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.
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)
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)
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)
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)
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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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