Toward a new phase in Israel-Japan relations

Israel and Japan celebrated the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations this year. A Japanese high school student visiting Israel told me, “The food, the culture, the people; everything in Israel is amazing. I would like to study at the Hebrew University in the future.” This is an example of the favorable view of some Japanese on Israel. Many Japanese are indeed potentially amicable to Jews and the State of Israel, because the two nations lack a hostile history. We have never fought a war, never had religious conflicts, and rarely had contact with each other until the 20th century. Thus, as Dr. Kowner argues in his article “On symbolic anti-Semitism,” there is virtually no anti-Semitism in Japan based on religion and history, unlike in European countries.

The student’s view, however, does not reflect upon the general Japanese feeling toward Israel. According to the 2012 Country Ratings Poll, the BBC’s survey on the image of countries, only 3% of the Japanese think that Israel has a positive influence on the world, while 45% consider that it has a negative impact.

Two factors strongly affect the Japanese view of Israel: aversion to the use of force and the demand for oil. Japan has a deep-rooted loathing to the use of force. This stems from its catastrophic defeat in WWII. Most Japanese thought that the root cause of the miserable circumstances during and after the war was the reckless militarism led by the Imperial Japanese Army. Shigeru Yoshida, who was inaugurated as Japan’s prime minister in 1946, wrote that the defeat of Japan was not necessarily a misfortune if the Japanese could remove the cancer of militarism in politics.

Nowadays there are better opportunities for Israel and Japan to build a strong relationship. At the strategic level, Japan’s relationship with the US can bring it closer to Israel. Japan has maintained a robust alliance with the US over the last six decades. The close economic ties and deterrence provided by the US כorces have made policy in concert with he US a main consideration of the Japanese government. The US.-Japan alliance is currently in the process of strengthening. It aims to counter the rise of China, foster cooperation in counter-terrorism, and promote core universal values such as freedom, democracy, market economy and the rule of law. Specifically, based on the US-Japan alliance, Japan would deepen the level of commitment to the Middle East in the context of a global war on terror, which would include further cooperation with Israel.

Yet Israel and Japan have to overcome unfamiliarity at the public level. Generally speaking, the Japanese do not know much about Israel and Jews. An effort to increase tourism would have a constructive impact on mutual understanding. Japanese students in Israel and Israeli students in Japan could become a bridge between both countries in the future. Business relationships need to be deepened, particularly through an exchange of researchers and joint projects in the high-tech industry, where both countries have expertise. There are not enough of these at present, but they will be helpful for the future of Israel and Japan.

One can only hope to promote friendship and cooperation through people, like the student who professed his enthusiasm for Israel. That may be part of the foundation for lasting joint prosperity.

About the Author
Kentaro Suzuki is an official of the Ministry of Defense in Japan, and has worked as a researcher for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs