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Interview: Dr. Shinichi KITAOKA

Author: Sue Segar

Japan has achieved modernisation and industrialisation from the 19th to the 20th century and the challenges it faced were similar to those currently faced by developing countries. For this reason, Japan –the world’s first country to modernise from a non-Western background – has much to offer in terms of its experience and lessons to developing countries around the world.

It is this willingness to share experiences which, for years, has informed the work of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and saw the recent creation of the JICA chair, a seminar programme on Japan’s modernisation and international development cooperation offered across the globe. JICA is the implementing agency of the Japanese government’s Official Development Assistance (ODA), which supports economic and social growth, recovery and economic stability in developing countries and promotes international cooperation.

Dr. Shinichi Kitaoka, former president of JICA and currently special advisor to the JICA President, on 11 October 2023 delivered the Inaugural JICA chair lecture at Stellenbosch University (SU), a first for South Africa. His keynote address, entitled The Making of Modern Japan, was hosted in collaboration with SU’s Japan Centre.

The JICA chair is the brainchild of Dr. Kitaoka and in his address to SU, Dr. Kitaoka gave a historical overview of Japan’s modernisation process, beginning with an analysis of the country’s political system before the Meiji Restoration in 1868, which ended shogunate rule in the country and saw the start of an era of significant political, economic and social change, including the modernisation and industrialisation of Japan.

Dr. Kitaoka described how Japan subsequently built a Cabinet system and a Parliament, and founded an electoral system. He expanded into a discussion on how Japan had, in more recent years, shared experiences in modernisation and international cooperation.

Dr. Kitaoka, a specialist in modern Japanese politics, modernisation and diplomacy, completed a doctorate in law at the University of Tokyo in 1976. He worked as Professor of the College of Law and Politics at Rikkyo University (1985 – 1997) and as Professor of Graduate Schools for Law and Politics at the University of Tokyo (1997 – 2004 and from 2006 – 2012). He served as Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, deputy permanent representative of Japan to the United Nations (2004 – 2006). Dr. Kitaoka started working as Professor of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) in 2012. He was President of the International University of Japan in Niigata Prefecture.

He became president of JICA in 2015, where he remained until March 2022. He is Emeritus Professor of the University of Tokyo and was awarded the prestigious Imperial Medal with Purple Ribbon in November 2011. He has written a number of books and articles in Japanese and English, including A Political History of Modern Japan: Foreign Relations and Domestic Politics; Political Dynamics of the UN: Where does Japan Stand? and Japan as a Global Player. He is also an expert in the United Nations, Japan-US relations; and political parties and leadership.

In an interview, Dr. Kitaoka stressed the importance of greater political and economic cooperation among states.

“If all countries tried to maximise their own interests alone, there would be chaos in the world. It is crucial to promote a spirit of international cooperation,” he said.

“The OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) decided that rich countries should offer support to developing countries by providing at least 0.7 percent of their GDP. In all countries, there are rich and poor people – and the rich people pay more taxes to the government which is used for uplifting poor people. This is necessary. Why should this only be within nations? We need to do that internationally. This is the essence of international cooperation.”

Dr. Kitaoka said Japan’s cooperation with other countries started in the 1950s, even before Japan became a member of the OECD. “Usually countries join the OECD, and then start their Official Development Assistance, but Japan started even before that, right after the war. We provided ODA in parallel with post-war settlements to Southeast Asian countries which was used to build infrastructure – roads, harbours, railways, and electricity infrastructure. These investments proved to be very successful, creating expanded business opportunities and employment.”

Countries such as Korea, Taiwan and other Southeast Asian nations were influenced by the elements of Japan’s modernisation in education, public health and infrastructural development, which were Japan’s initial focus, he added. “With the considerable aid from Japan, these countries became richer and better developed.”

“Today, the Southeast Asian countries are much better off than most of the sub-Saharan African countries,” Dr. Kitaoka added. He suggested South Africa, as one of Africa’s more industrialised nations, could play a similar role in the rest of sub-Saharan Africa to that played by Japan in its nearby regions. “In the 1950s and 1960s the countries in Southeast Asia were roughly the same in economic status (as in sub-Saharan Africa) but now they are much higher, much richer than sub-Saharan Africa … mostly through hard work and smart leaders of each country, but also Japan’s ODA helped.”

“South Africa is a rich country, among developing countries, and it is the responsibility of rich countries to assist developing countries.”

Dr. Kitaoka said his serious interest in Africa started when he was working at the UN in New York and became involved with various peacekeeping initiatives, including in Sudan in 2004 and 2006. Subsequently, he has travelled extensively in Africa, as the president of JICA.

Relating some of his own experience, Dr. Kitaoka said that when he started his JICA presidency in October, 2015, he found developing nations faced similar issues to what Japan faced in their journey to modernisation and their recovery after the war.

“So, in 2018, I started the JICA development studies programme (JICA DSP), which was very well received. JICA DSP invites future leaders from developing countries to Japan and offers them the opportunity to learn about Japan’s modernisation and development experiences. It was a world-class programme. It was from here that I came up with the idea of creating the JICA chair in the top universities in most of developing countries where JICA offices are located, to enable young people to learn about Japan’s experience of modernisation from the 19th Century until the present. We went in with the attitude that we did make mistakes, but, on the whole, we made a success of Japan’s modernisation process, without losing much of our identity and culture.”

Dr. Kitaoka said the core programme for the JICA chair is to dispatch leading scholars to respective universities around the world to share experiences.

Turning to Japan’s success, Dr. Kitaoka said there were three key factors which contributed to the country’s successful transition towards modernisation: first, a strong sense of identity and national unity among Japanese citizens; then the fact that, traditionally, the country had a high literacy rate and continued investment in education, health and infrastructure; and thirdly, the destruction of the class system and introduction of a meritocracy, meant that “capable people”, from all walks of life, had a chance to reach the top .

“Previously, Japan was a class society, divided into several classes which excluded many people from entering national politics, but after the Meiji restoration, all people had the opportunity to do so.”

Asked what disturbs him about today’s world in terms of international relations , Dr. Kitaoka said some countries were becoming “very selfish”. “There is a tendency to pursue their national interests alone without paying attention to the international order. That’s a big concern.”

He stressed that it was up to audiences what lessons they glean from Japan’s modernisation experiences.

“We can provide the opportunity. Whether countries take the opportunity or not is up to them.”