Impressions from a Trip to Japan

For one week in February, an Atlantic Council team and peers from Washington-based academic institutions and think tanks visited Tokyo, Hiroshima, Saijo, and Miyajima to learn about the culture, traditions, and international policies of Japan. We attended meetings with representatives of government agencies, private companies, and local think tanks. Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs sponsored the trip. What follows is a combination of our observations.

Religion in Modern Japan

From the blending of Shintoism and Buddhism in the sixth century to today, Japan has a long and storied tradition of religious tolerance and freedom. Visiting shrines appears to be a cultural tradition as much as a religious one for the Japanese people.

— Ben Polsky, Program Assistant, South Asia Center

Asakusa A.TaylorFeatureThe Asakusa Shrine in Tokyo. (Atlantic Council/Andrea Taylor)

Japan in the Middle East

The Japanese government is astutely aware of threats to stability in the Middle East; the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the Iran nuclear deal, and instability in Yemen top its list. But despite Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s reinterpretation of Article 9, which outlaws war to settle international disputes, nearly seven decades after its enactment in the Japanese constitution, the country’s readiness to take action in the Middle East remains complex. The execution by ISIS of two Japanese citizens and the death of three Japanese tourists in a terrorist attack in Tunisia in 2015 provoked calls for revenge from Abe.

As of February, the Japanese Ministry of Defense is officially responding to the threats in the Middle East by increasing its budget, modernizing weapons and equipment, and stepping up coordination with other countries. Nevertheless, Japan’s most salient role in the anti-ISIS coalition has been the contribution of emergency aid and humanitarian assistance. Consistent with this trend, Japanese Foreign Minister Yoji Muto announced an additional contribution of $350 million during the Supporting Syria and the Region conference in London in February, increasing its total commitment of assistance to Syria, Iraq, and neighboring countries to $1.61 billion. Japan will continue to combat ISIS and fight threats to instability in the Middle East through aid and assistance programs surpassed in size only by the United States.

— Andrea Taylor, Associate Director, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East

Mt.-Fuji---ATaylorFeature Mount Fuji (Atlantic Council/Andrea Taylor)

Japan’s Population Density and Urbanization

As our bullet train glided out of Tokyo Station, I expected to soon be speeding past open fields and forest. That romantic delusion, however, is neither practical nor feasible considering that Japan is an island nation with the third-largest economy in the world. Japan’s mountainous terrain has resulted in a “waste not, want not” relationship with geography and space. This is clearly manifested in the country’s urban centers. With the largest population of any city in the world, Tokyo impresses visitors with its efficiency of design and function. Narrow streets may preclude the purchase of large vehicles, but they wholly accommodate the traffic of a bustling population of more than thirteen million individuals. The architecture and construction market is also a testament to adaptation and accommodation. The city itself is almost like a giant design lab for creative and beautiful structures, all fit neatly next to one another amid stacked roadways and tunnels. Moreover, the average lifespan of a building in Tokyo is about fifteen years, facilitating a seemingly constant state of urbanization and modernization.

This photo was taken from the free observation deck of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, an architectural marvel in itself. Other than the breathtaking view, you can glean from it a macro-level snapshot of Japanese progress through innovation and urbanization.

— Molly Murry, Program Assistant, Millennium Leadership Program

Tokyo-lights---MMurryFeatureTokyo’s city lights. (Atlantic Council/Molly Murry)

Shinkansen and Japanese infrastructure

We were able to see first-hand the innovations that Japan has made both in its transportation infrastructure and its production of state-of-the-art transportation modes. One of the most exciting elements of our stay included rides on the Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo to Hiroshima and back. In a little over four hours, we traveled roughly 660 miles—the equivalent of the distance between New York and Charlotte, North Carolina, that takes thirteen hours on an Amtrak train. With bullet trains leaving Tokyo every fifteen minutes during peak hours, the Shinkansen connects the entire country.

In our visit to the showroom at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI), we learned that MHI is exporting this kind of efficiency through new transportation technologies. Mitsubishi’s Automated Gateway Transit (AGT) is a versatile, low-cost tram system used in both the Dubai Metro and in the inter-terminal shuttle at Washington Dulles International Airport. Additionally, for the first time since World War II, Mitsubishi is producing regional passenger aircraft. It will complete orders from Japan’s largest airline, ANA, in the next few years. It also has its sights set on other international airlines.

— Thomas Corrigan, Senior Research Assistant and Communications Coordinator, Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center

Japanese Infrastructure - TCorriganFeature
The Shinkansen and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ foray into regional passenger aircraft. (Atlantic Council/Thomas Corrigan)

Making Technology Human

“Bow down to your robot overlord!” As we stood amused next to Wakamaru, we realized just how surreal it is to interact with a machine like we do with each other. We asked him about his day and paused for answers as the many sensors and cameras detected our presence and his internal software determined how to articulately answer in polite Japanese. This afternoon was certainly off to an interesting start.

We joke that robots will take over our lives, but Wakamaru was so friendly and almost childlike that it didn’t seem likely that a robot could ever be menacing. Some of the most significant advances in robotics over the past few decades have come from Japan. The country is a leader in industrial robotics and building increasingly lifelike robots despite competition from Silicon Valley and Boston where advances have been made in artificial intelligence and machine learning. Clearly, Japan is motivated by an economic need to maintain its edge in this field, but we couldn’t help but wonder if demographic challenges provided incentives, too. Regardless, if Japan can make robots this nice, then maybe the robot overlords won’t be so bad.

— Aparajitha Vadlamannati, Assistant Director, Strategic Foresight Initiative, Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security

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From left: Geysha Gonzalez, Andrea Taylor, Aparajitha Vadlamannati, Ben Polsky, Kelsey Lilley, and Christopher Brown make friends with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ eleven-year-old robot, Wakamaru. (Atlantic Council/Daniel Y. Chiu)

JICA and International Development

For the last day of meetings in Tokyo, we traveled to the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA)—the Japanese equivalent of the US Agency for International Development (USAID). As the Africanist of the group, I was particularly excited to receive a briefing from JICA’s Africa department. JICA views its relationship with the continent broadly, and they articulated to us three priorities: economic growth, community resiliency, and stability. This approach is similar to that of USAID in Africa, in that Japan pairs “traditional” development activities, including support for health, water, and agriculture improvements, with African partnerships, wherein engagement with a number of actors—and notably, the Japanese private sector—is vital to promoting sustainable and inclusive growth. Japan remains one of the largest aid providers to Africa, and its funds are increasingly earmarked to support much-needed infrastructure (which, by the way, is renowned for its quality in Africa, especially vis-à-vis Chinese infrastructure).

Japan is a trailblazer in terms of its partnership with the continent. Beginning in 1993, Japan held the first Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD). (For comparison, the United States held the first-ever US-Africa Leaders Summit in 2014; China—both celebrated and criticized for its deep involvement in Africa—started its own summit with Africa in 2000.) TICAD VI, planned for Nairobi, Kenya, later this year, will continue the history of Japan-Africa partnership and take on emerging challenges: the economic impact of the commodity price crash, post-Ebola health system strengthening, and the threat of expanding radicalism.

— Kelsey Lilley, Associate Director, Africa Center

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The hustle and bustle at Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo. (Atlantic Council/Kelsey Lilley)

World War II  and Japanese Security Policy

On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb over the Japanese city of Hiroshima, immediately killing almost 80,000 people. When comparing the Atomic Bomb Dome with photographs from before the bombing, the fallout is evident. But perhaps more striking is the impact of the American occupation that followed Japan’s surrender in World War II. To ensure Japan would never wage war again, the United States diminished Japan’s armed forces, dismantled its military industry, and even wrote the Japanese constitution, which is still in use today! During our visits to the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defense, we were surprised at how significantly these initiatives have shaped contemporary Japanese security policy. The controversial Article 9, which prohibits Japan’s sovereign right to war, has persevered, limiting Japan’s defense posture and capabilities. Only recently has the government relaxed the restrictions on collective defense and lifted the ban on defense exports. The US-Japan alliance remains the linchpin of Japan’s security, but as Japan continues to expand its role in the international community and deepen regional cooperation, it will be interesting to see its new progressive policies evolve. 

— Lauren Speranza, Program Assistant, Transatlantic Security Initiative, Brent Scowcroft Center on international Security

Atomic Bomb Dome Hiroshima - LSperanzaFeatureThe Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima is one of the few structures left standing after the 1945 bombing. A photograph of the Dome before the bombing is seen in the foreground. (Atlantic Council/Lauren Speranza)

Post-Fukushima and Nuclear Energy

Japan’s turn away from nuclear energy following the Fukushima disaster in 2011 demonstrates the unfortunate role of happenstance and public opinion in national energy policy. For Japan, a net energy importer, nuclear energy presented a major opportunity for an indigenous energy source before 2011. However, the public’s appetite for nuclear energy since the disaster has been almost nonexistent. The toxicity of the subject in public discourse has led to a massive increase in coal burning. It will be fascinating to see how the public debate in Japan moves forward, especially in light of global renewable energy and climate change goals, and what the implications of this conversation will be for other countries hoping to exploit nuclear energy.

— Owen Daniels, Program Assistant, Middle East Peace and Security Initiative, Brent Scowcroft Center on international Security

Senjokaku-Shrine-Ceiling---ODanielsFeatureThe ceiling of the Senjokaku Shrine, Miyajima. (Atlantic Council/Owen Daniels)

LNG in Asia

As an energy researcher, I came on this trip hoping to learn more about the evolution of Japan’s energy mix in the post-Fukushima period, with a particular focus on Japanese demand for liquefied natural gas (LNG). My interest in LNG stemmed from the timing of the trip—as we set out for Tokyo, the first cargo of LNG exports from the lower forty-eight states was being loaded onto a tanker on the Gulf Coast. Having read extensively on the potential destinations for US LNG exports, I was able to seize on the opportunity presented by the trip to hear first-hand insights from a number of Japanese energy experts on this issue. Our visits to the Institute for Energy Economics, Japan and JERA Co. drove home the point that Japanese energy experts view the United States as a crucial contributor to their energy security and are very keen on importing US LNG. Despite the current low-price environment, my experiences on this trip reinforced my belief that there is a bright future for LNG in East Asia.

— Christopher Brown, Assistant Director, Global Energy Center

Golden Gai - CBrownFeatureA night out in Golden Gai in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo. (Atlantic Council/Christopher Brown)

Beyond World War II Scars, A Rising Food Star

When one hears the word “Hiroshima,” one hardly thinks of food. To say that the city has seen devastation would be an understatement. Indeed, on August 6, 1945, at exactly sixteen minutes past eight in the morning, an atomic bomb codenamed Little Boy flashed above the city and took tens of thousands of lives with it. After listening to the stories of survivors, and walking through the Peace Memorial museum, it is hardly unavoidable to wonder how anything could grow or prosper in a city that has seen such wreckage only seventy years prior. Hiroshima, however, is a hidden gem of the food industry. The city is Japan’s largest oyster provider, accounting for 60 to 70 percent of the country’s production. The oysters, first farmed in the mid-1500s, are the delicacy of the city. The street food scene is bustling with delicacies ranging from oysters, eel-stuffed buns, grilled octopus tentacles, to okonomiyaki, a style of Japanese pancakes made with batter, cabbage, and toppings that include noodles and cheese. Despite being best-known for its teas, coffee is making a comeback in the country, Hiroshima is replete with small coffee shops like Miyajima Coffee, which serves a variety of Western-style coffee with local beans. Though Japan today is world-renowned for its whiskey, the city boasts over fifty sake breweries, all located in Saijo, known as the sake mecca for connoisseurs. Hiroshima, a well-established food star in Japan, needs a brighter spotlight on the world stage.

— Geysha Gonzalez, Assistant Director, Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center

Fish Market A.TaylorFeatureSushi making outside the historic Tokyo fish market. (Atlantic Council/Andrea Taylor)

Image: Sake packed and stacked in Japan. (Atlantic Council/Christopher Brown)