Published:  12:01 AM, 23 February 2021

A reflection on the bilateral relations between Bangladesh and Japan

A reflection on the bilateral relations between Bangladesh and Japan The writer is seen with the former Prime Minister of Japan Mr. Shinzo Abe at his office in Tokyo in 2016.
Today is the birthday of His Majesty Emperor Naruhito of Japan, an auspicious occasion celebrated as the National Day of Japan within the country as well as in the Japanese Missions around the world including in Bangladesh. The occasion is befitting for a reflection on the depth and dimensions of the bilateral relations existing between Japan and Bangladesh for nearly 50 years. But before I write on the bilateral domain, I wish to shed some light on a number of important aspects about the new Emperor and the imperial family.

The new Emperor, His Majesty Naruhito, was born on February 23, 1960. He acceded to the Chrysanthemum Throne on May 01, 2019 upon abdication by his father Emperor Akihito on April 30, 2019 - an event unprecedented in Japanese history in the last 200 years. His Majesty Naruhito is the 126th Monarch of an unbroken hereditary Shinto dynasty, which is descended from the Sun Goddess "Amaterasu", according to the Japanese legend. Upon his abdication Emperor Akihito assumed the title of Emperor Emeritus- mostly an honorific title and he will be known by that name upon his death. Emperor Naruhito has a PhD in history from Gakushuin University, Tokyo. He also spent two years studying at Oxford University, which made him the first member of the Japanese imperial family to pursue higher studies abroad. His wife, Empress Masako, was born on December 9, 1963.

She is a Harvard graduate in economics. A daughter of a former senior Japanese diplomat, she also joined the Japanese foreign service and did her post graduate studies in international relations at Oxford University for two years from 1988-90. After her marriage to then Crown Prince Naruhito in 1993, Empress Masako had to give up her successful diplomatic career and devoted herself to the designated royal duties. The Emperor and the Empress have a daughter, Aiko, Princess Toshi , born on December 01,2001. Although she is the only child of Their Majesties, Aiko, Princess Toshi is ineligible to ascend to the Throne, as Japanese constitution only allows male heir to the succession. Thus, Emperor Naruhito's younger brother Crown Prince Akishino's son, 14-year-old Prince Hishahito, who is second in line for succession, will eventually ascend to the throne.

The emperor of Japan, although is the Head of the State, remains disengaged from the frays of national politics. He not only serves as a symbol of the nation and unity of the people, but is also held in great reverence by the people of Japan. For Japanese people it had long been considered a sin to touch the emperor or look at his face. However, the imperial family after World War II has gone through phenomenal changes to be closely in touch with the general mass; and family members are often seen standing beside the people whenever a disaster hits the country. The emperor performs a number of state duties as stipulated in the constitution. The other members of the imperial family, including the Empress, have their duties elaborately outlined under the imperial household guidelines. In order to celebrate the birthday of their beloved Emperor, Japanese people, including many travelling from the far-flung areas from Tokyo, will gather around the Chrysanthemum Palace early in the morning on the day, and in a concerted move bow their heads towards the Palace lowering them at waist level, while waving tiny Japanese flags. The Emperor, accompanied by the Empress and several other members of the Imperial family, will appear on the balcony of the palace to acknowledge birthday wishes from citizens.

Bilateral Relations

The structure of Bangladesh-Japan relationship is underpinned by a number of sacrosanct and inviolable elements such as mutual affection, mutual trust and faith, mutual respect, non-interference in each other's internal matters, support and cooperation on regional and international issues of mutual interests and benefits etc. The rise of Japan as a major economic powerhouse in the world emerging from the ashes of a long and brutal war within a decade's time has also earned the respect and admiration of the people of Bangladesh. No wonder that our father of the nation dreamt of Bangladesh's rebounding emulating the success of Japan.

 Japan is one of the first major western countries that established formal diplomatic relations with Bangladesh on February 10, 1972, a few weeks after the country was liberated with the victory in the war of independence. The first ever highest-level official contact with Japan was established by the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, when he made a state visit to the country in November 1973, securing a solid foundation upon which the interaction between the two countries have enhanced and prospered over the years. Ever since that historical trailblazer event, all the successive heads of state/ government of Bangladesh have visited Japan, some a several times, as an indispensable foreign policy priority for bringing the two countries closer. Those visits significantly contributed to the engendering of a meaningful partnership with Japan, brick by brick.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, during her first term in office, visited Japan in 1997. Since returning to power in 2009 she has visited Japan three times in 2014, 2016 and 2019. These visits provided noteworthy stimulant to the establishment of her personal rapport with the Japanese leaders as well as showcasing Bangladesh's economic success abroad. While from the Japanese side there have been a number of important high-level visits over the years, including by a host of foreign and Prime ministers of the country. Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Bangladesh in September 2014, accompanied by an extremely powerful business delegation comprising Presidents, Chairmen and CEO's of top 200 companies of Japan. The emperor emeritus His Majesty Akihito visited Bangladesh in his capacity as the Crown Prince of Japan in 1975 and had an audience with Bangabandhu. He was quite taken with the towering personality and leadership of Bangabondhu , a lasting impression , which he shared with the author when the latter presented his Letters of Credentials of appointment as Ambassador of Bangladesh to the country in 2006.

The relationship between our two countries, especially during the last decade has set on an upward trajectory which continues to gain momentum unhindered and unabated, albeit yet to reach its full potential. The two countries have also signed a number of agreements between them aimed at consolidating and expanding the extant bilateral relationship.

There exists a remarkable people to people relationship between the peoples of the two countries, which is an essential element in conveying public sentiments and good will to each other. Japan has an especial place in the heart of the people of Bangladesh, not only for its unequivocal support to our cause during our war of liberation and its generous contribution to the economic development of the country, the people of Bangladesh also empathize with the people of Japan for enduring the ravages and cruelty during the second world war, including being the world's only victim of atom bomb attack, in which they too, like Bangladesh, lost three million people. During the war of liberation of Bangladesh many Japanese volunteers went door to door and stood in front of the railway stations collecting donations for Bangladeshi refugees. The near identical similarity of the national flags of the two countries also generates an emotional connection between them.

There are nearly 20000 Bangladeshis living in Japan and the community is quite ubiquitous in the Japanese society in view of their active roles in various economic and social activities in the country. Indeed, our community has served the nation well as its people's representative to Japan. They are quite active in numerous business fields, directly dealing with the mainstream Japanese business houses.

The Bangladesh Chamber of Commerce and Industries in Japan (BCCIJ), which the Bangladesh Embassy in Tokyo helped establish in 2007, has played a catalytic role in this regard. There is also a similar organization in Bangladesh. Our community, given their propensity in promoting our history, values, tradition and culture have floated a number of cultural organizations in the country and they often hold various cultural functions round the year; and on our national, religious and traditional events inviting local audience and dignitaries and thus raising our dignity and national profiles.

A number of Bangladeshi artists have also made good names in Japan through their art works and selling them at lucrative prices. One Mr. Kazi Ghyasuddin, an artist of high repute, who is a permanent resident in Japan, has been bestowed with a high Japanese state award for his art work. Another well-known Bengalee journalist Mr. Monzurul Huq, who also teaches at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, was elected as President of the Foreign Correspondent' Club of Japan (FCCJ), an organization which boasts more than 2000 members including over 350 foreign correspondents from around the world. Such a prominent position not only was a boost in highlighting Bangladesh's image but Mr. Huq had also used his good office to promote Bangladesh by organizing press briefings at the club for visiting important dignitaries of Bangladesh and on other occasions.

In 2006, the government of Bangladesh provided considerable funding for the erection of a Shaheed Minar (Language Martyrs Memorial), at the spacious Ikebukuro park of Tokyo. The park became a site for congregation for the Bagladeshi community, for commemorating the Language Martyrs Day as well holding other cultural events, such as Pohela Boishakh ( 1st day of the Bengalee new year), concerts for Bangladeshi artists etc. A large number of Japanese spectators could be seen during these occasions enjoying the events.

In 2007 the Bangladesh Embassy bought land at Chiyoda-KU, the most prestigious political and business center of Tokyo, on which our Embassy building now stands proudly in the heart of Tokyo city.

A number of heavyweight Japanese political leaders have also maintained strong friendly ties with Bangladesh. Mr. Taro Aso , a former prime minister and foreign minister of Japan, who is currently the deputy prime minister and finance minister of the country, is a great supporter of Bangladesh . He has been chairing the Japan- Bangladesh Parliament League of the Japanese Parliament for more than 15 years. The wife of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Mrs. Aki Abe and Ms. Kathy Matsui, a former Managing Director of Goldman Sachs, who is credited to introduce the concept of "womenomics" in Japan are committed friends of Bangladesh. They together undertook great initiatives in the establishment of the Asian University for Women (AUW) in Chittagong.

Japanese Writing about Bangladesh

The leading Japanese personality who had also been a pioneer in writing about Bangladesh is Takashi Hayakawa, who was a former minister and member of the Japanese Parliament, led the Japan-Bangladesh Parliamentary League until his death. His book on Bangladesh was published in Japan in the late 1970s. It has been translated into Bengali by another patron of Bangla language and friend of our country, Kazuhiro Watanabe, former head of NHK Bengali Broadcasting. Watanabe since then has translated from Japanese a book on the 1977 Japan Airlines hijack written by former Japanese cabinet minister Hajime Ishii. The plane landed at Dhaka airport and Ishii was sent to Bangladesh by the Japanese government to negotiate the release of passengers. Watanabe later translated into Japanese the "Unfinished Memoir" of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

Ambassador Matsushiro Horiguchi has written a book on Bangladesh History, which was published in Japan by a leading academic publisher Akashi Shoten. Akashi Shoten has also published a book on Bangladesh entitled "Bangladesh in 66 Chapters", which has been edited by Professor Masaaki Ohashi. It was first published in late 1990s and since then two more revised editions have been published. (To be continued...)

The writer has served as Bangladesh Ambassador to Japan from 2006-10.

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