Does Japan Need to Be Involved in the Middle East?

Despite having not taken part in the Syrian crisis, Japan is today being questioned for not taking in any refugees from the war-torn nation.
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I just returned from Tokyo, where I took part as a panelist at the G1 Global Conference.

The conference, attended by a handful of politicians, top business executives and global shapers, was held under the theme From 'Japan Passing' to 'Japan Rushing'. Sessions were dedicated to discussing a "re-set" in both the role and the positioning of Japan in today's world - economically, politically and culturally.

However, when it came to the future of the Middle East, and Japan's role in it (which was the subject of the session I participated in), I argued that the conference's theme should - regrettably - be reversed to: "The Middle East, where Japan went from rushing to being passive!"

Indeed, it wasn't too long ago that Arabs were feverishly passionate about all things Japanese: from enormously popular manga and anime (and I cite the unmatched success of the dubbed 1980s series, Grendizer), to practicing martial arts such as karate and judo, to enjoying sushi and sashimi, to being loyal to "quality" household brands like Sony, Panasonic and Sharp, and "reliable" car manufacturers such as Toyota, Honda and Mitsubishi.

However, the significance of Japan in the Arab World seems to have been in a steady decline over the past few decades.

China, South Korea fill the voidMuch of what we consume in the Arab world today is made in China. Not only is it cheaper, but the Chinese - generally - won't hesitate to go to any length to close a deal (including learning Arabic, if needed).

For its part, South Korea is proving superior in terms of research and development, particularly with brands like Samsung (which today is the global leader in terms of smartphone market share, followed by the U.S.'s Apple and China's Huawei.)

Meanwhile, the "Korean Wave" has been hitting Arab shores since the 1990s. As a result, Arabs - like most people around the globe - danced the "Gangnam Style" (and many even produced their own version of the YouTube sensation); while K-pop, dubbed into Arabic, is proving extremely popular in our region.

Why get involved?A reasonable question to ask is why does Japan need a role, or indeed, to get involved in the Arab World in the first place?

Indeed, Japan has no historical responsibilities given that it - unlike the Brits or the French - has no colonial past in the region. Furthermore, it has no religious or ethnic affiliations with the Arab people, nor does it have any military involvement or proxy wars in the region, like the Americans and Russians do.

Ask an Arab why Tokyo should play a bigger role, and the answer would most probably come in the form of a self-inflated assumption that we - as a region - form a lucrative and indispensable market for Japanese products.

However, the reality is it is the other way around, as according to the 2010 findings of the World Trade Atlas, Arab League exports to Japan are worth $85 billion, while Japanese exports to the region are worth only $22 billion.

What I think, however, is that Japan needs to get involved exactly for all of the above reasons.

Japan is a major country with no colonial stigma when it comes the Middle East. It has no military presence here; there are no ideological, religious or racial biases to any of the conflicting parties; there is an interest in stabilizing the region to ensure the safe flow of oil; and Japan has experience in creatively rebuilding nations - as it did itself after WWII. As such, Japan may very well be the perfect partner to help the Arab world overcome its current difficulties, and rebuild the region as the peaceful, prosperous place it has the potential to become.

Furthermore, if Japan (and other "good" countries) don't fill this void, they would be leaving the task for rogue nations such as China, Iran and Russia; and the results of such a reality - as we are witnessing today in Syria - could be disastrous.

What is equally important for Japan to realize is that the serious issues we are living in the Arab World - such as terrorism - will never remain locally confined.

Indeed, as it was once put to me by legendary Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland: "If you don't go to the Middle East... the Middle East will come to you."

Japan, unfortunately, experienced the first signs of Hoagland's prophecy earlier this year, when ISIS brutally beheaded hostages Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa. And despite having not taken part in the Syrian crisis, Japan is today being questioned for not taking in any refugees from the war-torn nation.

*This blog was originally published in Al Arabiya News.

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