Japan’s Middle East Soft Power

Heavily dependent on oil from the Middle East, Japan has been keen to encourage stability. But there are limits to what Japan’s soft power push can do in the region. Published in The Diplomat, 13 April 2012

Through a dirty, misty morning haze, Ajloun castle rises up over the north Jordanian town of the same name. In a cold classroom, a pair of Japanese teachers lead a class of five and six year-olds through a song well known to any Japanese child. “Ito maki maki,” they sing. “Ito maki maki. Hite hite. Ton ton ton.”

Ai Matsui, one of the teachers, has been living and teaching in Ajloun for 14 months and will be here for 10 more before heading back to her teaching job in Tokyo. She seems to be enjoying the experience, and says she’s developed a taste for mansaf, a local dish of lamb with milk and rice.

She’s one of a small number of Japanese in Jordan – there are only around 300 in all, including diplomatic staff. An hour or so up the road in Irbid, several others are teaching children in a Palestinian refugee camp. Like Matsui, they are volunteers for the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).

Japan doesn’t have a particularly deep history in the Middle East, but its economic prosperity is closely tied to the region. Some 90 percent of Japan’s oil comes from the Middle East, according to the Yomiuri Shimbun, so it has a vested interest in promoting stability. The way it has chosen to do so is via such volunteer programs mixed with development aid.

“The Middle East is economically important for Japan,” says Tanaka Toshiaki, chief representative of JICA in Jordan. “That’s a basic reason why we’re involved in the area. But it’s also important to keep peace. Once peace goes, then everything is affected.”

Across the region, JICA has a network of offices, supporting projects ranging from an agro-industrial park in Jericho and a maternal and child healthcare drive in Ramallah in the West Bank, to educating refugees in the north of Jordan and a museum in Karak further south.

Indeed, it’s Japan’s lack of history in the region that allows it to embark on the extensive program it has developed. As an example, Toshiaki points to a Japanese-funded program to send Jordanian farmers to Israel to learn about farming in dry conditions. Once they return home they in turn train others. JICA has sent around 100 people so far.

“This kind of cooperation can be achieved because we are seen as being between the two sides,” he says. “We can enhance trust. If the U.S. tried to do this program it might not work as well because people would feel the U.S. has political intentions.”

In many ways, Japan’s policy is an object lesson in the use of soft power, using its skills and finance to encourage cooperation between communities and across borders. The key idea underpinning the policy is a concept known as the Corridor of Peace and Prosperity, which was developed by Japanese diplomat Hideaki Yamamotoin 2006. This tries to encourage greater regional cooperation which, it is hoped, will lead to economic growth, greater trust and eventually peace.

At the time, Yamamotowas working in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ economic cooperation bureau, but he’s now Japan’s deputy representative to the Palestinian National Authority. Over a coffee in his Ramallah office, heacknowledges that progress has at times been slow.

“We wanted to show our intention to play a more major role in the region,” he says. “So we originated this concept of creating peace and prosperity in the Middle East, focusing on regional cooperation between Palestine, Jordan and Israel. It was in our mind to expand the corridor in the future to Egypt, but it’s not easy. The peace process didn’t progress; on the contrary it has been [going] backward. We still don’t have peace in this region, but we can start with what we can do.”

Measuring success with all this is difficult. The gains tend to be small and incremental and they are always susceptible to wider political issues.

And not everyone is convinced by the position that Japan and other donor countries are taking. Sam Bahour, a Ramallah-based policy advisor at Palestinian think tank Al-Shabaka, says that much of the donor aid is misdirected. In a January 2012 article in This Week in Palestine, “Palestine’s Economic Hallucination,” he said that what Palestinians need is control of strategic resources such as land, water, roads and borders. However, much of that is directly or indirectly controlled by Israel. For example, 64 percent of land in the West Bank is under Israeli control under the terms of the 1995 Oslo agreement.

“If donors can’t place their efforts where they belong, then they should kindly be asked, by their own people before us, to stop wasting their citizens’ tax dollars by feeding us an illusion of building a Palestinian economy,” he wrote.

There are other locals who support Japan’s approach, however. Reem Najjar, acting general director of the Palestinian Industrial Estates & Free Zone Authority, says she appreciates what Japan has been doing to develop the Jericho Agro-Industrial Park.

“JICA are helping the Palestinian people and country a lot,” she says. “Palestine is an agricultural country. We rely a lot on establishing this very important agro-industrial park.”

In the end, such soft power policies are more about enabling others to take control of their situation than directly forcing through change. Yamamoto is realistic about what can be achieved and how quickly.

“We try to be as pragmatic as possible,” Yamamoto says. “We say to the Palestinians let’s be practical. You have to show what you have done to convince Israel what they have to do. We encourage the Palestinian side to do whatever they can. It’s the reality in this area that things take a long time.”

Back in northern Jordan, the children in the Elementary Girls School No. 2 in the Irbid refugee camp are clear enough about what they want from their future. In another cold classroom, the ambitions of a group of girls include becoming a doctor or a geologist, a chemistry teacher or an engineer. But they all add that they would all like to “return” to Palestine – a country none of them has ever set foot in – rather than work in Jordan.

There are some problems Japan’s soft power diplomacy simply can’t solve.