When Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe dressed up as Super Mario and popped out of a pipe at the end of the Olympic Games ceremony in Brazil he was sending a couple of important messages.
Firstly, he wanted to show that he is a fun, friendly person and not an scary nationalist, as he is often portrayed in the Chinese and South Korean media.
Secondly, he wanted to reinforce his image as a super salesman for Japan and a tireless supporter of its business.
Mr Abe’s Mario costume fell away almost the instant he appeared, leaving him standing in a sober suit.
Shinzo Abe has a vision of a prosperous Japan at the heart of global trade. He vigorously advocated Japan’s membership of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, to the delight of big business.
Yet Prime Minister Abe’s commitment to the TPP project caused dismay among people who expected him to be conservative and protectionist. Mr Abe’s opponents accused him of betraying them through a push towards globalisation. Farmers feared the deal would take away their livelihood by tearing down their protection from foreign competition.
Japan continues to seek free trade deals with the European Union and with China and South Korea. In those two countries, another aspect of Mr Abe’s vision – for Japan to play a greater role in global political affairs – sometimes causes unease. Of particular sensitivity is the suggestion that Mr Abe plans to reform the pacifist cause of Japan’s constitution to enable its forces to fight abroad.
Mr Abe himself has warned against “naked nationalism” and the label of nationalist seems somewhat at odds with his globalised world view. However, what matters a great deal in terms of trade is Japan’s image. Japanese corporate success depends on its companies’ ability to provide consumers with goods and services without any disruptions caused by politics.
The best approach is a modest one such as that taken by the Mitsubishi Corporation at Andhra University in India. Its Japanese cultural centre offers students green tea and lessons in the the gentle art of origami. In such a context, promoting Japan is about showing a friendly face to its neighbours. And perhaps inviting them to a session on the Nintendo 64 for a game of Super Mario.