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Japan has turned its culture into a powerful political tool

EPA/Javier Lizon

Much has been made of Japan’s recent turn away from pacifism and growing military muscle, but Tokyo is also extending its global reach in more subtle ways. Japan is especially serious about increasing its soft power, the ability to win over global partners with cultural and diplomatic affinity rather than coercion and sheer heft.

Tokyo has long busied itself building a national “brand”, an image that combines the supposed uniqueness of Japanese language, cuisine, and traditional hospitality with its postwar pacifism and reputation for technological prowess. The latest iteration of this project is the Cool Japan initiative, which capitalises on the international popularity of manga and anime to project the Japanese brand around the world.

But while this might all sound like very 21st-century stuff, the idea of packaging national culture into a political brand is a familiar one, and Japan has been doing it for decades – albeit in very different ways.

Before World War II, imperial Japan presented itself as the “liberator” of Asia, the only modernised Asian state to have escaped Western colonialism. This myth already contained the core elements of Cool Japan, depicting Japan as neither Asian nor Western but an exotic hybrid of Western modernity and Asian tradition. This deft act of national branding won it the 1940 Olympics – but as the country’s expansionist offensives in Asia ramped up in the late 1930s, the games were abandoned.

Yet remarkably, this myth of Japanese cultural uniqueness survived the devastating and humiliating defeat of August 1945. On the contrary, it was reinforced by Japan’s postwar pacifism and rapid reconstruction that began in the mid-1950s. Over the next few decades, Japan became the second-largest economy in the world, once again suggesting that it was a trailblazing standout in an otherwise backward Asia.

That approach paid off with the successful bid for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, which this time actually happened.

The organisation that most actively promotes this mission today is the Japan Foundation, Japan’s answer to the British Council and a potential rival to China’s Confucius Institute. The foundation’s job is to promote Japanese language and culture, principally by engaging in international cultural exchange programmes and encouraging language learning.

Indeed, the Foundation, has been active in hosting Japanese language speech contests outside Japan, as well as conducting Japanese Language Proficiency Tests whereby learners can gain a certificate of Japanese language fluency. Furthermore, the Japan Foundation promotes cultural and academic exchanges between Japan and the outside world. And as the Japanese Foreign Ministry itself suggests, cultural exchanges help to lubricate diplomatic relations in general.

Abe power

On the face of it, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s much-touted economic revitalisation programme, known as Abenomics, has little to do with soft power. In its first incarnation as the Beautiful Country programme, the hallmark of Abe’s first term in 2006-7, this was a thoroughly domestic agenda of constitutional amendments, fiscal restructuring and economic deregulation.

But this wasn’t just an economic programme; it was also a nationalistic one, designed to turn domestic economic regeneration into an international display of supposedly distinctive Japanese attributes, not least diligence and resilience.

With patrotic education at home and cultural outreach abroad, Abe is turning the old myth of Japanese uniqueness into a different kind of nationalism. To be sure, he clearly believes that economic revitalisation and a renewed military are crucial prerequisites for rebuilding Japan’s self confidence. But he also knows that to truly win over the rest of the world, it has to win the hearts and minds of global consumers.

And so the Abe government is advancing a carefully calibrated image of a beautiful, vibrant Japan, simultaneously traditional and modern. Perhaps the ultimate expression of this was Abe’s in-person appearance as Super Mario at the closing ceremony of the 2016 Rio Olympics, heralding Toyko’s turn in 2020. It might have looked trivial, but in reality, it was the apex of a calculated, long-term propaganda exercise that will project Japanese influence as far as possible.

So the next time you pick up a manga comic from your local bookshop or grab a sushi roll off a conveyor belt, remember that you’re not just treating yourself – you’re also playing your part in a long and very considered political project.

The Conversation

Taku Tamaki does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.

Cricket: more Twenty20 may sow seeds of demise for the quintessential English game

A city-based franchise competition of Twenty20, cricket’s shortest (20-over) format, is due to be launched in 2020 in a bid to give the English domestic game a financial boost. It is the latest plan from the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) aimed at increasing the number of people watching the sport. The teams are expected to be based around well-known grounds such as Lord’s and the Oval in London, Trent Bridge in Nottingham, Old Trafford in Manchester and Headingley in Leeds.

Cricket’s audiences are thought to be ageing and may not be replenished. In other parts of the world, match-day attendances for the longer formats of the game, particularly international Test cricket over five days, have declined – although not in England.

Reception to the ECB’s franchise competition proposal has been mixed. Former England captain, Michael Vaughan, said he viewed Twenty20 as “the saviour” and predicted that it would have huge success in attracting new, younger fans. But he also warned that the new competition could eclipse other forms of the game, including international matches.

So, is the commercialisation of cricket a friend or foe to the game?

Many iterations

Cricket has been dealing with these tensions for longer than most sports have actually existed. Since its laws were first standardised and committed to paper in the mid-1700s, cricket has witnessed numerous incarnations in the name of progress and modernisation. Concerns about the economic model began in the 19th century, but the commercialisation of cricket in England experienced a step change in 1963 with the introduction of the first “one-day” competition, the Gillette Cup.

The shorter format became more frequent and more dominant, but various iterations were tried in the search for a commercially lucrative formula. Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket in Australia in the 1970s, which saw players in coloured clothes (rather than the traditional whites) playing under floodlights with a white (not red) ball, would ultimately convince the market of cricket’s commercial potential.

The broadcast of one-day cricket enabled the game to become a “mediasport” – funded by and structured for media consumption – as our research has highlighted. Yet, despite considerable success, shorter variants continued to emerge, such as New Zealand’s Cricket Max in the late 1990s and Australia’s Super Eights.

But Twenty20, in which each team bats for 20 overs and the highest score wins, would become king. Ironically, given England’s role as the guardian of the traditions of cricket, Twenty20 was invented there in 2003.

Such was the immediate commercial success of Twenty20 that multiple domestic-based and internationally resonant competitions subsequently emerged: the Indian Premier League (IPL), Australian Big Bash, Bangladesh Premier League, Caribbean Premier League and Pakistan Super League currently exist. In the meantime, the English became victims of their own innovation. Their version, the T20 Blast, remained stuck in the traditional structures of county cricket and so lacked global appeal.

Enter the ECB’s new plan. The new city-based competition is set up for eight new teams – all owned by the ECB – with centrally-allocated pots of money for players and coaches. Each team will have a squad of 15 players, selected by draft. Teams will choose 13 players split across six salary bands and have two further wildcard picks – including a maximum of three overseas players to increase the tournament’s glamour. A play-off style system of 36 matches scheduled over 38 days will provide four home matches per franchise with eight matches shown live on free-to-air television.

Incomes should match those achieved by similarly global Twenty20 competitions. An annual IPL season in India, for example, generates more than double the gross income of a 50-over Cricket World Cup, which happens every four years.

Both innovative and conservative

Such innovations always have a wider social impact. It’s unclear how the addition of the planned franchise competition will affect the existing one-day county and T20 Blast competitions, which will continue to run. International Test matches will also be scheduled alongside the new competition, so which will draw England’s best players: cheque book or country?

Beyond logistics, there lies a more fundamental question. Twenty20 has become emblematic of the mediatisation and commercialisation of the game. While all sports have adapted to suit the needs of television and sponsors, the extent to which cricket has changed in the last 50 years is unprecedented. And yet, while Twenty20 incorporates the game’s fundamental elements – it is still contested between 11 men or women on a 22-yard strip of grass involving bat and ball – there remains much more room for innovation with the format. For instance, why insist on teams having five bowlers or limiting them to bowling 24 balls each?

The truth is that cricket is paradoxically innovative, yet conservative. The “inventors” of one-day cricket wanted it to look like the “real” thing – keen that short-term commercial goals should not betray the game’s inheritance. The English traditions epitomised by the longer form of Test match and county cricket are what make the game stand apart from other sports in the global marketplace. As a result, the commercial and media opportunities made possible by Twenty20 also bring with them a series of threats.

Each new iteration of cricket contains unresolved tensions. City-based Twenty20 will attract a new, younger audience, but perhaps they will be attracted for different reasons. Twenty20 packs stadiums drawn by cricket’s global superstars, but there is little evidence that it has the capacity to sustain audiences across the sport’s longer formats. You cannot breathe economic life into Test cricket by selling the audience something else so, at best, these latest plans create the need for further tinkering and, at worst, plant the seeds of Test cricket’s future demise.

The Conversation

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.

A hot bath has benefits similar to exercise

T photography/

Many cultures swear by the benefits of a hot bath. But only recently has science began to understand how passive heating (as opposed to getting hot and sweaty from exercise) improves health.

At Loughborough University we investigated the effect of a hot bath on blood sugar control (an important measure of metabolic fitness) and on energy expended (number of calories burned). We recruited 14 men to take part in the study. They were assigned to an hour-long soak in a hot bath (40˚C) or an hour of cycling. The activities were designed to cause a 1˚C rise in core body temperature over the course of one hour.

We measured how many calories the men burned in each session. We also measured their blood sugar for 24 hours after each trial.

Cycling resulted in more calories being burned compared with a hot bath, but bathing resulted in about as many calories being burned as a half-hour walk (around 140 calories). The overall blood sugar response to both conditions was similar, but peak blood sugar after eating was about 10% lower when participants took a hot bath compared with when they exercised.

We also showed changes to the inflammatory response similar to that following exercise. The anti-inflammatory response to exercise is important as it helps to protect us against infection and illness, but chronic inflammation is associated with a reduced ability to fight off diseases. This suggests that repeated passive heating may contribute to reducing chronic inflammation, which is often present with long-term diseases, such as type 2 diabetes.

Exciting new field of research

Passive heating for human health is a relatively new field of research, but some exciting results have emerged over the past few years.

Research from Finland, published in 2015, suggested that frequent saunas can reduce the risk of having a heart attack or stroke – at least in men. The idea that passive heating can improve cardiovascular function received further support when the University of Oregon published a study the following year showing that regular hot baths can lower blood pressure.

Japanese onsen. TOMO/

In a second study, the same group looked at the mechanism responsible for these improvements. They found that passive heating raised levels of nitric oxide, a molecule that dilates blood vessels and reduces blood pressure. This has implications for treating high blood pressure and improving peripheral circulation in people with type 2 diabetes. As type 2 diabetes is associated with reductions in nitric oxide availability, passive heating may help re-establish a healthier nitric oxide level and reduce blood pressure.

In order to establish the effect of increasing body temperature passively, as opposed to through exertion, another study matched the intensity of heating from water immersion to that of running on a treadmill. Water immersion resulted in a greater increase in body temperature compared with exercise, as well as a greater reduction in average arterial blood pressure. This is important as a reduction in blood pressure is closely associated with a reduced risk of developing heart disease. This study points to the promising effect that may result from passive heating. It also suggests some of the cardiovascular effects of passive heating may be comparable with those of exercise.

As well as the cardiovascular effects of passive heating, there is evidence to suggest that there may be beneficial metabolic effects as well – such as better control of blood sugar. The first study, conducted by Philip Hooper of McKee Medical Center, Colorado, in 1999, investigated the effect of three weeks of hot-tub therapy in patients diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. The results showed improvements in body weight, blood sugar control and a reduced dependence on insulin.

Hooper thought these effects may result from changes to blood flow as a result of passive heating, but he was unable to identify a specific mechanism by which their intervention led to these benefits.

Since this early investigation, few studies have investigated the potential for passive heating to improve blood sugar control in humans. With our study, we have tried to reignite interest in the health benefits that may be linked to passive heating.

Heat shock proteins

Studies using animals may have identified how heating affects health. These studies suggest one of the key regulators of blood sugar control may be heat shock proteins.

Heat shock proteins are molecules that are made by all cells of the human body in response to stresses. Their levels rise following exercise and passive heating. In the long term, raised levels of these proteins may help the function of insulin and improve blood sugar control. (Conversely, heat shock proteins have been shown to be lower in people with diabetes.)

It seems that activities that increase heat shock proteins may help to improve blood sugar control and offer an alternative to exercise. These activities – such as soaking in a hot tub or taking a sauna – may have health benefits for people who are unable to exercise regularly. Hopefully our future investigations, coupled with those of other groups worldwide, will help to establish the true potential of passive heating as a therapeutic tool.

The Conversation

Steve Faulkner does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.

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