Branding a pandemic response

The biopolitics of (marketing) infection control in Japan


  • Rebecca Carlson Tokyo University
  • Hiroto Hatano National Center for Global Health and Medicine



Covid-19, nation branding, biopower, governance, Japan, metapragmatic frames


Although there is little consensus on the precise reasons Japan managed to maintain a relatively low number of Covid cases overall in 2020, the Japanese government was quick to publicize their approach as a success, calling it the ‘Japan Model’. Drawing on interviews with physicians working in Tokyo area hospitals during the pandemic as well as Japanese and English language media, we argue that this promotion is an example of the way nation branding is a form of biopower. Although physicians ultimately critiqued the government for its failure to implement clear public health policies, they simultaneously relied on its promotion of Japan’s superior culture to rationalize publicized epidemiological successes. This paper argues that as branding works to metapragmatically frame, and then activate, messages already in public circulation, it coopts individuals to independently take up branding practices, symbolically displacing those messages from government programs.

Author Biographies

Rebecca Carlson, Tokyo University

Rebecca Carlson is Associate Professor of media anthropology at Tokyo University, Japan. Her research focuses broadly on the production of subjectivities, knowledge and power in the transnational circulation of technology and digital media. She has published articles on videogame localization, the Cool Japan branding program, the ethnographic study of computer code in the medical sciences in Japan, and the skeptical division between anthropology and the natural sciences.

Hiroto Hatano, National Center for Global Health and Medicine

Hiroto Hatano is a medical intern at National Center for Global Health and Medicine, Japan. His research interests include medical anthropology, respirology, and molecular biology.


Abe, S. (2020) [COVID-19] Press conference by the prime minister regarding the novel coronavirus. Prime Minister of Japan and His Cabinet. (English translation)

Adorno, F. P. (2014) Power over life, politics of death: Forms of resistance to biopower in Foucault. In V. Lemm and M. Vatter (eds) The government of life: Foucault, biopolitics, and neoliberalism 98–111. New York: Fordham University Press. DOI:

Agamben, G. (2000) Means without end: notes on politics. Translated by Cesare Casarino and Vincenzo Binetti. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Anderson, B. (1991) Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. New York: Verso.

Anholt, S. (2003) Brand new justice: The upside of global branding. Oxford: Butterworth & Heinemann.

Appadurai, A. (1996) Modernity at large: Cultural dimensions of globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Befu, H. (2001) Hegemony of homogeneity: An anthropological analysis of nihonjinron. Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press.

Borovoy, A. (2010) Japan as mirror: Neoliberalism’s promise and costs. In J. G. Carol (ed.) Ethnographies of neoliberalism 60–74. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Brown, L. C. (2014) A public backstage: The pleasures and possibilities of roadside shop talk in Tamil Nadu, India. Language & Communication 34: 35–45. Doi: DOI:

Del Percio, A. (2016) Nation brands and the politics of difference. Signs and Society 4(S1): S1–S28. Doi: DOI:

Du, L. (2020) Scientist behind Japan’s successful Covid model now battles new surge as winter wets. The Print.

Du, L. and Huang, G. (2020) Japan may have beaten Coronavirus without lock-downs or mass testing: But how? Times.

Dzenovska, D. (2005) Remaking the nation of Latvia: Anthropological perspectives on nation mranding. Place Branding 1(2): 173–186. Doi: DOI:

Foster, R. J. (2002) Materializing the nation: Commodities, consumption, and media in Papua New Guinea. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Foucault, M. (1978) The history of sexuality: An introduction. New York: Pantheon Books.

Foucault, M. (1982) The subject and power. In H. L. Dreyfus and P. Rabinow (eds) Michel Foucault: Beyond hermeneutics and structuralism 208–226. Brighton, UK: Harvester.

Foucault, M. (1991) Governmentality. In G. Burchell, C. Gordon, and P. Miller (eds) The Foucault effect: Studies in governmentality 87–104. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Foucault, M. (1997a) Society must be defended: Lectures at the college de France, 1975–76. M. Bertani and A. Fontana (eds). Translated by D. Macey. New York: Picador.

Foucault, M. (1997b) The politics of truth. S. Lotringer and L. Hochroth (eds). New York: Semiotext.

Foucault, M. (2007) Security, territory, population: Lectures at the college de France, 1977–78. M. Senellart (ed.). Translated by G. Burchell. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Foucault, M. (2008) The birth of biopolitics: Lectures at the college de France, 1978–79. Translated by G. Burchell. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Ghebreyesus, T. A. (2020) WHO Director-General’s Opening Remarks at the Media Briefing on COVID-19. WHO.

Goto, K. and Hattori, T. (2020). Asahi Shimbun.

Graan, A. (2013) Counterfeiting the nation? Skopje 2014 and the politics of nation branding in Macedonia. Cultural Anthropology 28(1): 161–179. Doi: DOI:

Graan, A. (2016) The nation brand regime: Nation branding and the semiotic regimentation of public communication in contemporary Macedonia. Signs and Society 4(S1): S70–S105. Doi: DOI:

Harukata, T. (2021) Japan’s fragmented COVID response: A Systemic Failure of National Leadership.

Haugen, E. (1966) Dialect, language, nation. American Anthropologist 68(40): 922–935. Doi: DOI:

Iijima, W. (2021) Jishuku as a Japanese way for anti-COVID-19: Some basic reflections. Historical Social Research, Supplement 33: 284–301. Doi:

Inoue, N. (2020). Asahi Shimbun.

Ivy, M. (1995) Discourses of the vanishing: Modernity, phantasm, Japan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. DOI:

Iwabuchi, K. (2015) Resilient borders and cultural diversity: Internationalism, brand nationalism, and multiculturalism in Japan. Lanham: Lexington Books.

Iwasaki, A. and Grubaugh, N. D. (2020) Why does Japan have so few cases of COVID-19? EMBO Molecular Medicine 12(5): e12481. Doi: DOI:

Kakuchi, S. (2022) A culture of collective responsibility: How Japan has kept COVID-19 numbers relatively low. CNA.

Keller, R. C. (2006) Geographies of power, legacies of mistrust: Colonial medicine in the global present. Historical Geography 34: 26–48.

Kim, M. (2013) The colonial public sphere and the discursive mechanism of mindo. In M. Kim, M. Schoenhals and Y. Kim (eds) Mass dictatorship and modernity 178–202. London: Palgrave Macmillan. DOI:

Kleinman, A., Eisenberg, L., and Good, B. (1978) Culture, illness, and care: Clinical lessons from anthropologic and cross-cultural research. Annals of Internal Medicine 88(2): 251–258. Doi: DOI:

Kobayashi, Y., Ota, H., Kasanuki, H., and Nomura, S. (2021) The independent investigation commission on the Japanese government’s response to COVID-19: Report on best practices and lessons learned. Asia Pacific Institute.

Kyodo Staff (2020a) WHO chief deems Japan’s battle against Corona Virus a ‘success’. Japan Times.

Kyodo Staff (2020b) Japan’s low virus mortality rate reflects social manners: Deputy PM. Kyodo News.

Le, T. and Kim, H. (2020) How culture explains COVID. Tokyo Review.

Massey, D. (1994) Double articulation: A place in the world. In A. Bammer (ed.) Displacements: Cultural identities in question 110–120. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Miller, L. (2011) Taking Girls Seriously in ‘Cool Japan’ Ideology. Japan Studies Review: Interdisciplinary Studies of Modern Japan 15: 97–106.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2017) Pop-culture diplomacy.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2020) Is the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Japan higher than other countries?

Nakamura, N. (2020). Huffington Post.

Nakamura, T. (2013) Japan’s new public diplomacy: Coolness in foreign policy objectives. Studies in Media and Society 5: 1–23.

Nakano, K. (2020) Japan can’t handle the Coronavirus: Can it host the Olympics? New York Times.

Nishimura, K. (2021) Government: Anyone want a free Abenomask? Anyone? The Asahi Shimbun.

Oshitani, H. (2022) What Japan got right about Covid-19. New York Times.

Sidnell, J. (1998) Organizing social and spatial location: Elicitations in Indo-Guyanese village talk. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 7(2): 143–165. Doi: DOI:

Sieg, L. (2020) ‘Lockdown’, Japan-style: Pressure to conform, not penalities for non-compliance. Reuters.

Suzuki, K. (2020) Japan’s COVID-19 measures: Controlling the spread without lock-downs.

Tabuchi, H. (2009) Why Japan’s cellphones haven’t gone global. The New York Times.

Takahashi, K. (2020). Yahoo! Japan.

Volcic, Z. and Andrejevic, M. (2011) Nation branding in the era of commercial nationalism. International Journal of Communication 5: 598–618.

Watanabe, T. and Yabu, T. (2020) Japan’s voluntary lockdown. Research Project on Central Bank Communication.

Wright, J. (2021) Overcoming political distrust: The role of ‘self-restraint’ in Japan’s public health response to COVID-19. Japan Forum 33(4): 453–475. Doi: DOI:

Yamaguchi, K. (2020) Social statistical and social policy findings on coronavirus infection. Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry.

Yoshino, K. (1992) Cultural nationalism in contemporary Japan: A sociological enquiry. London: Routledge.



How to Cite

Carlson, R., & Hatano, H. (2023). Branding a pandemic response: The biopolitics of (marketing) infection control in Japan. Sociolinguistic Studies, 16(4), 485–503.