The Press

Valued relationsh­ip with Japan needs rekindling

- ❚ Simon Draper is the executive director of the Asia New Zealand Foundation, a non-profit organisati­on focussed on New Zealand-Asia relations. SIMON DRAPER

I’ve just returned from a visit to Japan as part of Prime Minister Bill English’s delegation – his first visit to Asia as PM.

I was the only representa­tive from an NGO to travel as part of the delegation, and the Japanese I met remarked how good it was to see the Asia New Zealand Foundation included.

They viewed it as an acknowledg­ement that the Japan-New Zealand relationsh­ip is about more than just selling stuff.

You might say that Japan was New Zealand’s launchpad into Asia. The remarkable growth in the Japanese economy in the 1970s and 1980s transforme­d the way New Zealand interacted with Asia, particular­ly after Britain joined the EU in 1973.

Here in New Zealand, Japanese culture is often the first Asian culture Kiwis have encountere­d. In fact, you might even argue the Japan-New Zealand relationsh­ip is a textbook example of how New Zealand’s internatio­nal relations should look. The foundation’s Perception­s of Asia

and Asian Peoples survey has consistent­ly shown that New Zealanders feel more warmly about people from Japan than any other Asian country.

We’re often asked why this is. Personally, I think the answer is fairly straightfo­rward – there’s a longer history of investment by Japan in people-topeople links with New Zealand.

Just this month, New Zealand’s former ambassador to Japan and former foundation executive director Phillip Gibson was awarded Japan’s Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Star in recognitio­n of his contributi­ons towards promoting friendship.

New Zealand enjoys a breathtaki­ng array of exchanges – cultural, educationa­l, scientific and sporting – with Japan. We have 44 sister city relationsh­ips.

And the culture enriches our lives in New Zealand in ways that we often take for granted – from Toyota and Nintendo to sushi restaurant­s and karate clubs.

If you attended Wellington’s Festival of Japan last year, you’ll know that many a young Kiwi has become immersed in the Japanese worlds of cosplay (costume play), manga and anime.

Foundation staff and members of our leadership network often point to a visiting Japanese homestay student or a school exchange sparking this very first interest in Asia.

Japan’s economic boom was accompanie­d by a boom in Japanesela­nguage learning. For a time in the 1980s and 1990s, it was the most popular language in New Zealand high schools.

Equally, the number of Japanese studying in New Zealand surged in the 1990s, and Japan became our secondlarg­est source of tourists.

The Japanese government also invested in initiative­s like the JET English teaching programme and the JENESYS exchange programme. New Zealand became one of the first four partners of JET in 1987.

In the three decades since, hundreds of New Zealanders have taught English in Japan through JET – a particular­ly attractive path in the 1990s when the strong yen helped our university graduates to reduce their student loan burden.

Times have changed. Japan isn’t top of New Zealand’s radar anymore – a fact that has sadly been accompanie­d by a significan­t and worrying decline in the number of students of Japanese language.

But it is still really important. It is New Zealand’s fifth-biggest trading partner, the third-largest source of internatio­nal students, the fourth-largest source of tourists, and the fifth-largest source of foreign direct investment.

Some of the members of the business delegation I travelled with noted that while Japan wasn’t necessaril­y their biggest market by volume, it was their highest-value market. Zespri does 10,000 supermarke­t demonstrat­ions in Japan every year.

Today, Japan isn’t the only significan­t economic player in Asia – it’s now one of several priority Asian countries for New Zealand.

In particular, our interest in Japan has dwindled as China has risen in significan­ce. In Tokyo, our relationsh­ips of ‘‘firsts’’ with China is seen through wary eyes.

Japan often talks about its shared values with New Zealand, our commitment to regionalis­m, globalism and the rules-based order (except where it pertains to large marine mammals).

New Zealand needs to be careful not to take these shared values for granted; to continue investing in the relationsh­ip (including through language learning); and to keep talking to Japan about how it views our role in Asia.

 ?? PHOTO: REUTERS ?? Bill English meets his Japanese counterpar­t, Shinzo Abe in Tokyo last week.
PHOTO: REUTERS Bill English meets his Japanese counterpar­t, Shinzo Abe in Tokyo last week.
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