Akio Isomata, Ambassador of Japan to the UAE, outlines the befitting areas that have brought both countries closer in the last 50 years and will continue in the long run
Can you tell us your impression of the UAE or working and living in the country as you just passed one year of serving here?
I arrived in the UAE at the end of November last year, when there were still various Covid-related restrictions, especially in Abu Dhabi. But, thanks to the government’s constant efforts to place the pandemic under effective control, we have gradually been able to engage in an increasing number of activities, especially in the latter part of this year. This greatly made my work and life here easier and more colorful, and now I am greatly pleased to see life in Abu Dhabi basically back to normal. Here, let me briefly mention three things, among many, that left with me deep impression since my assumption of duty here. I will not dwell upon each as I may have a chance to do so in answering questions that follow.
Firstly, the UAE is expat-friendly and business-friendly. I think this is something almost all the expats feel first and foremost after their arrival here and something that needs no further explanation. I believe this comes from tolerance, inclusiveness and openness that the UAE advocates. Secondly, things move fast in the UAE. Every day you see robust activities by leaders, various layers of the government, businesspeople and others, be it in the field of diplomacy, domestic economy, external trade and investment, culture, social and other events, or else. I can feel great energy of this country forging ahead towards more diversified economy as the whole world transitions to a low-carbon society. Thirdly, I am so glad to learn that a great number of Emiratis are interested in Japan. Not only manga, anime and sushi, there are many Emiratis attracted to traditional Japanese culture such as tea ceremony, flower arrangement, or martial arts such as Judo. I can envisage an ever-broadening base of our bilateral relations by seeing Emirati youth keenly engaging in these activities. Let me hasten to add that I am amazed by so many Emiratis being fond of Japanese food, too.
The year 2022 marks 50 years of the UAE-Japan ties. How do you wish to commemorate this milestone?
The year 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Japan and the UAE. With this commemorative milestone in mind and with gradual relaxing of Covid-related measures, we saw good exchanges of high-level visits, notably Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi’s visit to Abu Dhabi in March, visit by Dr. Sultan bin Ahmad Sultan Al Jaber, Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology, to Tokyo in June as well as visit by Sheikh Khaled bin Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Member of Abu Dhabi Executive Council and Chairman of Abu Dhabi Executive Office to Tokyo in September. During the visit by Sheikh Khaled, Joint Declaration on the Implementation of Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Initiative (CSPI) was signed between the two ministers, whereby we will establish a Ministerial Committee and five sub-committees to promote concrete cooperative projects over the broad spectrum of bilateral relations towards the next 50 years and beyond. We have a solid base of cooperation in the field of oil and gas, which has now evolved to include other sectors, such as infrastructure like Dubai Metro, renewable energy, outer space, education and human resource development, defense industry, food, healthcare, retail, tourism. One of the focused areas of cooperation ahead is education and culture. This year we saw a good start of the Youth Ambassadors Program (YAP) – Japan to assist UAE undergraduates to study in degree courses at graduate schools in Japan, for example. In the field of culture, our embassy is currently working with the UAE government to engage Japanese experts and artists in the National Strategy for Cultural and Creative Industries launched last year. As the grand finale event of cultural exchanges, the Japanese Embassy is organising ‘Japan Festival’ on December 18 at Manarat Al Saadiyat with visiting ‘Wadaiko’ (Japanese drum) and other performers. Everybody who would like to enjoy and experience Japan’s traditional arts and pop culture are all welcome to join us.
What are the key areas of trade focus between both the nations in the coming months?
The whole world has suffered from the Covid-19 for nearly three years now. And since February this year, the war in Ukraine has also deeply affected the global economy, triggering global energy crisis, disruption in supply chain and serious inflation around the world. The stability of the energy market amid these crises is important more than ever, and I appreciate the role the UAE has been playing for the stable supply of oil and gas to the market. The UAE has also been a crucially important partner for the energy security of Japan. The most recent data shows that for September 2022, the UAE was the largest source of crude oil import for Japan, accounting for 45 per cent of the entire import, which is 38 per cent increase year-on-year basis. Japan also acknowledges the importance of securing upstream investment under the circumstances, and I hope the UAE will continue to make its important contribution to stabilising the global oil market.
To touch upon other aspects of our trade relations, the top items of export from Japan to the UAE are automobiles and machineries. In 2021, the export from the UAE to Japan was $27 billion, and export from Japan to the UAE was $7 billion, both figures showing that our bilateral trade has not fully recovered to the level of the pre-Covid time. As for foreign direct investment, investment from Japan to UAE in 2020 was $10 billion. However, the importance of the UAE to Japan in terms of trade is not only the UAE market itself, but also in the UAE being a trade and business hub connecting Japan to the wider MENA region. The UAE is an excellent gateway to deploy business activities in the MENA market and, with the visionary policy of the leadership, the UAE has grown to be an ideal destination for attracting new business in such areas as digital economy, artificial intelligence, food tech, healthcare. I will continue to encourage more Japanese companies to come to the UAE to see fresh opportunities the country is offering and, hopefully, to make investment decisions to the mutual benefit of both countries.
On the business and community front, can you provide an update on their strengths and opportunities in the UAE?
Let me highlight two areas among others. Firstly, aerospace. The UAE is forging ahead in the field of space exploration, with its long-term space strategy and mega-projects such as the Mars Science City project and the Emirati interplanetary mission. Japan is eager to work in tandem with the UAE in this field. We are proud to have been a partner of the UAE since its inception stages, recent prime examples being the launch of Khalifa Sat in 2018 and the launch of Hope Probe in 2020. JAXA, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, and UAE Space Agency and
MBR Space Center have good cooperative relations ever since. Most recently, a Japanese startup company — ispace — is assisting MBR Space Center in the Emirates Lunar Mission for delivering its Rashid Rover to the surface of the moon with their lander Hakuto-R Mission 1. Rashid Rover is created by Emiratis, and it will carry the dream and hope of the UAE to the moon and is sure to boost our space cooperation to a higher ground.
The second area I want to mention is Japanese food. The number of restaurants offering Japanese food in the UAE has shown a substantial growth in recent years. According to Summit Trading Company, the largest Japanese food dealer in the Gulf region, there are now 168 exclusive Japanese restaurants in the UAE, and 374 multi-cuisine restaurants offering Japanese food, respectively registering 158.5 per cent and 163.4 per cent increase in the past decade. I believe many people still have fresh memories of the Sushi restaurant ‘Sushiro’, annexed to the Japan Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai. It highlighted the power of food in showcasing the culture of Japan, and I believe that the Expo sushi restaurant further fueled the interest in Japanese food in the UAE. I would like to emphasise that Japanese food is not just about its taste, but it also reflects the aesthetics of Japanese people, closely related to the changing of the four distinct seasons. I recommend you all now to visit Japan to experience a wide variety of authentic Japanese cuisine in different seasons at different localities.
Within the energy security area and decarbonisation efforts, the UAE has already dispatched clean ammonia from ADNOC to Japan. Your thoughts about the long-term benefits that this would bring to the Japan?
Japan is committed to working together with the international community to tackle climate change. Japan has announced the target of achieving net zero by 2050. Also, Japan has the target of cutting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 46 per cent in the fiscal year of 2030 from its fiscal year 2013 level, and to continue its efforts to meet the lofty goal of cutting its emissions by 50 per cent. At the same time, we acknowledge the necessity for a realistic energy transition pathway, and I believe that in this regard Japan and the UAE share common grounds. As host of COP28 in 2023, the UAE has a crucial role of setting the agenda for a sustainable, affordable and realistic pathway, especially in the face of current energy crisis. The UAE is also the first country in the Middle East to have committed to net zero by 2050, and I believe that Japan-UAE joint decarbonisation projects will contribute to both countries’ climate change agenda.
Recent examples of collaborative decarbonisation projects in the UAE by Japanese companies include a project of sub-sea electricity transmission to ADNOC’s offshore operations, a waste-to-energy plant in Dubai generating renewable energy, and mega-solar power generation projects such as Noor Abu Dhabi. Japanese companies also participate in ammonia / hydrogen projects such as ADNOC’s Project Harvest to produce low-carbon ammonia, and Masdar’s project to produce green hydrogen.
After a half century’s solid foundation of UAE-Japan relations mainly based on energy sector, are there any areas that you are focusing on for the future?
In order to consolidate our bilateral relations further towards the next 50 years, promotion of youth exchanges and human resource development play an important role. As mentioned earlier, Japan International Cooperation Center (JICE) and the UAE government launched in September this year ‘Youth Ambassadors Program (YAP) – Japan’, which is 1 to 1.5 year programme providing support to Emirati undergraduates who want to study in Japan at a graduate level, mainly in degree courses taught in English. Efforts to expand corporate internship programs are also being made by relevant Japanese organizations and companies. In addition to these, I would like to introduce Japanese-style food education ‘Shoku-iku’ (literally ‘Food Education’ in Japanese) at elementary schools in the UAE, by which we can effectively work together in teaching young children how to reduce food loss, while having them learn the importance of food and keeping them fit with healthy and nutritious foods.
Cooperation in the field of cultural industry is also a frontier we would like to further pursue our cooperation with the UAE. As a way to cooperate with the implementation of the National Strategy for Cultural and Creative Industries mentioned earlier, I am thinking of starting with promoting interactions of people working in the fields of animation and hospitality between our two countries.
Japan has finally opened up to tourists after two years in October 2022. What are your immediate plans to restore visitor footfall from the UAE?
Yes, Japan is now fully open to the world again. Up until recently, I have been approached by so many Emirati friends with great passion to visit Japan, and I am happy that we can welcome you all to Japan finally. Starting from October 11, Japan greatly eased Covid-related border restrictions. Moreover, the good news for Emiratis is that starting from November 1, UAE ordinary passport holders no longer need to acquire visa to visit Japan by complete visa exemption measures for Emiratis now in place. This is a new milestone for the expansion of tourism and people-to-people exchange between Japan and the UAE. Please take this chance to explore your hidden interest in Japan, and concretize your long-awaited travel plans to visit the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’. If you are not sure where to visit or what to do in Japan, Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO)’s Instagram or Facebook site offers many destination suggestion for interest of all kind. For those Japan lovers who have visited there before, I recommend to also try new places of interest such as the Ghibli Park opened this November in Aichi Prefecture, my hometown. But, before that, please do not forget to visit Japan Festival in Manarat Al Saadiyat, Abu Dhabi, to be held on December 18 to experience a taste of Japan and further cultivate your interest in Japan.
Expo 2025 is nearing. What preparations are underway for the grand event? And if you’re working with the UAE as it was the host of Expo 2020 and given your close relationship with the nation, what kind of cooperation with UAE to make a success of Expo 2025?
I congratulate the UAE on successfully hosting Expo 2020 Dubai, receiving more than 24 million visitors despite the challenges posed by the Covid-19 throughout the entire period of the EXPO. I was quite impressed with the smooth operation and management of the event, and marvelous daily events one after another. Expo 2020 Dubai was a symbol of the UAE’s determination and efforts to connect the world together in these difficult times, and I admire the leadership of the UAE for making it real.
Following the steps of the UAE, Japan is determined to make Osaka-Kansai EXPO 2025 a great success, too. The main theme of the EXPO is ‘Designing Future Society for Our Lives’, and the concept is to make this EXPO a living-lab for future society, to bring people and knowledge together to create new ideas and help resolve the issues humankind is facing. The Osaka-Kasani Expo will be held from 13 April to 13 October 2025, three and plus more years to go. In October, Japan hosted the International Planning Meeting for participating countries and organizations. There was a site visit to the EXPO compound, and the Japan Association for the 2025 World Exposition gave a briefing on the plans for the construction of pavilions, creation of exhibitions, and operation and management of the Expo 2025.
I am happy that the UAE is participating in the Osaka-Kasai Expo, and I hope this relaying of baton from Dubai to Osaka-Kasai will further strengthen our bilateral cooperation for designing and creating future. I cannot wait to see the UAE Pavilion and its exhibition, where I am sure I will celebrate its success together with friends of the UAE.
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