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Japan’s science and technology diplomacy

Author: Scarlett Cornelissen

Science and diplomacy tend to be regarded as vastly different spheres, but together they are a bridge to connect and help realise the Sustainable Development Goals, thus contributing to the betterment of humanity and the planet. So stated Professor Motoko Kotani, science and technology (S&T) co-advisor to Japan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, at a seminar held at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study on 7 December 2022. The seminar was jointly hosted by Stellenbosch University Japan Centre and the Embassy of South Africa in Tokyo in association with South Africa’s Department of Science and Innovation.

Prof. Kotani, a mathematician specialised in discrete geometric analysis, is president-elect of the International Council for Science, a member of the Council of Science of Japan and Executive Vice-President for Research at Tohoku University, where she holds a professorship at that institution’s Mathematics Institute. In addition to serving as S&T co-advisor for the foreign minister, Prof. Kotani also advises Japan’s Cabinet Office on science and technology policy.

At the seminar, Prof. Kotani detailed Japan’s science, technology and innovation (STI) landscape and explained the nature of the current, sixth, STI policy which sets out to realise Society 5.0, a national vision for ‘a human-centred society’ that sustainably achieves economic development and solves social problems through the integration of cyberspace, digital technologies, and physical space. In this aspiration towards a ‘super-smart society’, Japan has set various strategies on, among others, artificial intelligence, quantum technology and innovation, and green growth in pursuit of carbon neutrality by 2050. Developing strategic partnerships across the globe is an important aspect of this and thus Japan’s international engagement through science diplomacy.

Prof. Kotani stated that the realms of science and diplomacy overlap today in key ways, driven by global dynamics. Science diplomacy has three dimensions: science in diplomacy, where scientific advice informs international policy; diplomacy for science, which centres on the facilitation of international science cooperation; and science for diplomacy, where science cooperation strengthens international relations. Human resources are the driving force of S&T diplomacy, Prof. Kotani noted, and investment in science and technology capabilities by stakeholders in industry, government and academic sectors is important.

There is a strong basis for STI cooperation between South Africa and Japan. In 2003 the two countries concluded the Agreement for Science and Technology Cooperation and there is a Joint Committee on S&T cooperation, an intergovernmental dialogue framework, which meets regularly. Other cooperation include support for collaborative research as under the Japan Society for the Promotion of Sciences-National Research Foundation (JSPS-NRF) grant scheme; joint financing of research projects by the NRF and the Japan Science and Technology Agency; and the Africa Business Education Initiative, which provides scholarships to African youth to get postgraduate and internship training in Japan. Prof. Kotani concluded that these and other frameworks have been in place for a long time based on trust and mutual understanding.

Prof. Kotani was accompanied by a delegation of representatives from the Japan Science and Technology Agency, the Japan Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, the Science Council of Japan, and the Embassy of Japan in Pretoria.