Japan celebrates the birthday of Emperor Naruhito
Japan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, MOTEGI Toshimitsu meeting with South Africa's Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Naledi Pandor in Pretoria, South Africa (Photo: Jacoline Schoonees, Dirco)

23 February 2021

Today marks the 61st birthday of Emperor Naruhito of Japan and therefore Japan’s national day. He ascended to the throne on 1 May 2019 as the 126th Emperor of Japan.

This day would normally be celebrated in grand style but due to restrictions as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, Ambassador Norio Maruyama of Japan held small intimate functions in Pretoria, South Africa to mark the occasion.The Diplomatic Society (DS) interviewed Ambassador Norio Maruyama (HE) on this ocassion who highlighted the strengthening Japan-South Africa relations.

DS: The year 2019 was a year of unprecedented splendour and importance for Japan-South Africa relations. The Rugby World Cup hosted in Japan was a great opportunity to tighten the bonds between the people of the two countries. Most notably, President Ramaphosa visited Japan three times during the year. It was an unprecedented event in the history of South Africa-Japan relations. Given all these remarkable developments, the year 2020 should have seen a further boost in relations between the two countries. However, due to COVID-19, numerous opportunities were lost. How have you mitigated these challenges?

HE: We need to be creative, innovative and determined to continue our job in this extraordinary situation. The job of a diplomat is to represent their country. For this purpose, we need to meet and talk with people. Meeting online cannot completely substitute a physical meeting.

We should be more attentive to the nature of each meeting. There are meetings that are efficient online, while there are meetings that cannot be effected well online because of the lack of human touch and a lively atmosphere. We need to find the best mix of online and physical meetings.

The culmination of our efforts during this difficult time was the visit of Minister MOTEGI Toshimitsu, Japan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs to South Africa. He travelled physically, even at this time of the pandemic.

There was a bilateral meeting and working lunch with Dr. Naledi Pandor, Minister of International Relations and Cooperation. The two Ministers exchanged their views on a wide range of issues and agreed to further enhance the two countries’ bilateral relations, as if it were a pre-COVID-19 world.

This year, we will continue to make every effort to make possible bilateral meetings in various areas which have been postponed due to COVID-19, including the Japan-South Africa Partnership Forum, the Japan-South Africa Business Forum and the Japan-South Africa Joint Committee on Science and Technology.

DS: The Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, which were postponed last year, are now rescheduled for this July. All those involved in the Games are working together to ensure the success of the Games, taking all possible measures against COVID-19 and preparing in order to make the Games safe and secure. What is the status of hosting the Games?

HE: Recently the G7 leaders stated their support to the commitment of Japan to hold the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 in a safe and secure manner this summer, as a symbol of global unity in overcoming COVID-19.

On this occasion Japan will also demonstrate to the world that Fukushima Prefecture and the rest of the Tohoku region has recovered splendidly from the Great East Japan Earthquake, as exactly 10 years have passed since the start of Fukushima’s recovery with the support that has been received from various countries, including South Africa.

Immediately after the earthquake, a rescue team from South Africa, the first emergency rescue team ever dispatched to Japan from Africa, arrived at Iwanuma City, Miyagi Prefecture. Today, Iwanuma City is the Host Town for Team SA for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, and continues to engage in grassroots exchanges with South Africa.

The motto for the Olympics and Paralympics is "United by Emotion". We would like to share the excitement of sport with the people of South Africa who have become fans of Japan as a result of the Rugby World Cup.

DS: While the global Covid-19 pandemic has put on hold many projects, many countries have worked together to advance their relations. What have these advancements been in Japan – South Africa relations?

HE: Japan is contributing and will continue to contribute to the resilient recovery of South Africa.

President Ramaphosa announced at the SONA 2021 the priority of South Africa for its economic recovery. The President pointed out among others, the need to strengthen export competitiveness and boost domestic production by promoting investment and employment.

He also stressed the importance of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) which started this year.

His priorities attracted my attention because Japan is a major contributor to all those areas.

Japanese support for Kaizen and TVET skills development training for fitters and turners will help South Africa's manufacturing sector, especially the automotive industry, to become more competitive.

In terms of investment and employment, Japanese companies have invested a total of five billion USD in South Africa since 2013, and also created 150,000 jobs, mainly in the automotive industry.

A recent example of investment is Toyota's first production of hybrid vehicles in South Africa. This critical investment follows Nissan's Navara and Isuzu's D-MAX bakkie investments.

AfCFTA will provide South Africa with greater access to markets across the continent, making South Africa a gateway to the continent. Japan is committed to actively push for the early installment of the One Stop Border Post (OSBP) at Beitbridge, through technical cooperation.

I am confident that the OSBP project will ensure AfCFTA of becoming a truly attractive framework for foreign investors. It will further enhance the importance of South Africa as a gateway country for more than 150 Japanese companies in South Africa, doing business across the continent.