Government communications are often dry, and development communications can come across as scholastic or even condescending. So how can we reach audiences who know little about sustainable development and international co-operation? Can we make our comms more fun? Enter “ODA-Man”!
It all began at a press conference in 2018, when Japan’s then Foreign Minister Taro Kono “tasked” a popular anime character with informing citizens about Japan’s Official Development Assistance (ODA). “Yoshida-kun” from the series “Eagle Talon”, began a second career as ODA Man.
The new role suits him well. In the original series, Yoshida-kun is part of a secret society aspiring to take over the world. Yet, he lacks all of the qualities of a super villain, being kind and naïve instead –he routinely ruins the plans of his group. As “ODA-Man”, he has become one of the good guys!
“Go! ODA-Man” is a series of short videos in which ODA-Man, equipped with a pith helmet and a shovel, takes viewers to places abroad where the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is engaged in development efforts. In his own funny and peculiar way, he explains what is being done, and why. The stories cover a large range of topics, from maritime security in Southeast Asia to science education in Kenya. Though he obviously has a penchant for lecturing, he does not come across preachy, being too clumsy and childish a character to stir up irritation.
When the series began, the episodes aired on television. Later, the Ministry began spreading the films on the internet: ODA-Man is an asset of MOFA’s YouTube channel and enjoys regular appearances on the Twitter and Facebook channels of Japanese embassies and development agencies.
While films are at the heart of the campaign, you can find ODA-Man in many places. The Ministry has sent an actor dressed as ODA-Man to schools, universities, museums and the Global Festa Japan event on international cooperation. ODA-Man also features in a manga brochure, and can even be found on the business cards of high-ranking ministerial staff, including the minister!
In Japan, public awareness and support for development assistance has traditionally been low. Back in 2004, in a public opinion survey on diplomacy conducted for the Foreign Ministry, almost 30% of survey respondents agreed that Japan should minimise, or even stop, development cooperation. However, by 2020, a similar survey suggested that this number had fallen to just over 10%.
This rising support for ODA could be attributed to the government’s decision to make raising awareness an explicit objective in policy design. In its latest Voluntary National Report on the SDGs in 2017, the government commits to making public awareness a priority. In the 2019 White Paper on Development Cooperation, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs states in intention “to create contents that encourage those who are not interested in ODA as well as people of all ages, to learn about ODA while having fun”.
Some people might frown upon the idea of using a cartoon character to transport serious ideas and messages. In Japan, however, this is uncontroversial. Anime and manga are part of Japan’s cultural heritage and enjoy great popularity among youths and adults alike.
Japan’s development cooperation agency (JICA) uses manga for a range of purposes, whether to share information about its projects (such a school for blind students in Ghana or professional training for women in Nepal), or to promote handwashing in India.
So if you want to reach more people, then choose a popular medium. In Japan, this may be anime and manga; in other societies, there will be other cultural entry points for a conversation about development (for example, see our blog piece on the “Save Tropical House” campaign in Norway).
Communicators going down this road need to remain true to the format they choose. Audiences will not react well if they perceive that political messaging is distorting the formats that they enjoy. Even when he talks about topics like the hardships of the immediate post-war period in Japan, ODA-Man never ceases to behave like the funny, quirky character anime fans know him to be. In this way, he remains authentic, a credible ambassador who can help accomplish the task set in the Ministry’s aforementioned White Paper: “making complicated things easier to understand”.
This post is published in partnership with Engagement Global, a German service agency working on behalf of the Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) to engage civil society on issues of development co-operation.
For further reading about the ODA Man campaign, see Wrenn Yennie Lindgren: WIN-WIN! with ODA-man: legitimizing development assistance policy in Japan.