Japan global PR message could misfire with focus on wartime past

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Japan global PR message could misfire with focus on wartime past
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks to reporters at his official residence in Tokyo on February 1, 2015. Japan said it was 'outraged' after the Islamic State group released a video purportedly showing the beheading of Japanese hostage Kenji Goto. AFP PHOTO / Yoshikazu TSUNO (Photo credit should read YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images)
According to a Tokyo-based Islamic scholar who briefly became an intermediary, Japan's government opened a communication channel with Islamic State in the decisive stages of its recent hostage crisis but was unwilling to use it to start negotiations.
FILE - This file image taken from an online video purportedly released by the Islamic State group's al-Furqan media arm on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015, but lacks their logo, purports to show the group threatening to kill two Japanese hostages that the militants identify as Kenji Goto, left, and Haruna Yukawa, right, unless a $200 million ransom is paid within 72 hours. Far from the high-tech, slickly edited videos involving beheaded Western hostages through which the group impressed supporters and terrorized opponents, recent messages purporting to be from Japanese hostage Kenji Goto have been through digitized, audio dispatches featuring either still photos or text. Experts who examined this video said it was more likely filmed in an indoor studio with a false backdrop. (AP Photo, File)
TOKYO, JAPAN - FEBRUARY 10: (CHINA OUT, SOUTH KOREA OUT) Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (C) is seen prior to a cabinet meeting at his official residence on February 10, 2015 in Tokyo, Japan. The Abe Cabinet approved a new 'development cooperation charter' that will allow Japan to extend economic assistance to foreign militaries for the first time. (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)
People with an anti-war sign gather at a rally to mourn two Japanese hostages, Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa, who were killed by the Islamic State group, in Tokyo, Sunday, Feb. 8, 2015. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)
TOKYO, JAPAN - FEBRUARY 10: (CHINA OUT, SOUTH KOREA OUT) Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga (2nd R) and other members attend the first meeting to examine the Japanese hostage crisis by the Islamic State militant group at Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's official residence on February 10, 2015 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)
TOKYO, JAPAN - FEBRUARY 10: (CHINA OUT, SOUTH KOREA OUT) Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (C) is seen prior to a cabinet meeting at his official residence on February 10, 2015 in Tokyo, Japan. The Abe Cabinet approved a new 'development cooperation charter' that will allow Japan to extend economic assistance to foreign militaries for the first time. (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)
Akira Kitagawa, head of Japanese publishing company Dai-san Shokan speaks next to books titled 'Are You Charlie? Isuramu heito ka fushi ka (Is it satire or hate against Islam)' at his office in Tokyo on February 10, 2015. Dai-san Shokan on February 10 issued 3,000 copies of a book of cartoons by French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, including controversial drawings of Mohammed. 'Are You Charlie? Isuramu heito ka fushi ka (Is it satire or hate against Islam)' is an attempt to spark debate in Japan on the nature of free speech, said Akira Kitagawa, the head of Tokyo-based Dai-san Shokan. AFP PHOTO / Yoshikazu TSUNO (Photo credit should read YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images)
People gather to mourn two Japanese hostages, Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa, who were killed by the Islamic State group, in Tokyo, Sunday, Feb. 8, 2015. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)
People gather to mourn two Japanese hostages, Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa, who were killed by the Islamic State group, in Tokyo, Sunday, Feb. 8, 2015. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)
In this Jan. 28, 2015 photo, a man walks by a screen showing TV news reports of a YouTube posted by a militant group on Jan. 27, purportedly showing a still photo of Japanese hostage Kenji Goto holding what appears to be a photo of Jordanian pilot Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh, in Tokyo. Images or mentions of knives, ransom or blood - or anything else that can be seen alluding to the hostage crisis involving two Japanese in Syria - have been cut out. Some anime and other entertainment programs are altering, canceling or postponing episodes violating those sensitivities - typical of the kind of self-restraint shown here to avoid controversy. The fates of a Japanese journalist and Jordanian military pilot were still unknown Saturday, Jan. 31 after the latest purported deadline for a possible prisoner swap lapsed with no further messages from the Islamic State group holding them captive. A second Japanese hostage has reportedly been killed. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
AMMAN, JORDAN - FEBRUARY 02: (CHINA OUT, SOUTH KOREA OUT) Jordanian youth gather for a candle light vigil to condemn the killing of the two Japanese hostages, Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto, by the Islamic State in front of the Japanese Embassy on February 2, 2015 in Amman, Jordan. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reiterates that Japan will never forgive terrorists, try to make them atone, a day after the video of Journalist Kenji Goto execution was posted. Abe also emphasises to provide support in the Middle East, denied the direct involvement to the U.S-lead military campaign against the Islamic State. (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)
TOKYO, JAPAN - FEBRUARY 08: (CHINA OUT, SOUTH KOREA OUT) People holding signs remembering Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa gather on February 8, 2015 in Tokyo, Japan. Around Japan, hundreds of people gathered at events to remember freelance journalist Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa, a company operator. Participants came with signs that read 'I am Kenji' and 'I am Haruna.' On the previous two weekends, the Islamic State released videos depicting what appeared to be the decapitated bodies of the two Japanese hostages. (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)
Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), shakes hands with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, right, at the start of their talks at Abe's official residence in Tokyo, Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2015. (AP Photo/Kimimasa Mayama, Pool)
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, left, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe smile after their joint press conference following their meeting at Abe's official residence in Tokyo Monday, Feb. 9, 2015. Prayuth is on a three-day visit to Japan. (AP Photo/Franck Robichon, Pool)
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe scratches his nose as he attends a national rally to demand the return of Russian-held four islands floating off the northernmost main island of Hokkaido, in Tokyo, Saturday, Feb. 7, 2015. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)
Margareta Wahlstroem, left, Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary General for Disaster Risk Reduction, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shake hands prior to their meeting at Abe's official residence in Tokyo, Japan, Monday, Feb. 9, 2015. Japan is scheduled to host the third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai in March. (AP Photo/Franck Robichon, Pool)
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, right, arrives at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo, Friday, Jan. 30, 2015. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe leaves his official residence in Tokyo after a cabinet meeting on January 25, 2015. Japan's government said it was attempting to verify a video posted online announcing the execution of one of two Japanese hostages held captive by Islamic State militants. 'A new video apparently showing Kenji (Goto) was posted on the Internet,' chief government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said. 'We are collecting information'. AFP PHOTO / Yoshikazu TSUNO (Photo credit should read YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images)
Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida leaves prime minister's official residence in Tokyo after a cabinet meeting on January 25, 2015. Japan's government said it was attempting to verify a video posted online announcing the execution of one of two Japanese hostages held captive by Islamic State militants. 'A new video apparently showing Kenji (Goto) was posted on the Internet,' chief government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said. 'We are collecting information'. AFP PHOTO / Yoshikazu TSUNO (Photo credit should read YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images)
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speakes to reporters after a cabinet meeting at his official residence in Tokyo on January 25, 2015. Japan's government said it was attempting to verify a video posted online announcing the execution of one of two Japanese hostages held captive by Islamic State militants. 'A new video apparently showing Kenji (Goto) was posted on the Internet,' chief government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said. 'We are collecting information'. AFP PHOTO / Yoshikazu TSUNO (Photo credit should read YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images)
Journalists listen to a police press attache (R) speaking outside of the residence of the parents of Haruna Yukawa, one of Japanese hostages held by the Islamic State group, in Chiba, suburban Tokyo on January 25, 2015. Japan's government said late on January 24 it was attempting to verify a video posted online announcing the execution of Yukawa. The nearly three-minute recording shows a still image of Kenji Goto holding an apparent photograph of Haruna Yukawa's slain body, with an audio recording in which Goto spoke of the IS group's demand for a prisoner exchange to guarantee his release. AFP PHOTO / Yoshikazu TSUNO (Photo credit should read YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images)
In this photo taken Friday, Jan. 23, 2015, Yasuhide Nakayama, a Japanese deputy foreign minister, talks to media in Amman, Jordan. Japan promised Saturday not to give up "until the very end" on efforts to rescue two Japanese hostages threatened with beheading by Islamic militants demanding a $200 million ransom, after a deadline passed with no word from the captors. (AP Photo/Raad Adayleh)
In this photo taken Friday, Jan. 23, 2015, Yasuhide Nakayama, a Japanese deputy foreign minister, talks to media in Amman, Jordan. Japan promised Saturday not to give up "until the very end" on efforts to rescue two Japanese hostages threatened with beheading by Islamic militants demanding a $200 million ransom, after a deadline passed with no word from the captors. (AP Photo/Raad Adayleh)
Junko Ishido, the mother of Japanese journalist Kenji Goto, 47, who was taken hostage by the Islamic State group, holds back her tears during a press conference in Tokyo Friday, Jan. 23, 2015. Militants affiliated with the Islamic State group have posted an online warning that the “countdown has begun” for the group to kill a pair of Japanese hostages. "Time is running out. Please, Japanese government, save my son’s life," said Ishido. "My son is not an enemy of the Islamic State," she said in a tearful appearance in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)
Muslims residing in Japan offer Friday prayers at Tokyo Camii, the largest mosque in Japan, in Tokyo, Friday, Jan. 23, 2015. The deadline for paying ransom for two Japanese hostages held by the Islamic State group was fast approaching early Friday with no signs of a breakthrough. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
Japan's Government spokesman Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga ponders during a press conference at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo Friday, Jan. 23, 2015 as militants affiliated with the Islamic State group have posted an online warning that the "countdown has begun" for the group to kill the pair of Japanese hostages. Suga reiterated Friday that Japan was trying all possible channels to reach those holding the hostages, and that its policy of providing humanitarian aid for those displaced by conflict in the Middle East was unchanged. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)
Muslims offer Friday prayers at Tokyo Camii, the largest mosque in Japan, in Tokyo, Friday, Jan. 23, 2015. The deadline for paying ransom for two Japanese hostages held by the Islamic State group is fast approaching Friday with no signs of a breakthrough. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
Junko Ishido, the mother of Japanese journalist Kenji Goto who was taken hostage by the Islamic State group, arrives for a press conference in Tokyo Friday, Jan. 23, 2015. Militants affiliated with the Islamic State group have posted an online warning that the "countdown has begun" for the group to kill a pair of Japanese hostages. "Time is running out. Please, Japanese government, save my son’s life," said Ishido. "My son is not an enemy of the Islamic State," she said in a tearful appearance in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)
Muslims residing in Japan offer Friday prayers at Tokyo Camii, the largest mosque in Japan, in Tokyo, Friday, Jan. 23, 2015. The deadline for paying ransom for two Japanese hostages held by the Islamic State group was fast approaching early Friday with no signs of a breakthrough. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
Kosuke Tsuneoka, a Japanese freelance journalist, looks on before a news conference about two Japanese hostages being held by the Islamic State group, at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in Tokyo, Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015. Tsuneoka, who was held hostage in Afghanistan in 2010, also offered to reach out to the Islamic State, with Ko Nakata, an expert on Islamic law, to try to save the hostages. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
Kosuke Tsuneoka, a Japanese freelance journalist, prepares to answer questions about the two hostages held by the Islamic State group, at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in Tokyo, Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015. Tsuneoka, who was held hostage in Afghanistan in 2010, also offered to reach out to the Islamic State group, with Ko Nakata, an expert on Islamic law, to try to save the hostages. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
Kosuke Tsuneoka, a Japanese freelance journalist, listens during a news conference about the two Japanese hostages held by the Islamic State group, at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in Tokyo, Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015. Tsuneoka, who was held hostage in Afghanistan in 2010, also offered to reach out to the Islamic State group, with Ko Nakata, an expert on Islamic law, to try to save the hostages. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
A TV news program reports two Japanese hostages held by the Islamic State group in Tokyo, Friday, Jan. 23, 2015. Militants affiliated with the Islamic State group have posted an online warning that the "countdown has begun" for the group to kill a pair of Japanese hostages. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
Muslims residing in Japan offer Friday prayers at Tokyo Camii, the largest mosque in Japan, in Tokyo, Friday, Jan. 23, 2015. The deadline for paying ransom for two Japanese hostages held by the Islamic State group was fast approaching early Friday with no signs of a breakthrough. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
Ko Nakata, an expert on Islamic law, prepares to attend a press conference on two hostages held by the Islamic State group, at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in Tokyo Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015. Nakata told reporters he was able to reach the Islamic State. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reacts at a meeting on two Japanese hostages taken by the Islamic State group, at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015. Japan is doing all it can to free two hostages the Islamic State group is threatening to kill within 72 hours, Abe said Wednesday, vowing never to give in to terrorism. Abe returned to Tokyo from a six-day Middle East tour slightly ahead of schedule and convened a Cabinet meeting soon after. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi, Pool)
Jordan's King Abdullah II, right) meets, Japanese Vice-Foreign Minister Yasuhide Nakayama, 3drd left, in Amman Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015. Nakayama arrived in Jordan on Tuesday as negotiations continued to free two Japanese hostages captured by the Islamic state militants. (AP Photo/Petra News Agency)
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sees a memo before his briefing to journalists following a meeting at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015. Japan is doing all it can as it races against time to free two hostages the Islamic State group is threatening to kill within 72 hours, Abe said, vowing never to give in to terrorism. Abe returned to Tokyo from a six-day Middle East tour slightly ahead of schedule and convened a Cabinet meeting soon after. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, left, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe inspect an honor guard at the Palestinian Authority headquarters, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015. An online video released Tuesday purported to show the Islamic State group threatening to kill two Japanese hostages unless they receive a $200 million ransom in the next 72 hours. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, right, escorts Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe upon his arrival at the Palestinian Authority headquarters, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015. An online video released Tuesday purported to show the Islamic State group threatening to kill two Japanese hostages unless they receive a $200 million ransom in the next 72 hours. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, left, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe inspect honor guards at the Palestinian Authority headquarters, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015. An online video released Tuesday purported to show the Islamic State group threatening to kill two Japanese hostages unless they receive a $200 million ransom in the next 72 hours. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)
A shopper chats with a sales clerk with a television broadcasting a news about detained two Japanese in the background, at an electronics store in Tokyo, Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015. The release of an online video Tuesday purporting to show an Islamic State figure demanding $200 million in ransom for two Japanese hostages ambushed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as he was wrapping up a six-day tour of the Middle East. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks during a press conference in Jerusalem, Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015. The Islamic State group threatened to kill two Japanese hostages Tuesday unless they receive $200 million in 72 hours, directly demanding the ransom from Japan's premier during his visit to the Middle East. Abe vowed to save the men, saying: "Their lives are the top priority." (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, right and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attend a joint press conference at the Palestinian Authority headquarters, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015. An online video released Tuesday purported to show the Islamic State group threatening to kill two Japanese hostages unless they receive a $200 million ransom in the next 72 hours. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)
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(Reuters) - A push by Japan to correct perceived bias in accounts of the country's wartime past is creating a row that risks muddling the positive message in a mammoth public relations campaign to win friends abroad.

The PR campaign, which has a budget of over half a billion dollars, comes as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe aims to adopt a less apologetic stance on Japan's actions before and during World War Two and ease the fetters imposed on defense policy by Japan's post-war, pacifist constitution.

History is hardly the sole focus of the PR program. Many of the funds will be used for soft-power initiatives to cultivate "pro-Japan" foreigners, such as supporting Japan studies at universities and setting up "Japan House" centers to promote the "Japan Brand".

But the government is also targeting wartime accounts by overseas textbook publishers and others that it sees as incorrect and damaging to Japan's image.

One such effort has already sparked a backlash.

Nineteen historians from U.S. universities have written a letter of protest against a recent request by the Japanese government to publisher McGraw Hill Education to revise its account of "comfort women", the term used in Japan for those forced to work in Japanese military brothels.

The request was rejected.

"We stand with the many historians in Japan and elsewhere who have worked to bring to light the facts about this and other atrocities of World War II. We practice and produce history to learn from the past," says the letter, a copy of which was seen by Reuters and which will be carried in the March edition of the American Historical Association's newsletter.

"We therefore oppose the efforts of states or special interests to pressure publishers or historians to alter the results of their research for political purposes," it added.

Abe himself has signaled support for the more aggressive PR push. "Being modest does not receive recognition in the international community, and we must argue points when necessary," he recently told a parliamentary panel.

The effort comes at a touchy time as Asia marks the 70th anniversary of World War Two's end with bitter memories not yet laid to rest, especially in China and North and South Korea.

After a decade of shrinking spending on public diplomacy, Japan's foreign ministry won a total 70 billion yen ($590 million) for strategic communications in an extra budget for 2014/15 and the initial budget for the next year from April - up from just 20 billion yen in the initial 2014/15 budget.

PRIORITY ON HISTORY

Many politicians and officials worry Japan has been outmaneuvered by the aggressive public diplomacy of regional rivals China and South Korea.

"Many countries are investing hugely in this field and we feel we were not investing enough," said a Japanese foreign ministry official.

Conservatives have welcomed the bigger budget but want priority placed on correcting perceived errors about history.

"When we see lots of misunderstanding or prejudice against Japan's history, we'd like to at least set the record straight," said Yoshiko Sakurai, a journalist and head of the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals, a conservative think tank.

"We have already lost (the information war). Now we have to recover," she told Reuters in an interview.

Aware of the danger of a backlash, diplomats seem to have mitigated pressure to make the "Japan House" centers - to be set up first in London, Los Angeles and Sao Paulo in late 2016 - beachheads to market an official view of history. Instead, the facilities could provide what one bureaucrat called a "platform for balanced discussion" on controversial topics, for example, by sponsoring seminars.

Conservative politicians however want bolder steps.

"We are half-satisfied. By mobilizing all means, we must strengthen Japan's information strategy ... so that in a real sense, we can have (others) properly understand what is good about Japan," said ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Yoshiaki Harada, who heads a party committee on improving Japan's communication strategy.

Experts said government efforts to seek changes in historical accounts would be counter-productive, since it would keep the issue of Japan's wartime past in public focus.

"Dragging people into a long discussion about history ... seems like they are going to brand Japan with that atrocity in terms of its image," said Dartmouth College professor Jennifer Lind. "It's a losing battle."

($1 = 118.4800 yen)

(Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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