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Date of Issue:17/November/2003

Kiribati-Japan Relations From a gNikkeih I-Kiribati Perspective

Kentaro Ono
Company President, Midopac (Kiribati) Enterprises
Former President, Kiribati Chamber of Commerce

After receiving high school education in Kiribati as an exchange student, I stayed on and acquired Kiribati citizenship became the first-generation Japanese-Kiribati. Here I outline a little about Kiribati, its relationship with and how it sees Japan.

Despite surprisingly close proximity to and deep relationship with Japan, Kiribati is probably among the countries least known to most Japanese. Kiribati straddles the Equator that cuts across the centre of the Pacific, measuring around 5,000 kilometres from east to west. It has an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of more than three million square kilometres but a land area of only 720 square kilometres, similar to Tsushimafs landmass. In the Millennium Fever of year 2000, Kiribatifs Millennium Island, the eastern-most island in Kiribati, appeared on NHK, CNN and other international media as the first place in the world to greet the first sunrise of the New Millennium, so some people probably recall gOh, thatfs the placeh. Christmas Island, which lies around 3,000 kilometres to the southwest of Hawaii, is also part of the Kiribati. Kiribati has a population of only around 90,000 people, and an unbelievable unemployment rate of approximately 80%, using gmodernh method of calculating unemployment rate. This is due to the semi-subsistence lifestyles of people living on the outer islands, who sell copra, the raw material for palm oil, when they need money. When they donft, use their nets to catch fish just enough for a day and live in local houses with elevated floors, no walls and roofs woven from pandanus leaves.

Kiribatifs relationship with Japan reaches back to World War II, when it was occupied by the Japanese army. Betio, an islet in the Tarawa Atoll, Kiribatifs capitol, was the site of fierce fighting that produced heavy casualties on both the Japanese and American sides, therefore has a sad history. Since Kiribati became independent in 1979, Japan has established itself as an extremely important development partner. Some 99 percent of the cars in Kiribati are second-hand Japanese vehicles. Delicious solar salt is exported from Christmas Island to Japan. Japan has an experimental space shuttle launch site operated by NASDA on Christmas Island, and many Kiribati men work fishing boats affiliated with the Federation of Japan Tuna Fisheries, fishing for quite a number of gtatakih, half-cooked skipjack sashimi, eaten in Japan. So-called Anti-Japan feeling is almost non-existence.

In recent years, Japanfs Official Development Assistance (ODA) has been brought under the spotlight, spurring much criticism in Japan. However, I do not know any other country is as grateful for Japanese ODA than Kiribati. The Kiribati people appreciate the huge difference that Japan has made to improve their standard of living, including a reclaimed road (causeway) that links Betio and Tarawa Proper within the Tarawa Atoll where previously access was only possible using a landing craft; renovation of the government secondary school that I attended where students couldnft study when it rained during my time now provides a much better study environment; and the construction of a power plant and distribution facilities that have vastly improved the power supply situation, and many more. Japan lends a warm hand in support of many countries so very far away from its shores, including war-torn Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the African countries that have unfortunately continued to face problems after their independence. Kiribati is a peaceful tropical, and fortunate, island nation without struggling against war or poverty. Some people negatively feel that there are more cars and houses with tin roofs in Tarawa these days, diminishing the essence of Kiribati. The people of Kiribati take the maintenance of their identity and culture very seriously, and this is very important for sure. However, moving into the 21st century, a cash economy has naturally permeated the islands and demand for cash has increased, which is for better or for worse an irreversible trend in any country belonging to the international community. Tin roofs allow gutters and tanks to be attached to collect precious rain water to drink; petrol fuelled outboard motors enable fishermen to boost their catches to sell; cars mean that there is no need to walk miles under the hot sun. Therefore, balancing the tradition vs. the trend holds very important key.

I strongly hope that Kiribati, a country with virtually no resource other than the vast ocean will gain, someday, true economic independence. Unknowingly close by to but virtually unknown in Japan, Kiribati has high expectations of Japan in assisting it to achieve this goal as both a development partner and also as an equal partner in the international community. I wish to be able to contribute to this effort in some small way, with the best of my capability.


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