Tokyo Report

Japan-Brazil Cooperation: Flawed By Design?

Recent Features

Tokyo Report

Japan-Brazil Cooperation: Flawed By Design?

Despite strong cultural ties, politically and economically Japan-Brazil relations remain stunted.

Japan-Brazil Cooperation: Flawed By Design?
Credit: Agência Brasil

An important piece of Tokyo’s global strategy in public diplomacy was unveiled with the launching of Japan House – a center aimed to brand and foster knowledge about Japanese past and contemporary features around the world. The first branch was inaugurated in São Paulo, Brazil, on May 6; two other cultural venues of the kind are due to open within short time in London and Los Angeles. The symbolic gesture of picking São Paulo for the grand opening of Japan House hints at the value attributed by Japan to its strategic global partnership with Brasília.

Japan currently serves as a home to some 300,000 Brazilian expatriates and, even more impressively, Brazil has the largest Japanese population outside of the archipelago. The state of São Paulo alone accounts for approximately one million Nippon-Brazilian citizens, outnumbering other foreign ethnic groups to have settled in the country – Portuguese, Italians, Bolivians, Koreans, and Poles, for example. There are plenty of successful Brazilians with Japanese heritage in nearly every professional field one evokes – from TV hostess Sabrina Sato and political pundit Luiz Gushiken to world-class artist Tomie Ohtake and sportsman Hugo Hoyama. While Japanese cars and high-tech gadgets are truly appreciated in Portuguese-speaking South America, Brazilian footballers and singers are ever more admired by East Asians.

Despite the surprising and encouraging communion Japan and Brazil may exhibit at the societal level, there’s a mismatch when it comes to trade and diplomacy. If Tokyo and Brasília used to be close and willing to team up, by the 1960s and 1970s, and again in the first decade of the 21st century, especially in the realms of agribusiness and technical cooperation, that is arguably no longer the case. Governmental officials are partly the ones to blame. But there are also some very deep structural drivers, which help explain such apparent failure to cooperate.

Economic “Frenemies”

The quality of Brazil-Japan foreign trade is reason number one behind this frustrating state of affairs. A close look at the contents of their commercial exchanges promptly reveals an oceanic distance between the idealistic discourse of complementarity in the Brazilian and Japanese economies and what actually happens. If Japan is one of the leading innovators and a net exporter of technology and research-based goods and services in the world, Brazil remains tied to the same role it has always had – the provider of raw materials. As José Eduardo Cassiolato, an experienced Brazilian scholar, said mockingly  about the situation, “It is untrue that Brazil was left out of contemporary global value chains. Consumption is a part we are warmly welcomed to play by the world’s economic superpowers [Japan included].”

Hence, bilateral trade relations are a sensitive issue. By examining the last 30 years of Brazil-Japan exchanges, what raises concerns in Brasília is the stark imbalance in commercial flows, since Brazil has increasingly become an exporter of primary and resource-based products to Japan, while importing high value-added manufactures. Products such as iron ore, coffee, meat, maize, and corn made up almost 60 percent of Brazil’s total exports to Japan by 2015. Conversely, Japan sells to Brazil every sort of medium-tech and high-tech goods – from mechanical appliances and automobile parts to electrical machinery and articles of iron and steel. However neither side reached considerable surpluses in bilateral trade during the fiscal years under assessment. The long-term prospects for Brazil are not the best, granted all the economic vulnerability this unbalanced dynamic entails, and the obvious need to catch up with global trendsetters.

This complex scenario is also projected in the way these two states oppose each other at the World Trade Organization, where they are not allies but fierce rivals. Within the ambit of the Doha Round of talks, Brazilian delegates repeatedly accused Japan’s government of paying subsidies to their hardly competitive farmers, whereas Japanese diplomats denounced Brazil’s prohibitively high taxation on services hired abroad, which leaves little room for the free market. What is worse, both sides are probably correct in their allegations.

 A Clumsy Political Alliance

Brazil and Japan established diplomatic ties still in the late 19th century, but their relationship has met ups and downs ever since. After a consistent migratory wave of Japanese to Brazil in the early 20th century, which was openly stimulated by the Brazilian government, the two countries battled each other in World War II. It did not cause a lasting wound to bilateral relations, however, as Japan reconciled with the Western world in the immediate aftermath of the conflict. From the 1950s onwards, one can easily identify a number of initiatives where Brazil and Japan partnered with the United States and Western Europe for the sake of global governance. Being non-nuclear countries by force of their respective constitutions, the Brazilian and Japanese diplomatic stances have more than once coincided at international fora. A bet on the power of pacifism comes attached to their drive for legalism and multilateral decision-making procedures.

All this cooperative behavior from the parties should not be taken for granted, though, given that Japan and Brazil occupy quite different spots in the world order. In accordance with “middle power theory” literature, Brazil most probably qualifies as an emerging country with some global aspirations and a bid to regional leadership in South America. Japan grabbed the status of world power sometime during the 20th century, but now faces gigantic challenges to maintain it while counterbalancing the seemingly unstoppable rise of China and India, not to mention other disturbing elements related to the Korean peninsula, Russia, and the United States.

G4: A Diplomatic Faux Pas

The G4 initiative for United Nations Security Council (UNSC) reform is the last and best demonstration for the argument that Japan-Brazil cooperation may be flawed by design. This grouping – comprised of India, Germany, Japan, and Brazil – has the ultimate purpose of pushing for UNSC reform, which could ultimately give each one of the four a permanent seat on the body. Based on the diagnosis that that UN politburo needs some updating in order to reclaim its lost legitimacy, G-4 states have built a political platform and engaged in a now-or-never attitude. The problem is that the sum of the four parts does not necessarily add up a stronger bid. When Brazil and Japan are wrapped up together, every rivalry from the Japanese end is carried along and impacts negatively the partnership. Plus, by tying its UNSC bid to Japan’s, it’s unlikely that there’s any chance the Brazilian candidacy will now receive any sympathy and endorsement from China or Russia, two of the existing five permanent members. All in all, not the best deal ever for Brasília.

In a nutshell, unless Tokyo and Brasília decide to go for a thorough re-evaluation of the terms upon which their dysfunctional bilateral cooperation was structured over time, and think of innovative ways to carry it through in the future, Japan House will be of little help in making the ties that unite the two countries even bolder. The time has come to leave too optimistic speeches behind and move ahead.