Saturday, September 22, 2007

Thai-Japanese relations are built on common values and friendship that date back more than 600 years


Thai-Japanese relations are built on common values and friendship that date back more than 600 years, writes SONGPOL KAOPATUMTIP

It was a fateful meeting with the late Dr Tesaburo Nichigawa in Tokyo 20 years ago that changed Somchai Chakhatrakarn's life. On the final year of his scholarship programme at Tokyo University of Agriculture, Somchai was looking for a new scholarship to further his studies in Japan. He learned that Dr Nichigawa had set up a private fund for needy university students, and sent his application.

"I met him in a small house where he was looked after by his niece," Somchai recalled. "I later learned that he had sold his old house and other properties to provide scholarships for poor students."

The elderly lecturer took an immediate liking to the young student from Thailand, and subsequently became his mentor. Though naturally kind and helpful, Dr Nichigawa was a strict disciplinarian. When Somchai visited him in hospital, the ailing lecturer gave him a dressing-down for skipping his class. "You should be in school," he said.

As Somchai stepped out of the room, he heard a faint voice from behind: "Thank you for coming."

Two decades on, Somchai still cherishes these fond memories. A decade of life in Japan has, in fact, shaped his successful career as agricultural science lecturer and director of the Institute of East Asian Studies at Thammasat University in Bangkok.

Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe are all smiles after signing the Japan-Thailand Economic Partnership Agreement in Tokyo in April.

"What impresses me most about Japan is the high quality of life and services. Japanese people are hard-working, tolerant, highly disciplined and responsible - not only for themselves but for society," he said.

"On a personal level, the two peoples have a lot in common, whether in religion, ways of life, culture and traditions, their cheerful and friendly demeanour and - more importantly - the existence of namjai (good heart). This makes the relationship between Thailand and Japan really unique," continued Somchai.

Such reflections on friendship are numerous as the two countries this week celebrate 120 years of diplomatic relations. A long list of events, including talks and seminars, exhibitions as well as cultural and musical performances have been held in Thailand and Japan since January this year to mark this auspicious occasion.

In fact, the history of Thai-Japanese relations - in terms of politics, culture and trade - goes back more than 600 years.

Merchant ships from the Ryukyu Islands (now Okinawa Prefecture) came to Southeast Asia as early as the 14th Century, when the Sukhothai kings ruled what is now Thailand. Historical records show that there was trade between Ryukhu and the Sukhothai kingdom during the latter half of the 14th Century. The famous alcoholic drink awamori, for which Okinawa is famous today, is believed to have been developed from distilling techniques introduced from Thailand during the early years of contact.

"In fact, Thai rice is still used to make awamori in Okinawa," explained Mr Kazuo Shibata, who heads the Japan Information Service in Bangkok. "Japanese rice does not give the same flavour."

Fruitful connections expanded with the advent of the Tokugawa shogunate in Japan and the rise of the Ayutthaya kingdom. So-called Red Seal ships, carrying a writ marked with the shogun's red seal, were dispatched to Ayutthaya. Gifts and official correspondence were traded through the Red Seal envoys.

One of the legendary figures at that time was Nagamasa Yamada, who came to Ayutthaya with a group of Japanese mercenaries.

As leader of the Japanese community in Ayutthaya, Nagamasa earned the trust of King Songtham, who bestowed him the right to levy and collect taxes from ships entering port there. Although he died of poison, Nagamasa had won a place in history. Japanese history textbooks and historical novels eulogised him as a national hero.

Later periods of trade were not based on formal relations between the two countries, and contacts gradually faded away under the policy of isolation imposed by the Tokugawa shogunate. But not for long.

Close ties resumed with the arrival of western powers to colonise the free nations of Asia in the 19th Century. Japan avoided colonisation and established itself as a modern country with the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Around the same time, the Kingdom of Siam (as Thailand was then known) also modernised and stayed independent under the rule of King Chulalongkorn the Great (Rama 5). It was during this crucial time of change that the two countries officially commenced diplomatic relations with the signing of the Treaty of Amity and Commerce on 26 September 1887. It was the first agreement the Meiji government signed to establish diplomatic relations with a Southeast Asian nation.

Mutually Beneficial Relations

There are a number of reasons that make Thai-Japanese relations very special, according to Mr Hideaki Kobayashi, the ambassador of Japan to the kingdom of Thailand.

"First and foremost, the Thai Royal Family and the Imperial Family of Japan have always been very close. Their Majesties the Emperor and Empress of Japan have visited Thailand eight itmes already since the Emperor was still the Crown Prince. This is the highest number of visits by the Emperor to any country," said Ambassador Kobayashi. Members of both Royal Families have visited each other's country often as well.

"Secondly, the bilateral relationship has always been based on mutual benefits," said the ambassador.

In the past 50 years, there has been a very large amount of Japanese investment in Thailand. In 2005, the total amount of Japanese investment approved by the Board of Investment of Thailand amounted to more than 1.5 trillion baht, or about 40 percent of the total foreign direct investment (FDI) that Thailand received from all over the world. This large amount of private investment from Japan has contributed not only to the economic growth of Thailand but also the growing number of people in employment, explained the ambassador. According to the Japanese Chamber of Commerce (JCC), its member companies now employ nearly half a million Thais.

And thanks to the growing travel industry, more and more Japanese are familiar with Thailand as a great place to visit. Thailand is known as the Land of Smiles and the Thai people are very accepting of foreign visitors. With such a warm welcome, more than 1.3 million Japanese visited Thailand last year, more than any other country.

Over 100,000 Thais visited Japan last year. Their number is expected to increase this year, partly due to the stronger Thai currency and mainly because of the greater Thai public interest in Japanese culture, food, music and many natural attractions that Japan has to offer.

Due to Thailand's recent rapid economic development, grant assistance to the country has largely ended. However, Thailand is still one of the most important recipient countries for the Japanese government's Official Development Assistance (ODA) in the field of technical assistance and yen loans.

But somewhere down the road, as neighbouring countries emerge as attractive sources for Japanese investment, how will Thailand be affected?

Economist Kitti Limsakul believes both countries will benefit from the Japan-Thailand Economic Partnership Agreement, or JTEPA, which was signed in Tokyo last April by Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe.

"The JTEPA is not a free trade agreement. It's mainly about repositioning the two economic partners so they can tap into new markets in the region and beyond," said the Chulalongkorn University lecturer. For example, enterprises in Thailand will be able to import materials from Japan, making them into semi-processed and finished products for export to neighbouring countries, Japan or elsewhere.

The Asean Free Trade Area (Afta) alone comprises a vast market of over 500 million people. It is an important consideration for Japanese industries.

Under JTEPA, Tokyo and Bangkok will decrease tariffs on more than 90 percent of trade in terms of value within 10 years, and Bangkok has pledged to increase transparency and legal protection to facilitate Japanese investors. "With these and other changes, there will be a significant increase in trade and investment between the two countries," said Assoc Prof Kitti.

But there is no gain without pain. With a free flow of goods and investment across borders, Thai entrepreneurs and all stakeholders must adjust and prepare themselves, otherwise they will be left behind, he added.

Similarly, Ambassador Kobayashi admits that the availability of cheap labour in China, Vietnam and elsewhere in the region will affect Thailand. "That's why Thailand must upgrade its workforce, producing more workers with higher skills and education," he said.

The Japanese Chamber of Commerce (JCC) and the Japanese Embassy had worked together with former Thai students in Japan to set up the Thai-Nichi Institute of Technology, or TNI, in Bangkok to produce young people with special technical skills for the industrial sector in Thailand. The institute began accepting students in May this year. In August, Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn presided over an official opening ceremony.

The institute offers several courses on automobile manufacturing, factory management and general administration. "These are very practical programmes conducted by both Thai and Japanese lecturers and trainers," explained the ambassador. Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) also has a programme to send retired Japanese professionals to teach here.

Under the JTEPA, there are some programmes of similar nature. The basic idea is to invite technicians from neighbouring countries to Thailand and teach them how to teach other workers. This is because the level of technology in Thailand is higher than in those countries, he explained.

Additionally, the Japanese government is providing scholarships for at least 100 Thai students to attend undergraduate and graduate programmes in Japan each year. The JCC has also started a new scholarship programme for Thais to study in Thailand from elementary to college education.

Friendship Still Blossoms

In the city of Nagoya, there's a temple unlike others seen around Japan. The Nittaiji Temple (or Japanese-Thai Temple) was built by the people of Nagoya in 1904 to keep a Buddha relic which was presented as a gift to the Japanese people by King Chulalongkorn the Great of Thailand. For the past 103 years, millions of Thai and Japanese Buddhists have visited the temple.

Buddhism is one of the common characteristics that have contributed to the harmonious and friendly relationship between the two peoples for the past 120 years of diplomatic relations. And Assoc Prof Somchai of Thammasat University believes that friendship will grow further, thanks to the strong foundation that had been laid since the Red Seal ships travelled up the Chao Phya River more than 600 years ago.

History could be a useful guide. But for Assoc Prof Somchai, the greatest lesson in life had already been handed to him by the late Dr Tesaburo Nichigawa, who was both his mentor and teacher during his time at Tokyo University of Agriculture.

Not long before he passed away, Dr Nichigawa took him aside and said: "As a student of agriculture you must always remember that it is your duty not to let your people go hungry. Everyone must have enough rice to eat."

At the funeral, Somchai was asked to deliver a eulogy. But he felt a lump in his throat and began to cry. And everyone cried. Laying in front of them was an empty coffin; the lecturer had donated his body to a medical school.

" So we eventually came to salute Dr Nichigawa," recalled Assoc Prof Somchai. "He had lived his life to the full - by giving to others."

Year of Ceremony

Several events have already been held in Thailand and in Japan since the middle of January to mark the 120th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. More will be held until the 8th of December.

On Wednesday, 26 September, there will be a grand opening of a Thai pavilion at Ueno Park in Tokyo to mark the signing of the Treaty of Amity and Commerce 120 years ago. On the same day in Bangkok, a Japan-Asean Festival Orchestra Concert will be held at the Thailand Cultural Centre, with speeches to commemorate the event.

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