September 18, 2019

Japan and Israel are invested in having strong ties, former ambassador says

When Israel’s ambassador to Japan took the stage at a special dinner on May 15 in Beverly Hills, the 65th anniversary of the first diplomatic ties between the two countries, she had a historic surprise.

Ruth Kahanoff had done some homework. Having unearthed the minutes of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs Committee from 65 years ago, she read from then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s remarks to the Knesset committee.

“Like us, [the Japanese] have no natural resources,” she read “and have managed to achieve great things only with human spirit and wisdom, excellence, hard work. We should be friends.”

The dinner, hosted by the American Jewish Committee (AJC), cast a spotlight on a partnership between that has come a long way since Ben-Gurion’s pronouncement in 1952. The event honored Hideo Sato, Japan’s former ambassador to Israel and a longtime booster for cooperation between the two nations.

In an interview earlier that day, Sato cleared his throat before launching into a history of his personal ties with Israel.

“Where shall I begin?” he said.

His love affair with Israel starts with an actual love affair. He was living in Athens in the summer of 1976 when a Japanese woman brought him a letter of introduction from a mutual friend, an Israeli student whom they had tutored separately in Japanese while living in Tokyo. Soon, the two were married. In 1977, they traveled to Israel to visit that mutual friend, who by then was back in Tel Aviv. The newlyweds were enamored of the place and moved there.

Sato described his early years there as his “best time and experience in Israel,” even as he and his wife struggled as new immigrants to establish their new life. Then in 1985, while working toward a master’s degree in classical studies at Tel Aviv University, he was recruited by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, launching a long career in foreign service that culminated in his ambassadorship to Israel.

His diplomatic career evolved alongside the relationship between the two countries.

In the 40 years since Sato first arrived in Tel Aviv, the Japanese-Israeli relationship has improved considerably, he said.

Today, he said, “I would say it’s excellent. If you compare the relationship today with that of, let’s say, even 10 years ago, 20 years ago — it’s hard to imagine.”

Japan was the first Asian country to establish ties with Israel. But the distance of half a globe always  strained the relationship, Sato said. Moreover, while the lack of any appreciable Jewish population in Japan meant there has been little anti-Semitism, it also sometimes results in “a lack of understanding” between the two countries, he said.

So, by 1988, three years after Sato arrived back in Tokyo, the relationship had soured. The long years of the Arab boycott against the Jewish state had made Japanese businessmen hesitant to work in Israel, fearful that they would alienate the much larger Arab market. Anti-Semitic literature, such as “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” was in vogue in Japan.

That year, “while other American organizations were just criticizing Japan, the AJC decided to send its delegation to talk with us, to see what’s happening and to see whether it’s true or not,” Sato said.

Sato was among the Japanese statesmen who received the delegation, which included current AJC Chief Executive David Harris.

“The ensuing friendship, which I have always cherished, is the reason why I’m here this evening,” Sato said at the dinner.

Sato, 68, received the Madeline and Bruce Ramer Award for Diplomatic Excellence, honoring his “decades long dedication and accomplishments in strengthening the Japan and Israel relationship … and deepening the ties of friendship between Japan and the Jewish people,” according to the award’s inscription.

During his ambassadorship, Sato presided over a number of benchmarks in the relationship. In 2013, he celebrated the dedication of the Jericho Agro Industrial Park, an economic development project to support small Palestinian businesses, which Japan has funded with hundreds of millions of dollars. In 2014, he oversaw the signing of the “Joint Statement on Building a New Comprehensive Partnership” by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, committing to stronger economic and military ties.

Since Sato returned to Japan from his post in Tel Aviv, investment in Israel from Japan has exploded from 5 billion yen to 22 billion yen (or about $45 million to nearly $200 million), and visits back and forth by government ministers have been frequent.

The recipe for economic cooperation between the two countries is simple, according to Sato: “Israel is not a manufacturing country. We are. So, we buy a lot of technologies. And so, here I see a lot of potential between the two countries.”

Sato also is committed to the idea that Japan can help create peace in the Middle East by fostering economic stability for the Palestinians and by helping create conditions for negotiations to proceed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

During his address at the AJC dinner, he hinted that the Japanese and Israeli people may be more than just friends — they might be family.

“There are scholars, both Japanese and Jewish, who claim that the Japanese are one of the lost tribes,” he said. “If that were true, we would have to add 127 million to the current world Jewish population.” n