FIFTY years after diplomatic relations were established between Singapore and Japan, ties between the two nations are as strong as they have ever been, according to the newly arrived Japanese ambassador to the Republic. Yet ambassador-designate to Singapore Kenji Shinoda, who only landed here earlier this month, is keen to deepen those bonds even further.
"I am honoured and delighted to be able to serve here in this beautiful city-state. What I would like to do here most is to keep expanding on existing opportunities and find new ones to further promote the already excellent partnership between our two countries," said Mr Shinoda, 62, in an interview with The Business Times.
Before laying out his plans, however, the career diplomat - who has served in the US, Russia and Europe - was eager to express his thanks to Singaporeans for their support to Japan in the aftermath of the earthquake that recently hit the southern island of Kyushu.
According to authorities, at least 42 people had died and nearly 1,100 were injured in the two quakes that hit the region last week. Rescuers are still conducting search efforts on Kyushu, where many areas have been cut off by landslides as well as damage to roads and bridges.
"Also, we have never forgotten that, just five years ago, in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, Singaporeans of all walks of life came in a truly impressive way to express their compassion," said Mr Shinoda.
"From day one, the Singapore government, the Singapore Red Cross, Mercy Relief and many kind-hearted Singaporeans and residents of Singapore offered a helping hand to support the devastated region."
He also highlighted the key milestones of Singapore-Japan diplomatic relations since they were established on April 26, 1966, including frequent high-level visits and exchanges.
Notably, in 2006 the Emperor and Empress of Japan made a state visit to Singapore. Former Singapore prime minister, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, also visited Japan numerous times. Mr Lee was recently conferred the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Paulownia Flowers posthumously in recognition of his years of outstanding contributions to strengthening bilateral ties and friendship. This was the first-ever posthumous decoration bestowed upon a foreign individual.
More recently, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has visited the Republic for three consecutive years from 2013 to 2015, most recently to attend Mr Lee's state funeral. On Singapore's side, former foreign minister K Shanmugam attended the third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction held in Japan in March 2015, and Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong also visited Tokyo in May the same year.
Reflecting Singapore's continued attraction to the Japanese as a place to work and live, the number of expatriates from Japan has risen steadily over the years. There are now close to 37,000 Japanese citizens in Singapore, and the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry Singapore (JCCI) represents over 850 companies.
On the tourism front, around 790,000 Japanese visited Singapore last year while some 310,000 Singaporeans travelled to Japan. Japanese food and pop culture have also become widely accepted here, with over 1,000 Japanese restaurants currently in Singapore. Meanwhile, to attract more Singaporean tourists to their shores, various Japanese municipalities and prefectures have been actively conducting promotional activities here.
"In short, our two countries have enjoyed friendly and superb bilateral relations and partnership for decades," said Mr Shinoda. "As an analogy, our relationship can be likened to a beautiful Japanese garden. It can be kept in excellent condition and even be upgraded by constant and daily care. Flowers and trees should be watered, and gravel should be raked each and every day. That is exactly what our Embassy colleagues and I are determined to do together with our Singaporean friends."
SHOWCASING SOFT POWER
Mr Shinoda highlighted the efforts of the Japan Creative Centre (JCC) to showcase the country's "soft power" in the form of its pop culture, traditional arts and science and technology. The cultural facility is also one where visitors can experience the "charms" of Japan.
Last year, it actively collaborated with Singapore's arts and writers' festivals, and organised outreach programmes to local schools. These efforts appear to be paying off, as the number of participants at its events increased from around 8,000 in 2014 to 14,000 last year.
"Through various cultural events, we will continue our efforts to further promote mutual understanding and foster communication between Singaporeans and the Japanese people," said the ambassador.
In the areas of politics and economics, he noted that bilateral cooperation has moved towards a partnership on a regional and global scale.
"We also would like to further strengthen our bilateral ties and contribute to peace and stability in the region by cooperating through the regional frameworks, such as EAS (East Asia Summit) and Asean+3 to resolve regional conflicts and promote the rule of law," he said.
He hopes to advance this bilateral partnership further by working together on a wide range of global issues and by tackling common social challenges such as low-birth rate and ageing society and environmental issues.
Said Mr Shinoda: "Singapore and Japan have been enhancing cooperation in various areas. As the new ambassador, I will do my best to support not only the Japanese community and companies in Singapore, but also to further enrich and nurture Japan-Singapore ties through political, economic and cultural exchanges and friendship. In addition, I would like to make our SJ50 celebration most fruitful, so as to underlie the foundation for the next 50 years of our bilateral relations."
For e-version, go to www.sphcountryspecial.sg