How Japan is evolving and deepening its soft power in Africa

Wednesday February 21 2018

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delivers a speech during the opening of the Ticad VI in August 27, 2016 Nairobi. Japan is powerfully pivoting towards Africa. AFP PHOTO | SIMON MAINA


On March 1, the Embassy of Japan in Kenya will host a workshop to review the implementation of the commitments made during the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (Ticad) VI Summit in Nairobi in August 2016. But it is clear that after the summit, Japan is powerfully pivoting towards Africa.

In February, the Japanese auto dealer, AA Japan, opened new offices in Nairobi to tap into the growing market for used cars in East Africa.

In Kenya alone, the company’s sales have expanded by 38 per cent in the past two years from about 3,000 units in 2015 to 4,800 units in 2017.

Japan is also expanding to other parts of Africa, specifically Zambia and Senegal, with its agricultural development programme through the Japan International Co-operation Agency (JICA).

Additionally, on February 7, Japanese Vice-Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry, Masaki Ogushi, reported that Zambia was also among beneficiaries of $2 billion investment destined for selected African countries this year as part of the Japanese Pan-African Initiative (JPAI).

Japanese investors have also expressed interest to set up industries in Zambia for mining of rare-earth, a key component in manufacturing of electronics such as mobile phones, cameras, computers and television.


The 21st century has seen a reinvigorated thrust by Japan into the African continent. Defining Japan’s new pivot to Africa are radical shifts in its main flagship platform on Africa, Ticad.

As the main instrument of projecting Japan’s soft power on the continent, Ticad has changed from a five-year to a three-year format in line with other co-operation platforms like the Forum for China-Africa Co-operation.


Significantly, Tokyo’s decision to hold Ticad VI in Kenya —the first time the conference was held on African soil in Ticad’s 23-year history — was a watershed in Japanese–African relations.

Several geopolitical factors are driving Japan’s pivot to Africa.

Firstly, China’s burgeoning influence in Asia and Africa has forced the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to embark on a review of Japan’s security policy to check growing dominance of its East Asian rival.

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In this regard, since 2011, a Japan Self-Defence Force contingent of 180 troops has maintained a military naval base in Djibouti, next to Camp Lemonnier, the US base at the country’s international airport.

Commercial footprint

Beyond being a counterweight to China, it is a strategy of encouraging more Japanese investment in Africa by showing that it has a dominant presence in the region to protect the its own people’s investments.

At another level, Japan is looking to increase its commercial footprint on the continent by seeking new markets. Africa’s untapped resources and its resilient economy make it a new frontier for foreign direct investments.

Africa is no longer the “dark continent” but a continent rising! According to the World Bank, its GDP growth has averaged five per cent in the past decade while its economy has remained laudably resilient, weathering the serious global financial crisis of 2007–2008.

Not surprisingly, Japanese Prime Minister Abe has reclassified Africa as “no longer an aid recipient but rather a partner for growth”.

Pivoting to Africa is seen as part of Japan’s recovery strategy from the long-term stagnation of its economy since the 1990s, intensified by the 2007-2008 financial crisis and the 2009 Eurozone crisis which negatively affected its exports and domestic consumption.

As a result, in February 2011, Japan lost its perch as the world’s second-largest economy to China.

Pointedly, Japan’s push into Africa has transformed the continent into an integral part of Tokyo’s strategic core interests globally to deal with emerging resource insecurities and economic challenges.

Changes in Japan’s foreign policy towards Africa reflect a deliberate effort to jettison Cold War approaches especially by the Anglo-Saxon orthodoxy to isolate Africa citing “aid fatigue” and afro-pessimism in which Africa was parodied as the “dark continent”.

Also forcing Japan to adopt an optimistic view of Africa is its own woes from the liberal international order.

Military campaign

Japan’s woes have much to do with the impediments imposed by its post-Constitution, particularly Article 9, which prohibits it from dispatching soldiers to participate in the UN-authorised wars such as the 1991 military campaign against Iraq.

Tokyo’s solution was to shoulder a sizeable part of the financial burden of the war effort by contributing $13 billion to support the military campaign.

Tokyo was shell-shocked to discover that despite its hefty contribution to the global war chest, it never even appeared in the list of contributors to the campaign. This forced it to rethink its foreign policy — and to redefine itself.


Japanese Ground Self-Defence Force (GSDF) arrive at the airport in Juba, South Sudan, on November 21, 2016. Japan is joining up with other countries especially India to extend its influence throughout Asia and into Europe. AFP PHOTO | SAMIR BOL

Japan appears to be dealing with a salient haziness in its post-War identity — whether it is a Western or oriental power.

Japan has never considered itself as belonging to the global South, and did not take part in the Bandung Conference of 1955 and the Non-aligned Movement which tended to define South–South dialogue and co-operation for the better part of the Cold War.

Therefore, it engaged the global South (African, Asia and Latin American) solely from its status as an economically and technologically more advanced industrial power.

However, this is changing in the 21st century. Japan was present at the 50th anniversary of the 1955 event, held in April in Indonesia, which underlined how seriously Japan now takes the “need for Africa–Asia co-operation.”

Despite its projection of soft power, Japan is still perceived as a key cog in the wheel of the “Western global hegemony.”

South–South co-operation

In an article titled: Japan and Africa after the Cold War, Jun Morikawa notes that “Tokyo’s South–South co-operation is founded on the paternalistic thinking and methodology whereby a developed nation of the North, in particular Japan, takes initiative under which mutual co-operation between the countries of Asia and Africa is promoted”.

It is in this context that during the UN General Assembly meeting in 1991, Japan argued against Africa’s isolation in the global political economy and instead proposed an international conference to be convened to promote high-level policy dialogue between African leaders and development partners.

Japan launched the multilateral forum Ticad in 1993. The forum reflected Japan’s split identity in global affairs, at once reflecting the spirit of the Bandung Conference of 1955 in the Global South but trapped within the multilateral system dominated by the Global North.

Be that as it may, in the course of the past 20 years, Ticad has evolved into a major global and open and multilateral forum for mobilising and sustaining international support for Africa’s development under the principles of African “ownership” and “international partnership.”

Specifically, Japan has over the years reiterated the principle of “ownership.” This means that reforms in African countries must be initiated and carried out by the countries themselves, based on their visions, values and socio-economic background.

The idea of ‘“African ownership” has set the difference between Japan and other Western donors when it came to the implementation of Official Development Assistance (ODA), which often has no “conditionalities” attached to it.

Instead, Tokyo expects the recipient country to identify its own needs, and then to initiate dialogue with Japan over aid with an informed request, thereby not forcing Japan’s views on the aid.

This is what Tokyo refers to as the “yoseishugi process” or request-based disbursement of ODA. It differs significantly from the approach proffered by the Bretton Woods institutions, which posit that African countries should not formulate the rules for their own development.

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Shifting approach

Since Ticad III in 2003, Japan has shifted increasingly from diplomacy based on the extraction of resources to infrastructure building and more market-oriented investments, with the support of public funding. Tokyo has been taking advantage of Africa’s growing consumer market.

In 2012, the acquisition by Toyota Tsusho of the French retailer CFAO, holding a historic position in this area, was symbolic of this new ambition in West Africa.

Markedly, the Ticad VI held in Nairobi was the first of its kind, drawing more Japanese executives to Africa than any other forum before it.

Prime Minister Abe jetted into Nairobi accompanied by 75 business leaders representing 77 Japanese companies, which signed 73 memorandums of understanding with African businesses on the sidelines of the conference.

Ticad VI’s Nairobi Declaration pledged to promote public-and private-sector-led growth in achieving sustainable development.


Participants at the second Africa and Japan Investment Forum in Addis Ababa in August 2015. FILE PHOTO | AFP

During Ticad V in 2013, Tokyo committed $32 billion to fund a six-pillar Action Plan for 2013-2018, which compares with $60 billion Beijing promised at the Forum on China-Africa Co-operation meeting in Johannesburg in December 2015.

The 2016 Conference reflected Japan’s growing economic muscle in Africa. In the past 23 years since the start of Ticad, Japan has provided Africa with financial support totalling $47 billion.

The stock of Japanese FDI has increased twelvefold from 1997 to 2012 to reach $12billion. Over 687 Japanese companies were operating on the African continent by 2015.

However, according to the Africa Development Bank, Japanese investment in Africa has shown a noticeable decline from $17 billion in 2014 down to $14 billion in 2015.

Ticad setbacks

The Ticad framework is itself facing serious structural challenges.

The serial of global financial crises, including the 2007-2008 and the 2009 Eurozone crises as well as the 2015 sharp decline of commodity prices badly hurt Japan’s private sector and undermined its ODA policy, Tokyo’s main instrument of luring African countries into its orbit and projecting its soft power globally.

However, Japan has adopted a spectrum of policies to cover for the short fall in ODA, including multiplying public-private partnerships, establishing economic zones exclusively for Japanese companies and negotiating new trade and investment agreements.

As such, securing private equity is central to Japan’s ability to fulfil its promise of financial support to Africa. This demands that the otherwise risk-averse Japanese companies have to ignore narratives of Africa as “the continent of terrorism” and “malaria” and embrace an “Africa rising” as a new frontier that provides them with real growth opportunities.