Walk down a side street in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Eshkol and you may came across a group of students chatting loudly in Hebrew as they review their Bible lessons of the day. Hardly an extraordinary sight in Israel—except that these aren’t Israelis. They’re young Japanese on student visas who have assumed hybrid names like Asher Sieto Kimura and Suzana Keiren Mimosa. And they’re Makuyas: members of a Japanese religious group that’s been fervently supportive of Israel since 1948.
The movement’s founder—“Makuya” is Japanese for ohel moed, the biblical tent of meeting or tabernacle—was Ikuro Teshima, a Christian businessman who adopted the name Abraham in the belief that the birth of Israel marked the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. His dream, finally realized in the 1960s, was to send groups of young Japanese to Israel, there to study Hebrew and Jewish thought and to volunteer in hospitals, schools, and senior centers. Since then, over 1,000 Makuyas have attended the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the University of Haifa, the Technion, and other institutions of higher learning. In Japan itself, the Makuya newsletter reaches more than 300,000 subscribers.
Makuya aside, it is true, love of Israel used to be an anomaly in Japan. But it is much less of one now. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the first Japanese premier in almost a decade to visit the Jewish state, represents a political establishment that has undergone a significant shift in perception, to the point where a country once kept at arm’s length by Tokyo is now increasingly seen to merit a friendly and indeed a deferential bow. And the feeling is warmly reciprocated.
How significant is this? When one thinks of Israel’s relations with Asia, two countries may come to mind before Japan. First, India: a fellow democracy with which Israel’s trade ties have been fairly constant over recent decades and diplomatic relations, always cool, have been notably warming under the current premiership of Narendra Modi. Second, China: a country with which Israel’s trade ties are likewise substantial and growing— jumping from $51 million in 1992 to more than $11 billion in 2014—even as on the international scene China not only sides vocally with some of Israel’s and the West’s deadliest enemies but also remains a largely closed society within and militarily belligerent without.
This is all the more reason to focus on the largely neglected story of Israel and Japan: another democracy, another American ally, and, with India, another Asian nation directly threatened by Chinese aggression and expansionism.
Before the 1990s, the best word for describing Japan-Israel relations was chilly. Although Israel’s first embassy in Tokyo opened in 1952, Japan’s embassy in Tel Aviv had to wait till the 1960s. Deep dependence on Middle East oil made observing the Arab boycott of Israel a diplomatic priority for decades. Japan did abstain from voting on the UN’s notorious Zionism/racism resolution of 1975, but to this day most Japanese politicians mouth the kind of kneejerk anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian rhetoric that prevails in international diplomatic forums.
It’s a matter of historical curiosity that, long ago, relations were once better. As early as 1918 the imperial Japanese government, echoing the words of Britain’s Balfour Declaration, endorsed “the ardent desire of the Zionists to establish in Palestine a National Jewish Homeland.” In 1934, Tokyo unveiled what came to be known as the Fugu Plan, encouraging Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany to settle in Japanese-occupied Manchuria and Shanghai (the latter occupied in 1937). Jews in these places were to be given complete religious freedom as well as the right to set up their own schools and cultural institutions, funded, or so Tokyo hoped, by the world Jewish community. Although the Fugu Plan never found either sufficient settlers or sufficient funding, in the end some 24,000 Jews managed to escape Hitler either by immigrating through Japan to other countries or by living in places like Shanghai, which accepted 15,000 Jewish refugees.
Meanwhile, Japan’s true Raoul Wallenberg was Chiune Sugihara, briefly the Japanese consul in Kovno, Lithuania. From late 1939 until August 1940 when he was reassigned to Berlin, Sugihara allowed escaping Jews to travel and stay in Japan itself, ostensibly on their way to the Dutch island nation of Curaçao (which required no entry visa). Thanks to Sugihara, at least 6,000 Jews received Japanese transit visas. Some desperate refugees even learned to forge his signature.
But that was then. The Arab economic boycott, compounded in the mid-1970s by the OPEC oil embargo, terminated any residual warm feelings between Japan and Israel. And so things would long remain. Starting in the late 1990s, and accelerating as Israel’s own economic prospects began to boom, it was not Japan but South Korea and, especially, China that became the Jewish state’s most important East Asian trading partners. By 2013 Israeli was exporting to China four times more than to Japan.
All this being so, it is no surprise that, in addition to playing foreign-investment catchup, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is now strongly encouraging Japanese companies to take the plunge into the buoyant Israeli market, and why an Israel eager to enlarge its own Asian export market is no less eager for a connection with the world’s third largest economy.
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At least on the surface, the rapid thaw in Israel-Japan relations has centered primarily in consumer trade. At a Tel Aviv news conference during his January visit, Abe declared that “the economy is the one area which has the greatest potential for advancement of bilateral ties.” Israel’s government reciprocated by announcing the opening of a new trade office in Osaka and an increase in the number of trade officials at the embassy in Tokyo. In his response to Abe, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to invest tens of millions of shekels over the next three years “to strengthen the Israeli-Japanese partnership.” He added: “we all understand there is great untapped potential in our relations.”
Potential there certainly is—and it extends well beyond consumer trade. Abe’s January visit was preceded by May 2014 meetings that produced bilateral agreements concerning everything from cooperation on tourism and agriculture to space and cyber defense. Technology looms especially large. Japanese medical-device and other tech companies are queuing up to meet with their Israeli counterparts, and a road show of Israeli start-ups is headed for Tokyo this fall to show their wares to Japanese executives. Last October, Toyota held a first-ever “hackathon” at its InfoTechnology Center in Tel Aviv. By December, the Times of Israel was reporting on the first joint Israeli-Japanese start-up: fittingly, a start-up for start-ups that, at the click of a button, matches the ideas of Japanese entrepreneurs with Israeli venture-capital firms and enables meetings over the Internet.
Small stuff, perhaps, but it’s precisely small-scale innovation that is important for reviving the Japanese economy. Japanese companies “have awakened to the need to innovate,” says Vered Farber, director of an NGO working to bring Israeli and Japanese businessmen together, and “they realize few countries are as innovative as Israel”—especially in areas like robotics, medical devices, and information technology. But the interest in Israeli innovation goes beyond these areas to, especially, cyber and defense technology. Although, on both sides, defense officials are understandably reticent about their growing ties, and joint development of new weapons systems won’t happen anytime soon, Japan’s Ministry of Defense has started to send more teams of representatives to Israel and it’s not difficult to imagine where key visits will take place.
One such visit is likely to occur at the Palmahim air base south of Tel Aviv, home to Israel’s First UAV Squadron. The Israelis were pioneers in the use of unmanned aircraft, their prowess and expertise in the field having been tested most recently in last year’s Gaza operation (which Japan, still mindful of Arab and UN opinion, officially condemned). Israel’s drone trade, estimated in one study as leading the world market, is also an important part of the country’s arms-export business.
Hovering unseen at 10,000 feet for hours on end, collecting reams of surveillance and intelligence data, Israel’s UAV fleet is a good model of what Japan needs for around-the-clock maritime surveillance, not only in its home waters but over the vast reaches of the Pacific and the contested East China Sea, where recent confrontations with China over the Senkaku Islands have the coast guards and navies of both countries on constant alert. A large fleet of reconnaissance UAV’s could provide constant, over-the-horizon intelligence not only on Chinese naval movements but on potential missile launches from North Korea that, if left undetected, could reach Japanese soil in a matter of minutes.
The next stop for Japanese defense officials might be the Advanced Technology Park on the campus of Ben-Gurion University in Beer Sheva: “the economic anchor,” as Netanyahu declared at its opening ceremony, “that will turn Beer Sheva into a national and international center for cybernetics and cybersecurity”—one of Japan’s most pressing needs.
Fifteen years ago, Tokyo drew up its first Special Action Plan on the global cyber threat—yet, over the next decade, both the government and the business community proved all too vulnerable to cyber attacks, which in 2012 passed the one-million mark (including one on parliament and another on a nuclear-power research institute) and by 2014 the 25-billion mark. Forty percent of the attacks were traceable to China.
Since coming to office, the Abe government has devoted major effort to bringing Japan’s cybersecurity policy into the 21st century. But there’s still a long way to go. Israel, by contrast, has one of the most successful cybersecurity regimes in the world, and teams at Ben-Gurion are working to make it better and more exportable.
“In terms of offense, I don’t believe that we [Israelis] are in the same league as the United States, China, or Russia,” Haim Tomer, a former Mossad operative and now the head of an Israeli cybersecurity firm, recently told the columnist Ben Caspit. “But when it comes to thinking up defensive solutions, we’ve been on top of the game for a long time.” For Japan, anxious to make up for lost time, and woefully short of engineers and technicians, there’s much to learn from the Israeli model, whose lessons can easily be applied to securing military and government facilities and dealing with persistent threats from countries like Russia, Iran, North Korea, and—Japan’s biggest cybertheft neighbor—China.
The third stop for Japanese officials might be the research lab of Rafael Advanced Systems, the developer of the Iron Dome anti-missile defense system. Iron Dome was intended to deal with short- to medium-range threats; Japan’s worry is longer-range ballistic missiles from North Korea and China. Even so, the technologies being developed at Rafael have broad application. In addition to Iron Dome, Rafael has signed on with the American firm Raytheon for development of a still more advanced antimissile missile, the so-called Magic Wand or David’s Sling. A two-stage interceptor, this is designed to take out the long-range rocket and cruise missiles possessed by Hizballah; it could be adapted to provide Japan with protection from its missile-wielding (and nuclear-armed) hostile neighbors.
While it will take time before Japan’s defense trade with Israel equals that with its own neighbors or near-neighbors like India, Australia, Vietnam, and South Korea, it is bound to rise sharply in the next few years.
Behind this major shift in bilateral relations, it is safe to say, is Abe’s ambition to see Japan take its place as a country more engaged in global issues and ready to be a serious player on the world geopolitical stage. (His visit to Israel was accompanied by stops at three other Middle Eastern capitals, including Amman and Cairo.) Last year, moreover, he instituted dramatic changes in the country’s pacifistic defense posture, moving proactively to join international peacekeeping missions and increasing defense spending by the largest factor in over a decade. After two Japanese citizens were beheaded by ISIS this past spring, he has also committed Japan to a more active role in the war on terror.
The Japan-Israel thaw also reflects an appreciation of Israel’s “start-up” mentality, a much-needed ingredient if, after years of pallid growth, Japan is to restore its dynamism and drive, especially in the high-tech realm. On the Israeli side, meanwhile, many see the opening to Japan as a godsend that can help diversify an overseas market hurt by Arab (and, increasingly, European) boycotts. But observers have also been struck by certain similarities between the two countries.
Culturally, both Israel and Japan are relatively homogeneous; both stress intellectual and educational achievement; and both are islands of stability not only in their respective regions but also within the larger context of growing global disorder. Both, moreover, are threatened by hostile and uncomfortably close neighbors. Israel’s are well known and of long standing. Japan’s are of more recent vintage, starting in the late 1990s with North Korea’s acquisition of a nuclear capability and intensified lately by the rise of a heavily militarized and increasingly aggressive China.
Above all, both countries feel themselves unduly dependent on an ally, the U.S., that they thought they could rely on—until now. The retreat of American power and influence around the world has shocked and disappointed leaders in both Tokyo and Tel Aviv. Although Barack Obama’s relations with Abe have not been so toxic as those with Netanyahu, Japanese officials have spoken privately about their fears of the White House’s vaunted “Asian pivot” and their suspicion that the president’s promises of support in the event of a major flareup with China may well prove hollow.
More, they worry that Obama’s retreat is not just personal but emblematic—that Americans in general may be resigned to strategic withdrawal and geopolitical decline of the kind that Britain underwent in the 1960s and 1970s, to the point where the U.S. could abandon an ally with whom it has had a mutual-defense pact going back to 1954.
Which brings us to a paradox. From a scientific and engineering point of view alone, Japanese and Israeli defense technologies overlap closely with those of the United States. Indeed, the opportunities are great for an extensive, systemic, and secure three-way partnership to perfect current technology and cooperate on such future developments as hypersonic vehicles, electronic rail guns, and directed-energy microwave and laser weapons.
That such a three-way partnership doesn’t already exist is largely the fault not of engineers or companies but of American political leadership. That is unlikely to change immediately. But for a future American administration, the way ahead is clear. Such an administration must be able to reassure both longstanding allies that the U.S. stands foursquare behind their efforts to protect their citizens and their territorial integrity from attack, and must articulate this understanding in a proactive strategy for both the Middle East and Asia.
Until then, however, Israel and Japan will continue to feel, and to be, increasingly on their own and increasingly reliant on each other for support. To be sure, tensions and differences between the two countries remain. Israelis across the political spectrum recognize the need for a strong defense and a forthright response to outside threats. By contrast, the Japanese public, after nearly seven decades of official pacifism, is more sharply split on the issue of Abe’s proposed changes to the nation’s constitutional ban on the use of military force except in physical defense of the home islands. Ministry of Defense officials, defense-industry executives, and even military leaders are understandably wary of being seen as too eager to embrace arms and technology deals with other countries.
The wariness is especially acute with regard to Israel. Decades of Arab propaganda has left many Japanese with a sense of the Jewish state as the bad seed in the Middle East. Abe himself remains a strong advocate of peace talks and of the two-state solution, although significantly, during his January visit, he and Netanyahu agreed on fighting terrorism, combating anti-Semitism, and condemning Iran’s nuclear program. Abe has also pledged to use Japan’s leverage to help stop the Palestinian Authority’s effort to use the International Criminal Court against Israel.
One way or another, Japan is on the lookout for new, reliable allies, particularly ones that can identify with its exposed geopolitical position and have dealt effectively with similar threats in the past. While a Japan-Israel strategic alliance may not hold the key to future security for either party, or compensate for losing a major partner like the United States, it does lend force to the old maxim that a friend in need is a friend indeed.
Abraham Ikuro Teshima, the founder of Makuya, died at age sixty-three of pneumonia, contracted while leading thousands of his followers on a cold winter day of demonstrations in support of Israel during the darkest days of the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Before the rally Teshima had said, “Israel cannot, must not, be forsaken in her time of need.” That’s a feeling many Japanese increasingly share today, just as they realize, in their own time of need, that Israel may hold a key to their protection as a nation.