Israel and Japan Are Finally Becoming Friends. Why?
After decades of wariness, the two nations are being drawn together by common interests and shared fears.
Walk down a side street in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Eshkol and you may came across a group of students chatting loudly in Hebrew as they review their Bible lessons of the day. Hardly an extraordinary sight in Israel—except that these aren’t Israelis. They’re young Japanese on student visas who have assumed hybrid names like Asher Sieto Kimura and Suzana Keiren Mimosa. And they’re Makuyas: members of a Japanese religious group that’s been fervently supportive of Israel since 1948.
The movement’s founder—“Makuya” is Japanese for ohel moed, the biblical tent of meeting or tabernacle—was Ikuro Teshima, a Christian businessman who adopted the name Abraham in the belief that the birth of Israel marked the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. His dream, finally realized in the 1960s, was to send groups of young Japanese to Israel, there to study Hebrew and Jewish thought and to volunteer in hospitals, schools, and senior centers. Since then, over 1,000 Makuyas have attended the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the University of Haifa, the Technion, and other institutions of higher learning. In Japan itself, the Makuya newsletter reaches more than 300,000 subscribers.
Makuya aside, it is true, love of Israel used to be an anomaly in Japan. But it is much less of one now. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the first Japanese premier in almost a decade to visit the Jewish state, represents a political establishment that has undergone a significant shift in perception, to the point where a country once kept at arm’s length by Tokyo is now increasingly seen to merit a friendly and indeed a deferential bow. And the feeling is warmly reciprocated.
How significant is this? When one thinks of Israel’s relations with Asia, two countries may come to mind before Japan. First, India: a fellow democracy with which Israel’s trade ties have been fairly constant over recent decades and diplomatic relations, always cool, have been notably warming under the current premiership of Narendra Modi. Second, China: a country with which Israel’s trade ties are likewise substantial and growing— jumping from $51 million in 1992 to more than $11 billion in 2014—even as on the international scene China not only sides vocally with some of Israel’s and the West’s deadliest enemies but also remains a largely closed society within and militarily belligerent without.
This is all the more reason to focus on the largely neglected story of Israel and Japan: another democracy, another American ally, and, with India, another Asian nation directly threatened by Chinese aggression and expansionism.
Before the 1990s, the best word for describing Japan-Israel relations was chilly. Although Israel’s first embassy in Tokyo opened in 1952, Japan’s embassy in Tel Aviv had to wait till the 1980s. Deep dependence on Middle East oil made observing the Arab boycott of Israel a diplomatic priority for decades. Japan did abstain from voting on the UN’s notorious Zionism/racism resolution of 1975, but to this day most Japanese politicians mouth the kind of kneejerk anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian rhetoric that prevails in international diplomatic forums.
It’s a matter of historical curiosity that, long ago, relations were once better. As early as 1918 the imperial Japanese government, echoing the words of Britain’s Balfour Declaration, endorsed “the ardent desire of the Zionists to establish in Palestine a National Jewish Homeland.” In 1934, Tokyo unveiled what came to be known as the Fugu Plan, encouraging Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany to settle in Japanese-occupied Manchuria and Shanghai (the latter occupied in 1937). Jews in these places were to be given complete religious freedom as well as the right to set up their own schools and cultural institutions, funded, or so Tokyo hoped, by the world Jewish community. Although the Fugu Plan never found either sufficient settlers or sufficient funding, in the end some 24,000 Jews managed to escape Hitler either by immigrating through Japan to other countries or by living in places like Shanghai, which accepted 15,000 Jewish refugees.
Meanwhile, Japan’s true Raoul Wallenberg was Chiune Sugihara, briefly the Japanese consul in Kovno, Lithuania. From late 1939 until August 1940 when he was reassigned to Berlin, Sugihara allowed escaping Jews to travel and stay in Japan itself, ostensibly on their way to the Dutch island nation of Curaçao (which required no entry visa). Thanks to Sugihara, at least 6,000 Jews received Japanese transit visas. Some desperate refugees even learned to forge his signature.
But that was then. The Arab economic boycott, compounded in the mid-1970s by the OPEC oil embargo, terminated any residual warm feelings between Japan and Israel. And so things would long remain. Starting in the late 1990s, and accelerating as Israel’s own economic prospects began to boom, it was not Japan but South Korea and, especially, China that became the Jewish state’s most important East Asian trading partners. By 2013 Israeli was exporting to China four times more than to Japan.
All this being so, it is no surprise that, in addition to playing foreign-investment catchup, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is now strongly encouraging Japanese companies to take the plunge into the buoyant Israeli market, and why an Israel eager to enlarge its own Asian export market is no less eager for a connection with the world’s third largest economy.
At least on the surface, the rapid thaw in Israel-Japan relations has centered primarily in consumer trade. At a Tel Aviv news conference during his January visit, Abe declared that “the economy is the one area which has the greatest potential for advancement of bilateral ties.” Israel’s government reciprocated by announcing the opening of a new trade office in Osaka and an increase in the number of trade officials at the embassy in Tokyo. In his response to Abe, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to invest tens of millions of shekels over the next three years “to strengthen the Israeli-Japanese partnership.” He added: “we all understand there is great untapped potential in our relations.”
Potential there certainly is—and it extends well beyond consumer trade. Abe’s January visit was preceded by May 2014 meetings that produced bilateral agreements concerning everything from cooperation on tourism and agriculture to space and cyber defense. Technology looms especially large. Japanese medical-device and other tech companies are queuing up to meet with their Israeli counterparts, and a road show of Israeli start-ups is headed for Tokyo this fall to show their wares to Japanese executives. Last October, Toyota held a first-ever “hackathon” at its InfoTechnology Center in Tel Aviv. By December, the Times of Israel was reporting on the first joint Israeli-Japanese start-up: fittingly, a start-up for start-ups that, at the click of a button, matches the ideas of Japanese entrepreneurs with Israeli venture-capital firms and enables meetings over the Internet.
Small stuff, perhaps, but it’s precisely small-scale innovation that is important for reviving the Japanese economy. Japanese companies “have awakened to the need to innovate,” says Vered Farber, director of an NGO working to bring Israeli and Japanese businessmen together, and “they realize few countries are as innovative as Israel”—especially in areas like robotics, medical devices, and information technology. But the interest in Israeli innovation goes beyond these areas to, especially, cyber and defense technology. Although, on both sides, defense officials are understandably reticent about their growing ties, and joint development of new weapons systems won’t happen anytime soon, Japan’s Ministry of Defense has started to send more teams of representatives to Israel and it’s not difficult to imagine where key visits will take place.
One such visit is likely to occur at the Palmahim air base south of Tel Aviv, home to Israel’s First UAV Squadron. The Israelis were pioneers in the use of unmanned aircraft, their prowess and expertise in the field having been tested most recently in last year’s Gaza operation (which Japan, still mindful of Arab and UN opinion, officially condemned). Israel’s drone trade, estimated in one study as leading the world market, is also an important part of the country’s arms-export business.
Hovering unseen at 10,000 feet for hours on end, collecting reams of surveillance and intelligence data, Israel’s UAV fleet is a good model of what Japan needs for around-the-clock maritime surveillance, not only in its home waters but over the vast reaches of the Pacific and the contested East China Sea, where recent confrontations with China over the Senkaku Islands have the coast guards and navies of both countries on constant alert. A large fleet of reconnaissance UAV’s could provide constant, over-the-horizon intelligence not only on Chinese naval movements but on potential missile launches from North Korea that, if left undetected, could reach Japanese soil in a matter of minutes.
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