Japan is one of the best established and largest partners of Turkey in East Asia. Historical ties between the two countries stretch back to the 19th century. During the Cold War, Japan rose to be one of the world’s leading economies and so became an attractive model for Turkey just as it was for other Asian countries like China, South Korea, Taiwan, and Malaysia. The modernisation of Japan was something closely followed in Turkey. However Japan’s ability to be a source of inspiration for Turkey declined seriously in the 1990s as it did across the world.

During the 1980s the world began to speak of the Asian Tigers, headed by South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore. The story of the economic development of South Korea and Taiwan had begun in the 1960s and it was much fresher and more influential than that of Japan. Just at the time when world interest in Japan was gradually lessening, there was a sudden unexpected spurt of economic development in China. The 1990s was a decade in which the ‘Chinese miracle’ was completed and became fully apparent. But during this same period Japan was unable to overcome economic stagnation which began to afflict it at the beginning of the decade. And that made people in Turkey ask, as they did all across the world, whether the Japanese miracle was coming to an end.

Turkish-Japanese relations in the 1990s

Japan’s economic setback was reflected in Turkish-Japanese relations. Until the 1990s there had been a non-stop succession of delegations from Turkey visiting Japan but now the flow was halted while relations with the South Koreans and then the Chinese became more influential. The decline in Turkish-Japanese commercial and economic relations can be quantified: The volume of trade was $1.4 billion in 1990 but by 2000 it had risen only to $1.8 billion. Though there has been an increase in the volume of Turkish-Japanese trade in real terms up till the present, but there has been a relative decline compared to other trading partners. Until around 2000, Japan was Turkey’s most important trade partner in Asia but by 2012 it had dropped to fourth place. Turkey’s other Asian trading partners have overtaken it: China did so a decade ago, then South Korea, and now India too. As of 2012 the volume of Turkish-Japanese trade was $3.9 billion, while China took first place as Turkey’s trading partner in Asia with $24.1 billion, India came second with $6.6 billion, and South Korea third with $6.2 billion.

A further indicator of the subdued state of Turkish-Japanese relations since the 1990s is the paucity of top-level visits. The then Japanese prime minister, Toshiki Kaifu visited Turkey in 1990 but 16 years elapsed before the next visit by a Japanese premier, Junichoro Kouzumi in 2006. The most recent visit came seven years after that when Shinzo Abe visited Turkey on 3 and 4 of May this year.

The political explanation for this picture might be that Tokyo has not attached very much strategic importance to Turkey during the last 23 years. Indeed the recent visit took place for the signing ceremony for a large project – the Sinop nuclear power station. One can say that from the Turkish perspective, Turkey has given relatively more importance to relations with Japan during the last 23 years. A succession of senior Turkish statesmen has visited Japan: President Turgut Özal in 1990, then Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel in 1992, Prime Minister Tansu Çiller in 1995, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in 2004, and President Abdullah Gül in 2008.But when one looks at the agendas for these high level visits, it would seem that Japan did not fulfil the expectations of its Turkish visitors.

As of the end of 2012, the general course of Turkish-Japanese relations appeared to lack a strategic road map and to be slipping backwards relatively speaking. The stagnation made itself felt even in changes in the fields of education and culture. For example, for many years the annual number of Japanese tourists visiting Turkey did not exceed 200,000. If one remembers that Turkey is by now a country with a tourist industry attracting a total of more than 30 million tourists a year, the number of Japanese tourists is distinctly modest.

Tokyo’s nuclear drive

To restore the impetus to Japanese relations with Turkey, -it was necessary for Japan to   win one of the large scale projects. Turkey’s first nuclear power station contract was awarded to Russia in Mersin, so the second nuclear power station project planned for Sinop had great importance. Preliminary discussions were held from 2010 onwards and China, South Korea, Canada, and Japan were among the candidates for the Sinop nuclear power station. Following the signing of its first nuclear power cooperation agreement with Russia, Turkey went on to sign a second agreement with Japan in December 2010. But then in March 2011 Japan was struck by a large earthquake and a tsunami which seriously damaged the Fukushima Power Station. The operating firm, TEPCO, suffered a financial crisis and as a result withdrew from the Sinop project in August 2011. But just as everyone was expecting the contract to go to Chinese, or South Korean or Canadian companies, the Japanese made a surprising initiative. Mitsubishi of Japan formed a consortium with Areva of France and was awarded the contract.

A new period in relations

Shinzo Abe became Japan’s prime minister for a second time in December 2012 as a result of Japan’s early general elections. Mr Abe’s most important priority had been the revitalising of the Japanese economy and making moves in foreign policy to counter-balance China. Japan’s final drive in the Sinop Nuclear Power-Station project can be seen as a manifestation of his active foreign policy.  Worth $22 billion, the Sinop power-station contract would be a great opportunity for the Japanese economy and also make it possible for Japanese investment in Turkey to soar. The project will last for a decade and by taking it on, Japan will have the potential to revive Turkish-Japanese relations after their recent stagnation or perhaps downturn.

During his visit, Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdoğan, invited his Japanese colleague, Mr Abe, to encourage Japanese firms to take part in tenders in Turkey for projects to build motorways, bridges, airports, and high speed trains. One of the main practical results of this visit came in the field of education. Agreement was reached to set up a Turkish-Japanese Technical University and for it to commence teaching first in Turkey and later in Japan. So Tokyo has recently been shaking off the past and preparing itself anew. Turkish-Japanese have a well-established history which certainly helps in this. Bilateral economic relations will be taken to new levels with the construction of the nuclear power-station and this could be carried over into joint venture projects in Eurasia, the Middle East, and Africa.  The thing that seems to be most lacking in bilateral political relations is a strategic road map.

The fact that the two countries do not have any serious problems between them is certainly helpful but until there is a practical outcome at the level of international relations, this is not very meaningful. Both sides need to put forward their suggestions for political and economic cooperation on regional and global matters. Then they need to examine each of these areas of cooperation and draw up a road map, specifying steps to be taken in the short, medium, and long term.

The most important advance that could take place in their bilateral relations is problem in the field of education. When the Turkish-Japanese University starts work in both countries, it will help raise a generation of people familiar with both Turkish and Japanese and having a shared work culture. Thanks to this, the way may be opened for even greater ventures in the future.

A Nuclear Boost To Turkish-Japanese Relations

June 28, 2013,  The Journal of Turkish Weekly

Selçuk Çolakoğlu