Japan is famed for its well-built infrastructure, seamless technological advancement, hardworking citizens, and cultural heritage and preservation. Home to 125 million people, Japan is one of the world’s largest economies and its capital, Tokyo, is a financial center on par with the likes of Paris and London.
But it was not always that way. Japan underwent a period of rapid industrialization in the 19th and early 20th centuries, before the country was devastated by the events of the Second World War. Over the last seven decades, Japan has re-established itself as a world leader in industry, technology, finance and tourism.
The US and fellow Asian nations are Japan’s largest trading and investment partners; and although Japanese products are sold in markets all over the globe, Japanese politics and politicians are rarely visible on the world stage.
The Reporter’s Samuel Bogale recently visited Japan and had the opportunity to sit down with a few of its foremost academicians for a conversation on the Japanese view of the global political and economic environment; Japan’s relationship with neighboring China; and its stance on international development and investment.
Akio Takahara (Prof.) is a member of the faculty of the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School for Law and Politics. He specializes in contemporary Chinese politics and diplomacy, as well as international relations in East Asia.
Ken Jimbo (Prof.) teaches Policy Management at Keio University with a focus on the US-Japan alliance. He heads the International House of Japan, an organization that promotes cultural exchange and intellectual cooperation, and has previously served as an advisor to the Japanese Defense Ministry.
Hiroshi Kato is a Professor of International Relations at the International University of Japan and a former Senior Vice-President of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), where he served for more than four decades. His experience at JICA includes a few years at the helm of Sub-Saharan African Affairs.
Professor Akio Takahara
The Reporter: China is building strong ties with Africa, and already commands significant influence on the continent. How do you view China’s influence in Asia, and its relationships with fellow Asian countries?
China’s rise is very ambivalent. Japan helped China rise very much. From the Chinese point of view, we are the largest donor in the last 40 years. Japan donated to China in a big way, especially in the 1980s. China’s opening of the economy started in late 1970s and early 1980s, and they decided to change their policy to receive aid from foreign countries.
Japan is close, of course, and Japan was already the second-largest economy in the world. We have this deep sense of remorse about the invasion during the war that we raged with China in the 1930s and 1940s. Many Japanese who were in key positions in the 1970s and 1980s knew that we made a big mistake, so the aid that we provided was, in a way, war reparations.
In the early 1980s, not very many foreign countries understood the potential of China, so the Chinese Communist Party relied on two external forces: one was the Japanese and the second was overseas Chinese. We are very happy in a way that our support has borne fruit. China’s economic rise is something that we helped, and something that we benefit from.
The Chinese have a very open policy towards growing the [Chinese] military, along with economic power. We are very unhappy about that, not only Japan, but all the neighboring nations are quite worried about the military rise of China.
Does Japan receive any support from China? Also, China is now much larger than Japan economically. How come the wealthier country is supported by the smaller one?
No (laughs). I hope they will in the future. Economically, their GDP size is now much bigger than ours. They surpassed us in 2010, so it is their turn now. But in China, there are still some poor areas, some industries in China are doing very well, but there are areas not doing so well.
China’s gross domestic product is four times bigger than ours now. That is one of the reasons we stopped aiding China. It is now a big country economically, but previously China was small. China shouldn’t need any more aid, so 40 years after we started aiding China, we stopped.
Do you think Japan’s geography has contributed to its pacifism over the last 80 or so years?
Yes, I think you are very right about that. Although, we are now worried about China because they have been sending boats very close to our islands since 2008. We have this disagreement over what we call the Senkaku islands and what they call Diaoyu islands. Around where Okinawa is, we have this long Japanese archipelago at the very end of the [Japanese] southwest. The Japanese owned and administered these islands for the past 130 years, but China suddenly started to claim sovereignty of these islands in December 1971. We were very surprised.
The United Nations did geological surveys on the islands and they said in their report that there is a rich oil field. We have a passive understanding that neither side will make any move. There was an idea in Japan to build a port there but we didn’t do it because the Chinese had previously promised that they would not do anything on their side. Some private landlords own the islands and nothing happened. But after China gradually enhanced their power, they started to act. Now they are sending their vessels.
What are your views on Taiwan, and the situation between America and China regarding Taiwan?
It is not for us really to make a judgment on whether Taiwan belongs to the People’s Republic of China or not. What we want is a peaceful resolution. Whatever they decide on – it should be decided through a peaceful means. So we would like to see no war. If they are going to unite, ok they go and unite. But do it in a peaceful way.
Aiming for peaceful unification was the policy of China for the past 40 years, but they have never given up the idea of resorting to military force when they feel they have to. That is when the Taiwanese side declared independence and other countries supported the Taiwanese. Because of the military rise of China, they are increasing physical pressure on Taiwan by crossing the line between them. That sort of makes us all very worried.
China is not visible in the politics of African countries or in influencing African leaders in making political decisions. Do you believe this is an example of China’s commitment to peace?
China needs peace, because China can’t trade with other countries unless there is peace. The way they made advancement into Africa helped the continent a lot in its development. We only hope that they will do their business in a more transparent way, because people in Africa want transparency.
Do you think Japanese investment in Africa matches the strength and advancement of its economy?
From a layman’s point of view, I think the Japanese companies are still thinking that they are doing well and they aren’t willing to take too many risks. They don’t have the ‘animal spirit’ that entrepreneurs should have. The business leaders today in Japan are conservative and defensive, not taking risks and trying to build their empire bigger.
If the African countries succeed in attracting the interest of Japanese business leaders in the future, and teach them that there is a lot of potential in Africa, I think the investors will try to do well. People don’t know better about Ethiopia’s whereabouts, but once they come to know better the countries and the potential of African countries, they will come. Of course, both sides must make efforts.
Professor Ken Jimbo
The Reporter: The global south is slowly building a united front. Take BRICS for example, and the countries lining up to join this bloc. What is your take on these developments and changes in the world order?
I think Japan has been one of the forefront countries in defining the concept of the global south in our foreign policy discourse. Japan has realized how important it is to engage those global south nations by knowing that there has been an increasing divide between the G7 and the rest of the world. Then Russia invaded Ukraine – a clear violation of international law. The G7 countries called for a united front against Russia, many countries united in terms of expressing their displeasure at how Russia was against Ukraine.
When it comes to imposing sanctions against Russia, only 38 countries joined the sanctions, with the rest of the world thinking sanctions were another thing. Although these kinds of global issues are challenging, there is a notion that there are a variety of interests that arise in the world, which will not really automatically support the G7 nations. Japan felt that it is not going to be a huge issue, because if you emphasize too much on the G7 issue brought into the rest of the world, the rest of the world will not listen carefully about this.
So, we thought that Japan should be an autonomous country that should engage individually; not really through the G7 or the US-Japan alliance. In that context, Japan’s global south approach has highlighted that we should take some original approach about this. It depends on how you define the global south but Japan isn’t in the global south for sure. For me, the global south isn’t G7 or the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, but the rest of the world.
Is that why Japan has not shown interest in joining BRICS?
It is a huge issue, and that is a great question. I have never thought about it. For us, BRICS is a symbolization of an emerging countries coalition, and trying to kind of create the alternative voice to the G7.
Do you think it is a mistake for countries to do that?
I am not sure. Now BRICS has opened the door to many new participation, but I don’t think BRICS has been aiming at engaging any of the G7 countries. Of course, neither bloc is showing much interest in the other.
I think we are worried about the China-Russia component. If China and Russia will align more strategically with each other, that is going to be a bad thing for our view of the world. But in terms of the BRICS, there is India, who also has a multi-faceted diplomacy that also aligns with us. India has been renovating its relationship with the United States, and I don’t think that India will subscribe to any of the Russia-China entanglement ideas in support of their interest with each other. As long as India is in BRICS, we don’t need to antagonize the bloc. Brazil may be a marginal player but Brazil and Latin America are very important. But I think India is more important in a way.
When BRICS tries to expand its membership, it needs to represent multiple kinds of interest in their management of how the BRICS should run. That is also something that Japan can encourage. If that is only through countries that support Russia and the interest which doesn’t go along with the interest of the G7, it is going to be worse.
Japan is not a name that comes up in discussions about the Middle East. How would you describe Japan’s relation with the Middle East?
There are two things. One is that the Middle East has been a critical region for the energy sources, and we are an energy scarce country that relies on about 90 percent of oil from the overseas market. The importance of the Middle East has been growing in terms of the level of reliance in the international market. So maintaining a stable relationship with those oil producing countries is most important for the Japanese economy.
Secondly, it is about the engagement with the Middle East. Compared with the United Kingdom, United States and China, probably, I think Japan has been the more neutral nation. For our relations with Asia, there is a lot of historical baggage as history plays a huge role in Asia. Japan can play its role in a much more constructive manner. That is why we have a better relationship with Iran than the United States does, although our communication channels are very limited. I think the Japan-Middle East relationship may have much more to explore than it used to.
What is your assessment of Japan’s relations with Africa? What is Africa to Japan?
The Japan-Africa relationship has been developed through the government level and business through many of the trading companies. With the level of the Chinese or Indians and other players, Japan’s presence in Africa has been diluted. Although there are a lot of potentials that Africa will become a major player in the world economy in the 2030s and 40s, there has been little investment. The infrastructure has not been placing more investments in Africa, which has been another kind of issue we need to explore a lot. Our general perception on Africa is very positive and I think there are more people who wish to engage in Africa.
If you go to Chinese universities, many of the foreign students are from Africa. They may have scholarships and or [attend through] exchange programmes. For Japan, it is very much Asia-based. Maybe China is being more strategic by looking to the future. I think our awareness is not prioritized yet. Conceptually, they know how important Africa is. There should be more to be to explore.
Professor Hiroshi Kato
The Reporter: What are your opinions on the idea of foreign aid?
My feeling is that foreign aid, however well-intentioned it might be, could be harmful from time to time, if certain conditions are not met. Foreign aid is an act of helping partner countries to help themselves. If you help too much, then you may spoil the partner, like parents who are overly attentive to children’s needs might spoil their children. Likewise, if foreign aid isn’t implemented carefully in such a way that it will encourage the partner country to stand on its own feet, foreign aid can be very harmful.
My argument is that not all donors share this kind of attitude. Not all donors are the same, in fact, but anyway it can be ineffective and even harmful when it is wasted, and when it undermines the recipients’ public capacities. Especially important is the risk of creating a sense of dependency. Countries can depend on foreign aid, and governments and private sectors of countries might lose the willingness to work hard to stand on their own feet.
How do you evaluate Japan’s aid to countries in need?
Japan has been very careful not to fall into this trap. I think the Japanese government has been very careful not to make this kind of mistake and make sure that we won’t spoil our partner countries. In a nutshell, we have been trying to encourage the partner countries to help themselves. According to the official document of the Japanese government, we use the word ‘self-help’, which means that we help the countries to help themselves. That is the fundamental philosophy of Japan’s foreign aid.
European donors are more oriented towards the reduction of poverty; therefore they place a lot of emphasis on social sectors like health, primary education, sanitation and water. In comparison to these European donors, Japan’s official development assistance (ODA) has been strongly focused on the development of the private sectors of partner countries, which eventually will help the country to grow economically. The growth orientation is one characteristic that sets Japan apart from other donors.
Another thing is emphasis on technical cooperation (TC) for human resource development and institutional building. I can’t prove this rigorously but my impression is that European donors are rather critical about technical cooperation. But I think Japan has been enthusiastic in putting a lot of emphasis on human resource development and institution building through technical cooperation.
Ethiopia can make use of aid in difficult times like this, and Japan is providing different packages to Ethiopia through its Embassy in Addis Ababa. Do you think they should instead be working more on bringing Japanese investments to Ethiopia for better growth?
Let me start with experiences in South East Asian countries. Japan provided a massive amount of ODA to these countries, especially for infrastructure and human resource development. That paved the way for all the Japanese investors to invest in South East Asian countries. In my view, the ODA provided all the groundwork for investors to invest in South East Asian countries.
I think that is exactly what we are doing in Ethiopia by providing infrastructure, agriculture and human resource development. Without infrastructure and trained human resources, nobody wants to invest in a country. What ODA attempts to do is lay the groundwork for investors to come and invest. We can’t tell private investors to come, because they have their own interest. What the government can do is to help the Ethiopian to improve the infrastructure and human resources so that Ethiopia can become an attractive investment destination.
Japan received massive support from countries like the US and institutions like the World Bank after the Second World War, which helped the country grow rapidly. Can this be an example to show that foreign support sometimes works best?
My overall evaluation is that it was a successful project. I might be biased because I am a Japanese citizen, but the Japanese leaders at that time were wise enough to use the World Bank finances for very productive progress. Japan was an important borrower of the World Bank finances during the 1950s and 1960s. They used the finances for basic infrastructure like the Shinkansen (bullet train), the first bullet train linking Tokyo and Osaka, two major cities of Japan.
Also, important infrastructure such as a very big hydroelectric dam was constructed using World Bank loans. Surprisingly, the loans were used for reconstruction of the private sector’s capabilities. The big automobile company, Toyota, was supported by World Bank loans through the Japanese government. The government knew what sectors should be reconstructed as a priority: infrastructure for transport, energy and the private sector.
Overall, I think the Japanese government was very wise in using the resources made available by the World Bank.