Japan-Saudi Ties: An Interview With the Japanese Ambassador

Ambassador Tsukasa Uemura discusses the future of the Japan-Saudi relationship, and how to build strong cultural ties.

By Alexander Woodman for
Japan-Saudi Ties: An Interview With the Japanese Ambassador
Credit: Alexander Woodman

In December 2017, Tsukasa Uemura was appointed Japan’s ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). It was not his first posting to the country; 20 years before, he had been appointed to the KSA to serve as a councilor of political affairs. In the intervening two decades, Japan and Saudi Arabia have advanced many joint projects in the fields of business, education, healthcare, and investments.

Uemura believes that the relationship between Japan and Saudi Arabia has an enormous potential for development, and he is looking forward to the diverse opportunities for both nations. “The importance of Saudi Arabia to Japan is not limited solely to the petroleum,” he says. “The country holds a key role in reinforcing the stability of the region and the Islamic world. They have been a most reliable strategic partner for us whenever Japan addresses various issues in the region.”

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Ambassador Uemura and talk about various aspects of bilateral relations between the two countries.  A lightly edited transcript of the interview follows.

The year 2015 celebrated the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Japan and the KSA. Please share your vision of the 100th anniversary celebration. In what new ventures would you expect the Saudis and Japanese to have succeeded in building a clear path for cooperation and harmony?

Our bilateral relations in the last century mainly developed along with oil trade and business transactions. We import more than one million b/d [barrels a day] of oil from Saudi Arabia, the single largest supplier of oil for Japan. Quite a number of joint projects and investment programs are in process, as well. At the same time, we have tried to shift our business relations into much diversified strategic partnership. Periodical political dialogues and cooperation for combating piracy off Somalia are the notable examples. Thus, we are determined to build much more amicable and broader relations with Saudi Arabia as indispensable partners to each other.

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One piece of evidence of the healthy and far-reaching bilateral relations is a strong indication of the warm companionship and respect between the Japanese and Saudi royal families. What are the essential factors that are necessary to retain and foster the constant union of these two powerful dynasties?

Our Imperial Family and Saudi Royal Family have enjoyed long and splendid friendly relations for many decades. For instance, His Imperial Highness Crown Prince Naruhito, our new Emperor, visited the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for the first time in 1994, with HRH the Crown Princess. Since then, His Royal Highness has visited Saudi Arabia several times. His Majesty King Salman visited Japan twice in the last five years. His Royal Highness Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman also paid an official visit to Japan in September 2016, as the Deputy Crown Prince.

The Emperor Akihito abdicated the throne on April 30 this year and His Imperial Highness the Crown Prince Naruhito ascended the throne. Such a cordial relationship between the Imperial Family and Royal Family will be persistent forever and develop even further in the years to come.

When studying the history of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Japan, one notices the word “tradition” in almost every other sentence. Can you speak about the value and importance of tradition and its significance to these countries?

When I ask Saudi people about Japan, they often mention “high technology,” “animation,” and “sushi.” I do not deny that such things also contributed to gain publicity for Japan in the world. However, I would like Saudi people to know more about Japan, which has a unique history and tradition. The modernization of Japan began 150 years ago, when Meiji government tried to unite the people, who were living in a feudalistic system, and make them cooperate for one purpose — to become a modern nation, which could compete with Western capacities. We learned Western technology and systems from foreigners and incorporated them to the Japanese systems. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has similar history, in which King Abdulaziz led competing tribes to unite the Kingdom. We see similarities in modern history of the KSA and Japan, as well. The two countries have common lessons to share as a beacon to the future. Japan supports such reforms. I hope that Saudi people can achieve development in a way that suits Saudi tradition and society.

Based on “Saudi-Japan Vision 2030,” the Saudi government anticipates Japan to be a significant partner. Which areas are set to be highlighted under this vision?

In 2017, Prime Minister Abe held a summit meeting with the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. At the meeting, both sides authorizedSaudi-Japan Vision 2030,” which is a compilation of the basic directions for bilateral cooperation and the specific projects therein. It was the outcome of discussion under the framework of the inter-governmental dialogue called “Joint Group for Saudi-Japan Vision 2030,” the formulation of which was decided by HRH Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the Deputy Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and Prime Minister Abe in September 2016.

As a new compass for Japan-Saudi cooperation, two countries will aim to leverage synergies of the Saudi Vision 2030 — an economic and social blueprint of the government, aspiring to reduce its dependency on oil and create employment — as well as Japan’s Growth Strategy, seeking to achieve an annual GDP of JPY 600 trillion per year. To maximize these synergies, both sides will develop comprehensive cooperation, composed of three pillars: diversity, innovation, and soft values, which is unique to Japan. Nine prioritized areas were set in the concrete partnership with participation of 41 Japanese and Saudi Arabian ministries, agencies, and organizations.

Recently, during the Iftar reception, you hosted a gathering of alumni of Japanese universities and their families. Please discuss the idea of two-sided bridges constructed through education, and, the role of education in these countries today.

The amount of the information we can get in Japan on Saudi Arabia through media is still very limited, and the psychological distance we feel between the two countries is not very small. However, I truly hope that these Saudi students currently studying in Japan, and Saudi alumni of Japanese universities, will enhance and strengthen the ties between two countries, bringing the two countries economically, culturally, and politically together. The acquisition of advanced technology, knowledge, and skills is only a part of their experience in Japan, I think. Learning each other’s history, ethics, and social life is also crucial. I also believe this makes it possible to create a unique and new model of development of bilateral relations in the coming decade.

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We will continue to support Saudi young people to go to Japan through the scholarship programs and provide opportunities for the Saudi alumni of Japanese universities, currently residing in Saudi Arabia, to reconnect with other alumni by hosting events, such as the Iftar reception.

Can you discuss any special scholarship programs that have been implemented and promoted by the Embassy of Japan for the students of Saudi Arabia and vice versa?

Without doubt, education is the key component to build and strengthen the ties between Saudi Arabia and Japan. We have the Japanese government scholarship program, called the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) scholarship. Brilliant young Saudi students, researchers, and teachers are sent to Japan to learn Japanese language, science, art, and business twice a year through this program. This is a part of our bilateral cooperation within the framework of Saudi-Japan Vision 2030. The KSA also provides Saudi youth a great opportunity through The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques’ Overseas Scholarship Program, sending them all over the world, including Japan. Many of those who have studied in Japan under the previous scholarship program now are active and prominent professionals in many fields in both the Saudi and Japanese societies.

According to the U.S. State Department’s latest International Religious Freedom Report, there are approximately 100,000 Muslims in Japan, 10 percent of whom are Japanese. What, in your educated opinion, is the best way for people to develop a knowledge and understanding of different cultures, varied ethnic groups, and religions within one society?

Japan is known as the country of politeness, and respect of harmony. This, I believe, also goes to those who preach other religions, including Islam. During the Meiji Restoration, which renovated Japan 150 years ago, we learnt a lot of knowledge on technology, social systems, and education of foreign countries. Additionally, during the Restoration, we achieved a modern society by abolishing feudalism, transforming the society to be more inclusive, and giving fair chance to everyone to develop their talents, and make their wishes happen. Thus, Japanese people have the basis and mentality to welcome the diversity and learn from others, including religious minorities.

Although Japan is a Muslim-minority country, there are many impressive mosques which serve the local Muslim community. Please reflect on the topic of cultural diplomacy: How does Japan show its respect for others?

Japan will host the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games next year. During this waiting period before the forthcoming Tokyo 2020 Games, the welcoming atmosphere toward foreigners is growing. We have more Muslim prayers room facilities, mosques, and halal food restaurants now.

Japanese are curious, open, hardworking, and respectful people toward others with different backgrounds.  We try to learn from the differences.  As I mentioned earlier, Japanese do not have much access to media content explaining Saudi daily life, and do not have concrete ideas about the life and people of Saudi Arabia. However, I expect the Saudi students and alumni will become cultural diplomats, telling Saudis about Japan. I also would like and, actually, encourage our Japanese diplomats and staff to promote and PR Saudi Arabia, whether it is on private or public occasions, telling Japanese people about the reality and beauty of Saudi Arabia and Saudi people. I strongly believe that this kind of grassroot activity by the people, who know the actual life in both countries, will pave the way for more inclusive and understanding society, respecting religious, racial, and cultural minorities.

Alexander Woodman is a faculty member of the College of Science and Humanities at the Prince Mohammad bin Fahd University.