Japan-Africa Cooperation: World’s Best Kept Secret and Africa’s Game-Changer Pt3

The Philosophy that Guides Japan-Africa Cooperation

A close look at the various projects and meetings linked to Japan-Africa cooperation reveals a certain consistent philosophy or worldview. Japan being the third largest economy in the world, after USA and China, has developed its home-grown philosophy of development and economic growth.  The first pillar of Japan’s development philosophy is Industrialize or perish.”  This philosophy is best exemplified in the massive production of automobiles and electronics.  This is Japan’s core competence.  Japan has engaged the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) to enhance African industrial development. For instance on 25th March 2019, Japan and UNIDO organized an exhibition highlighting their cooperation for African industrial development.  This is a continuation of what UNIDO and Japan have been doing with regard to Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) and The Third Industrial Development for Africa (IDDA 3).  Of course such high-level events are not easily known by the ordinary Africans, not even the popular media reports about them.


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Given Japan’s introverted role in global politics, it does not get bothered by the internal politics of the countries it engages with.  Of great significance is also the fact that Japan was never involved in the colonial or neocolonial projects in Africa.  You hardly hear any one in Africa speaking Japanese.  The brands of Toyota, such as the massively popular Hiluxes and Prados, Mazda, Mitsubishi, notably the Pajeros, Nissan, especially Sunny, Sony, Yamaha, and many others, are the only eloquent symbols of Japan’s economic muscle all over the world, Africa included.  This could be termed the “philosophy of quiet but positive influence in the world.”  You never hear of political statements from Japan about African social political affairs.  The sound from Toyota vehicles is deafening though.  Recall the adage that “Money talks.”


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Japan may not be bothered so much by internal politics, but the Japanese move in cautiously, first and foremost carefully considering the safety of their nationals: be it reconnaissance, negotiating or implementing teams. The Japanese also have an obsession with cultural etiquette, and it drives their communication with other people. As one observer has noted, Japan is a country “where cultural elements can have a profound impact on decision-making and, ultimately, on the effectiveness of a business relationship… Many people (in Japan) assume that what is logical and common practice in our home turf is also ipso facto the right path in the rest of the world.” The Japanese are meticulous with rules, discipline and order, and Africa may largely have fallen short of benefiting from this industrial enthusiasm the Japanese have – instead our markets and streets are largely flooded with used Japanese good and vehicles – mainly because our politics has for decades been caught up in a quagmire of nepotism, tribalism and corruption. These are obvious obstacles to making deals with the Japanese. The Japanese ‘art of the deal’, to borrow the famous Trumpian cliché, will always, perhaps validly, be contrasted with the many and now controversial deals and projects the other Asian Giant China has accomplished in Africa over the last two decades. Many of these deals have not been transparent. Only African heads of state and their senior officials have usually been involved. National regulations have been ignored either for domestic political reasons or due to pressure from a Chinese government hell bent on offloading both its surplus domestically produced materials and its surplus labor force. Even though China is widely appreciated on the African continent as the leading infrastructure finance provider, “yet the public also see negatives: many think Chinese products are poor quality, while there is a growing perception that dealing with China tends to favor Chinese laborers.” There are also widespread fears of the so-called ‘debt-trap’, where African governments face the risk of losing lucrative state assets to china if they fail to repay huge loans advanced by their Chinese lenders.


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Japan will most probably not enter deals that are not transparent. Money spent on projects, domestically or otherwise, will be spent with the kokumin (wananchi in Swahili and citizens in English) in mind. This is reflected in the JICA Volunteer Program, a route the Japanese government has taken since1965, to provide official Japanese technical assistance programs abroad at grassroots level. Which brings us to the other key pillar of Japan’s philosophy of development that informs its cooperation with Africa, namely, a strong commitment to ethical values.  Japan is committed to human-centered sustainable development. This has been emphasized through the Japanese government’s concern for human security by designing projects with UNIDO that benefit those who are neediest and vulnerable, including post-crisis rehabilitation.  Sustainability is reflected in UNIDO-Japan’s multidimensional approach towards a sustainable energy future that fosters sustainable energy solutions that includes climate resilient industries for Africa.  This philosophy of sustainable development is well articulated by Hiroshi Kuniyoshi, the Deputy to the Director General of UNIDO, at the Vienna UNIDO-Japan exhibition on 23rd March 2019: “Japan and UNIDO are proud of a solid and trusted partnership to reduce poverty, and enhance inclusiveness while safeguarding the environment.”  The three focus areas are: poverty reduction, inclusiveness, and environment protection.  To these add the philosophy of partnership and trust.


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Who has not heard about the famous Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, of 11th December 1997? Briefly put, the main objective of Kyoto Protocol that Japan signed in 1998 “…is the stabilization of atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” By this protocol, contracting parties from developed countries committed themselves to the reduction of their combined greenhouse gas emissions by at least 5 percent from the 1990 levels by the period 2008-2012.  Many people know about Tokyo, the capital city of Japan but few people would know that Kyoto is also in Japan.  Kyoto is a Rukiga-Runyankore word for big and extremely hot fire! A nice coincidence that Kyoto Protocol deals with climate change.


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In any development efforts or design of projects the most crucial issue is that of ownership.  How does Japan address this issue? If this issue is not well addressed, development efforts be it aid or investment, can easily create dependence or neocolonialism.  Japan is aware of these pitfalls of development cooperation. Mitsuru Kitano, the Permanent Representative of Japan to the International Organizations in Vienna, said, “It is our strong hope that this exhibition will spark discussions on the strengthening of Africa’s ownership and international partnership. Africa’s industrial development is our common goal, and common future.”  The philosophy that informs Japan’s cooperation with Africa and other regions is well summarized by Akihiko Tanaka, President of JICA in his November message introducing the JICA 2012 Report: “And the central tenet of globalization is that international cooperation is not a one-way street, but rather a broad two-way highroad on which Japan’s own economic and social advancement is inextricably linked with the economic and social health of countries in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, Asia and other regions.”


By Vick Ssali and Odomaro Mubangizi


[i] See Bruna Martinuzzi, “Doing Business in Japan: 10 Etiquette Rules You Should Know.” (https://www.americanexpress.com/en-us/business/trends-and-insights/articles/doing-business-in-japan-10-etiquette-rules-you-should-know/)


[ii] See Folashade Soule, “How African governments should negotiate better infrastructure deals with China” (https://qz.com/africa/1515229/african-governments-should-do-better-china-infrastructure-deals/).


[iii] United Nations, Millennium Summit Multilateral Treaty Framework: An Invitation to Universal Participation, 6-8 2000, p. 80

[iv] JICA 20112, p. 1.

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