Through a dirty, misty morning haze, Ajloun castle rises up over the north Jordanian town of the same name. In a cold classroom, a pair of Japanese teachers lead a class of five and six year-olds through a song well known to any Japanese child. “Ito maki maki,” they sing. “Ito maki maki. Hite hite. Ton ton ton.”
Ai Matsui, one of the teachers, has been living and teaching in Ajloun for 14 months and will be here for 10 more before heading back to her teaching job in Tokyo. She seems to be enjoying the experience, and says she’s developed a taste for mansaf, a local dish of lamb with milk and rice.
She’s one of a small number of Japanese in Jordan – there are only around 300 in all, including diplomatic staff. An hour or so up the road in Irbid, several others are teaching children in a Palestinian refugee camp. Like Matsui, they are volunteers for the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).
Japan doesn’t have a particularly deep history in the Middle East, but its economic prosperity is closely tied to the region. Some 90 percent of Japan’s oil comes from the Middle East, according to the Yomiuri Shimbun, so it has a vested interest in promoting stability. The way it has chosen to do so is via such volunteer programs mixed with development aid.
“The Middle East is economically important for Japan,” says Tanaka Toshiaki, chief representative of JICA in Jordan. “That’s a basic reason why we’re involved in the area. But it’s also important to keep peace. Once peace goes, then everything is affected.”
Across the region, JICA has a network of offices, supporting projects ranging from an agro-industrial park in Jericho and a maternal and child healthcare drive in Ramallah in the West Bank, to educating refugees in the north of Jordan and a museum in Karak further south.
Indeed, it’s Japan’s lack of history in the region that allows it to embark on the extensive program it has developed. As an example, Toshiaki points to a Japanese-funded program to send Jordanian farmers to Israel to learn about farming in dry conditions. Once they return home they in turn train others. JICA has sent around 100 people so far.
“This kind of cooperation can be achieved because we are seen as being between the two sides,” he says. “We can enhance trust. If the U.S. tried to do this program it might not work as well because people would feel the U.S. has political intentions.”
In many ways, Japan’s policy is an object lesson in the use of soft power, using its skills and finance to encourage cooperation between communities and across borders. The key idea underpinning the policy is a concept known as the Corridor of Peace and Prosperity, which was developed by Japanese diplomat Hideaki Yamamotoin 2006. This tries to encourage greater regional cooperation which, it is hoped, will lead to economic growth, greater trust and eventually peace.