In July 2014, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe embarked on a historic 11-day tour of five countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, culminating in the first summit between Japan and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). CARICOM is an organization of states and dependencies in the Caribbean with a total of 28 members, associate members, and observers. At the 2014 summit held in Port of Spain, Trinidad, Abe affirmed Japan’s commitment to “more proactively” promoting “peace, stability and prosperity” in the region.
After a brief slump during the 1990s, Japan has vigorously begun to re-engage with Caribbean nations in recent years. According to Abe, this new era of Caribbean engagement will be founded upon “three pillars”: sustainable development, cultural exchange, and geopolitical cooperation.
The renewable energy expertise, cutting-edge technology, and unique, bottom-up approach to investment which Japan brings to the table presents new possibilities for growth and development in the region.
A Renewable Energy Future: The First Pillar
Over the course of his premiership, Abe’s government has strongly promoted and heavily invested in renewable energy, both in Japan and abroad. In 2014, Tokyo announced that it is investing $15 million in eight Caribbean countries aimed at mitigating the impact of climate change, reducing emissions, and ending overdependence on foreign oil.
These funds, along with the transfer of advanced, low-emission technologies from Japan will assist community-based pilot projects in the Caribbean dedicated to improving agricultural production and sustainability, building environmentally friendly infrastructure, and generating energy from renewable sources. Japan has already committed training, equipment, and technical assistance to facilitate the creation of solar farms, wind farms, and geothermal plants in St. Kitts and Nevis, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago. Japanese aid is also going toward developing flood-hazard maps, disaster early warning systems, and effective flood control measures to improve resiliency to hurricanes and floods, to which the Caribbean is especially vulnerable.
This partnership is expected to create jobs and improve livelihoods for residents across the Caribbean, especially given that high energy costs, resulting from dependence on foreign oil, are having a seriously damaging impact on many Caribbean residents and substantially hindering economic growth.
Though not explicitly mentioned in Abe’s address, Japan has also made significant contributions to reducing poverty and improving the quality of life in traditionally underserved Caribbean communities.
Tokyo has invested in increasing rice production and combating groundwater contamination in Cuba; teaching poor farmers in the Dominican Republic new agricultural techniques and alternative fertilization methods; providing rural fishermen in Grenada and Trinidad with more advanced equipment and techniques; and increasing employability and skills training programs for inner-city and disabled youth in Jamaica.
Trans-Pacific Tomodachi: The Second Pillar
In addition to his commitments to sustainable development in the region, Abe has expressed his admiration for Caribbean contributions and successes in the fields of academics, music, and sports, and pledged to “dramatically expand” cultural and educational exchanges with Caribbean countries. His government has issued a grant of nearly $200,000 to the University of the West Indies — a public university system serving 18 Caribbean countries — for the expansion of Japanese language education.
In 2015 Japan nearly doubled the number of slots open to students and college graduates from the Caribbean in its state-sponsored Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program. Participants in the JET program are brought to Japan and serve as assistant English-language teachers or sports education advisers at schools there, and are paid salaries for their work. Last year, more than 150 students from the Caribbean took part in the program.
Furthermore, the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT), offers scholarships for students from ten Caribbean countries to study at universities in Japan. MEXT program participants are provided with round-trip airfare, tuition exemption, and a monthly stipend during the period of their study.
As the Japanese government expands opportunities for students from the Caribbean to study and work in Japan, it is also making significant investments in improving the quality education within the region. In Haiti and the Dominican Republic, it has funded projects aimed at improving elementary school mathematics instruction by providing teachers with new materials and lesson plans. In Jamaica, Japan funded the renovation and expansion of at least five aging school buildings between 2014 and 2015, and contributed to expanding educational opportunities for the island’s special needs children.
Caribbean nations have by no means been idle recipients in this relationship. In the past year, Jamaica and Trinidad have both moved to increase tourist traffic from Japan through presentations at tourism expos in Tokyo and collaboration with cruise lines.
Geopolitical Cooperation: The Third Pillar
Despite their dynamic cultural presence, Caribbean nations are physically and economically small on the world stage. They are however, at their most powerful on the floor of the United Nations General Assembly.
In his address to CARICOM, Abe announced that Japan intends to strengthen cooperation with Caribbean countries at the United Nations in its efforts to reform the UN Security Council. Japan has been a fervent critic of the current format of the Security Council, in which only the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China have permanent membership with veto power. In addition to its own permanent seat, Japan is calling for one representing the continent of Africa.
At a meeting in Tokyo with CARICOM representatives in November 2014, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida announced that CARICOM members will support Japan’s efforts at the United Nations. For their part, CARICOM’s representatives have called on Japan to represent their interests in international organizations to which Caribbean countries currently lack access, such as the G7, G20, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
In its re-engagement with the Caribbean community, Japan introduces a unique approach to foreign investment, one that other investors, state and private, should take notice of. This is how investment in the developing world should look in the 21st century, with emphases placed on sustainability, environmental protection, uplifting the underserved, and fostering mutual cultural understanding and respect.
A longer version of this piece was published by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.
Andrew Lumsden is a Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a Washington D.C.-based think tank addressing issues facing Latin America and the Caribbean as well as the regions’ relationship with the United States. He is also an International Affairs and Global Justice Master’s Degree student at the City University of New York: Brooklyn College