What is the future of Israeli-Japanese relations?

Relations between Tokyo and Jerusalem have been complex due to Japan’s conflicting interests. What does the future hold?

By: Daniel Krygier, World Israel News

The purpose of Japan’s Prime Minister Abe’s visit to Israel was to strengthen bilateral trade and cooperation while articulating his support for the Iran nuclear deal. In a nutshell, this illustrates the dual nature of Israeli-Japanese relations. Being located at the opposite sides of the Asian continent, Israel and Japan are today modern democracies, proud ancient cultures and technological powerhouses.

Trade relations were for decades kept to the minimum due to Japan’s strict adherence to the Arab boycott of the Jewish state. The reason was simple: Japan was and still is heavily depended on importing oil from Middle Eastern states that remain hostile to Israel. Japan’s support of the Iran deal stems mainly from commercial considerations and Japanese demand for Iranian oil.

Japanese-Israeli relations warmed considerably after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Arab boycott. The emergence of Israel as a leading center for technological innovation made the Jewish state an increasingly attractive destination for Japan and other Asian nations. Tokyo realized that while oil and other natural resources could be acquired in multiple locations, some unique cutting-edge technologies were available only in Israel. Japan’s Middle Eastern policies are therefore guided by its demand for oil from Muslim states and Israeli technologies.

Japanese-Jewish ties: A new phenomenon

Unlike the old European-Jewish relations, Japanese-Jewish ties are mainly a relatively new phenomenon, and knowledge in Japan about Israel and the Jewish people is limited. Unlike Western Europe, Japan does not have large and rapidly growing Muslim communities that influence its Middle Eastern policies. However, securing a steady flow of Middle Eastern fuel is crucial for the Japanese economy. This is the main reason why Japan supports the Iran deal and does not recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

While Japan did commit atrocities during the Second World War in Asia, unlike Europe, it does not have a Holocaust complex, which has often translated into hostile policies towards the Jewish state. Before Islamist terrorism struck the heart of Europe, Israelis frequently felt that Europe had little understanding for the threats that Israel faces. By contrast, Japan has for years been living with a nuclear-armed and menacing North Korean rogue state at its doorstep. Tokyo can therefore easily relate to the Iranian nuclear threat in the Middle East. Despite being separated by a vast distance, North Korea and Iran are interconnected challenges that require an urgent solution.

Trade relations and technological cooperation between Israel and Japan will likely grow dramatically in the future. However, as long as Japan’s economy is heavily dependent on Middle Eastern oil, relations between Tokyo and Jerusalem will remain complex.