Selling “American-ness”: Japan’s Uniqlo

There’s a recent slang term has grown in popularity in Japan: unibare. This word is a combination of the two words, Uniqlo, the company, and bareru, which is the Japanese word equivalent to the phrase “letting the cat out of the bag.” This term is used when someone is caught wearing Uniqlo clothing, what is now the equivalent of social suicide among Japanese youth.

But despite a seemingly negative image held against the clothing brand, Uniqlo has grown to be Asia’s biggest clothing retailer, and the president, Tadashi Yanai, is the richest man in Japan. Clearly they’re doing something right. But with such an image, how are they maintaining sales domestically, and how are they effectively projecting their image abroad? The answer lies in the brilliant globalization strategy of this company, as well as the core truth of how an affordable retail company can succeed on the global scale: you have to sell American-ness. Before elaborating on the latter, let’s look at how and why Uniqlo has grown to be the retail giant it is today.

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Towards an Understanding of the Macro and Micro Implications of the Sino-Tibet Conflict

The Sino-Tibetan conflict continues to affect hundreds of lives and the Tibetan people have continued with their peaceful movements in response. China and Tibet have tried to win the west over for support, which may have a significant impact on future ties between the western countries and the opposing side. In light of all of China’s oppression, several Tibetans have fled to India through the Himalayas and to seek refuge in Dharamsala, India.

After I produced a documentary on the Sino-Tibet conflict, I traveled to the Tibetan government, interviewed the Prime Minister (where I learned about the Central Tibetan Administration’s direct action to resolve the conflict with China, the subsidies that the Indian government is providingfor Tibetan education in India, and Tibetan progress towards establishing a democratic charter), visited the parliament, and got the opportunity to explore rooms full of preserved Buddhist scriptures. The trip helped me crystallize several ideas regarding Tibet that had come up during my research.

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Historical Narratives and Uyghur Marginalization in China’s Development of Xinjiang

In the aftermath of the 2009 ethnic riots in Urumqi, the capital of the far western Chinese province of Xinjiang, journalist John Pomfret made a striking comment on National Public Radio’s Diane Rehm Show, “In the early years of this century they [China] launched a program called the Great Western Development Scheme, and in justifying a need for such a program which involved the massive influx of investment into Xinjiang and other provinces in the west, they’ve used direct quotes from Manifest Destiny texts from the 19th century in the United States.” The implication here is that the central government’s effort to develop Xinjiang is not only a part of its economic growth policy, but also a nation-building process that draws upon the American model. Applying this logic, the exclusion of the Uyghur people native to Xinjiang in modern development is treated as a naturally occurring symptom of progress rather than a barrier to it.

The idea that ethnic marginalization plays a role in consolidating the nation state is well grounded in history. Influenced by Social Darwinian thought that promulgated race-specific characteristics, nationalist intellectuals in the late 19th and early 20th centuries equated Chinese identity to Han ethnicity as a way to counter the weakness of the ruling Manchu elite in face of Western encroachment. This was reflected in the progressive movements of early Republican China that bundled racial purity with national strength. For example, a poster (see page 89) distributed in 1928 by the National Anti-Opium Association depicted, young, strong Han citizens wielding patriotic slogans and beating a “white” morphine demon and a “black” opium demon.

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President Obama’s Pivot Policy

The Pivot Policy of President Obama’s administration is a significant foreign policy initiative that sets a firm tone for the future of Obama’s presidential term. Enacted in 2010, the Pivot Policy seeks to rebalance the United States towards Asia, through increased diplomatic, economic, and strategic investment. In a Foreign Policy piece from November 2011, former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton writes that pivoting towards Asia will be “one of the most important tasks of American statecraft over the next decade”.

The Pivot Policy calls for “forward-deployed” diplomacy, or, the continued efforts to dispatch all units of US diplomatic force. These include highest-ranking officials, development experts, interagency teams, and permanent assets placed in all corners of the Asia- Pacific region in an effort to keep up with the ever-shifting power dynamics present in Asia. The Obama administration will implement this plan for intensified diplomatic presence through six lines of action: strengthening bilateral security alliances, deepening working relationships with emerging powers, including China, engaging with regional multilateral institutions, expanding trade and investment, forging a broad-based military presence, and advancing democracy and human rights.

US treaty alliances with Japan, South Korea, Austria, the Philippines, and Thailand all have gained increased importance in the age of the Pivot Policy. The Obama administration hopes to sustain these long-held alliances, while making them strong enough to withstand the pressures of a changing geopolitical climate. In addition, former secretary Clinton’s “pivot” article explicitly references China and US-Chinese relations. She writes that China represents “one of the most challenging and consequential bilateral relationships the United States has ever had to manage”. Nevertheless, Clinton explains that the US hopes to ameliorate and strengthen its partnership with China through increased involvement in the region. For example, the two countries now conduct a Strategic and Economic dialogue, talks bringing together dozens of agencies from both sides to discuss our most pressing bilateral issues, from security to energy to human rights. A main priority has been to identify and expand areas of common interest. The Obama administration hopes the talks will allow the US to work with China to build mutual trust, and to encourage China’s active efforts in global problem-solving.

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Breaching the “Great Firewall of China”

Internet users in China temporarily slipped passed web censorship via Google+ and performed a mass spamming of President Obama’s wall, showering it with Chinese characters. Despite the hilarity of this situation, the posts themselves make an important statement. According to MSNBC, the posters made comments critical of China’s internet controls. One poster went all out against the government, “It is important to persistently let the world know about CCP’s evil deeds against China and Chinese people”. Global awareness of discontent within China is exactly what the Chinese censors fear.  Continue reading “Breaching the “Great Firewall of China””