July, 2003

The Influence of External Factors on Foreign Policy:
A Case Study of Japanese Policies towards Israel -1973-2003-

Dr Badr Abdel-Aati

This study is based on the hypothesis that Japanese policy towards Israel, from its beginning, has been influenced by external factors rather than being a response to purely internal concerns or the dynamics of bilateral relations. This is based on the view that Japan's dealings with Israel have, for the most part, been an attempt by Tokyo to find a compromise between two contradictory considerations: maintaining good relations with the Arab world in order to guarantee the flow of oil, which represents 80% of Japan's annual imports, and maintaining the strategic ties with the US that have been in place since 1945.

After the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, both Israel and the US made concerted efforts to obtain Japan's recognition of the new state and to establish good relations between it and the other countries of Asia. These efforts paid off in 1952 with the establishment of diplomatic relations between Tokyo and Tel Aviv. An Israeli legation was inaugurated in Tokyo that year, and upgraded in 1963 to an embassy. [1] Japan's decision, though, can be seen as a response to the difficult conditions it was facing following its defeat in the war.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Japan did not have a coherent foreign policy vis--vis the Middle East but rather adopted a hotchpotch of stances towards Israel and the Arabs in its attempts to find a compromise between its increasing dependence on Middle Eastern oil, and its position in terms of the competition between the two superpowers. Japan thus had to follow the lead of the US, which meant promptly establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, while at the same time considering its interests with the Arab world, and hence keeping its relations with Israel within limits. [2] Until 1967, however, the Japanese stance towards the Arab-Israeli conflict was marked with bias towards Israel. [3]

During the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Japan, as a non-permanent member of the Security Council, participated in the discussion over Resolution 242 - for which it voted - against the recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. Israeli aggression in the 1967 War negatively affected the widespread Japanese image of Jews, who turned from the victims of genocide at the hands of the Nazis to aggressors against an unarmed people. Nevertheless, the conflict in the Middle East was not a major concern for Japan's government or public. For the most part, Tokyo used to rely on the US in areas of foreign policy, plus, at this stage, internal reconstruction was the order of the day. [4]

Japanese-Israeli relations faced tension as a result of an attack by Red Army members on Lod airport in Tel Aviv in May 1972. The operation, which killed 26 people and injured another 80, was the Red Army's first to be carried out outside Southeast Asia, reflecting the close ties between the organisation and Palestinian resistance groups. The Japanese government responded by sending an official delegation to Israel to pay its condolences and provided $700,000 as compensation for the victims' families. [5]

In the early 1970s, with relations between Tokyo and Washington being quickly eroded by trade problems, change began to appear in Japanese foreign policy in general, and, included in this, in its relations with Israel. US president Richard Nixon introduced a number of unilateral measures against Japan, including a declaration to restrict Japanese textile exports for the first time since 1945. It was thus not long before Japan began to consider adopting a more independent foreign policy, including towards the Arab-Israeli conflict. [6]

Japanese Policy towards Israel: 1973-1990

The October War of 1973 and the consequent measures taken by the Arab countries, including the imposition of a partial ban on the export of oil to Israel's allies, had a direct impact on Japan's relations with Israel and its stance on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Japan was eager to make a balance between satisfying the Arabs, who called for the cutting of relations with Israel to guarantee the flow of oil, and maintaining its strategic alliance with the US by preserving these relations. Tokyo in fact followed a mid-way policy, sympathising with the Arabs but without severing its diplomatic relations with Israel. [7]

On 22 November 1973, Susumu Nikaido, close aide to Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, issued a statement in which he called on Israel to pull back from all the Arab territories it had occupied in 1967. Nikaido ended his statement by announcing that the government of Japan would continue to follow up on the situation in the region and, depending on developments, possibly review its policy towards Israel.

Assessments of this declaration varied. Some saw it as the manifestation of a remarkable change in Japan's stance towards the Arab-Israeli conflict, moving away from the US and European positions. [8] Others considered this perception an exaggeration, especially as the statement did not respond to the main Arab demand of cutting relations with Israel. In their view, Nikaido used ambiguous language that expressed the possibility of Japan reviewing its policy towards Israel rather than their relations, and with no mention of a timetable. Meanwhile, Japan's economic relations with Israel were not cut, and, restricted by its own constitution, Tokyo was unable to supply the Arabs with weapons. [9]

Throughout the 1970s and the first half of the 1980s, Japanese policy towards Israel was far from independent, caught between the concerns of Tokyo's relations with both Washington and the Arabs. This state of conflict was represented inside Japan's decision-making institutions too, including the foreign ministry. The camp loyal to the US considered Israel a democratic, peace-loving state, while the other camp, sympathetic to the situation of the Arabs, saw Israel as a party that impedes peace. [10]

Within Japan, there are three main groups that influence foreign policy relating to the Middle East: [11]

1- Bureaucrats in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, other concerned ministries, such as trade and industry, and, to some extent, the government secretariat and the Defence Agency: This group determines Japan's official stance towards Israel. However, a conflict persists within the decision-making framework between those specialised in Arab affairs and others specialised in US affairs, with the latter tending to endorse policies and decisions sympathetic to Israel. The change that took place in the oil market in the second half of the 1980s, whereby oil turned from a strategic product to an economic one, affected by the rules of supply and demand, had a negative impact on those sympathetic towards the Arabs.

2- The business community: This group, represented mainly by the Japan Federation of Economic Organisations -Keidanren-, focuses on maintaining the supply of energy from the Gulf countries. The federation has exerted a clear influence on official policy towards Israel since the first oil crisis in 1973.

3- Academics and specialists in Middle Eastern affairs, including ambassadors, professors, journalists and researchers: The studies and thoughts of this group constitute an important element in setting the guidelines for Japanese policy in the region. A considerable sector of Japanese intellectuals support Arab causes, partly due to their world vision. [12]

At both ends of the Japanese political spectrum there is a tendency to support the Arabs. The right wing considers the Palestinian national movement an indispensable part of the modern Asian national movement. Japan, therefore, is duty bound to support the Arabs in their conflict with Israel. The left wing, meanwhile, considers it necessary to support the Arabs in the face of new western imperialism. [13] This has led Israel to accuse Japan of maintaining a bias in favour of the Arabs. [14]

From the time of the October War until the mid-1980s, Japan steered clear of exchanging official ministerial visits with Israel. The very infrequent visits paid by Israeli officials to Japan during the first half of the 1980s were usually described as 'special visits' in order not to upset the Arabs.

In terms of economic and trade relations between Japan and Israel during this period, there was no marked growth. Trade between the two reached $455m for the whole period, representing 0.17% of total Japanese foreign trade and around 3.3% of total Israeli foreign trade.

The Arab boycott of Israel, to which Japanese companies adhered, was directly responsible for weakening the volume of trade between Japan and Israel. Fearing an Arab boycott, the majority of Japanese companies, in contrast to western ones, did not open branches inside Israel nor did they sell their products there. Furthermore, Israel's national carrier, El Al, was not permitted to land in Japanese airports and Japanese airlines were not permitted to land in Israel. The same applied to maritime freight companies, which, in turn, negatively influenced the volume of trade exchange between the two countries. [15]

With tension in the Middle East rising, and with the Japanese keen to express the growth in their economic power through a political role and greater international authority, Tokyo started to increase its involvement in the Middle East and to open new channels of communication with all in the region. Due to the absence of any historic differences between Japan and Israel, it was easy for them to improve relations in a short period of time. Bilateral relations witnessed a qualitative shift on the economic, political and trade levels following a visit to Tokyo by Israeli foreign minister Yitzhak Shamir in September 1985. Japan described the visit as a 'business trip' to minimise Arab reaction.

A number of 'non-official' visits were made by Israeli officials to Japan the following year, [16] before Japan's foreign minister travelled to Israel in the summer of 1987. This first visit by a Japanese foreign minister to Israel, although short, provided the opportunity for meetings with a number of Israeli and Palestinian leaders. This was followed by Israeli foreign minister Shimon Perez visiting Japan - again the first such official visit.

Israeli president Chaim Herzog paid the first presidential visit to Japan, to attend the funeral of Emperor Hirohito, in February 1989. During his visit, he held talks with Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita, who expressed Japan's desire to expand its mediation efforts in the Middle East beyond the Iran-Iraq issue, alluding to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Japanese foreign ministry during the same year extended official invitations to both the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, Yasser Arafat, and Israeli foreign minister Moshe Arens. [17]

The shift in political and diplomatic relations between Japan and Israel during the second half of the 1980s coincided with a boom in their trade and economic relations, the cancellation of the third-degree Arab boycott and the increasing dependence of the Israeli economy on advanced technology. This urged Japanese companies to undertake joint venture projects with their Israeli counterparts. Furthermore, large Japanese companies started to inaugurate offices in Israel and to use these offices as a springboard to gain access to the markets of Europe and the US. [18]

For the first time since the oil crisis of 1973, Israeli companies were invited, in 1986, to participate in exhibitions and symposia in Japan to attract investment. In the autumn of that year, Japan and Israel exchanged trade commissions for the first time. This economic openness led to unprecedented growth in the volume of trade between the two countries, with exports from Israel to Japan and vice versa increasing by 50% and 61.3% respectively over the previous year. [19]

By the mid-1980s, Japan had a serious question to ponder: Would the more dangerous consequences result from complete adherence to the Arab boycott of Israel, thus angering the US, or the normalisation of relations with Tel Aviv, thus risking upsetting the Arabs? For the most part, though, Japan moved towards increasing openness with Israel, in order to satisfy Washington and the US Jewish lobby. [20]

The Post-Cold War Era:

Since the end of the Cold War, Japanese policy towards Israel has a acquired a new impetus, based on an increasingly interwoven net of interests in the economic, scientific, technological and, to some extent, military fields. As a result, there has been a shift in favour of more openness with Israel and for more sympathy with the Israeli point of view on the peace process. This trend is noticeable among politicians, academics, businesspeople, intellectuals and in the media.

One of the most notable features of Japanese policy towards Israel in this era is the special dynamic between the two countries, which has led to a considerable level of independence from the US in policy-making between the two. The development of these relations is also no longer related to progress in the Arab-Israeli peace process.

Economic and commercial relations

When Japan lifted its ban on trade with Israel at the beginning of the 1990s, economic and commercial ties were quickly formed. The strength of these new common interests led Japan's business community to exert pressure on the government to strengthen ties with Israel. By the end of the decade, the application of a scientific cooperation agreement between the two countries brought about a boom in the fields of agriculture and medicine. With the growth of the volume of commercial transactions, meanwhile, many large Japanese companies opened offices in Israel. [21]

In April 2000, the two signed their first agreement on civil aviation, and in December of the same year a branch of the Japanese Israeli Chamber of Commerce was opened in Osaka with the aim of increasing cooperation in technology-related sectors. The volume of trade exchange continued to grow, and Japan became Israel's number one trading partner in Asia.

By 1999, over 200 Japanese companies were investing in Israel, mainly in technology. According to estimates from the International Monetary Fund in 2001, Japanese investment in Israel ranged from $70m to $90m a year from 1999 to 2001, concentrated in sectors using high technology, such as information technology and communications. During the last few years, a joint investment fund was established within the framework of an Israeli initiative, 80% of which is financed by the US, 10% by Japan. The fund is to be used to finance research and development projects. [22]

Political and diplomatic relations

The post-Cold War era has witnessed intensive communication and mutual visits between Israeli and Japanese officials, reflecting the progress made between the two countries. After the start of the peace process in Madrid in October 1991, senior Japanese officials paid regular visits to Israel to monitor peace in the region.

At around the same time, certain important issues in Japanese-Israeli relations started to lose their significance, as was crystallised in the description by some Japanese politicians of Israel as a democratic and peace-loving state that should gain the fruits of peace in return for its participation in its establishment. This marked a profound shift from the traditional Japanese image of Israel as a base for Zionist manoeuvres against the world and a tool in the hands of the imperialist West. [23]

Japanese official and popular sensitivity in dealing with the issue of Jerusalem also began to wane, with Japan recognising Israeli control over Jerusalem. This can be attributed partly to the Japanese government's change of policy, and partly to Japanese unawareness of the roots of the problem.

A major indication of the development in Japanese-Israeli relations came during the 1999 annual meeting of the Political Consultation Committee, when the Israeli delegate announced that there were no pending problems between the two parties. [24]

This post-Cold War shift in Japanese policy towards Israel can be attributed to the following factors:

1- The complicated network of common private sector interests between Japan and Israel, especially in the fields of information technology and advanced technology.

2- The growth of sympathy with Israel within Japanese decision-making circles, academic and media institutions, and also in the business community. This was enhanced by the entrance of US - mostly Jewish - capital to Japan to buy various bankrupt financial institutions and other companies at the end of the 1990s.

3- Israeli attempts to expand the base for dialogue with Japan to include security issues and the consolidation of the relation between the security of the Middle East and that of East Asia. Israel has asserted that it shares common security threats with Japan as a result of military cooperation between North Korea and certain Middle Eastern countries hostile to Israel.

4- Within the Japanese foreign ministry, specialists in US affairs began to have greater authority in formulating their country's policy towards Israel, and the Middle East as a whole. This was supported by Japan's business community, which feared the US reaction if the country abided by the Arab boycott.

5- Japan's endeavours to assume a more active political role in the international arena, outside Asia. The 1991 Middle East peace conference provided Japan with an ideal opportunity to activate its role in the region by means of participation in the multilateral efforts. This participation, however, made it necessary for Japan to appear neutral and to lose its traditional image as biased towards the Arabs. This took place through more openness in relations with Israel. [25]

6- The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1991 negatively affected the image of the Arab nation held by the Japanese. This allowed Japan to take serious steps in favour of Israel without any fear of a unified Arab reaction. [26]

7- The change of oil from a strategic product to an economic one, controlled by market forces, contributed to encouraging successive Japanese governments to continue moving towards Israel. [27]

8- Japan's desire to win the satisfaction of the US Congress and administration, as well as the Jewish lobby, by means of improving its relations with Israel. It was the Japanese leadership's belief that the development of Japanese-Israeli relations during the 1990s was directly related to Japan's strategic alliance with the US. [28]

One can conclude that the change witnessed in Japanese policy towards Israel in the post-Cold War era was an adaptation to changing conditions. It involved a change in the degree of Japan's attention to its relations with Israel and in the tools used for the implementation of Japanese policy in the Middle East in general and in Israel in particular.

This change is related to the consolidation of the alliance between Japan and the US, which came out of the Cold War as the sole power in the world order, and the attempts of Japan to expand its role in the Middle East peace process which started in Madrid. Japan made use of these developments to expand its political and security role in the international arena and thus rectify its status as an economic giant but political dwarf. This has had a positive effect on its relations with Israel, which it considers the primary regional party as a result of its control of occupied Arab territories.


[1] Ben-Ami Shillony, 'Japan and Israel: A Special Relationship' in: Ronald A. Moorse, -ed-, Japan and the Middle East in Alliance Politics, -Boston: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 1986-, p83
[2] Akifumi Ikeda, 'Japan's Relations with Israel' in: Kaoru Sugihara and JA Allan -eds-, Japan in the Contemporary Middle East, p156
[3] Ben-Ami Shillony, 'Japan and Israel: A special Relationship,' op. cit. p83
[4] Akifumi Ikeda, 'Japan's Relations with Israel,' op. cit., p157
[5] Ibid., pp 156-159
[6] Ibid., p158
[7] An interview with Professor Etagaki of the University of Tokyo, 13 May1999
[8] Akifumi Ikeda, 'Japan's Rrelations with Israel,' op. cit., p84
[9] Kenneth Juster, 'Foreign Policy-making during the Oil Crisis,' Japan Interpreter, No 11, winter 1977, pp 293-312
Yoshi Tsurimi, 'Japan' in: Raymond Vernon, The Oil Crisis, New York: WW Norton & Co, 1976
Michael Yoshitsu, Caught in the Middle East: Japan Diplomacy in Transition, op. cit., p16
[10] Akifumi Ikeda, 'Japan's Relations with Israel,' op. cit., pp 158-159
[11] Yasumasa Kurada, 'The Oil Crisis 1973 and Japan's New Middle East Policy,' p35
[12] Akifumi Ikeda, 'Japan's Relations with Israel,' op. cit., p160
[13] Ibid., p161
[14] An Interview with Akifumi Ikeda on 3 March 2000
[15] The Annual Diplomatic Bluebook, 1985 -Tokyo: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan-, p86
[16] The Annual Diplomatic Bluebook, 1997, op. cit., pp 82-83
[17] Akifumi Ikeda, 'Japan's Relations with Israel,' op. cit. p163
[18] An Interview with Hatanaka, senior economist at the Japan Institute for Economic Studies, Tokyo, 22 May 2000
[19] Ben-Ami Shillony, 'Japan and Israel: A Special Relationship,' op. cit., pp 83-85
[20] Akifumi Ikeda, 'Japan's Relations with Israel,' op. cit., p164
[21] Akifumi Ikeda, 'Japan's Relations with Israel,' op. cit., pp 153-154
[22] An Interview with Uzawa, executive director of Japan's Institute for International Affairs, Tokyo, 6 November 2000
[23] Alan Dawty, 'Japan and the Middle East in Alliance Politics,' op. cit., pp 76-77
[24] An Interview with Sato, deputy manager of the first department of the Middle East in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, Tokyo, 17 January 2000
[25] Ryoji Tateyama 'Japan and the Middle East Peace Talks,' JIME Review, summer 1994, pp 73-74
[26] Ryozo Kato 'Japan's Political Role in the Middle East: Past and Present,' American-
Arab Affairs, No 32, spring 1990
[27] Yasumasa Kurada, 'Japanese Perceptions of the Arab World: Their Nature and Scope' in: Ronald A. Moorse, op. cit., pp 86-87
[28] John Calabrese, The United States, Japan and the Middle East, op. cit., pp 187-188