Valued relationship with Japan needs rekindling
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.