Japan as no “other”: Decolonizing Alternative for Central Asia?
By: Timur Dadabaev
Japan has been one of the first and most consistent partners of Central Asian (Central Asia) states in supporting their nation-building and regionalism. It was also the first country to propose the concept of the Silk Road to build interconnectedness and open partnerships for regional states. In this sense, the Japanese presence in the Central Asia region represents an engagement for diversifying and decolonizing Central Asia states’ relations with international partners. While Japan has been active through its ODA policy in the region, recent years demonstrate how Japan attempts to reconceptualize its engagement in Central Asia by promoting international partnerships with the EU to utilize mutual strengths to dynamize the EU and the Japanese presence in Central Asia. Through regional and bilateral connections, Japan is attempting to empower these regional states while also changing its own approaches to international cooperation.
Over the past 30 years, the Japanese approach to Central Asia has been to secure the Japanese presence in the region by offering Central Asian nations an additional option of an international partner among traditional choices, such as Russia, and, in most recent history, China. The schemes offered to facilitate engagement between Japan and Central Asia were vibrant and diverse, reflecting the changing realities of the Central Asian region and the changing role and perception of the “self” in Japan. As is well documented in previous studies, the search for engagement schemes started with the 1996 Obuchi mission to Azerbaijan and Central Asia, spearheaded by the Member of Parliament and later Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, which produced a strong endorsement of wider engagement of Japan in the region. It resulted in P.M. Ryutaro Hashimoto’s 1997 Eurasian/Silk Road Diplomacy speech, in which the concept of the Silk Road was first used as a geopolitical concept, embracing Central Asian states, China, Russia and Japan in an imagined net of interdependence. While the administrations of P.M. Obuchi (1998-1999) and P.M. Yoshirō Mori (1999-2000) did not proactively engage with the Central Asia region, it was P.M. Junichiro Koizumi’s administration (2001-2006) that aimed to aggressively shake up the Japanese approach to this region by announcing the Central Asia + Japan Dialogue Forum, a set of annual inter-ministerial and high-level talks to support Central Asian regional integration and to facilitate a larger corporate presence for Japanese corporate interests, in the face of growing Chinese and Russian pressures.