Japan and Turkey are both important world powers in their own right, yet their geopolitical maneuverings since the early years of the Cold War were regularly overshadowed by the two superpowers — the United States and the Soviet Union. Now, they must both weigh the increasing presence of China in the Pacific and the Middle East into their diplomatic and economic relationships. Although geographically distant, Japan and Turkey face many similar concerns about security, stature, and their place vis-à-vis Europe, the U.S. and China. Because of this, Japan and Turkey cultivated an important diplomatic and economic relationship. This relationship is rooted in the past but is maintained because of mutual interests and common geopolitical concerns.
Japan might not immediately pop into your head when thinking about Turkey and Muslims. But, in the late 19th century, the waning Ottoman Empire and the burgeoning Japanese Empire engaged in an unlikely diplomatic friendship. At opposite ends of the globe, the two nations felt a sense of camaraderie based on their status as “non-Western” powers.
The Ottomans admired the rapid modernization and transformation that had taken place in Japan after the Meiji Restoration in 1868, which was nothing short of a massive political, social and economic revolution that kick-started Japan’s modernization. As the Japanese Empire ascended to a dominant position in the Pacific, its interests came into increasing conflict with another imperial latecomer — the U.S.
But the relationship between Japan and Turkey has not always been one of respect and recognition, and recently it has been marred by Japanese support for U.S. policies throughout the Middle East. Nonetheless, the historical relationship illuminates the contemporary complexities between the two nations and their status in relation to the hegemon in the region over the past 150 years. As China increases its presence throughout Asia, both Turkey and Japan have reasons to be concerned.
The camaraderie between Japan and Turkey developed out of their shared experience of being regularly dismissed or maligned by Western imperial powers. Though the contemporary geopolitical situation is very different, both states look to and draw on their historical relationship to frame their contemporary diplomatic and economic relationship.
In Turkey, Japan has presented itself as a power that can help Turks modernize and develop through investment in technology without the burdens of Western interference. This approach harkens back to the dawn of the 20th century. After the Japanese Empire defeated the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), non-Western peoples around the world looked to imperial Japan with admiration and as a model to emulate.
Although Japan is now a close and important ally of the U.S., it tries to present its objectives for maintaining security throughout Eurasia as different from those of its Western allies. For instance, Japan recently signed an arms transfer pact with Indonesia amid mutual concerns over the growing Chinese presence in the South China Sea. Japan aims to cultivate an image in which it can bridge Muslim interests with Western ones in ways that are productive for everyone involved.
Both states would agree that their diplomatic engagement started with a disaster: the sinking of an Ottoman ship off the coast of Japan in 1890. The Ertuğrul, a frigate, was on its way back to Constantinople (now Istanbul) after a goodwill mission to Japan but was caught in a typhoon near the small Japanese port city of Wakayama. Over 550 Ottoman sailors drowned. The few survivors were housed with local families until they could be returned home to the Sublime Porte aboard two small Japanese warships, the Kongō and the Hiei. The Ottoman sultan greeted the sailors upon their repatriation and decorated the Japanese sailors who had escorted them on the journey with medals of honor.
The sinking of the Ertuğrul is regularly commemorated in both Japan and Turkey. Turks remember the kindness the Japanese people showed the survivors. In Japan, the event is remembered as one of the first instances the newly formed Meiji government participated in a goodwill mission involving Muslims.
Clearly, the Meiji government understood the benefits of promoting this as an act of the benevolence of the Japanese people. Japan was wrestling with how to position itself as a rising power in the Pacific, and the rescue of the Ertuğrul sailors was an opportunity to connect imperial Japan with Muslims around the globe. In their appeals to anti-colonial nationalists around the world, the Japanese government presented themselves as liberators from Western oppression, and their quick ascension to a world power status was a rallying call for colonial peoples around the globe.
The sinking of the Ertuğrul also occurred at a time when the Meiji government was considering the role that religion should play in state politics. A number of diplomats pointed out that a large majority of people who lived under French, Dutch and British colonial oppression were Muslims. Thus, in their efforts to present themselves as liberators from Western imperialism, the Meiji government started more direct outreach to Muslims. Japanese military advisers began traveling to Istanbul and Ottoman military officers also began training in Tokyo. By portraying itself as a place that respected religious freedom (even if this was not really true), imperial Japan gained useful allies in its fight against Western imperialism.
The Japanese defeat of the Russians in 1905 was also significant. It was the first time in recent memory that a nonwhite, non-Western power had defeated a Western and white imperial power. The Russians had been a thorn in the side of the Ottomans for many years, so the Ottomans were pleased to see the Japanese defeat one of their most formidable enemies.
From the Ottoman perspective, Meiji Japan had taken the best of what the West had to offer and made it their own; the Japanese Empire had managed to maintain its identity and character while benefiting from modernizing reforms. This appealed to Islamic modernists and secular Young Turks alike and provided Turks with a model for nation building and reform. Ottoman reformers especially admired Japan’s compulsory national education system, which taught students to revere the emperor while promoting a modern science-based curriculum. In 1908, the Young Turks even went so far as to declare that Turkey would become the “Japan of the Near East.”
The Japanese Empire was among the first states to recognize the legitimacy of the new Republic of Turkey — just a few months after it declared independence on Oct. 29, 1923. A year later, the two states opened embassies in their respective capitals, Ankara and Tokyo. High on the agenda of both governments was to implement mutually favorable trade agreements as well as cultural exchanges.
There was a small Muslim community in Japan, mostly made up of South Asian traders, and the first two mosques were built with donations from members of this community who resided in the port towns of Nagoya and Kobe, located down the coast from Tokyo. Immigrant communities outside the imperial capital had greater flexibility in business dealings, and South Asian and Chinese traders preferred smaller port towns to the hustle and bustle of Tokyo.
In 1938, the Japanese government supported the construction of a third mosque in Japan. The Tokyo Mosque was a different endeavor — it was built with funds from the Japanese government and served a specific propaganda purpose. Much like the Nazis and the Italians were doing in the Middle East and North Africa, the Japanese were ramping up their outreach efforts to Muslims with specific anti-colonial and anti-Soviet propaganda. At the opening of the mosque, Muslim dignitaries from around the world came to see what imperial Japan had to offer.
During World War II, the Turks pursued a policy of “active neutrality” in an effort to keep themselves out of the war. But, by 1944 it was clear that the Allies were likely going to defeat the Germans in the European campaigns, and the Turks cut diplomatic ties with Germany in August 1944. In January 1945, the Turkish government also severed ties with the Japanese Empire. At the time, the majority of Japanese businesspeople had been evacuated and the small consular staff left in Ankara was confined to living in the consulate building for the remainder of the war.
A month later, on Feb. 23, 1945, Turkey declared war on Nazi Germany and the Japanese Empire. It was perhaps a matter of calculated practicality that Ankara chose to stand with the war’s imminent victors against Japan, past friendship be damned. The Turks must have imagined that this formality would gain them entry into the United Nations and favorable negotiating leeway. In response, the Japanese Empire declared war on Turkey.
After the Allied occupation of Japan ended with the San Francisco Treaty in 1952, Turkey quickly reestablished diplomatic relations with Japan, reopening its embassy in Tokyo. Japan reciprocated a year later and added a consulate in Istanbul in 1965. The friendship was on the mend, and the new Cold War once again shifted the dynamic between the two nation-states.
Since then, diplomatic relations have been enhanced by trade, though Japan exports more goods to Turkey than vice versa, mostly exports of electronics and processors, cars, machinery, and chemical and optical equipment. Turkey exports tobacco, processed foods, chrome, carpets and glass to Japan.
The two countries have also bolstered their cultural exchange. The largest mosque in Tokyo is now a Turkish Cultural Center called the Tokyo Camii, which opened in 2000 with funding from the Turkish Republic. The mosque was designed by Turkish architect Muharren Hilmi Şenalp, who is known for his Ottoman-style mosques and has designed one of the homes of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. His firm, Hassa Architecture, has designed a number of prominent Ottoman-style mosques outside Turkey, such as the Ertuğrul Gazi Mosque in Turkmenistan and the Şehitlik Mosque in Berlin.
Japanese language programs began informally through the embassy in the 1970s and started at the university level in 1986 at Ankara University. Since then, Japanese-language learning among Turks has increased dramatically, as some claim that the grammatical similarities between Turkish and Japanese make the language not so difficult for students.
But the linguistic affinity has not necessarily translated to a facile cross-cultural exchange. According to the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, there were just over 5,000 Japanese citizens living in Turkey in 2015, a figure that has remained stable.
Immigration might be the logical limit of the Turkic-Japanese friendship. The majority of Turks who sought asylum in Japan over the past few years have also had their cases denied. Unlike Canada, where Muslim migrants continue to shift the demographic landscape of the country and will likely amount to almost 7% of the total population by 2030, the number of Muslims living in Japan is not expected to change dramatically, remaining around 0.2% of the total population of the archipelago from the 1990s and projected through to 2030. (Today there are 230,000 Muslims in Japan, including 50,000 Japanese converts.) The majority of the Muslims living in Japan are migrant workers, and it is unlikely they will ever become citizens or even permanent residents of Japan.
This unwillingness to welcome and assimilate migrants and refugees is not limited to Turks and Muslims, and the number of migrants to Japan is incredibly low for a G-7 country. At the same time, most refugees would rather resettle in Canada or Europe, where they believe it is easier to adjust and integrate.
There are also a large number of both Turkish and Kurdish refugees in Japan. These refugees face serious problems, as the Japanese government accepts very few asylum cases, meaning that many of these people live in constant limbo in a society where they do not speak the language, are not permitted to work and face uncertain futures.
Another ongoing issue within the refugee community in Japan isthe tension between the Kurdish and Turkish refugees. In 2015, a skirmish broke out with Turkish citizens and Kurds in front of the Turkish Embassy when a group of Kurds unveiled a pro-Kurdish flag. These tensions mirror ethnic tensions in Turkey and Syria between Turks and Kurds, but most Japanese are likely oblivious to these tensions. This oblivion perhaps indicates that although the Japanese Foreign Ministry sees its relationship with Turkey as important, regular Japanese citizens are not fully aware of the complexities of regional politics in the Middle East.
The lack of knowledge about Islam poses obstacles for Muslims living in Japan. The majority non-Muslim population in Japan is generally familiar with well-known Islamic doctrinal practices such as abstention from pork and alcohol. However, very few people have an awareness about the Muslim populations in Japan or that many of the Muslims in Japan are from Turkey. Often, media portrayals of Muslims are similar to Hollywood depictions and emphasize negative stereotypes.
The Japanese government has responded by launching a number of programs aimed at increasing awareness of the religion and its people. For instance, “Kono Initiative” was introduced in 2001 by the foreign minister at the time, Yohei Kono. The plan was intended to foster and develop bilateral relations with Muslim nation-states while providing education to Japanese people about the so-called Muslim world. But, in the wake of 9/11, there was backlash in Japan toward Muslims, and a closer alignment with the U.S. on the war on terror.
Japan’s image among Muslims was also affected by their substantial presence in Iraq during the second Iraq War. Although Japan does not have a military, they sent a large contingent of U.N. troops, partly in an effort to placate the U.S.
At the same time, Japan is an increasingly important strategic ally for resource rich countries in the Middle East, like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Through the export of technology and industrial goods, the Japanese government is trying to present itself as an honest broker in the region.
Japan’s geostrategic and diplomatic relations with Turkey center around their energy needs. Turkey hosts around 150 Japanese-affiliated companies — close to the number hosted by Saudi Arabia. One of the largest Japanese investors in the region is SoftBank, is a cell provider and technology company. Another industry that Japan promotes throughout the region is their space program, which has an emphasis on satellite launches for tech and security sectors. In terms of investments in infrastructure development, Japanese companies offer viable alternatives to Western and Chinese companies, like Huawei. Japanese companies like SoftBank offer appealing alternatives to U.S., European and Chinese providers for countries like Turkey.
Over the years, the bilateral engagement between Turkey and Japan has been important for both economies. Yet, Turks in Japan face an uphill battle. The long historic relationship between these two places could be the starting point for eliciting support for the Turkish population who are seeking to make Japan their home. At the same time, Japan and Turkey should continue to pursue this “unlikely friendship” as their global status provides them with the space to resist U.S. hegemony while creating lasting economic ties.