Bridges: What is the Embassy’s role in strengthening the Japan-Philippines relationship?
Ambassador Koshikawa: The Embassy of Japan in the Republic of the Philippines is a gateway for the development and, essentially, enrichment of Japan-Philippines relations. Located in the heart of Metro Manila, the Embassy serves as a vital and accessible channel that promotes and maintains the best state of our bilateral relations. Indeed, bonded by profound trust at multiple levels ranging from governmental to grassroots, Japan and the Philippines now enjoy the “Golden Age” of our bilateral relations. In 2021, we honored this bond by commemorating the 65th anniversary of the normalization of our diplomatic relations, as well as the 10th anniversary of our Strategic Partnership. Importantly, it is the understanding of our people which realized this remarkable milestone. For instance, a public opinion poll conducted in June 2022 revealed that almost 80% of Filipinos trust Japan. Considering the bitter history of war nearly 80 years ago, I am deeply grateful that the supermajority of Filipinos now trusts Japan.
Specifically, the Embassy promotes our close ties across a vast portfolio of partnerships, collaborations, and people-to-people exchanges. First and foremost, our strong economic ties bolster the foundation of our bilateral relations. Japan is not only the top Official Development Assistance (ODA) donor for the Philippines, but also one of its leading trading partners and foreign investors. The Embassy works closely with the Philippines, including the central government as well as local authorities and communities, in order to contribute to achieving a better living environment deserved by everyone.
Our cooperation is not limited to the economic sphere as our nations have been increasingly deepening our political and security cooperation, as represented by the First Japan-Philippines Foreign and Defense Ministerial Meeting (“2+2”), held in Tokyo in April this year. Turning our attention to the situation in the Indo-Pacific region, the regional security environment is becoming more testing and uncertain at a remarkably faster speed. In particular, the sustainment of the maritime order in the South China Sea is directly connected to protecting our global commons. Given the situation, what is important is close cooperation among like-minded countries bonded by such universal values and principles as freedom, democracy, and the rule of law. This is why the Philippines is one of our most reliable partners.
Needless to say, the incredible people-to-people ties we have forged throughout our long history are at the core of such developments. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the volume of Filipino tourists to Japan showed tremendous potential. Specifically, back in 2019, around 610,000 Filipinos visited Japan, whereas approximately 680,000 Japanese people visited the Philippines. Now that organized group tours to Japan are available, I genuinely hope that it will trigger a steady growth path. Moreover, the active presence of Overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in Japan represents the vitality of our grassroots connections. Their valuable support for the lives of Japanese people in various fields, such as nursing care, agriculture, and manufacturing, creates a deeply-rooted and lasting impact on our relations.
Being at the forefront of diplomacy, the Embassy has been playing an active role in achieving the above-mentioned considerable progress in our bilateral relations. By striving to build close and meaningful connections, Japan-Philippines ties can expand and flourish.
How have you enjoyed your time in the Philippines? Culture, people, country?
There is no doubt that I am enjoying my life here in the Philippines. You can see how I deeply appreciate my firsthand experiences in the Philippines through my Twitter account and the Embassy’s Facebook page.
Looking back, it was rather unfortunate that I could not hit the ground running due to the lockdown when I first arrived in 2020, but I was soon able to explore the charms of the Philippines when restrictions started to gradually be eased. The past year alone has been a very productive time – busy and full of exciting events. I have had the honor of meeting many extraordinary Filipinos, exploring the beauty and wonders of the Philippines, and experiencing its rich culture and heritage.
For starters, I have had the privilege to visit many beautiful places throughout the country, both publicly and privately. There are too many to mention here, but they include Los Baños, Vigan, Cebu, El Nido (Palawan), Davao, Cotabato and Zamboanga. Every single trip is simply unforgettable as a valuable opportunity to firsthand experience the world-class Filipino hospitality through engaging with the local communities and to witness the impacts and potentials of Japan-Philippines cooperation at the grassroots level.
Of course, I also enjoy Filipino cuisine so much! The first on my list was definitely Jollibee, a famous Filipino fast food chain restaurant providing “soul food” for Filipinos! My favorite is their Spicy Chickenjoy – a fried chicken meal which is crispy yet very flavorful. It is on my bucket list to taste the delicacies of the Philippines as much as I can. Therefore, for every trip, I make sure to try the specialties of the province I visit. The flavors of Bulalo, Cebu Lechon, and Buko Pie are especially remarkable; I have come to realize why they are the all-time favorites of Japanese tourists visiting the Philippines. I also enjoyed the taste of Durian, despite its intense aroma. Likewise, I tried a very famous street food in the Philippines called “Balut” (a fertilized duck egg embryo that is boiled and eaten from the shell) for the first time. Many Filipino friends of mine have been asking me if I already tasted one, and I had my first bite a few weeks ago. Let me tell you how amazing it is for food to be such a thrilling experience. This is true for all the Filipino dishes I have tried, and it gives a deeper insight into the culture of Filipinos.
Moreover, just this July, we celebrated the Japan-Philippine Friendship Month with Bayanihan, the National Dance Company of the Philippines. Together with my colleagues, they showed and taught us how to dance the Traditional Filipino Folk Dance Tinikling. Watching them perform the dance was so mesmerizing, and attempting to dance was equally exhilarating. It is simply amazing that wherever you travel in the Philippines, people always warmly welcome you with their own local music and dance.
I firmly believe that my fantastic experiences here in the Philippines are thanks to the warmth of the Filipino people and their general trust in Japan. Again, I strongly recommend you to visit my Twitter and the Embassy’s Facebook page and have a look at Filipino culture as seen through our perspective.
What steps can be made to ensure the bilateral relationship between the countries continues to thrive?
The diverse and grounded ties between Japan and the Philippines offer plenty of avenues for our linkages to be stronger. Our relations have been characterized by significant achievements, one after another, and it still shows incredible potential for growth. Today, we are witnessing innovations and discoveries which can impact the pace of our development as Strategic Partners. Therefore, it is essential to have a future-oriented perspective in maintaining and building up our bilateral relations.
For one, Japan has established its position as a reliable socioeconomic development partner of the Philippines. Our unwavering commitment to improving Filipino livelihood has been proven by our steadfast support of various initiatives taken by the Philippine government, as represented by the “Build, Build, Build” Program. By providing financial and technical assistance for numerous infrastructure development projects, such as the Metro Manila Subway, the North-South Commuter Railway, and the Davao City Bypass, Japan has a proven track record of delivering on its promises. For our relations to thrive even further, we are committed to amplifying such efforts and fostering socioeconomic development in the Philippines under the Marcos administration’s slogan “Build Better More.” While Japan commits itself to further strengthening cooperation in hard infrastructure, we are also looking to advance cooperation in the agriculture, climate change, and digital fields, to accommodate the emerging needs of the Philippines.
In addition, the development of the Mindanao Peace Process is always one to look forward to. As a committed supporter of the peace process, Japan has demonstrated its unwavering commitment by supporting the normalization process and transition to the Bangsamoro Autonomous Government, as well as by extending socioeconomic development assistance through the Japan-Bangsamoro Initiatives for Reconstruction and Development or “J-BIRD” program. Under the recognition that Mindanao is crucial to the stability in not only the Philippines but also the entire region, Japan will continue our over three-decade long steadfast support.
Last but not least, further augmentation of coast guard and security cooperation between Japan and the Philippines continues to be of vital importance. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is totally unacceptable, and it is an outrageous act which has shaken the very foundations of the international order not only in Europe but also in Asia. Along the same lines, Japan also has grave concerns for China’s unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force in the East and South China Seas. Such attempts challenging the international order based on the rule of law must not be tolerated in any part of the world. Given that, I am certain that Japan and the Philippines, sharing fundamental values, including democracy, human rights and the rule of law, can and should strengthen our cooperation towards the realization of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP), along with other like-minded countries. Indeed, it is in line with our national interests and also contributes to sustaining peace and stability in the international community.
What message do you have regarding the future of the Philippines-Japan friendship and closer cooperation?
Prospects for the future of Japan-Philippines relations continue to be bright and dynamic. Over the years, our bilateral cooperation has achieved many triumphs. This has been made possible merely owing to the strong people-to-people ties between our two nations. It is our cultural intersections and human connections which have always kept the dynamism of our bilateral relations. With the Filipino’s talent, warmth, and hospitality, I have no doubt that our relations are in good hands for the foreseeable future.
The outpouring of interest in working and studying in Japan is a perfect example. Filipinos rank as the fourth largest foreign nationality group across Japan, next to the Chinese, Koreans, and Vietnamese. Many Filipinos come to Japan as part of the Japanese government’s Technical Intern Training Program (TITP) or as nurse and care worker candidates under the Japan-Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement (JPEPA). Filipino nurses and care workers undoubtedly enjoy an excellent reputation in Japan – favored by patients and care facility residents for their kind, friendly, and distinct care.
In the same vein, there has been an increase in the number of Filipino Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs) who come to Japan as part of the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program, as well as young scholars who pursue their higher education in Japan via the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) Scholarship. I have had a chance to meet and greet many of them before departing for Japan, and I am confident that they will serve as a bridge connecting our two nations at the grassroots level. Here, I also need to mention that it is a two-way exchange as the Philippines has been attracting more attention among Japanese people who pursue quality English education by studying abroad.
Importantly, beyond being cultural ambassadors, their presence in Japan is vital for the country’s growth. Taking into account Japan’s aging society and the Philippines’ abundance of competent young labor force, the importance of our cooperation in human exchange is patently obvious. Tackling this demographic asymmetry appears to bring a number of benefits – ultimately creating a lasting impact which cascades to our economic and human resource development.