Why Israel is still only scratching the surface of relations with Japan

To quote a senior figure in the foreign ministry “Israel has not only seen an improvement with Japan – it has seen an upgrade.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) welcomes Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Jerusalem (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) welcomes Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Jerusalem
(photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
This week, a bilateral investment treaty was signed between the Japan and Israel. The agreement, signed by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon after two years of negotiations, is another milestone in Israel’s newly blossoming relationship with the eastern nation. This upgrade is a central part of Israel’s “pivot to Asia,” preceded by bilateral visits of the respective prime ministers and many cabinet and trade officials from both sides.
While celebrations are indeed in order, it is apparent that Israel is only scratching the surface of the potential relationship with Japan, and unless it negotiates the obstacles along the way, will never realize the full potential of trade with the world’s third-largest economy.
Chief among these obstacles is the historic apprehension of Japan toward the Jewish state. With no traditional antisemitism in Japanese culture, Japan’s reluctance to cultivate ties with Israel traces its roots to the 1973 OPEC oil crisis. With the Yom Kippur War raging in the background, many oil-producing Arab nations issued an ultimatum to their fossil-fuel dependent customers – boycott Israel or suffer an energy crisis through rising prices. Japan, totally dependent on Arab oil, was particularly vulnerable to the extortion. After being denied access to the United State’s emergency reserves by Henry Kissinger, Japan had no choice but to comply. The Keidanren, Japan’s industrial organization, led the charge to demand that the Japanese government sever ties with Israel for fear of the economic repercussions of Japanese industry, and the Japanese government used harsh words in condemning Israel.
This trauma stifled commercial and diplomatic ties for years afterward, with Japanese banks denying services to Israeli clients during the Gulf War and Japanese newspapers discouraging trade with Israel, for fear of Arab backlash and Israeli insolvency. Only after 1992, with the weakening of Arab influence and the lifting of the secondary boycott, did relation warm again, but to this day many Japanese business leaders are wary of publicizing their ties to Israel. Just recently, a very large Japanese corporation opened a new research center in Israel after a lengthy process of investment and integration of Israeli technology in their systems. To mask Israeli involvement, the center itself along with all employees is fully designated as the American wing of the company.
Exacerbating this fear are troubling seeds of delegitimization, with the familiar scent of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its ilk. Though pushed mostly by foreign students in universities, Israel’s detractors, fully aware of Israel’s eastbound push, have managed to exploit the Japanese pacifist attitude to cast Israel as the villain in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Just recently, JETRO, Japan’s external trade organization, faced significant pressure from the Palestine Forum of Japan, affiliated with the BDS movement, to withdraw from a planned Israeli wine exhibition. JETRO ended up withdrawing from the event at that time.
Big business has also suffered. In 2011, MUJI, a leading Japanese retail chain, canceled plans to open Israeli branches after a lengthy campaign of protests which included mock checkpoints in front of the company’s stores in Japan. Combined with the traditionally risk-averse Japanese business attitude, these small-scale actions can have a large effect. Unlike in Europe and North America, Japan has no significant Jewish community to spearhead countermeasures.
Perhaps the most stifling factor for Israel-Japan economic relations is that most Japanese know nothing about Israel. While those few who are in the know are beginning to understand Israel’s place as a technology hub, many Japanese know Israel as another Middle Eastern war zone, and skip Israel as both a tourist and post-graduate program destination.
These problems can be remedied through a combination of traditional and public diplomacy. The main push for the recent improvement in relations was Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s inclusion of over 100 Japanese business leaders on his visit, who came back home and told their subordinates what they had seen. This trickle-down effect, especially in a culture that respects seniority and precedent, must be further nurtured by concentrated efforts reaching out to business leaders in fields that Israel excels in – not only medical solutions, fintech and cyber-security, but also fashion and cuisine. Japan’s aging population and upcoming 2020 Olympic Games are ideal grounds for cooperation, to be led by corporations courted by Israeli officials and businesses.
The seeds of delegitimization must be answered. This must be done not by giving oxygen to the flames, but by combining a reactive and proactive approach. Japanese organizations suffering from this kind of pressure must be given quiet assurances of Israeli support in any fallout, and have their fears assuaged before and during these campaigns. More importantly, proactive education efforts should take place with business and community leaders in Japan, exposing them to Israel’s own compelling narrative and the dubious moral, diplomatic and legal implications of siding with those who call for the boycott and destruction of the Jewish state.
Lastly, Israel must open its doors to Japanese youth by encouraging exchange and post-graduate programs and assisting young entrepreneurs and engineers to acclimatize in Israel. This must be done through active outreach in Japan’s leading universities, which garner immense respect in Japan. 10-year visa plans must be issued for eligible applicant, similar to the recent agreement with China, and “soft-landing” packages should be made available for young Japanese entrepreneurs eager to breathe in some of the Israeli “chutzpah.”
To quote a senior figure in the foreign ministry “Israel has not only seen an improvement with Japan – it has seen an upgrade.” This upgrade is a great blessing to Israel, and the right steps should be taken so that it continues to move in the right direction – east.
The author is an Israel activist at StandWithUs and an alum of the Israel-Asia Center Leaders Fellowship.