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Engaging Japan: Reflections on a Thirty Year Journey

By Ian Storey
August 23, 2022
It’s hard to believe, but it is thirty years this year since I first visited Japan.

It took place in October 1992, when I was a young English teacher in Hong Kong who had become fascinated by Japan-its history, people, culture and, at that time, fairly limited geopolitical role.

I interviewed for a job in Osaka, was offered a position, but ultimately turned it down because shortly thereafter I was awarded a scholarship to study for a Master’s degree in International Relations at the International University of Japan (IUJ) in Niigata.

I lived in ‘yukiguni’ (snow country) from 1993 until 1995. I studied with people from all over the world and enjoyed the many festivals, rice and sake that rural Niigata had to offer. Some of the friendships I made at IUJ have lasted until today.
flat, snowy plain with mountains in the background
Located on Japan’s cold western coast, Niigata has earned the name “snow country” (yukiguni)
After graduation I returned to Hong Kong, and in the years that followed lived in Australia, Hawaii and, since 2007, Singapore. But I have been back to Japan almost every single year since 1995 (except for during the COVID-19 pandemic, of course), sometimes for work and sometimes for pleasure. I have travelled north to south, from snowy Hokkaido to tropical Okinawa, visiting Tokyo (many times), Nagoya, Osaka, Kyoto, Nara and Hiroshima in between.

One of the most memorable trips I made was in February 2017, when I was invited for a week-long study tour of Japan. During that trip, as part of a group of Southeast Asianists, I met with officials from various ministries and held discussions on a range of topics pertaining to regional security.

The highlight of that trip was a visit to Hiroshima, the city that was levelled by an atomic bomb on 6 August 1945. I still remember the poignancy of the Atomic Bomb Dome and the Peace Memorial Museum. Our gracious hosts also treated us to some of the best culinary delights Japan has to offer.

I’ve been in Singapore for 15 years now, working at a research institution devoted to the study of economic, political and socio-cultural issues in Southeast Asia. My own work focuses on the role of the major powers-America, China, Japan, Russia and India-in the region as well as maritime security issues, especially the complex and contentious South China Sea dispute.

During my time here, I have come to appreciate that Japan is so much more than a major economic player in Southeast Asia, hugely important though that role is.
It plays a crucial role in supporting the rules-based international order in the region, especially freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea. Tokyo has provided capacity-building support for regional coast guards and navies, donating patrol boats, radars and other surveillance equipment so that coastal states have a better picture of what is going on in their exclusive economic zones (EEZs). It has criticised China’s assertive behaviour in the South China Sea, and was one of the few countries to call on both the Philippines and China to abide by a 2016 legal award which ruled that Beijing’s expansive nine-dash line claims in the sea were incompatible with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and therefore unlawful and invalid. The Japanese navy conducts regular presence missions in the South China Sea, exercising its high seas rights, often together with its US ally and other regional partners.

Japan has conducted its diplomacy the region, including its defense diplomacy, in a low-key and unobtrusive manner. It has expressed its support for ASEAN centrality, and its ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ policy has been well received. Japan’s alliance with the United States is a key pillar of regional stability.

Japan’s soft power in Southeast Asia―manga, music and food-is formidable. Pre-COVID, Japan was a very popular tourist destination for Southeast Asians, and undoubtedly will be again once the travel restrictions are lifted, presumably later this year.

Through its words and deeds, Japan has gained the respect and trust of Southeast Asian countries. According to the 2022 State of Southeast Asia Survey, published by my own institution, Japan is the region’s most trusted power, with 54.2% of respondents expressing confidence that Japan would “do the right thing” to provide global public goods, followed by America (52.8%) and the European Union (48.5%). In contrast, only 26.8% expressed confidence that China “would do the right thing”.

Although Japan’s constructive role in the Indo-Pacific region is widely acknowledged, it could, of course, do more. Tokyo is an avid supporter of the rules-based order, especially UNCLOS, and as mentioned earlier called on China to abide by the 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling.

Additionally, improving ties with South Korea can only lead to a stronger Indo-Pacific region. Japan and South Korea are both vital US allies, and, left to fester, tensions between Tokyo and Seoul can easily be exploited by China and Russia.

I will celebrate my 52nd birthday on 17 April. Touch wood, I look forward to another thirty years of engagement with Japan. Kanpai!
Dr Ian Storey is a Senior Fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. Prior to ISEAS, he held academic positions at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies, Hawaii, and Deakin University, Australia. He received his PhD from the City University of Hong Kong, his Master’s degree from the International University of Japan, and his Bachelor’s degree from the University of Hull, England.
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