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The Journey Home: How to House Soft Power in Mainstream IR Scholarship
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The Journey Home:
How to House Soft Power in Mainstream IR Scholarship

Let me begin my response by thanking Asia Policy for featuring this roundtable of my book Japan and China as Charm Rivals: Soft Power in Regional Diplomacy. I would also like to thank the six established scholars who took the time to read my book carefully and engage with it critically. [End Page 148] I am humbled by their kind words of approval and enlightened by their balanced criticisms.

The purpose of this response is to create a conversation. When an author is offered the rare chance to respond to reviews, there is usually a tendency for self-justification. This is not surprising; authors want their arguments to be accurately understood and, better yet, convincing. Inevitably, this response will include activities of this nature. But I want to highlight something else upfront—these reviews indeed make me better realize what I have achieved and have yet to achieve through this project. Despite the tremendous amount of time and efforts invested in the writing of an academic book, an author may not necessarily acquire a commanding view of where his work stands in the field. To accomplish this goal, fellow scholars' critical reflections are crucial. So, in essence, this response is about what I have learned from these stellar colleagues.

My review will have three parts. I will first offer some background information on the book's genesis. In the second part, I will discuss where the six reviewers seem to concur with each other on the book's value. In the third part, I will examine their criticisms and suggestions. In doing so, I will also offer my own thoughts on the future direction of scholarship on soft power. For the second and third parts, instead of addressing the reviews one by one, I will reorganize them by theme.

Background Information: A Book as a Wake-up Call

As a former journalist and a China-born Japan specialist, I follow the politics of these two countries closely. The triggering factor of this book was a news story I read on a Chinese professor who proposed a "dragon ban," suggesting that the government should ban public displays of dragons because the image would hurt the credibility of China's "peaceful rise." It did not take long for me to connect this proposal with the concept of "soft power," for much of the Chinese coverage framed this and similar stories as part of China's effort to enhance its ruanshili (soft power). I also noticed that the Japanese fascination with soft power was no less fervent. Be it "cool" or "beautiful," politicians and pundits all attempted to come up with jazzy adjectives to decorate the word "Japan." One way or another, they claimed that Japan was still powerful because it was attractive. Apparently, both China and Japan were treating soft power as a new Western panacea to help them either reinterpret realities or meet new challenges. The concept's creator, Harvard professor Joseph Nye, has become a frequent guest of the governments, think tanks, and media outlets in these two countries. [End Page 149]

My original intent was to document China's and Japan's rapid conversion to soft power, and to explain the impact this concept has exerted on their diplomacies. As my empirical observation and literature-mining proceeded, a pattern indeed began to emerge. But the pattern brought me uneasiness. Popular discussion of soft power focused on culture—iconic commercial products, food, music, and movies, to name just a few aspects. These were unusual candidates for diplomacy yet undeniably fun. But intuitively I was asking myself, are these the essence of soft power? Do they really matter in diplomacy? As a Chinese person who has called the United States home and lived in Japan for an extended period of time, I knew that Chinese food, traditional medicine, Kung Fu, and pandas were popular. But I also knew that China had serious image problems in these two countries. Simply put, popular understanding of soft power did not match diplomatic realities.

This discrepancy was already beginning to reveal itself, and soft power, still a relatively new concept...