October 14th., 2013
M. Serajul Islam
The Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has quietly emerged as one of the successful world leaders in recent times without attracting too much attention. As a protégé of one of Japan’s most powerful political families, Shinzo Abe was considered to be the future leader of the country when he entered politics in 1993. His grandfather on his mother’s side was Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi (1957-60). His father Shintaro Abe was Japan’s youngest post war Foreign Minister. A great-uncle was Prime Minister Eisaku Sato.
In his current term, his second, something that has not happened in Japan’s post Second World War history, Shinzo Abe has established himself as a strong right wing nationalist leader with conviction to take the tough economic reform measures known after his name as “Abenomics” that are showing positive results. His favourite stance, outside the economic issues, has been with defense and security matters. Thus it is no wonder that recent polls have shown that while 35% of Japanese male have high expectations from him, only 18% of Japanese female have similar expectations. While 58% male support the prime minister on strengthening defense, only 18% female do so. Therefore, the Japanese prime minister thought that time is opportune for him to improve his ratings with his country’s female population.
Shinzo Abe used his speech at the UN General Assembly to improve his standing with Japan’s female population and also with women worldwide. After addressing in the passing issues such as Syria, Japan’s hosting the 2020 Olympics; international maritime issues; etc., “womenomics” or “creating a society where women shines” was the main theme/focus of his speech. He provided details of a four-pronged strategy involving domestic and international structures through which his government intends to establish the role of women as central to the development strategy worldwide.
The Japanese Prime Minister used “examples of three individuals to clarify Japan’s development concept aimed at bringing about a society in which women shine and also shed light on some issues that must be tackled. “ One of the three women he named as exemplary to build the theme of his speech is Nilufa Yeasmin of Bangladesh. Shinzo Abe explained that Nilufa Yeasmin is using a Japanese substance “Poly-Glu” found in Japan in abundance to turn impure water into pure water. Left in turbid water “Poly-Glu acts as an adsorbent, adhering to excess substances in the water, and then falls to the bottom as a precipitate, leaving the water clear.”
The Japanese prime minister further explained that Nilufa Yeasmin uses Poly-Glu with other women called “Poly-Glu” ladies to become both sales persons and instructors in building BOP or “Base of Pyramid” business through which she and other “Poly-Glu” ladies have empowered themselves. By this BOP business that “is characterised by the expectations placed on the power of women”, Nilufa Yeasmin “has become able to send her children to higher education.” Shinzo Abe concluded his story of the Bangladeshi woman stating: “Poverty caused Ms. Nilufa to give up on the dream she had cherished as a little girl to become a doctor someday. But I understand that now she proudly states she has become a doctor of clean water. Can we not say that Ms. Nilufa has acquired self-esteem, the most precious asset of all?”
Japan has been one of Bangladesh’s major development partners from the beginning of its journey as an independent country. Soon after diplomatic ties were established in February 1972, Japan took Bangladesh under its wings and ensured that it received adequate Japanese aid that went to vital sectors of economic development, namely economic infra structure building; human resources development and quality projects at the grassroots. A fact hardly known in Bangladesh is that Japan is and has been the country’s number one development partner. Japanese assistance to Bangladesh is and has been divided equally into aid and grants. However, Japan in the past has made its aid into grants. When I was in Japan as Ambassador, during 2002-2006, Japan had made US$ 1.86 aid money that Bangladesh owed into grants!
Bangladesh’s foreign policy has consistently failed to realise Japan’s potentials. Japan’s major value to Bangladesh could have been in areas of trade and foreign direct investment. Bangladesh exporters have not explored the Japanese market with any seriousness because their main product the RMG was exposed to the US and European markets not by its own businessmen but by Indians and others who wanted to take the advantage of quotas in these markets and did so through the Bangladeshi businessmen who had little knowledge of these quotas in the beginning. Of late, Bangladeshi RMG exporters are looking at the Japanese market and the results are encouraging but these efforts have come decades late.
Bangladesh has missed out befriending Japan on the FDI issue in a major way. For many decades now, too much investment money has been lying idle in Japan for overseas investment. More importantly, many Japanese investors are wary of their investment in China and anxiously looking for what in their parlance is known as “China plus one “to slowly withdraw investment from China and divert it in a third country. Bangladesh, as the bridge between South and Southeast Asia sitting between the largest concentration of world’s population and with other natural advantages could have been just the dream location that Japanese investors are seeking. Unfortunately, Bangladesh governments have badly failed to attract Japanese investors.
Bangladesh could have benefitted from Japan like Malaysia that turned itself from a fledging developing economy to the ranks of the middle income and beyond because it had a visionary leader like Mahathir Mohammad. The prospects for Bangladesh to attract Japanese investment are still very much there. However, to achieve that potential, the new government that would take office in Bangladesh following the national elections must be pro-active like the Malaysian government that Mahathir Mohammad had led. Meanwhile, Japan could not care less. What the Japanese Prime Minister did to Bangladesh in talking of Nilufa Yeasmin in his UN speech was project the virtues and vision of his country’s ODA policy with women related issues.
Nevertheless Shinzo Abe picked up Nilufa Yeasmin because Japanese ODA, despite there being little public exposure of its results and virtues in Bangladesh, is bringing about fundamental changes in the country at the grassroots for women underscoring the success of “womenomics” in Japanese ODI. There are of course a couple of other reasons for Japan’s interests in Bangladesh that may explain why Nilufa Yeasmin was a major focus of the Japanese Prime Minister’s UN speech. Japanese have not forgotten Bangladesh’s War of Liberation, one in which the Japanese people had identified the suffering people of Bangladesh as soul mates. Japanese also remember Bangladesh for the assistance it gave during the 1977 JAL hijacking in Dhaka. It is time our foreign policy leaders wake up to take a look at where our foreign policy interests and friends in the international setting really are.
The writer is a retired career Ambassador. -