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Japan-Türkiye Relations: A Century of Friendship

Author: Cüneyt Aksoy

Japan and Türkiye, seemingly very distant countries geographically, share a deeply rooted history of cultural, economic, and diplomatic relations that have advanced over the years. Although Turkish-Japanese relations have been through many phases throughout different periods and both nations’ various political iterations, it carries a friendly sentimentality reinforced with historic rescues, solidarity, and a sense of mutual respect and empathy as victims of natural disasters.[1] This sentimentality, referred to as romanticism by researchers of Japanese-Turkish relations, is accompanied by a vague notion of ‘commonness’, which refers to the many cultural parallels and some similar social and paternal values.[2] These parallels can be observed not only in everyday social practices, such as removing one’s shoes in the house, but also in political history, as 19th century Ottoman Türkiye and Meiji Japan were late modernisers around the same time with different but comparable experiences.[3]

The year 1890 is considered the start of official relations, making 2023 the 133rd year of relations. This is a history marked with little strife or controversies, although Japan and Türkiye were in opposing blocs during the two world wars. After the decision of the then Ottoman Empire Sultan Abdulhamid II to return the favour of Prince Komatsu’s diplomatic visit to Istanbul two years prior, the frigate Ertugrul was sent on a voyage to Japan in 1890, carrying gifts and friendship messages to the Japanese Emperor Meiji. The crew of 600 sailors were successful on their mission; however, on their return voyage, hit by a typhoon, Ertugrul sank in Wakayama, Japan. There were only 69 survivors.[4] The rescue efforts of the local villagers and the general solidarity of the Japanese public, birthed the romanticism of Turkish-Japanese relations. However, the geopolitical factor that instigated the bilateral relations was the potential of a partnership against czarist Russia’s ever-increasing influence in Asia.[5] Secondly, there was a desire to share notes on each other’s experience on modernisation efforts.[6]

A century later, with new economic policies, Turgut Özal’s administration in the Republic of Türkiye moved the country to a free market economy.[7] These policies drew growing Japanese interest in the Turkish economy throughout the 1980s and 1990s. This interest brought large-scale Japanese private sector investments, such as Toyota and a Japanese consortium constructing the second bridge at the Istanbul strait that connects Asian and European sides of Istanbul.[8] Turkish admiration of Japan, on the other hand, manifested itself even in political campaign speeches, promising to make a new Japan out of Türkiye.[9] While economic relations were gaining momentum, the 1985 Iran-Iraq war created a difficult situation for Japan. A second solidarity event occurred when Turkish Airlines carried out the Japanese evacuation from Tehran.[10] What the Ertugrul disaster of the nineteenth century meant for the Turkish, the rescue of 215 Japanese nationals a century later had a similar effect on the Japanese and fed into the romanticisation of relations, this time from Japan’s side.[11]

As Japan and Türkiye are geographically vulnerable to earthquakes, collaboration on earthquake rescue and relief efforts is another basis for solidarity and amity in Japanese-Turkish relations. While Japanese rescue crews are revered in Türkiye, Turkish help in earthquake disasters in Japan is also welcomed with similar sentimentality.[12]

Contemporary Japanese-Turkish relations are multifaceted. The historical romanticism of each nation’s solidarity and friendship with the other, moulded over a century, has made it easier for them to explore a deeper level of cooperation today.[13] In terms of trade, although there is a big trade gap, Türkiye’s exports valued US$ 521.7 million in 2021, while imports reached US$ 4.3 billion from Japan, and overall trade reached US$ 4.9 billion.[14] In the political arena, there are varied levels of cooperation founded on the recognition of similar values and expectations around global issues, ranging from close collaboration in the Gulf of Aden against piracy to like-mindedness in international organisations such as the United Nations. For instance, Türkiye is a supporter of Japanese proposals for UN reform.[15] Recent global challenges, especially the Russian invasion of Ukraine, where both Japan and Türkiye are in favour of the territorial integrity of Ukraine, and its ramifications are already quickening the formation of a ‘strategy’ in Japan such as the Free and Open Indo-Pacific. Türkiye also announced its Asia Anew Initiative in late 2021 to strengthen relations with Asia holistically.[16] Time will tell if like-minded Türkiye favouring a rules-based order seeks to pivot more to Japan in the context of Japan’s Indo-Pacific strategy.[17]

Overall, the friendship and cooperation between Japan and Türkiye have deep historical roots that have evolved and strengthened over the years. From the solidarity shown during times of crisis to the growing economic ties, the relationship between these two countries continues to develop. In the current global environment, how much the relations will advance will be dependent on the extent to which the discourse of romanticism is transcended and moves into the realm of the real.

[1] Bahadir Pehlivanturk, ‘Turkish-Japanese Relations: Turning Romanticism into Rationality’, International Journal: Canada’s Journal of Global Policy Analysis 67, no. 1 (March 2012): 101–2.

[2] Ibid., 102.

[3] Selçuk Esenbel, ‘Türk ve Japon modernleşmesi:‘Uygarlık süreci’kavramı açısından bir mukayese’, Toplum, no. 84 (2000): 18–32.

[4] ‘Türk-Japon Dostluğunun Temeli Ertuğrul Fırkateyni 131 Yaşında’, Anadolu Ajansı, accessed 12 August 2023,

[5] Pehlivanturk, ‘Turkish-Japanese Relations’, 104.

[6] Pınar Özden Cankara and Yavuz Cankara, ‘TARİHSEL SÜREÇTEN 2000’Lİ YILLARA TÜRKİYE’NİN JAPONYA İLE OLAN SİYASAL, EKONOMİK VE KÜLTÜREL İLİŞKİLERİ’, Bilecik Şeyh Edebali Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü Dergisi, 22 December 2021, 506,

[7] ‘24 Ocak Kararlarının Tanıkları Konuştu’, accessed 16 August 2023,

[8] Pehlivanturk, ‘Turkish-Japanese Relations’, 105.


[10] ‘Japonya ’tarihi uçuş’un mürettebatını unutmadı’, Hürriyet, 7 December 2018, sec. dunya,

[11] Pehlivanturk, ‘Turkish-Japanese Relations’, 105.

[12] ‘Japonlardan Duygularından Bağış Kampanyası: Hayatlarını Kurtaran Kahramanları Unutmadılar!’, Cumhuriyet, 13 February 2023,

[13] Pehlivanturk, ‘Turkish-Japanese Relations’, 107.

[14] Republic of Türkiye Ministry of Trade, ‘Japan Country Analysis’, accessed 13 August 2023,

[15] Pehlivanturk, ‘Turkish-Japanese Relations’, 108.

[16] Republic of Türkiye Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ‘Asia Anew Initiative’, 2021,

[17] Selçuk Esenbel, ‘Japan as a Pivot for Turkey? The Japanese Perspective on the Making of a New World Order, Transcontinental Maritime Alliances, the Ukraine Crisis, and the End of Multipolarity’, Global Perspectives 4, no. 1 (21 June 2023): 12,