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The International Writers Magazine

Japan inCambodia
J T Brown

The Soft Spot in Japan's Heart
Demining in Cambodia

Japan has only the very briefest of a shared past with Cambodia. In 1941, after invading neighboring Vietnam and supplanting the French colonialists (which by then were under the Vichy regime’s control), the Japanese ‘allowed’ the Vichy French administration in Cambodia to stay and carry on. Ultimately, Japan was in charge but largely it did not get involved in the affairs of Cambodia. And that short period, which ended after only four years with Japan’s defeat in the war, is really about all that there is to any Japanese-Cambodian history.

Yet for some altruistic reason, volunteer groups in Japan and the government itself have taken it upon themselves to ‘adopt’ the historically luckless Cambodian people, taking an interest in their welfare, and shouldering much of the responsibility for helping Cambodians improve their lot.

Mind you, this is not Japanese largesse in its usual form. Heretofore, Japanese ‘charity’ has too often come with strings attached that benefitted donor nation more than recipient. I.E., Japan pays for research facilities and faculty chairs at state funded American universities in order to gain priviledged access to the latest research and development. Or Japan sends Overseas Development Aid (ODA) to China each year. But that’s because of a tacit agreement Japan has with Chinese leadership that in return for government loans, China doesn’t demand war reparations. Not to mention the fact that Japan has vast present-day economic interests in China which are greased along with these continued care packages.

Cambodia, though, offers no particular prize for which Japan could be accused of coveting. No mass consumer market, no vast sources of oil or other natural resources. Geopolitical clout? Forget it. Yet Japan sends its volunteers to do the dangerous and thankless work of demining the Cambodian countryside. Young children receive schooling at Japanese-built and supported schools in rural villages. Projects to get clean drinking water to the people are engineered and financed by Japan. And the biggest foreign monitor and supporter of Cambodia’s nascent and still wobbly election system is Japan.

Perhaps, this is an inkling of some good things to come from Japan. As its economy churns more and more slowly, and its population grows older and older, increasingly Japanese might be stopping to smell the roses. Examples of this prospect are yet hardly in abundance. And it would be nice if Japan also could make the effort to get its own house in order. But in January of this year, outside the Tokyo-hosted International Conference on Reconstruction Assistance to Afghanistan, Prime Minister Koizumi spoke to reporters and said (I’m paraphrasing from memory), "When Japan was on its knees 60 years ago, powerful nations came to our aid and helped us get back on our feet. I’d like to think that now is the time for Japan to return the favor to those less fortunate then us."

Political window dressing after the U.S. pleaded behind closed doors for Japan to pitch in?
In part, probably so. Japan once again buying its way out of having to take a more proactive stance on various hot-button issues around the world? Perhaps. (Though I for one, am in no hurry for Japan to start taking more a proactive stance on geopolitical matters, especially if that means militarily.)
But one thing is certain, the people of Cambodia aren’t complaining. Japanese good will towards them is the genuine thing.

JT Brown

{All of JTs previous articles are indexed

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J T Brown on contemporary Japan

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2003 Review and 2004 Predicitons
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