This study explores how the Japanese government endeavored to shape American public opinion through the promotion of Japanese aesthetics in the several years following the Manchurian crisis—and, importantly, how this “cultural diplomacy” was received by Americans. At the center of Japan’s state-sponsored cultural initiative was the Society for International Cultural Relations (Kokusai Bunka Shinkōkai, or KBS). By drawing attention to Japan’s historically esteemed cultural traditions, Japan’s leaders hoped to improve the nation’s image and leverage international power. Critical American reviews and general-interest articles on KBS programs proffered images of a society imbued with a profound sense of artistic sophistication. To this end, the KBS’s cultural diplomacy tended to reinforce a popular assumption among Americans that Japan’s body politic in the 1930s was meaningfully divided between “moderates” and “militarists.” Japan’s cultural diplomacy, however, was undermined from the start by an irreconcilable tension: to simultaneously legitimize regional expansionism and advance internationalist cooperation. After the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in the summer of 1937 and subsequent proclamations that presumed Japanese hegemony in Asia, naked aggression rendered any lighthearted cultural exchange increasingly irrelevant. Indeed, KBS activities in the United States dwindled—a point that made clear the limits of cultural diplomacy.

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