The sun also rises (Hamodia, November 28)

On Sunday, July 6, 2014 (8 Tammuz), Toshimitsu Motegi, Japan’s Minister of the Economy, Trade and Industry, arrived in Israel for an official visit.

Normally, where diplomatic, trade and cultural relations have existed between two countries for several decades, a visit by a minister of country A to country B would be an unexceptional event. The host country’s media might give it some coverage, while in the minister’s country it would probably pass unnoticed.

So it proved with Mr Motegi’s visit. It generated some news items in Israel — mainly in the financial media, because he and his Israeli counterpart, Naftali Bennett, signed an agreement whereby each country will provide support for joint R&D projects undertaken by Israeli and Japanese companies. That sounds useful and maybe important, although Israel has quite a number of agreements of this sort, with countries from the US to Singapore.

In any event, it was reason enough for the Israeli press to report it. Whether there was anything in the Japanese press, I can’t say for certain. A Google search provides no leads to English-language items from Japan, and only one in Japanese — the contents of which are unknown to me. However, what is remarkable but true is that on the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s website, in the section on Japan-Israel relations, there is no mention of this visit. It apparently didn’t happen, as far as the Foreign Ministry is concerned.

That extraordinary fact is the best indication that this visit was absolutely not just another boring ministerial visit. It was historic and, to repeat what I said last week, in my opinion it was the most important event in the Israeli economy this year.

To understand its importance, and perhaps why the Japanese Foreign Ministry is ‘unaware’ of it, requires some background in Japan-Israel relations. Formally, these relations commenced back in 1952, but in economic and commercial terms they had no substance — despite the phenomenal success of both the Japanese and Israeli economies over the subsequent decades — until the 1990s. That’s because the Japanese were the most meticulous, the most medakdek, the most machmir, in observing the Arab League’s boycott against Israel and anyone doing business with Israel.

After the First Gulf War in 1990-91, America insisted that the Arab countries abolish the boycott and, for the first time, the big Japanese companies began selling to Israel. But not buying, not investing, not doing anything that required initiative or enthusiasm. There were even visits by one or two Japanese foreign ministers over the years — but in Japan, the foreign minister is not an important political figure. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry — the centre of the Japanese governmental-industrial complex and the heart of the economy — remained aloof. For MITI, as it used to be called, as for all the main Japanese conglomerates, Israel was still a pariah.

The reason for the slavish adherence to the boycott, and for the avoidance of Israel even after the boycott’s demise, was — of course — the Japanese determination not to annoy the Arab oil nations. Israeli efforts to break this self-imposed boycott were largely unsuccessful. While trade relations with China and India surged ahead over the last 20 years, Japan was nowhere to be seen.

Yet this year, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu visited Japan in May at the head of a large delegation (an event that is noted on the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s website…) and then, a few months later and in response to Netanyahu’s invitation, came Motegi’s visit to Israel — also at the head of a delegation of senior officials and businessmen.

The dramatic change in Japanese policy is part of a much wider change being led by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The effort to put some life back in the Japanese economy, after two ‘lost decades’, is called ‘Abenomics’ and there is a great debate underway as to whether it has been successful.

But, in tandem, Abe is trying to rebuild Japan’s military capabilities, in the face of China’s growing might. This effort has apparently — and not surprisingly — led him to open a new chapter in Japan-Israel relations. The Motegi visit, which broke the taboo on Israel for Japanese companies and instead gave an official hechsher to start doing business, should be seen in that light.

The potential of this new development is enormous — which is why it ranks as the event of the year in my book. By way of update, let me close with a news release, this time from the Japanese Foreign Ministry itself: “On Monday 17 November, the First Dialogue on Cyber issues between Japan and Israel was held in Tokyo. The launch of the Dialogue was based on the Joint Statement of Summit meeting in May 2014…”

After 60+ years of almost nothing, things have come a long way in six months. If there is more action about something than talk, you know it is serious…

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