders of Japan’s medical community, from independent experts and regional leaders, Abe dithered for weeks before finally declaring a partial state of emergency over seven of the country’s 47 prefectures last week.
His government then fought with Tokyo’s metropolitan governor to delay and dilute a request for businesses to close. Government officials, the Asahi newspaper reported, angrily summoned department store bosses to tell them to rescind a decision to close their doors.
All this, it is widely assumed, came in the name of safeguarding Abenomics, and the prime minister’s desperate attempt to breathe life in Japan’s sluggish economy.
Abe’s obsession with the economy and stock market, his battle with regional leaders, and his faith in slick PR strikes many similarities to that of his closest friend on the world stage, President Trump.
Last weekend, Abe stumbled into a viral round of criticism when he tweeted a video of himself sitting in his living room, petting his dog and nonchalantly sipping tea, in an attempt to reinforce the government’s “stay home” message.
But the foreign criticism seems to have particularly stung.
Japan’s global public relations budget has risen sharply since Abe took over as prime minister in 2012, in an attempt to bolster Japan’s reputation as a reliable ally of the United States and as a democratic leader in Asia to counter authoritarian China. But money is also spent on attempts to whitewash Japan’s wartime past, critics say.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Masato Otaka said the new money “will be used to promote accurate understanding of Japan and Japan’s policy in regards to covid-19.”
It will include how Japan can be promoted in the run-up to the Olympics and Paralympics, now scheduled to be held in 2021, and is likely to include videos and advertisements, he wrote in an email.
Snow says Abe has surrounded himself with “yes people,” almost all men, and has weakened Japan’s democracy — and its response to the coronavirus crisis — by stifling dissent rather than encouraging a broad range of views.
At the very least, the PR effort shows misplaced priorities, other critics say.
“The fact that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is wasting taxpayer money to contain the plague of foreign criticism is indicative of a government that has handled this more as a PR crisis than a pandemic,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University Japan.
“It should be using AI to better deal with the outbreak than massaging foreign perceptions,” he added. “Effort should focus on containing the outbreak, treating patients and helping all those whose lives have been derailed by this pandemic rather than going to war with Japan’s critics.”