An unshakable bond | Daily News

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An unshakable bond

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe begins a week-long visit to Japan today, marking yet another milestone in the history of close ties between the two countries. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe will hold a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe followed by several other engagements. The Government of Japan has announced that they are looking forward to the visit which they believe will serve to further strengthen the friendly relations between Japan and Sri Lanka.

This is indeed a landmark visit, even within the context of already exceptionally good relations between Japan and Sri Lanka. This is the Premier’s second official visit to Japan having first visited it in October 2015. President Maithripala Sirisena visited Japan last year. The Japanese Prime Minister visited Sri Lanka in 2014. Japan is indeed one of Sri Lanka’s closest friends on the world stage. A civilization inspired by Buddhism forms the very bedrock of history in both countries. There is ample evidence that the two countries have enjoyed religious and trade ties for centuries.

But the one event in living memory that cemented a special place in Japanese hearts for Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans was the San Francisco Peace Conference in 1951. The Allied Powers were in no mood to forgive Japan following the end of the Second World War and there were calls to “punish” Japan, which had already suffered two devastating nuclear attacks. A Berlin-style break-up of Japan among the victors was on the table.

Finance Minister J.R. Jayewardene, who would later become President, was the leader of the delegation from Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was then known). He stunned everyone by reciting this stanza from the Buddha Dhamma: “Hatred ceases not by hatred, but by love alone”. He argued that Japan should be allowed to go on as an independent and free nation without undue interference from other powers. His was a stirring speech that ultimately resulted in the Allied Powers taking their hands off Japan.

“It is the message of the Buddha, the Great Teacher, the Founder of Buddhism which spread a wave of humanism through South Asia, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Siam, Indonesia and Ceylon and also northwards through the Himalayas into Tibet, China and finally Japan, which bound us together for hundreds of years with a common culture and heritage. This common culture still exists. I gathered the impression that the common people of Japan are still influenced by the shadow of that Great Teacher of peace, and wish to follow it. We must give them that opportunity,” Jayewardene said.

Although a few countries opposed giving complete freedom to Japan, Jayewardene’s viewpoint prevailed. The Government and the people of Japan have never forgotten that it was Sri Lanka which stood by it at this crucial juncture. Indeed, Sri Lanka could take some credit for Japan’s post-war social and economic success – Japan would still be at the mercy of more powerful countries if Sri Lanka did not intervene in 1951. Remarkably, Sri Lanka did not even have formal diplomatic ties with Japan at that time – these were established only in April 1952.

Ever since, the ties between the two countries have gone from strength to strength, regardless of who was in power at either end. Japan is the leading provider of development assistance to Sri Lanka and is also a major investor. Unlike many other countries, Japan gives many outright grants (approx 207 billion yen by 2015) and any loans have only a minimal interest with a very generous grace period. Over the years, Japan has funded many massive development projects here.

Sri Lankans have an affinity for Japanese goods – Japanese car brands still lead the market, despite the high duty structure. In electronic too, most Lankans prefer Japanese brands. However, this means that the balance of trade is in favour of Japan (Sri Lanka imported 144 billion yen worth Japanese goods in 2015 and exported goods worth only 32 billion yen, including tea, textile shrimp, fish and rubber products). Sri Lankan exporters should work hard to enhance their penetration of Japan through diversification.

Both Governments should strive to enhance people-to-people contact. More than 13,000 Sri Lankans live in Japan. The Government is hoping to attract at least 100,000 tourists from Japan a year to Sri Lanka but additional flights are needed to cater to the demand for seats. Only SriLankan now flies to Tokyo Narita direct. The authorities should explore the possibility of getting Japan Airlines to fly to Colombo either from Tokyo Narita or Tokyo Haneda.

Sri Lankans fell in love with Japanese culture by watching Oshin, originally broadcast around 30 years ago. Now people of all ages are keen to learn the Japanese language and other aspects of culture such as Origami and Ikebana. There is a good following for the Japanese channels broadcast on IPTV and satellite. All these have led to the creation of an unshakable bond between the two countries that will be reinforced by the Premier’s visit, a bond that will stand the test of time and history.


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