Ambassador Kitano's Speech "Why Japan Matters?" (12 February 2021)

(Speech at the launch of UCD Japan Research Centre)
Why Japan Matters?
KITANO Mitsuru
Ambassador of Japan to Ireland
              Thank you very much Dr. Declan Downey for your kind introduction. I thank Dr. Naonori Kodate for kicking off the event. I also thank Professor John Neary for his participation as respondent. I also would like to express my appreciation to my dear friend and colleague Ambassador Paul Kavanagh for his kind remarks.
At the outset, allow me to express my heartfelt congratulations on the establishment of the UCD Japan Research Centre in February last year. I feel extremely honoured to be given this opportunity to speak today to commemorate the launch of the newly established centre.
Although it is a pity that we are not able to get together physically to celebrate this important occasion due to Covid-19, I am delighted to be linked with so many people in Ireland and even beyond who share an interest in Japan. I thank the participants for your presence here.
UCD has traditionally had strong ties with Japan. I learned that they date back to the 1950s when UCD started exchange and collaboration with Waseda University, one of the oldest and most esteemed private universities in Japan, in the area of Irish literature. Given that it was in 1957 that diplomatic relations between Japan and Ireland began, I have no hesitation to say that UCD is one of the pioneers among many Irish organisations and institutions in engaging with Japan.
Therefore, I find it meaningful that the Japan Research Centre was established at this university which has had such a long tradition of engagement with Japan. In this context, I would like to express my deepest respect for the efforts by all the dedicated members and staff of this centre for their valuable work. I also would like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude for the support of the university.
Today’s topic is “Why Japan Matters?” As Japanese Ambassador to Ireland, I have various opportunities to talk about the bilateral relationship between Japan and Ireland. While I sometimes talk to Japanese audiences about “Why Ireland Matters?”, today I am delighted to address our Irish friends from the standpoint of “Why Japan Matters?” In doing so, I would like to approach the topic from three different angles. First, the commonalities between Japan and Ireland. Second, the merit and benefit in engaging with Japan. Third, what Ireland can offer to Japan. Now let me start.
(Commonalities between Japan and Ireland)
First, let me talk about the commonalities between Japan and Ireland. To begin with, I would like to take up geography. It might be rather unconventional to refer to geography as an element connecting our two countries. I have read various books and papers examining the relationship between Ireland and Japan. Many of them start their description by talking about how the two countries are different and apart, and geography is the typical factor in this respect. The two countries are located at opposite ends of the Eurasian continent, separated by a distance of 10,000 kilometres. While Ireland is mostly flat, Japan is mountainous. Our climates are also different. I admit these things.
However, I see important similarities in geography between Ireland and Japan. Both Japan and Ireland are island countries surrounded by sea. Furthermore, Japan and Ireland share the unique characteristic of being located at the margins of a large continent on one side, and facing a big ocean on the other side. You can also add that both countries have in common that it is the United States of America, which is located at the end of that big ocean.
From my standpoint, this geographical situation is an important determinant in the basic orientation of the two countries. Because of this geographical trait, we could never be a land power, like Prussia or Russia. We are basically maritime countries, like Venice in medieval Italy, who attached importance to trade and diplomacy. We value being connected to the rest of the world. We like seeing the world safe and stable. We are committed to the principle of openness.
Now let me turn to history as another area of commonality. Here also, conventional wisdom is that the two countries are very much different in history. While Ireland experienced a history of British rule for over seven hundred years, Japan has not been under foreign rule for most of the time. Ireland is unique in that its experience of the Great Famine in the 19th century left a significant mark on its history. Japan is also singular in its period of national seclusion from the beginning of the 17th Century to the middle of the 19th Century. I also admit these things.
Nevertheless, here also, I find some important commonalities. Both Japan and Ireland have a long history. When Ireland joined the League of Nations in 1923, W. T. Cosgrave, then Taoiseach, called Ireland “one of the oldest and yet the youngest nations.” As for Japan, while the starting point of Japan as a nation is a subject of controversy, few would question that it has a history of thousands of years. Given that we both have a long history, we are both proud of having our own unique national cultures, such as hurling and Gaelic football in Ireland and “sumo” wrestling in Japan. Having one’s own unique culture and long history allows us to respect each other’s history and culture.
I also would like to draw your attention to the fact that both countries also have commonalities in economic history. Ireland and Japan both experienced a rapid economic development, the bursting of a bubble economy and recovery from economic distress. Both of us experienced these ups and downs within a rather limited time span. Through these experiences, both of us have learned some common lessons. “Economic policy matters.” “We have to adapt to the changing external environment.” “It is important to invest for the future.” “Human resources are essential.” These are the things we commonly learned. Being scarce in natural resources, we both believe in the importance of self-reliance.
Another area I would like to touch upon in my itemisation of commonality is basic values. I know this is another area people have acknowledged difference between Ireland and Japan. Christianity is an important part of Irish life, while the strong influence of Buddhism is observed in Japan’s culture. I have no objection to this point.
However, if we think of such basic values as freedom, democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law, we are very much akin to each other. Both Ireland and Japan are strongly committed to these basic values. Under the current international situation, sharing these values is becoming more and more precious.
Allow me to quote what the Taoiseach Micheál Martin said last month at the Institute of International and European Affairs (IIEA). He said “the need for strong, rules-based structures to guide how countries behave is being challenged on many fronts. …And core values including the fundamentals of democracy are under attack in many places.”
One of the indicators often cited for evaluating the world situation for democracy and freedom is the annual report of international NGO, Freedom House. Its most recent report in March last year observed a world-wide retreat of freedom and democracy for the 14th consecutive year. The report asserts that the principles of liberal democracy in Europe, historically the best-performing region in the world, have been under serious pressure in recent years. The situation is bleaker in Asia. The same report pointed out that political rights and civil liberties declined overall in Asia, as authoritarian rulers showed their disdain for democratic values.
 Unfortunately, we can see such basic values as freedom, democracy, respect for human rights, and the rule of law are becoming more and more of a scarcity in the world. Against this background, I am of the view that shared commitments to these values by Ireland and Japan is of great importance. As a matter of fact, it provides the basis of our common readiness for open economies, free trade, multilateralism and realisation of peace. From my standpoint, it is quite natural that our two countries share the same basic stance on these issues, given the common geographical characteristics I mentioned earlier.
Some may think that this issue of basic values is an issue of world politics, and wonder how it would concern the activities of businesses or individuals. My sense is that whether you share these basic values with certain countries matters a lot, if you would like to forge a long-term stable relationship with those countries. Without sharing these values, you might run the risk of being ambushed or surprised by an event unthinkable in your own value system. Therefore, I am of the view that sharing these values can be a good basis for having a long-term stable relationship and working together.
(Merit and benefit in engaging with Japan)
Up until now I have been itemising several commonalities between the two countries. You can find several other countries with whom Ireland has commonalities. Then, why does Japan matter? From here, I would like to talk about the merit and benefit of engaging with Japan.
Japan is located in the dynamic Asia-Pacific region. As is often pointed out, one of the important trends in recent international relations is the rising prominence of the Asia-Pacific region in the world. In 1980, the share of the Asia-Pacific region’s GDP globally, at current prices, was approximately 20%. According to the IMF, this is set to double to over 40% by 2025. Under the economic distress caused by Covid-19, the Asia-Pacific is the region that is recovering the most rapidly.
In world politics, more and more attention is being paid to the tensions between the U. S. and China. The Economist magazine mentioned “US-China tensions” as the fourth ranking issue among ten trends to watch in 2021. The Eurasia Group also listed the same issue as the fourth highest among top ten risks for 2021. Hotspots of their rivalry is in East Asia.
The Government of Ireland also recognises the importance of this region. In their pursuit to realise Global Ireland, the Irish Government formulated a strategy focusing on this region in January last year. It is a document entitled “Global Ireland: Delivering in the Asia Pacific Region to 2025.” I presume that the acknowledgement of importance of this region led the Irish Government to formulate this regional strategy.
In this Asia-Pacific region, Japan occupies a considerable weight. Japan is the second biggest economy in the Asia-Pacific region, next to China. The share of Japan’s GDP in the Asia-Pacific region as a whole is estimated to be around 16% as of 2020. Japan is also home of such global corporations as Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Canon and Sony. Looking at the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) flow to Ireland from the Asia-Pacific region, Japan is the biggest source of accumulated investment as of 2019.
While economic size is important, values also matter. As I mentioned earlier, shared values can be a good basis for having a long-term stable relationship and working together. With this, Japan can be an ideal gateway if you plan to make an outreach to the dynamic Asia-Pacific region.
Another merit and benefit to engage with Japan is related to challenges we commonly confront. The global community is facing various challenges. The pandemic, global warming, terrorism, and adaptation to new technology, to name a few. Among them, one serious challenge for many countries, particularly among advanced countries, is the issue of an aging society. In this context, Japan can be considered a frontrunner in facing this challenge. Japan is one of the most aged society in the world with a median age of forty-eight years old, while the equivalent in Ireland is thirty-eight. The median age is the age we are given when we divide a population into two groups of the same size, namely half the people younger than a certain age and half older. It is a single index that summarises the age distribution of a population.
As is well known, an aging population presents various difficult tasks for the society. How to finance the skyrocketing cost for pension and medical care for the aged population? How to come up with much-needed human resources who can provide care services to aged people? How to make use of the vitality of the retired population? The reason why I mention Japan as the “frontrunner to face the challenges” is that Japan is tackling these issues ahead of other countries.
In 1990, thirty years ago, Japan’s median age was thirty-seven, almost the same as that of Ireland now. At that time, Ireland’s median age was even younger and it was only twenty-eight. Therefore, it might be the case that Ireland will experience the same kind of evolution of society following in the footsteps of Japan, although the speed of such a change is difficult to predict at this stage.
I would not claim we are successful yet in dealing with these challenges. We have had to discover things by various trials and errors. However, it is certain that Japan can provide lessons learned from its own experience as the “frontrunner to face the challenges” which can be useful for Ireland.
(What Ireland can offer to Japan)
In addition to what I have talked about, I have another reason to make a pitch for Japan. That is what Ireland can offer to Japan. In thinking about the comparison between Japan and Ireland, I feel Ireland has lot to offer to Japan.
One thing is entrepreneurial spirit. I know that Irish people are inclined to having a frontier spirit and disposed to start new things. Ireland is a country with tens of millions of people of Irish descent around the world. Those who left the country as diaspora were those who had a vigorous frontier spirit to pave a new way forward, while many of them were obliged to choose that option. Now, Ireland is one of the countries most active in start-ups, supported by such a frontier spirit. It is one of the sources of dynamism of the Irish economy. Now that the world is changing rapidly both economically and socially, creating new business is becoming more and more important. While Japan’s economy is large in size, the Irish economy is vibrant and dynamic. My view is that this vigorous entrepreneurial spirit is one of the things Japan badly needs. In Japan, we have JETRO, a semi-governmental organisation to support business. One of JETRO’s priority areas is to shore up innovation startups. I am convinced that entrepreneurial spirit is one of the things Ireland can offer to Japan.
The other thing Ireland can offer to Japan is open-mindedness to diversity. Ireland is a country which has forbearance towards diversity. In my humble understanding, this open-mindedness to diversity is also related to the experiences of their compatriots who have emigrated to other countries, particularly in the 19th century during the time of the Great Famine. Their exposure to different social environments and cultures is no doubt one of the backgrounds of this openness. My sense is that, in this respect, much has changed in Irish society in the past decades. Irish society has moved to embrace differences and diversity, leaving behind an era when a certain way of thinking dominated the people’s way of life. It is illustrative to note that, in Ireland, the process to embrace diversity has overlapped the process of its economy gaining dynamism. In order to advance innovation or creativity, open-mindedness to embracing difference is important. In my view, this is another thing Ireland can offer to Japan.
I also would like to add the policy initiatives of Japan’s new Prime Minister, SUGA Yoshihide. He advanced the idea to promote two things - one is digital transformation and the other is realisation of a green society. I am of the view that Ireland has much to offer to Japan in these two areas.
As we have discussed commonalities between our two countries, merits and benefits in engaging with Japan as well as things Ireland can offer to Japan, now I hope you understand why I claim Japan matters.
The Government of Ireland also attaches importance to enhancing relations with Japan. The “Ireland House Tokyo” project, to upgrade the Irish Embassy in Japan together with local offices of other governmental agencies is now underway. This project represents the biggest capital investment overseas since the beginning of Irish diplomacy about one hundred years ago. This testifies to the significance that the Irish Government attaches to its relations with Japan.
The whole world has been facing the tremendous challenge of Covid-19 for almost a year. Our activities are still severely constrained by this pandemic. However, for me, even Covid-19 indicates the possibility of collaboration between our two countries. In June last year in Dáil Éireann, Mr. Simon Coveney, then Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, referred to countries Ireland had excellent cooperation with to secure essential medical equipment. Japan was one of the countries Mr. Coveney specifically mentioned. I am delighted that Japan had something to offer to Ireland at this time of crisis. Further, cyber space has become an important tool of communication, as we are linked online today. I presume it will continue to be so, even after humanity overcomes this pandemic. Then, the geographical distance of 10,000 kilometres between our two countries will be of less importance. It is not difficult to be connected to Japan, as we have some participants all the way from Japan right now.
I suppose there are many areas our two countries can collaborate with each other. Preparing for an aged society, supporting startups, realising a digitalised society, moving toward a green society, and promoting common basic values, to name a few. Looking back at the history of the relationship between our two countries, in December 2013, a Joint Declaration by Mr. ABE Shinzo, then Prime Minister of Japan and Mr. Enda Kenny, then Taoiseach of Ireland, was issued to launch the partnership between Japan and Ireland. It is one of my priorities that this document, formulated seven years ago, will be updated with a view to mapping out the future orientation of our partnership for the years to come. This is a forward-looking exercise that I would like to attach importance to this year.
I stand ready to work hard to enhance the bonds between our two countries. I would be delighted if today’s talk helps you to understand the importance of the relationship between Japan and Ireland.

The video of Ambassador's Kitano's speech and the entire UCD Centre for Japanese Studies Launch Webinar can be viewed at the following link on the UCD Japan YouTube channel: