Yakitori alley in Shinjuku-ku, Japan. Picture: ALEXANDRE CHAMBON/UNSPLASH
Yakitori alley in Shinjuku-ku, Japan. Picture: ALEXANDRE CHAMBON/UNSPLASH

African countries and Japan have a natural synergy. The continent has the world’s youngest population, with an average age of 17. The world’s fastest-growing economies and fastest-urbanising cities are all in Africa. But there is still a significant lack of investment, and poverty and underdevelopment plague many African nations.

Japan, the world’s third-biggest economy, is the world’s fastest ageing society, with more than 20% of its population older than 65. Nonetheless, Japan remains a capital-rich, innovative country with a population of about 110-million people, larger than the UK, France or Germany. Japan also has high rates of saving and its investors are seeking bankable business opportunities outside an economy racked by deflation.

With these complementary challenges and opportunities, the future of Africa and Japan should be closely linked. Already in 2019, Japan’s former prime minister Shinzo Abe, with Cyril Ramaphosa as SA president and head of the AU, emphasised the need for closer connections between Japan and Africa through the Japan-Africa Business Forum.

Japan’s foreign aid agency, Jica, a long-term supporter of infrastructure projects in Africa, is increasingly investing in digital economy, business, innovation and entrepreneurship opportunities across the continent through its Ninja business programme and other initiatives. With SA’s particular economic and social challenges, Japan’s development initiatives have the potential to create much-needed new opportunities, including youth employment.

SA and Japan have a long, albeit little-known, history. During the 17th century, Dutch East India Company traders who stopped in the Cape conveyed SA goods such as animal skins and other items to the trading island of Dejima, the only Japanese port that allowed trade with foreigners. That arguably makes SA one of Japan’s oldest trading partners. As of 2019, Japan was SA’s sixth-largest export market and eighth-largest import market. Bilateral trade between the two countries stands at $7.1bn. In particular, Japanese companies such as Toyota, Nissan, Isuzu and Mazda are key players in SA’s automotive industry, a sector that generates 6.4% of GDP, comprises 27.6% of total manufacturing output and directly employs 110,000 people.

Introductory courses

More South Africans than before are interested in Japanese culture, learning Japanese and buying Japanese products, due in no small part due to Japan’s “soft power” through entertainment, media and gaming. Since the 1990s, many SA children have grown up watching Japanese television shows such as Pokemon, Digimon, Dragon Ball Z and Yu-Gi-Oh!. Japanese foods such as sushi and ramen, and increasingly Japanese gins and whiskies, are also popular in SA.

The Centre for Japanese Studies, established in partnership with the University of Pretoria in 2011, promotes co-operation between the two countries and offers introductory courses in Japanese. Two programmes are available for South Africans who wish to work or study in Japan: the Japan Exchange and Teaching (Jet) Programme, offered to those wishing to teach English, and the African Business Education programme for Africans wishing to study in Japan at a master’s or PhD level.

Entities such as Samurai Incubate and the Japan External Trade Organisation provide opportunities for SA businesses to connect with Japanese investors and markets. There is, of course, more to be done. More opportunities are required for SA and Japan to truly take advantage of the latent synergies that exist. The Japanese are notoriously risk-averse investors and may require some coaxing, reassurance and trust-building from African partners. Market intelligence and insight are limited.

The SA concept of ubuntu embodies compassion and humanity, which is echoed in the Japanese concept of Wa, which translates to harmony and underpins much of the empathy and unity of Japanese society. There is a critical need to foment further mutual cultural and linguistic understanding to encourage further co-operation between Japanese and SA businesses, start-ups, investors, consumers, governments and civil society.

Blue Train

Moreover, as Japan seeks opportunities for investment and collaboration across the African continent, SA must find ways to stand out from its peers. While the internet has provided many with opportunities to access language teachers and materials, this is largely still restricted to those who can afford it, leaving many South Africans out of the loop. An impactful and equitable enabler may be to create channels of access to accredited Japanese language learning resources, funded exchange programmes for students to Japanese institutions, and wide-scale low-cost platforms for business and entrepreneurs to access Japanese markets.

The first step to a fruitful collaboration is always understanding and friendship. While living in Japan I met a Japanese man who gave an unusual answer to the question, posed in Japanese, “What do you know about SA?” Most of the others I had asked that question had mentioned gold, diamonds, safaris and Nelson Mandela. Unexpectedly, this man said he was attracted to SA because of the luxury Blue Train, which many Japanese densha otaku — people who are obsessed with trains — are fascinated by.

This indicates that there is more for SA and Japan to share beyond the conventional wisdom. SA can make a unique impact on what is still a mysterious market. It is in the interests of both countries to look to strengthen the relationship in as many ways as possible.

• Ruiters, a former Jet Programme participant, is director of The Japanese Language Club SA.

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