Japan, Winning Hearts and Minds
John de Boer (Research Associate, GLOCOM)
The Japanese government has never been good at self-PR. Japan spends billions of dollars annually on peace-building initiatives world-wide and yet rarely receives recognition. Of course, recognition should not be the primary objective, however, for a country that has been mired with headlines that exclaim to the world that Japan is beyond repair and knows not what it is doing, some encouraging news would be welcome. Surprisingly, Japan received just that over the past week regarding three separate projects that it is sponsoring to promote peace and reconciliation between conflicting and/or formerly warring parties.
Japan has long been a primary sponsor of the Middle East Peace Process and has been author to a number of creative and important projects. One of which, has been to invite groups of Israeli and Palestinian youth to Japan for a week to live, play, debate and communicate with each other outside their normal and usually tense environment. Until 1999, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs used to sponsor such a project. However, with the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising (intifada) the project was discontinued. Today, according to the Asahi Shimbun, a similar initiative has sprung up led by a citizen's committee in Kyoto. Yasuo Shikata, the mayor of Ayabe city in Kyoto Prefecture, heads this project which has brought fourteen Israeli and Palestinian teenagers, all of whom have lost relatives in the conflict, to Japan for a week long stay. The project involves two nights where one Palestinian and an Israeli pair up to take part in a home stay program with a Japanese family. Judging from the feedback provided by the participants, Japanese are helping to bridge borders and break down walls of hatred and ignorance as a result. One Israeli participant claimed that he "learned hatred brings nothing". A Palestinian participant realized that "she could be friends with anyone if she wants to understand them". Through this simple and yet creative initiative Japan is changing lives and politics in Israel and Palestine.
The Christian Science Monitor reports that Japan is contributing to a similar dynamic in Cambodia and Vietnam. According to journalists Alex Halperin and Saing Soenthrith, a proposed JICA bridge building project could bring employment and hope to a remote region and help foster reconciliation and promote trade between old rivals Cambodia and Vietnam. The two towns that Japan will connect in building this bridge are named Neak Luong and Kempong Chamlang. These two villages are currently depressed areas where children reportedly play in "piles of garbage" and swim in waste. Hopes are high in both Cambodia and Vietnam that the bridge will promote a "warm connection" between the two formerly warring countries and provide a path towards development and human security for the people who live there.
Finally, Reuters has reported that Japanese governmental officials have succeeded in "kick-starting" the stalled peace talks between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tiger rebels on Sunday by "reiterating Japan's commitment to reconstruction and development" on the island. Talks were suspended in April with many fearing the worst, the collapse of the peace process and a return to conflict. However, Japan has made a major contribution by helping to re-usher in the will to negotiate and putting the talks back on track.
These are merely of few of the hundreds of projects that the Japanese government and Japanese non-governmental agencies are sponsoring. Nevertheless it is a rare sight to find three articles on three different projects sponsored by Japan in major international newspapers during the same week. This should serve to encourage the Japanese people to recognize that they can play a positive role in helping to promote international peace, prosperity and security for all. This should also remind the Japanese government that creative initiatives such as the ones pointed out in this review are helping to win and change the hearts and minds of actors in some of the most prolonged and complicated conflicts in modern history. Japan's contribution to peace, security and development in these troubled areas is noteworthy and should serve as a lesson to the Koizumi Cabinet as it readies Japan's Self-Defense Forces to be sent in to aid the US occupation in Iraq.