Japanese Society and Myanmar: Past Engagements, Present Responses
There is a well-known Japanese children’s book, also made into a film, called Harp of Burma by Michio Takeyama. First published as a series in a magazine in 1947, shortly after Japan’s defeat in World War II, the book is set in Myanmar at the end of the Asia-Pacific War. Its main character is a Japanese soldier. The work is so well known that just mentioning “Myanmar” evokes the book’s title for many Japanese. As such, it can be said that the relationship between Japan and Myanmar is built on war.
General Aung San, known as the founding father of Myanmar and the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, worked alongside the Japanese fighting the British army during his time as an officer of the Burma Independence Army (BIA). Although General Aung San later engaged in armed struggles against the Japanese, the training of Myanmar’s independence forces by the Japanese military would later contribute to the formation of a close relationship between Myanmar’s military and Japan. Myanmar’s military anthem (which can be found on YouTube) provides an interesting example. The anthem’s melody is popular in Japan and is often played as background music in pachinko parlors, revealing the close and unusual relationship between Japan and Myanmar’s military. Currently, Japan is also the greatest contributor of Official Development Assistance (ODA) to Myanmar. In 2019, Japan’s ODA contributions to Myanmar totaled 189.3 billion yen, including loans, grants, and technical cooperation. With the exception of China, which does not disclose information about aid contributions, Japan is the largest contributor to Myanmar. It is perhaps for this reason that the current Japanese government has put very little pressure on Myanmar’s military under the pretext of an “inflow of Chinese capital” to the country.
However, there is growing discontent among Myanmar residents in Japan regarding Japan’s ambiguous stance towards Myanmar’s military. Currently, there are 35,000 Myanmar people residing in Japan. This is roughly eight times the number of residents compared to a decade ago. In the 1980s, the majority of residents were foreign students, but after the 1988 military coup, more people fled Myanmar as a result of government crack-downs on pro-democracy movements, and the number of Myanmar refugees bound for Japan rapidly increased. Moreover, after 2013, as the number of “technical trainees” 1 The goal of the foreign technical trainee system is to support foreign nationals who have acquired skills and knowledge in Japan so that they can contribute to economic development in their developing home countries. However, the system suffers from several problems, such as poor working conditions and delayed wages. and laborers increased, young people in their twenties came to make up the majority of the Myanmar population in Japan.
The military coup of February 1st, 2021, was widely reported in Japan. On February 3, about 1,000 Myanmar residents in Japan gathered in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tokyo to protest against the coup. Protestors demanded the release of detained government officials – including the country’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi – as well as the reopening of the National Assembly following last year’s general election, which saw the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) win a landslide victory. The protestors also aimed to raise awareness among the Japanese public of the use of violence and the lack of concern for human rights on the part of Myanmar’s military. They urged the Japanese government to take a more committed stance. Protests and demonstrations were also held at the Japan Myanmar Association, the United Nations University, and in smaller cities throughout the country [Fig. 1].
The reactions in Japanese society to the desperate actions of its Myanmar residents were diverse, but what stood out most were the cold responses. Statements critical of the movement, such as those that protested the ‘import’ of Myanmar’s fight to Japan, opposed the fact that foreigners were protesting in Japan, or, fearing cluster infections, objected against protests during the Coronavirus pandemic, began appearing online. Perhaps as a response, protestors began giving speeches and shouting slogans not only in Burmese but also in Japanese. Protest leaders would appeal in Japanese: “Put international pressure on the Myanmar military.” Protesters would then respond (“We beg you!”) and bow in the Japanese style. One protestor even appeared wearing a placard that read, “Despite the Coronavirus disaster, I must protest, and I apologize to all Japanese citizens.” Protestors also posted messages on Facebook and Twitter asking for sympathy from the Japanese public.
Fig1: Myanmar residents in Japan protesting at Osaka Castle Park on Feb. 7, the first Sunday after the military coup. (Image provided by Takeda Hajimu, reporter at The Asahi Shimbun.
Protestors have also been oppressed. Technical trainees have been warned at work that they would be fired if found to have participated in protests, and there are also examples of workers having been asked about and criticized for their protesting. Nevertheless, Myanmar residents of Japan are not surrendering. In order to spread awareness of the ruthless actions of the military and police in Myanmar, many young people are working in solidarity with the “Digital Resistance,” sacrificing sleep to share photos and videos of conditions in Myanmar with the world through the Internet.
Despite the inhospitable reaction of much of the Japanese public, there are some citizens who support the protests. For instance, one group of Japanese conducting business in Myanmar used crowdfunding to raise 15 million yen in three weeks to provide food and medical supplies to poor households. Civic organizations are also very active. On March 4, a non-profit organization, Mekong Watch, and the AYUS International Buddhist Cooperation Network together submitted a joint request to the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC), and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism. This request demanded an investigation into sources of funding to Myanmar’s military, including ODA, and other business activities related to the military. Thirty-two organizations involved in the Myanmar pro-democracy movement also participated in submitting this joint request.
The Korean public, with its history of winning democracy through a fierce democratization movement, quickly offered solidarity to the citizens of Myanmar following the military coup. The Japanese public, on the other hand, has often been apathetic to issues abroad. In particular, discriminatory views and a lack of empathy towards the rest of Asia continue to be major problems for Japan. Establishing solidarity between Japanese citizens and the Myanmar residents of Japan is essential in order to successfully appeal to both the Myanmar military and the Japanese government. Under the current circumstances, unfortunately, this seems unlikely.
Inaba (Fujimura) Mai, Associate Professor, Kwangwoon University, email@example.com