Japan became an aid donor in 1954, remarkably early on in its recovery from WWII, largely because its early ODA was given in the place of reparations to neighboring Asian countries it had occupied or attacked. At this time, Japan was very much still a developing country itself, so its early ODA was a clear case of South-South aid. By the 1980s however, Japan had established itself as an economic superpower, which changed the relationship between Japan and its ODA recipients. By 1991, Japan was Tanzania’s third most important trading partner while Tanzania was Japan’s 101st. Tanzania was one of Japan’s largest aid recipients in Africa at the time, and the trade imbalance between the two countries was representative of Japan’s more dominant position in global trade.
Despite its economic strength, many still saw Japan as not fitting squarely into the “global north.” In 1989, the Minister of Foreign Affairs claimed that Japan, more than any other country, had the potential to mediate North-South conflicts because of its position somewhere between the two. Since then, many publications of the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the main organ for Japanese ODA distribution, have claimed that Japan’s aid is different from ODA given by other OECD donor countries because of this in-between status.
Japan’s status as a highly developed country means that it could more easily characterize its approach to aid as non-western than claim to fall somewhere in between the global “north” and “south”, and there are several areas in which Japanese aid clearly operates differently than other major western donors. However, the claim that it follows that Japan also has some kind of unique ability to understand the needs of the developing world, is harder to prove. This has especially been questioned by some western development aid experts who advocate for greater levels of coordination between donors (and tend to prefer their own aid philosophies as models for emulation).
Why Japan sees itself as somewhere between “north” and “south”
Like many countries in the global south, Japan suffered periods of western exploitation; the forced opening of its markets by the US in the mid-1800s, British efforts in the inter-war period aimed at preventing Japan from becoming a trade rival in East and West Africa, and the darker aspects of US occupation of Japan in the post-WWII period are just a few examples.
On the other hand, Japan has also benefited in some areas where other southern countries have not, such as when Japanese businessmen in Apartheid South Africa were given “honorary white” status, which helped them set up profitable trade links with South Africa whereas their Indian and Chinese counterparts were subjected to discriminatory laws. Both of these kinds of historical experiences influence Japan’s perception of its national identity and role in its foreign relations.
In regards to its role as a donor country to Africa, other factors also come into play. Unlike European donors, Japan has no history of colonialism on the continent, and unlike the US and UK, Japan resisted pressure to get involved in Cold War geopolitics especially outside of Asia.
How accurate a perception?
Japanese aid does seem to have many aspects in common with popular conceptions of south-south aid. For example, like China, Japan has historically not viewed aid as charity owed by rich countries. This was evident in Japan’s leading position among donor countries in terms of raw dollar amounts viewed in contrast to its much lower rank (17th place) in terms of quality-adjusted aid and charitable giving as a percentage of GDP, according to the Center for Global Development’s 2004 Index of Donor Performance. It can also be seen in Japan’s hesitance to concentrate aid flows on the poorest countries as well as its preference to not abandon concessional loans targeting industrial development in favor of grant aid.
Secondly, both Japan and China have been accused of letting their economic interests influence the kind of assistance they give. Historically, this criticism has been directed at what was seen as an attempt to improve infrastructure to create opportunities for Japanese companies to more profitably invest in African countries, or as some put it, more easily extract African natural resources. More recently, because of competition with China over natural resources, particularly oil, Japan has come to pay more attention to Africa’s energy sector.
Finally, Japan, like many other southern donors, adopts a policy of relative non-interference in the domestic affairs of recipient countries. This was visible in how long it took Japan to join other donors in suspending aid to Kenya under Moi, as well as its continued message to recipient countries that it is the recipient country’s duty, not Japan’s, to decide what political course they should take.
Japanese ODA also reflects its desire to not repeat the mistakes it sees in the approaches of western donors. For example, Japan has insisted that its African recipients provide a request for aid accompanied by a viability report in order to escape accusations that its aid policies are in any way guilty of neo-imperialism.
To further protect itself from such a label, Japan has invested heavily in trilateral aid, or aid projects which involve Japan as primary donor, a developing country as the secondary donor (usually of human or institutional resources instead of money), and a second developing country as the recipient, such as the recent trilateral Japan-Malaysia-Zambia trade promotion project. In these projects, Japan takes more of a back seat. Japan’s role essentially enables one developing country to offer its own technical assistance, and helps prevent the typical donor-recipient power imbalance.
The last major area of contention between Japanese and western donors is country-by-country, and sometimes factory-by-factory, flexibility versus promotion of successful models and focus on international standards. Japan sees itself as being respectful of individual recipient countries’ specifications and preferences. This can be seen in several ways. For one, Japanese scholars argue that while Japan looks for recipient countries’ economic or industrial strengths and tries to further improve those areas, western donors look for areas of weakness in the recipient country compared to the norm, and tries to bring those areas up to standard. Secondly, advocates of Japanese ODA uniqueness point to examples of western donors investing in recipient countries’ abilities to meet international standards in situations where Japan opted instead to focus on improving individual company production.
Because of these areas where Japan diverges from the western donor community, Japan also resists calls to harmonize and pool aid. Japanese ODA experts explain that Japan foresees few aspects of its approach to aid being adopted by western donors and believes aid recipients need to have a choice between donors to find types of aid that work for their country.
Recent Developments: Changes in both directions
Increasingly since its revision of its “ODA Charter” in 2003, Japanese ODA has moved away from some of its unique aid strategies to come more in line with the west. At the same time surprisingly, it has also taken a stronger stand in promoting some of its views on aid. Much of this is a result of pressure on JICA to make aid seem more cost-effective in the eyes of an increasingly skeptical Japanese public.
Japan has shifted towards “Basic Human Needs” (BHN) aid such as food aid, emergency aid, education, and sanitation in response to public support for these types of aid. In response to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan which were highly unpopular in Japan, Japanese ODA conferences highlighted aid as a means of achieving “consolidation of peace,” and “human security”.
While trying to reach out to the Japanese public, JICA has also used the occasion of its restructuring in 2008 to rebrand itself to global audiences. In the past two years, JICA has advertised itself and its activities in European publications and wooed western reporters in hopes of making more headlines. Compared to American and British aid agencies, these promotional activities are still quite modest, but represent a clear break from JICA’s preference for staying out of the spotlight in years past.
Whether or not these changes materialize into a substantially different approach to aid will depend on several factors, including how successful Japanese ODA is with its new goals, the extent of Japanese economic recovery, and perhaps whether Japan will gain new support from other middle or southern donors. For the immediate future however, Japan will likely continue to experiment with this new approach halfheartedly without abandoning the core distinguishing characteristics of its long-preferred aid philosophy.
Devon Knudsen teaches politics at the University of Nairobi in Kenya