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Japan-Israel ties at 70: obstacles and opportunities

With shared democratic values and tech-driven economies, there’s much to be gained by forming a strong alliance between Japan and Israel. However, if Japan sincerely wants to form such an alliance, its government must show that it shares the same values as Israel and the U.S.

Israeli and Japanese flags. Photo by Aritra Deb/Shutterstock.
Israeli and Japanese flags. Photo by Aritra Deb/Shutterstock.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper and Kinue Tokudome

Next year, Japan and Israel will reach a major milestone: 70 years since relations were established between these two unique democracies. In that time, both countries have made immense strides from uncertain times following World War II. Today, in the 21st century, they are both among the most technologically advanced democracies.

As two people who have worked to promote understanding and friendship between Japanese and Jewish people for decades, we enter this anniversary year with great anticipation.

One of us has been building relationships in Japan since the 1980s to increase awareness and educate Japanese people about the Holocaust, Jewish history, and Israel. The other has been writing and translating books and articles about the Holocaust and Jewish people for Japanese audiences for more than 25 years.

We have traveled to Japan many times; met with Japanese government officials as well as Israeli and American ambassadors to Japan; and spoken to the media.

Recently, an interesting article caught our attention. It suggested that Japan and Israel could form a powerful new alliance with the US. This is a wonderful vision that deserves to be pursued.

However, we believe that it is imperative for Japan to first address its long-held position towards Israel that has deeply disappointed those who would support closer ties.

Obstacles to establishing a new alliance

A few months ago, we published an op-ed piece in Japan, calling for Japan’s boycott of the 20th anniversary of the anti-Israel Durban Conference. Disappointingly, Japan went on to attend this anniversary event of the hate-filled antisemitic conference, rather than joining 37 major countries, including all other G7 members, that boycotted it.

Then, on December 1, we were shocked to learn that Japan voted in favor of a resolution at the United Nations General Assembly that referred to the site of King Solomon’s ancient Holy Temple (Temple Mount) as an exclusively Muslim site. The U.S. and other democracies denounced the move and refused to endorse such a resolution which erodes trust that the U.N. will ever have a positive role to play in resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict. Further, many Israelis were incredulous that Japan, a proud ancient people, and culture that zealously reveres and protects its past, would so callously deny the Jewish people the right to protect and celebrate its 3,500-year history.

Japan’s silence on the problem of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) is another concern. Many other groups, including other donor countries, have raised their voices criticizing UNRWA’s corruption and hate education.

Japan also provides direct aid to the Palestinian Authority while failing to openly condemn their “Martyrs Fund” which provides monthly stipends to Palestinians who commit acts of terrorism against Israel and to the families of deceased terrorists. Known as a “pay to slay” scheme, the U.S. has even enacted a law to cease economic aid to the P.A. until it stops paying these stipends.

It’s also well-known that terrorist organizations such as Hamas are backed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s regime in Iran, a regime that has publicly sworn to wipe out the Jewish state. Yet, Japan maintains “historically friendly relationship” with Iran.

Lastly, there are the recurring incidents in Japan’s political and social arenas that reveal shocking ignorance, most notably dabbling with inappropriate references about Nazis and Nazi symbols and even flirting with latter day fascists and Nazis. Such troubling incidents even threatened to mar the opening of Tokyo’s 2020 Olympic Games  and stained the reputation of several Japanese politicians.

Opportunity for partnership

But the good news is that Japanese and Israeli business joint ventures are at an all-time high. Israel is no longer a distant unfamiliar place to Japan but a true partner in the economic sphere. With shared democratic values and tech-driven economies, there’s much to be gained by forming a strong alliance between the two countries, or even one including the U.S.

However, if Japan sincerely wants to form such an alliance, we believe the Japanese government must show that Japan indeed shares the same values as Israel and the U.S. Otherwise, it appears Japan only wants to gain economic advantage, while politically it continues to act in ways that directly threaten Israel’s very existence.

Alliances must be built on trust.

Roadmap to achieving true alliance 

To begin forging a true alliance, we recommend that Japan take the following four proactive steps to reverse the repeated positions they’ve taken against Israel.

First, Japan must reverse its long-held and outdated stance at the U.N. It is no secret that U.N. agencies, especially the Human Rights Council, serially attack the Jewish state. Such reckless behavior bordering on overt antisemitism would eventually change if influential countries like Japan would align with other democracies and vote “no.”

Second, leverage its unique position as a major donor to UNRWA by calling for significant reform and transparency in all areas ranging from its financial malfeasance to blatant anti-peace curriculum foisted on Palestinian children.

Third, if Japan is to claim that it shares the same values as the U.S. and Israel, it must condition its direct aid to the P.A. on ceasing payments through the Martyrs Fund, which incentivizes violence against Israel.

Fourth, it is past due for the Japanese government to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA)’s definition of anti-Semitism and follow its illustrative examples as guidance. As the world witnesses a staggering increase of antisemitic incidents, the IHRA definition has been adopted by major democratic countries, including South Korea, which was the first Asian country to do so last August.

These steps will create the proper foundation for a strong alliance between the two countries.

Finally, it is our belief that the two governments can work closely to deepen and expand the Abraham Accords across the Arab/Muslim world and beyond. Such efforts will also advance Japan’s foremost diplomatic policy, “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” given the traditionally close relations between Israel and Australia and the recently flourishing one between Israel and India.

Forging a new alliance in 2022

We know there is one Japanese hero, the late Chiune Sugihara, who would be smiling down from heaven if the 70th anniversary would spur a new level of cooperation between our peoples. He helped Jews at the time of their most dire of need during the Holocaust. He refused to stay on the sidelines and saved thousands of Jews from certain death.

We believe Japan has much to gain by following the roadmap above. Japan has the opportunity to build a new and dynamic alliance between Japan, Israel and the U.S. In so doing, Japan not only aligns with many other democracies, but it also furthers its own political and business goals while partnering with Israel, an old/new nation that shares similar values. Indeed, establishing a new alliance among these influential democracies can mark a promising new era for these countries and the world.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the Associate Dean and Director of Global Social Action for the Simon Wiesenthal Center. He has been a frequent visitor to Japan since the 1980s. Follow on Twitter @simonwiesenthal

Kinue Tokudome is a Japanese author and translator. Her past publications include, “Courage to Remember: Interviews on the Holocaust,” “The Politics of Memory,” a memoir by Raul Hilberg, and “Dreams Never Dreamed,” a memoir by Rabbi Kalman Samuels. Follow on Twitter @JewsandJapan

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.

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