Turkey-Japan relations: images and reality

By Atsuko Higashino

Few countries have enjoyed such a problem-free relationship as the one between Turkey and Japan. In Japan, in particular, the public image of Turkey as one of the most pro-Japanese nations in the world has greatly strengthened the Japanese people’s psychological attachment to the country. There are a number of reasons for this – historical, political and economic – and, in recent years, there have been several occasions that have contributed considerably to the reinforcement of a general pro-Turkish feeling in Japan.

History Matters 

History matters greatly in Turkish-Japanese relations and, curiously, it has been disasters – accidents, wars and earthquakes – that have brought the two countries closer together. Painful memories and experiences of mutual assistance have actually worked to renew and reinvigorate their friendship.

In January 2004, for example, the NHK broadcast a documentary program (‘Project-X’) which explained how the Turkish government and Turkish Airlines helped Japanese nationals to leave Iran in the middle of the 1985 Iran-Iraq war. The then-government in Turkey made an extraordinary decision to send a Turkish Airlines aircraft to Tehran in order to help evacuate the roughly 200 Japanese residents who were at risk due to severe air strikes being held by Iraq while the Japanese government failed to make a prompt decision on sending an aircraft to save its own nationals. This caused a huge response in Japan, fortifying an image of Turkey as one of Japan’s most reliable friends. Eventually, in 2006, then-Prime Minister Jun-ichiro Koizumi even ordered the decoration of 11 members of the Turkish Airlines staff who were involved in the rescue operation at that time.

Another significant example of the rooted relationship can be seen in a children’s book that was published in 2003. This novel, based on the tragedy of the Ertugrul Frigate disaster in 1890, described how a frigate from the Ottoman Empire, which sank off the coast of Kushimoto, served as the basis of a deep friendship between Turkey and Japan. This book also touched upon the above-mentioned rescue operation during the Iran-Iraq war, emphasizing the kindness and loyalty of the Turkish people. In the following year, the book was recommended for fifth and sixth grade elementary school pupils who had to write book reviews for a nation-wide annual writing competition. Taking into account the popularity of this writing competition, a large number of Japanese pupils are estimated to have read the book. While this disaster was already quite well-known amongst adults in Japan, the impact of this publication was still significant, as the history of the friendly relationship between the two countries was widely learnt by the younger generations of Japan thanks to this book.

Furthermore, several huge earthquakes that have been experienced by both countries respectively have served to strengthen their ties. Turkey has been remembered as a country that offered wholehearted emergency assistance at the time of the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan made a special web page which featured the activities of the Turkish rescue team, which was sent to the Miyagi prefecture immediately after the earthquake. The website emphasized that out of all the international teams, it was the Turkish one that stayed in the affected area for the longest period of time (almost three weeks). Likewise, it is often proudly remembered that Japan extended emergency assistance to Turkey when the country was hit by huge earthquakes in Izmit in 1999 and in Van in 2011.

It is therefore well known that the two countries have extended assistance to one another in times of serious disaster. These tragic events have served as a catalyst for establishing and reinforcing the relationship between the two countries. The effect of this collaboration was exemplified in 2003 being named the ‘The Year of Turkey’ in Japan and 2010 being named the ‘Year of Japan’ in Turkey, thus bolstering the favorable perspective the two countries have of one another.

Strategic Importance

In addition to these positive public debates concerning the relationship between Turkey and Japan, some Japanese politicians have emphasized the strategic importance of Turkey in world politics, claiming that Japan should strengthen its partnership with Turkey. It remains unchanged that the core of Japanese foreign policy is the US-Japan alliance, but partnerships with other countries have also been actively sought for years in order to widen the scope and potential of Japan’s foreign policy. In this context, Turkey has frequently been mentioned as one of the most promising candidates for such a partnership, especially considering its deep knowledge of and expertise in the workings of the Middle East and Central Asia. Amongst others, it was Taro Aso, Japan’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs, who went on to become Prime Minister, and is now the Minister of Finance in the second Abe Administration, who repeatedly stressed the need for Japan to align with Turkey. In November 2006, for instance, Aso held his famous speech entitled “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity: Japan’s Expanding Diplomatic Horizons” in which he made a strong reference to Turkey:

“… the wisest way for us to go about building these connections is to count on nearby countries with a deep understanding of Japan as a toehold, so to speak. Some examples that immediately spring to mind are Turkey, which is truly a treasure house of knowledge about the Middle East and Central Asia.”

Turkey also is also mentioned in a number of speeches that Aso has made since then. It is often said that Aso has a huge influence over current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and it seems that Abe shares the view that Turkey should be given a central position in his government’s diplomatic pursuits. This idea has been reinforced by the two visits Abe made to Turkey in May and October 2013. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also visited Japan in January 2014. The political relationship between the two countries has intensified rapidly over the past several years.

Flourishing Economic Relationship

This intense political relationship has been underpinned by the strong economic interests shared between the two. The Second Bosphorus Bridge, built in 1988, is a classic example of the economic cooperation between the two countries, and the Marmaray Transportation project which started in October 2013 is yet another fruit of Japanese-Turkish cooperation. Currently, the Japanese government regards the Sinop Nuclear Plant as a vital test case for Japan in its effort to export nuclear plant expertise and technologies to foreign countries after the Fukushima disaster.

Also, the possibility of a Japan-Turkey Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) has been actively sought after. In July 2013, the Report of the Joint Study Group for an EPA between the two countries was published, arguing strongly in favor of the start of negotiations. While this EPA needs to be in line with the ongoing EPA negotiations between the EU and Japan, as well as the already existing EU-Turkey Customs Union, it is widely expected that the potential EPA could further expand and deepen Japanese-Turkish relations. The economic triangle of EU-Japan-Turkey is expected to be formed, while the EPA negotiations between the EU and Japan have been experiencing quite a few obstacles.

Turning Good Images into a Substantial Relationship

As stated above, longstanding favorable images and discussions have underpinned the flourishing political and economic relationship between Turkey and Japan. It is however important to note that there is still ample room for the two to develop their relationship. In other words, a considerable gap between the good, friendly images and the reality is still observable. As Selcuk Colakoglu rightly suggests, Turkey’s trade volume with Japan falls well behind its trade volume with China, India and South Korea, thus making Japan only the fourth biggest economic partner of Turkey in Asia. Also, the diplomatic reality is that Turkey sees China and South Korea as equally important to Japan. This means that, despite the existence of a very favorable pro-Turkish perspective in Japan, Japan is one of the important countries for Turkey, not necessarily the most important one. Favorable images and discussions therefore now have to be matched with reality. Continuous efforts need be made in order to establish a full-fledged political and economic relationship between the two countries.

Atsuko Higashino, PhD, Senior Lecturer at the Graduate School of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Tsukuba, Japan.

Source: JTW

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The Journal of Turkish Weekly

JTW is a respected Turkish news source in English language on international politics. Established in 2004, JTW is published by Ankara-based Turkish think tank International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).

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