Friday, September 24, 2010

Japan & Israel

Shalom Japan

Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is in Tokyo this week for meetings with Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada. Lieberman wants more robust Japanese pressure on Tehran to halt its quest for nuclear weapons. His arrival follows a visit only last month by deputy premier Dan Meridor, who is responsible for intelligence matters.

Japan continues to dialogue with Iran and has emphasized that any resolution of the Iranian nuclear conundrum must be diplomatic. In a recent telephone conversation with his Iranian counterpart, Okada urged the Islamic Republic to honor UN Security Council Resolutions by ending uranium enrichment.

Lieberman's other main goal will be strengthening economic ties between Israel and Japan. The two countries established diplomatic relations in 1952. Only in recent years have visits exchanged by high-ranking officials become routine. Since the 1993 Oslo Accords and the weakening of the Arab boycott, economic ties between Israel and Japan have blossomed. Tokyo has backed Israel's pending admission, this year, into the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in the face of strenuous opposition by the Palestinian lobby. Israel does $3.4 billion of business a year with Japan, the country's second biggest East Asian trading partner behind China. By contrast, Japanese trade with Iran, mostly crude oil, stands at about $14 billion a year.

Japan's attitude toward the Palestinian-Israel conflict parallels those of EU countries sympathetic toward Israel. Tokyo condemned a recent rocket attack from Gaza which claimed the life of a foreign worker from Thailand. More categorically, however, it "deplored" Israeli housing construction plans over the Green Line. And like the EU, Japan has funneled millions of aid dollars to the Palestinian Authority.

One of Israel's leading Japan experts, Hebrew University professor Ben-Ami Shillony, has speculated that the new Hatoyama administration would take a more pro-Arab stance, perhaps going so far as to recognize Hamas. To date, however, Japan has taken its lead from the Obama administration regarding the Islamists. Sentiment among the Japanese intelligentsia also mimics European thinking. The country's largest conservative newspaper, Yomiuri recently sympathized with the Arab claim that it was hypocritical to focus on Iran's nuclear program when Israel remains a non-signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Likewise, Japanese newspapers have urged Hamas to end its "resistance" while calling for greater flexibility from Israel.

Culturally, anti-Jewish sentiment has coexisted with philo-Semitism in the popular Japanese imagination. Some trace this phenomenon to a 19th century Scottish missionary who promulgated the notion that the Japanese were descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel. After WWI, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion forgery made its way to Japan further bewildering a society that had little exposure to Jewish civilization. Its World War II alliance with Berlin notwithstanding, Japan did not pursue Nazi-like policies toward Jews who came under its power.

Would greater people-to-people contact benefit mutual understanding? The Israeli pop group Hadag Nachash was warmly welcomes in Japan last year. Increasing numbers of Japanese tourists, including Christian Zionists, have been visiting Israel. Tourism is hampered, however, by the absence of direct flights between the countries. The Japanese embassy in Tel Aviv is working with East Asian Studies majors at Jerusalem's Hebrew University to introduce Japanese society to Israeli high-school students. The need for a parallel program in Japan is probably no less great.

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