TOKYO Ever seen an ambassador dressed from head to foot in pastel frills? How about a diplomatic envoy in a mini-skirted school uniform?
In a bid to raise its international profile, Tokyo has appointed three young women as cultural envoys because they represent Japan's long-running craze for all things cute.
Inspired by the characters in Japan's distinctive "anime" animated films and "manga" cartoon books, one of the new ambassadors dresses as a schoolgirl, another as a Victorian doll in voluminous frilly skirts.
The third of the women, presented at a news conference on Thursday, was a singer dressed in a polka dot shirt with a bunny print, offset by bouffant back-combed hair, a look that has made her a fashion leader in Tokyo teens' favorite haunt, Harajuku.
Japan wants to exploit the popularity of the "kawaii" (cute) culture, which has influenced young people in Asia and Europe.
"It's all about mutual understanding," said Tsutomu Nakagawa, the head of the cultural affairs division at the Foreign Ministry, after presenting the three envoys to the foreign media.
"We want people abroad to know these kind of people exist in Japan and to feel close to them."
Faced with the prospect of being overtaken in both economic and military might by giant neighbor China, Japan has been making concerted efforts to boost its "soft power," a strategy that analysts see as important.
"You get people to love your culture and use that as a way of gaining power around the world," said Phil Deans, professor of international relations at Temple University's Tokyo campus.
"America has a lot of soft power, because people like American culture."
But these ambassadors, whose role will be to speak at cultural events such as a Japan Expo to be held in Paris in July, may have narrower appeal than Hollywood movie stars.
The envoys, chosen for the clothes they choose to wear in their everyday lives, said they believed their styles would last.
"Every female from small girls to grandmothers loves pretty clothes," said nurse and part-time model Misako Aoki, now ambassador for the doll-like "Gothic Lolita" style.
"I think I can continue to dress like this all my life. Age has nothing to do with it."
Actress Shizuka Fujioka, 19, wears a school uniform even though she's graduated because she felt she missed out by going to a school with an ugly uniform.
The appointment of the three envoys comes a year after Doraemon, a rotund blue cartoon cat with no ears, was named a special ambassador.
While serving as foreign minister, manga fan Prime Minister Taro Aso also launched an international prize for the genre.
"Whether this is a strategy on which the world's second largest economy can base its diplomacy, I have yet to be convinced," said Temple University's Deans.
(Editing by Rodney Joyce)