While facing runaway uncertainty in the global economy, Japan is continuing to pin its future on the rules-based order that has led to global prosperity through open trade, the country’s consul general in Atlanta said in an interview with Global Atlanta Wednesday.
The Consular Conversation luncheon, organized by Global Atlanta and sponsored by Miller & Martin PLLC, brought Consul General Mio Maeda to The Carter Center for a discussion on his role promoting Japan’s economic interests locally as the country maintains its active role on the international stage.
With its own elections set for April 23, Japan this week is hosting the G7 summit in Hiroshima, a fitting venue selection given the Russia’s threats of tactical nuclear strikes in Ukraine and North Korea’s nuclear buildup and tests that have seen missiles sail over Japan.
“We think that Japan is in the most acute and most complicated security situation since the end of World War II, so we understand that we need to modernize and rethink the way we protect our national interest,” Mr. Maeda told a sold-out audience of 80 guests.
Japan this year updated its national security strategy to include an increase in spending on its self-defense forces to 2 percent of GDP — notably in line with the benchmark agreed upon by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO.
While stressing that Japan’s spending outlays would feed solely defensive aims, Mr. Maeda said the world is facing ever more complex challenges, from fragmented supply chains to energy scarcity and open war in Europe.
“We really think it’s important for the leaders of the seven most advanced democratic countries get together and have frank discussions to show the way forward to solve those challenges in the world,” Mr. Maeda said of Japan’s G7 priorities.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has presided over the conclave less than a week after an improvised explosive device landed a few feet away from at him at a campaign event. No one was hurt, but the attack came less than a year after former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was assassinated with a homemade gun, suggesting growing discontent at home.
Dealing With China
China presents another conundrum. Closely linked with Japan economically, the longtime trade partners have seen their visions for Asia drift further apart since Chinese leader Xi Jinping has taken more aggressive stances in the South China Sea, cozied up to Russia, cracked down at home and asserted Chinese influence globally.
In response to this perceived threat, Japan has joined Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with the U.S., India and Australia, and it is continuing to engage in economic initiatives like the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, all designed to boost regional resiliency and reduce dependency on China.
At the same time, Japan wants to keep open, constructive dialogue with China’s leadership, Mr. Maeda said.
“We don’t think it is practical or feasible to decouple China from the international community or from our side, so we need to think about how we can live together with China,” Mr. Maeda said. “In order for that, it’s very important for us to keep urging them to respect the internationally shared values such as rule of law, democracy, freedom, and so on, and request them to act as responsible player in the free and open international order.”
Many in the West have grown hawkish on China now that their hopes for political reform after China’s joining the World Trade Organization in 2001 have not been realized.
Mr. Maeda pointed out that countries in Europe in particular were all too happy to rush into the Chinese market when it suited them, but now seem to have had a change of heart as China’s economy has cooled and its disrespect for human rights has grown more blatant.
“Now European countries are bit more inclined to push China very hard, and this is not right from our standpoint, so we need to keep a balanced way,” he said.
The criticism that China is bent on creating a new international order, made in its own image, is another argument for advocating more stridently for the existing order, Mr. Maeda said.
“This stance has not changed at all for our side. Twenty years ago, we always said this kind of thing,” he said.
Japan’s half-century of connections with Georgia, The Carter Center
Mr. Maeda brings a wealth of international experience to his role as Japan’s top diplomat in four states including Georgia. Immediately before coming here, he worked as the second-in-command (deputy chief of mission) at the Japanese embassy in Switzerland, where he made it a point to visit all 26 cantons.
That might be a tough feat to match in Georgia, which has 159 counties.
“I cover four states — Alabama, Georgia North and South Carolina— I counted did this morning, and there are 372 counties, so it’s almost impossible for me to visit all of those counties within three years. So, I might ask my headquarters to stay here for 60 years or something,” he said to laughter and applause from the audience.
The comment exemplified the good humor the consul general deployed during a 45-minute conversation in which he praised former President Jimmy Carter, now in hospice care, for his role in welcoming Japanese enterprises to Georgia in the 1970s and kickstarting a relationship that has led to jobs for more than 30,000 Georgians and friendships for countless others.
Georgia this year is celebrating 50 years with with an economic development office in Tokyo, opened during Mr. Carter’s tenure as governor of the state. Next year, the Consulate General of Japan will mark its own golden jubilee in Atlanta.
In addition to Mr. Carter’s own contributions, the Carter Center now has a key role to play in the ongoing relationships.
The consulate as well as Georgia’s earliest Japanese investor, YKK, nominated the center for the Hideyo Noguchi Africa Prize, named for a famed Japanese physician and global health researcher, for the center’s work toward the eradication of Guinea worm across the continent.
The Japanese government selected The Carter Center for the prize this year; in addition to recognition, it comes with an honorarium of 100 million yen (nearly $750,000 at the current exchange rate) that will go toward wiping out the last 13 cases of Guinea worm. That number down from the 3.5 million that occurred across Africa when the Carter Center went after the neglected tropical disease in 1986.
Meagan Martz, who provided welcoming remarks on behalf of the center, said that most of the work had been carried out by the Carter Center’s teams on the ground, working in partnership with teams from the Japan International Cooperation Agency’s Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers, a program mobilizing young people around the world akin to the U.S. Peace Corps.
Ms. Martz traveled to Japan last month with leaders of the Carter Center’s health and Guinea worm programs to meet with other laureates, business federation Keidanren, the prime minister as well as Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako.
“The Emperor is very interested in clean-water initiatives, water, sanitation and health, and so we were able to talk to him about the pipe filters and the water filters that we share, that we give to everyone so that they can filter their own water and prevent the spread of disease,” Ms. Martz said, describing the educational work that has put Guinea worm on the path to eradication.
Consul General Maeda also had a direct connection with the emperor, having been seconded to the imperial household in 2015 as one of seven chamberlains responsible for then-Crown Prince Naruhito’s affairs.
His time there ended soon after his royal highness acceded to the Chrysanthemum Throne in 2019 following his father’s abdication, the first by a sitting emperor in Japanese history.
Along with responsibilities related to the imperial household’s dealings with other countries and dignitaries, Mr. Maeda and other chamberlains were sometimes tasked with more sacred duties, such as early morning prayers on the royal family’s behalf.
“In my case, I went to this specific shrine at six o’clock to pray for the people. It’s too much responsibility for me, I have to say,” he added with a smile.
After a conversation focused heavily on geopolitics, Mr. Maeda took time to visit the traditional Japanese bell tower recently installed on the grounds of the center as a symbol of U.S.-Japan ties and their mutual desire to see peace achieved in the world.
The Peace Bell, as it’s known, was given to President Carter in the 1980s and only recently found a permanent home at the Carter Center after an extraordinary journey that linked Georgia and Japan even more closely together.
Jessica Cork, vice president at YKK and chair of the Japan-America Society of Georgia, led the procession of luncheon guests to the bell to participate in a bell-ringing ceremony.
First in line, Mr. Maeda rang the bell, then stepped to the side and offered a shallow bow as it tolled for peace.
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