Vietnam as a Japanophile

Just another rambling thought on a not-so-new topic: Vietnam’s fandom for Japan. My friend today asked me about some trends in shopping behaviour of Vietnam and when discussing, I just (re)realised how much “Made-In-Japan” things are favoured by most of my acquaintances.

According to the 2015 survey by Pew, 82% of the Vietnamese population answered to be “fan” of Japan while only 19% claimed to be pro-China. This survey was conducted among 15,310 people from 10 Asia-Pacific countries and the US from 6 April to 25 July, 2015. Excluding in the PRC and ROK, Japan is the most favourite country in most of the surveyed nations. Vietnam ranked second in the list, only behind Malaysia whose population interestingly love both Japan (84%) and China (78%). The generation gap was also reflected in the survey when young Vietnamese accounted for 59% of the population saying “like Japan very much”. Meanwhile 55% of the anti-Japan population in the PRC are middle-aged.

The results illustrate quite clear how the ties among Asian countries in the past affect those at present. Hatred during the Japanese domination period and sovereignty dispute may explain why only 12% of Chinese people and 25% of South Koreans like Japan. Similarly, the conflict over sovereignty of several islands in the South China Sea fuels the anti-China psychology among Vietnam and the Philippines.

Why Vietnamese are so fond of Japan?

Several reasons, I think.

Vietnam used to have such traumatic history with Japan during the WWII. However, historically, the occupation of Japan was short in comparison with the French colony starting from the late 19th century, and more importantly, the cruelty of the Japanese extreme military in Vietnam (just like the case of Park Chung-hee’s troops during Vietnam War) is little mentioned (even not a single word for the Korean case) in Vietnamese history textbooks. Which seems to be quite a stroke of luck for Japan (and later, Korea) when local young generations have no idea or just very blurry ones about blood-and-tear memories resulted from policies of the Japanese military then.

So, for the 8x-generation and younger, the generations born after war and during the renovation time of Vietnam, rather than a fascist extremist nation, Japan has always been associated with sweet things (i.e. Doraemon, Sailor Moon, Pokemon), with futuristic visions and innovative ideas (i.e. humanoid robots, electronic devices), with humane dorama and movies (i.e. Oshin). Internet’s appearance has offered numerous gateways for Japanese culture products to penetrate into the local market.

Japan has smoothly successfully stripped off its cruel image and returned. McGray (2002 cited in Han 2015) commented that Japan seemed to have been reborn as a cultural, rather than an economic, superpower.

Culture paves the path and here comes another tool of soft power of Japan – ODA. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan (MOFA) articulated in its Diplomatic Bluebook 2014 that “ODA has played a vital role from the perspective of cultivating trust in Japan among members of the international community and enhancing its presence.” (MOFA 2014, 33 cited in Han 2015). According to Sudo (2002), Southeast Asia was a major region for Japanese ODA.


Japanese ODA to Southeast Asian countries (million US dollars (percentage to total ODA) (Source: MOFA of Japanese)

Researchers said the win-win situation with ODA as the key tool is an effective way that Japan has been using to exercise its soft power (and perhaps, ultimately compete against the PRC). Examples are not difficult to find: India as a new partner seeking opportunities to reduce its over-dependency on China (Rajiv Kumar 2013), or Myanmar as a former colony knowing hatred can hinder the country’s development (Chaw Chaw Sein 2013).

Receiving positive reviews as a good partner focusing on cooperation rather than milking money from host countries, Japan gains or rebuilds the trust. And once again, Japanese culture wave rises. But at a higher level. It is now not simply pop cultural products like fashion, music, films but something deeper ~ living principles. Living and working as Japanese people is considered a role model for people in developing countries which have been used to laid-back agricultural life style which is normally characterised by low punctuality and low productivity. It seems that local people are more touched by stories about and by Japanese people. Some years ago, Vietnamese netizens heartily discussed a letter of a Japanese student in Vietnam showing her disappointment about local youth being irresponsible when taking for granted the country’s achievements. A commentary of a retired Japanese CEO on negative changes of Vietnamese people over the years also stirred up online forums. “Japanese mommy” has already become a brand for good kid raising and educating. Japanese medicine and functional food have become reliable resolution for a well-being life. Flocks of students fly to Japan to study and seek for opportunities. And of course, once again, Japanese culture is re-emphasised, re-appreciated as the culture valuing personal development (which is pro-EQ rather than IQ) and humanity (i.e. sharing, nature engagement, community contribution…). And yes, Vietnamese people are dreaming of one day becoming like Japan.

It struck me at one point that perhaps it is the patriarchal feature of Japanese culture  that has attracted Vietnamese people who are now tired of social disorder originating from unstable political climate, money-driven economy and decayed morality. Perhaps as the notorious rigid hierarchical Japanese society which is characterised by humility, loyalty, common peace (at least at surface level) has been proved to be a good anchor for Japan to revive after disasters and misfortunes, it unintentionally fosters seeds of hope in Vietnamese society. That’s why despite negative warnings about Japanese society, Japanophilia in Vietnam remains strong. It is just like we would rather live as the embodiment of robots but secure and well-off than lead a laid-back one but unpredictable and in poverty.

Thu Ngo


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