Bridges SMS interviewed H.E. Kazuya Nashida, Ambassador of Japan to Thailand and H.E. Singtong Lapisatepun, Ambassador of the Kingdom of Thailand for a deeper dive into the relationship between the two countries. Here are some key insights.
H.E. Kazuya Nashida, Ambassador of Japan to Thailand
Can you tell us more about the history of relations between Japan and Thailand?
The relationship between Thailand and Japan is actually much longer than 135 years, unofficially. I’d say it’s more than 600 years. 135 years is just the official diplomatic relation; however, we have enjoyed a relationship for a much, much longer time between our two countries.
Among the ASEAN and other Asian countries, Thailand has the longest history of friendship with Japan, and it is also the largest base for the Japanese community. We have nearly 100,000 Japanese nationals living here. There are approximately 6,000 Japanese companies here, and we are top investors in terms of the stock base.
So, Thailand is among the best countries for Japanese nationals. We have the number one status in terms of population, in terms of the number of companies, and in terms of investment. In China, Vietnam, and Indonesia we are not in the number one; Thailand is a special partner for us.
Okay, talking of 135 years, we’d like to continue the current good relations with Thailand—not only in economic terms but in other aspects, as well. Thailand is an equal partner for Japan. So, we will strive to develop together. To achieve this, we will continue to cooperate, hand-in-hand as equal partners. That is, I think the key word is co-creation—to create together.
What milestones come to mind, when we talk of bilateral relations between Japan and Thailand?
Although I only assumed my post here in December 2019, I can say that I do love it here. I had been to Thailand many times before, but only as a visiting tourist. However, after having lived here, I was so amazed that there are so many visitors coming from Japan, and so many Thai people going to Japan, as well. The cultural exchange is so significant. Of course, that has been affected by the pandemic, in recent years.
The last two years have actually been very quiet, activity-wise, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But, while there have not been many visits since the start of the pandemic, Minister Hagiuda, the minister of METI (Ministry of Trade and Industry) came here in January, after a two-year absence of any inter-ministerial level visit to Thailand. And Prime Minister Kishida came in May. Unlike his previous visits, which were mainly for international conferences such as ASEAN meetings, PM Kishida’s recent visit was had a bilateral agenda. The Prime Minister of Thailand went to Japan in May, as well. In the same month, the highest leaders of both countries exchanged visits. This is very significant, and now that COVID restrictions have eased, we anticipate more visits, moving forward.
As I said earlier, we look forward to achieving more milestones and to continuing our cooperation in various sectors. For instance, we have created a manufacturing hub in Thailand; 80% of the market share in the automotive industry is comprised of Japanese car companies, and almost all manufacturers are active here. And they also export all over the world. However, there are changes underway. Thailand is no exception from the global push to more environmentally responsible options, so they are now shifting progressively to Electric Vehicles (EV). We need to respond to the requirements of Thailand, in this industry, and in various others.
Thailand’s major policy is to be a BCG (bio circular and green) economy, and we need to align with their major policy; this is one milestone in the making—not only in the manufacturing industry, but also in the digital sector, in startups, and in our support of new businesses and young entrepreneurs, among others.
What opportunities do you see for continued cooperation and collaboration between Japan and Thailand?
Aside from the areas I mentioned above, there is also room to collaborate for advancements in agriculture—for example, introducing the use of IoT technology within the agricultural sector.
We also see the opportunity, as well as the need, to develop human resources, especially among the younger work force. This is something we need, from now on, for even stronger and better cooperation between two countries, moving forward.
In the arena of continued cultural exchange, Japanese culture is already very well accepted in Thai society. Just as an example, we have more than 4,000 Japanese restaurants here in Thailand. It’s quite natural already for Thai people to eat Japanese food; it’s already part of their culture.
We need to always focus on finding and creating opportunities to continue our efforts to share our Japanese culture throughout Thailand, especially with the Thai youth. And also to continue learning and growing in the aspect of Thailand’s rich culture, as well.
H.E. Singtong Lapisatepun, Ambassador of the Kingdom of Thailand
What are your insights on the longstanding diplomatic relations between Thailand and Japan?
Our relations with Japan date back much longer than 135 years. We’ve had trade relations with Japan from the Edo Period, and even as far back as the Ayutthaya Period, more than 600 years ago. But of course, formal diplomatic relations were established in 1887. In September this year, we will celebrate the 135th anniversary. Since this establishment, Thailand and Japan have enjoyed very good diplomatic relations; we’ve never had any problem with each other.
So far, this has been a year of numerous high-level exchange visits—the past two years, COVID-19 prevented such visits. During the visit of Prime Minister Kishida to Thailand in May 2022, both he and Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha were pleased with the development of Thailand-Japan relations. On the occasion of the 135th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations, the two leaders saw merit in considering the elevation of the bilateral relations from a Strategic Partnership to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. Furthermore, since Thailand is the host of the APEC, Prime Minister Kishida reaffirmed his readiness to visit Thailand to attend the APEC Economic Leaders Week in November.
With regard to people exchange, both countries and our people have a very good friendship and very cordial relations. Thai people love Japan; they are waiting for the reopening of the borders, after COVID-19, to visit Japan and enjoy the scenery, especially to see snow, because we don’t have snow in Thailand. Japanese people also love Thai culture and Thai food. We have hundreds of Thai restaurants in Japan. Before COVID-19, 1.8 million Japanese visited Thailand. We all love each other.
You may have also heard about the Thai Festival. For many years in the past, we’ve had a Thai Festival at Yoyogi Park in Tokyo; but with the pandemic, we had to cancel that festival. Last year, though, we organized a small Thai festival, like a “Drama Festival,” at our embassy. This year, we had our first-ever online Thai Festival with the theme of “Thai Pop” or “T-Pop” We chose those themes because over the pandemic, people were forced to stay at home, and Thai drama was among the top dramas that Japanese people watched at home. From dramas, the interest in the Thai culture expanded into Thai food, tourism in Thailand, and T-Pop, which has become more and more popular now. So, I think within these contexts, on all levels, we see the relations between the two countries growing even stronger and closer.
What are some of the recent milestones you can point to, within this diplomatic relationship?
The exchange of visits between the two leaders in May 2022 is a recent milestone. Furthermore, the visit of Prime Minister Kishida to Thailand to attend the APEC Meeting in November will also be a significant milestone in the Thailand-Japan relationship. I believe that from now on the exchanges of visit between the two countries will be more and more.
We also have cultural exchange milestones; for example, in sumo wrestling. Five years ago, my predecessor started the Thailand-Japan Friendship Cup, presenting a trophy for the winner of the sumo tournament in Tokyo. Now
, we are going to expand this cup, not only for the tournaments in Tokyo, but also for the ones in Nagoya, Osaka and Fukuoka. This year, we will be able to cover all six tournaments throughout the year. We will also make the trophy more Thai , in character, in the shape of an elephant, which also reflects our Chiang Rai elephant project in the northern part of Thailand. And we will also have one big elephant statue to be presented to the Nittaiji Temple in Nagoya, which is deeply rooted in Thai culture and historical ties with Japan. In 1900, our King Rama V gifted the Japanese Buddhist temple with Buddha relic that has since been enshrined in the Nittaji Temple. A statue of King Rama V is also situated there.
I would also like to mention a milestone of cooperation, related to Japan’s KOSEN system and their technical colleges. We know that the Japanese industry is in need of technicians—they need the personnel. In Bangkok, we have already established two centers that train technical personnel in the Japanese KOSEN way. Japan is a leading investor; they have huge investments in Thailand. Training technical personnel and technicians also helps the Japanese companies that have invested in Thailand; we can provide training and develop better technicians for the Japanese industries in Thailand. Prime Minister Kishida visited one of these KOSEN-type institutes in Thailand early this year, in May. If possible, we would like to expand this to our neighboring countries, so that we can be the hub of the Japanese industry for neighboring countries like Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar.
How do you feel the relationship between Thailand and Japan is evolving?
Japan has become the biggest investor in Thailand, in the private sector. In the public sector Japan was the biggest ODA provider to Thailand, maybe four or five decades ago. At that time, our economic levels were still really low and Japan provided aid grants to us, as well as technical cooperation.
Now, we have graduated from the classification of low income countries. So, while we can no longer receive aid grant, we now utilize yen loans from the Japanese government. In the public sector, we have utilized those loans mostly for infrastructure projects; bridges, subway systems, airport, the Bangkok International Airport—these were built in part with yen loans from the Japanese government.
In turn, these infrastructure projects serve as a very good foundation for further cooperation; they are incentives for Japanese private companies to come and invest in Thailand. As a result, we now have thousands of Japanese companies operating in Thailand, and thousands of Japanese expats living in the country.
The Japan Chamber of Commerce in Bangkok is one of the biggest of all the Japanese Chambers of Commerce overseas, with more than 1600 members. Also, the Japanese School in Bangkok is one of the top in the world. We are not that big of a country, but we have two Japanese schools. This is something that has been made possible with assistance from Japan; and while it serves the Japanese nationals in Thailand, it has helped elevate Thailand’s educational landscape, as well.
These are examples of the mutual benefits that both countries enjoy, as the relationship evolves.
What new opportunities do you see for heightened relations between Japan and Thailand?
Everyone is talking about SDGs (sustainable development goals), and Japan and Thailand also attach importance to SDGs. So, we are now thinking of new industries for the future.
We cannot only be focused only on economic growth, but we have to think about the environment, as well. There are so many things to consider, when it comes to environmental aspects. Japan has its green growth strategy, and Thailand has what we call the BCG (bio-circular and green) economy model. These two strategies complement each other really well. I think we could cooperate more with Japan, in this strategy.
For example, we are the production hub of the Japanese automobile industry, but I think we have to gear up towards the new direction, like we are talking about electric vehicles. We have to move to the new future, and that’s something that both Japan and Thailand share; we have the same direction for that industry.
The digital industry is also an area in which I believe we can work closely with Japan. With this pandemic, I think people now realize even more that we can work at home on digital platforms. Digital applications in industrial settings, as well as robotics and AI—these are all sectors which need IT personnel. So that’s something that the Japanese private sector and the Thai private sector can cooperate on, moving forward.
Another area that comes to mind is with regard to the aging society; because, as we all know, Japan is an aging society and Thailand seems to be heading that way. I think we can learn from Japan’s best practices about how to deal with an aging society, like the technology that they use in this sector. I think this is also a new opportunity for Thailand to expand our cooperation with our Japanese partner.