Tokyo, Asharq Al-Awsat—During the recent three day official visit of Saudi Crown Prince, Deputy Premier and Defense Minister Salman bin Abdulaziz to Tokyo, several Japanese officials were struck by a cadre of young Saudis who spoke fluent Japanese. “Who are these young people?” one Japanese foreign ministry official asked me. “Can we hire them?” he joked.
More than 500 Saudi students are currently engaged in studies across Japan as part of the King Abdullah scholarship program, one of the most ambitious worldwide scholarship programs in the world today. Japan is still a niche destination for Saudi students in a program with 150,000 students, the vast majority of whom choose to study in the United States. Still, the Saudi students in Japan played a surprisingly big role in the visit of the Crown Prince, serving as official and unofficial translators in dozens of meetings.
But the Saudi students also played a soft diplomatic role as unofficial ambassadors: their presence helped reassure Japan that Riyadh views its relations with Tokyo as a long-term, strategic one, rather than a merely commercial exchange of oil from the Kingdom and high-tech goods and cars from Japan. “We hope to see even more students,” the foreign ministry official told me. “We welcome them as the future of Saudi-Japan relations.”
The visit of Crown Prince Salman comes amid a time of anxiety in Japan as it grapples with a sluggish economy seemingly immune to robust stimulus measures, a rising and increasingly militaristic China on its doorstep, and open questions about the commitment of it most important global ally—the United States. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has also come under fire, particularly in the Western media and from the Obama Administration, for what are seen as “nationalistic” stances that stir memories of Japan’s aggression in the early 20th century. An official visit to a Japanese war shrine elicited an expression of official “disappointment” from Washington.
In a reflection of this anxiety, a Japanese academic joked with me during my stay: “Why are you here in Tokyo? Did you get lost on your way to Beijing?” The joke reflected Japan’s anxiety about US policy toward its Asian ally amid a view here among many members of its foreign policy elites that President Barack Obama’s administration is losing interest in a relationship that has formed the cornerstone of US policy in the Asia-Pacific for more than five decades, and amid the American corporate rush to China.
“The world sees Japan as old and static, while China is new and exciting,” the academic explained, “and the Obama Administration, despite all of their talk about the US-Japan alliance, spends far more effort on the China relationship.” Whether accurate or not, it was a sentiment I heard often in three days of talks with government officials, academics, businessmen and members of civil society. One Japanese journalist put it blankly: “The famed ‘Asia pivot’ of the US is seen here as more talk than reality.”
Japanese society seems also to have internalized the dominant narrative in the Western media, of a country that has lost its way, facing persistently sluggish growth amid a hopelessly aging society, that is losing out in competition to its more nimble, young and economically dynamic neighbors, such as China and South Korea. In this reading of things, Japan is “old Asia,” while China, South Korea, and some of the high-growth Southeast Asian states are “new Asia.”
Like most dominant media narratives, this reading should be challenged robustly. We should not let the “new and shiny” high-growth Asian economies obscure the fact that Japan is still the third largest economy in the world, with some 60 companies on the global Fortune 500 list.
One of those companies, Toyota Motor Corporation, is the eighth most valuable company in the world, its revenues exceeding “new economy” stars such as Apple and South Korea’s Samsung Electronics, and even oil and auto giants like Chevron of the US and Volkswagen of Germany. Toyota also happens to have a historic relationship with the Jeddah-based Abdullatif Jameel Group that spans decades and continents. The Abdullatif Jameel Group, headed by CEO Mohammed Abdullatif Jameel, operates Toyota dealerships across the world, including in Japan itself, and distributes cars from Morocco to Turkey.
The Toyota relationship with Abdullatif Jameel Group is the model of a strategic relationship, where both sides have grown organically with each other. It is not simply a relationship of a country “agent” distributing cars at home, but a strategic one that continues to grow as the demand for cars rises worldwide. The Abdullatif Jameel partnership, like the Saudi students, represents an important component of soft diplomacy. As for official diplomacy, Saudi Ambassador to Japan, Abdulaziz Al-Turkestani, a fluent Japanese speaker, is highly regarded in diplomatic circles.
Japan should not be written off as “old Asia” so easily. It is also one of the most consequential foreign investors in the world. If Japan began to sell it’s more than one trillion dollars of US Treasury debt, the world would shake. Indeed, Japan is so important to the global economy that it is “too big to fail.”
Japan also possesses a unique intangible: a hard-working society that should be seen as a model of civility. During a recent earthquake, vending machines began giving out drinks for free. No one abused this privilege. Everyone lined up patiently, and took only one drink. There was no looting. This is a society that I would bet on.
Let us not forget what this society is capable of. Japan’s post World War II economic rise should be remembered for what it is: one of the greatest national economic success stories of the modern era. In the mid to late 1940s Japan was still simmering with nuclear radiation from the US bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, its rural population starving in some areas, its cities battered and beaten, its military humiliated, its national psyche shattered, and a US military occupation calling all the shots. Over the next five decades, in what can only be called a miracle of national development, Japan began to methodically rise to become the second largest economy in the world, only recently overtaken by China.
But in terms of national development and real per capita GDP, Japan far outpaces China, and its companies from Toyota to Sony to Honda to Mitsubishi and Mitsui are global icons and technology and industrial giants. They may not have the distinction of being “new” and exciting, but they are competing on a global level in cut-throat environments with little state support. All economies, government, and societies in the Middle East can learn from Japan’s historic rise.