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Japan-Africa cooperation

This paper’s authors argue that Africa could greatly benefit from increased engagement with Japan, and learn from the Asian giant’s experiences, as the continent has just ratified a comprehensive free trade agreement. 


What has Africa got to do with Japan? A lot.  Across Africa one cannot miss the sight of Toyota cars roaming the streets of African cities.  Millions of Africans have used Japanese electronics.  A few Africans have studied in Japanese universities: both private ones such as Sophia University, Waseda University and Doshisha University, and public ones such as Tokyo University, Kyoto University and Nagoya University. And if you ask, average Africans will tell you they have heard about Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  But then follows a paradox.  How come that not much is known about Japan-Africa cooperation? Much talk these days is about how China has invaded Africa with cheap goods and massive infrastructure projects with the much talked about “Road and Belt Initiative.”  

The main purpose of this article is to highlight the status of Japan-Africa cooperation with the aim of making a case for more robust Africa’s engagement with Japan as the best option as Africa prepares for a take-off, following the ratification of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA).  This is not to shield Africa from other interested parties, but to set up a strategic intent as a point of departure.  The advantages for this international cooperation policy option will be briefly explored.  Areas of cooperation include: trade, investment, industrialisation, education and culture, capacity building, information and communication technologies (ICTs) and innovation.  But most importantly, are there key lessons that Africa can learn from Japan, despite the fact that it is hard to compare the two economies?

Africa and Japan compared and contrasted

This section should probably read: “How not to compare Africa with Japan.”  In one sense comparing Africa and Japan is like comparing an elephant with a rabbit. In terms of area, population and natural resources, Africa is the elephant and Japan is the rabbit, while in terms of gross domestic product (GDP) and per capital income, industrialisation, infrastructure, and ICTs, Japan is the elephant and Africa is the rabbit.

Comparing Africa and Japan

In terms of area, while Japan is 364, 485 sq. km, Africa is 30.37 million sq. km. Africa’s population is 1.216 billion (by 2016) while Japan’s is 126.8 million (by 2017).  In terms of GDP, Africa has US$ 2.33 trillion (in 2018) and Japan US$ 5.443 trillion (in 2017 estimate).  GDP per capita, Africa has US$ 1,890 (in 2018), while Japan has US$41,021. GDP real growth rate: Africa 2.3 percent (2018) and Japan 1.7 percent. People (ethnic groups): Africa has 1250-3000 native linguistic groups, while Japan’s population comprises 98.1 percent of Japanese.  Demography: Africa 0-25 years—make about 60 percent of the population, while in Japan 0-25 years—make 22.34 percent.

Of course Africa is a continent and Japan is a country, and that is why the comparison is rather misleading. But in the context of regional integration and Africa moving towards a continental free trade area and finally a political federation, the comparison is still valid.  From the comparisons above, Africa needs to learn from Japan and discern which factors might be preventing a resource-rich continent from being industrious and prosperous.  Some factors are obvious even to the novice in economics and policy.  Failure to urbanise is a major barrier.  Egg and chicken problem—is Africa failing to urbanise because of being economically underdeveloped or it is economically underdeveloped because it has failed to urbanise?

Overdependence on agriculture without adding value to agricultural products is also clearly a barrier to economic growth.  The many youth who are not employed are another crucial factor in Africa’s underdevelopment paradox.  A vast land that is not capitalised and obviously not put to good commercial farming is yet another factor.  The big African population lacks productive skills and is instead fragmented into ethnic groups that spend a good deal of time fighting over underutilised natural resources such as minerals and land.  While Japan was given huge loans after World War II, Africa did not get as much aid after the ravages of slavery and colonialism.  Instead the few loans that were given later gave rise to massive debt burdens throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

Japan-Africa cooperation akin to a secret love affair: best kept secret

The oldest and most powerful multinational brands across Africa are Japanese vehicles such as Toyota, Suzuki, Honda, Mitsubishi, and Yamaha (motorcycles). Other famous Japanese brands are: Seiko and Casio (watches), Sony (radios and computers).  Many other electronic gadgets from Japan such as Toshiba (computers), Fuji (cameras and films), are household names in Africa, while Toyota Land Cruisers, pick-ups and Prados can be seen cruising on Africa’s dusty roads. What is in a name? A lot, including large sums of money.  Japan’s major brands that are common in Africa are worth billions of dollars as the figures below illustrate.

Japan’s top brands and their value [[1]]

Brand name                     Value in Millions of US Dollars                               Rank

Toyota                                     50,291                                                                    1

Nissan                                     11,534                                                                     2

Canon                                      9,788                                                                      4

Sony                                        8,474                                                                       5

MUFG                                     6,714                                                                       6

Panasonic                                5,983                                                                       7

Uniqlo                                      5,252                                                                      8

Subaru                                      4,001                                                                      9

A small anecdote: Africa’s economic classes can be illustrated by the following: an old Toyota pick-up carrying sacks of Irish potatoes, cabbages, some chicken along with passages on top of these goods (low class peasants); a double cabin four-wheel drive Toyota pick-up heading from one of Africa’s capital cities to a rural home for a weekend (middle class); a Toyota Prado with an African cabinet minister visiting his rural home (upper class filthy rich).  

It is ironic (or is it not?) that in Japan, while cars are manufactured in all these different grades, they are neither a symbol of social class nor an indication of one’s clean or filthy status, but they are just a necessity. You buy a car because you need it, in the first place, and there are monetary and purchasing systems in place that can allow people of all classes to buy the car they want irrespective of social class or standing. But that is a story for another day.

Africa and Japan have been engaged in international cooperation since the 1950s.  A lot of Japanese goods have been flooding African markets but few Africans can admit having met a Japanese person, not to mention having visited a Japanese embassy.  How many Ugandans, for instance, know that the legendary Yuichi Kashiwada (88) of Yamato shirts has spent most of his adult life in Uganda? He was dispatched to the East African nation in 1965 when the first Independent Uganda government proposed the establishment of a joint venture to Japan’s Yamato shirts and they founded clothing maker Uganda Garment Industry Limited (Ugil) in 1964. He has rubbed shoulders with presidents from [Milton] Obote 1 to [Yoweri] Museveni. For those of us who went to school between the seventies and the eighties, wearing a white Yamato shirt was a symbol of pride. But little did we know that the man and company behind this brand were Japanese! 

Even after the company had been nationalised and later closed during political turmoil and changes of governments, Kashiwada managed to repurchase it and rename it Phenix. In his older days, he has not only focused on making the more appealing organic shirts and T-shirts, but has also set all his efforts on training his Ugandan workers and moulding them almost as a father into responsible workers. “What is most important”, he says, “is educating employees”. He tells them to strictly adhere to the work hours and keep things at the factory tidy and in order. He refuses to let those coming even a minute after 8 am to enter the factory and deducts pay for a day’s work from their salary. He said he is going to stay active for the rest of his life.”[[2]] This little known hero is still Director at Phenix Logistics Uganda Limited, and he has touched many local lives. Indeed, what Kashiwada has done over five decades in Uganda is arguably what this young nation’s workforce needs most but misses almost at all levels from the civil service to the peasantry: discipline.

It can also be argued that Africa as a whole is one of the main beneficiaries of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA)’s Volunteer Programme. In this programme, “Japanese aged between 20 and 69 with both skills and will to work in a developing country will be dispatched for two years by the Government of Japan to the country which requested the volunteer in the area they need, for example education, health, environment, community development, social services, agriculture, science and technology etc. The volunteers become members of the communities they work with and bring new ideas and share their expertise with local communities through collaboration.”[[3]] It is a programme not embroiled in grand infrastructural projects, but which leaves lasting marks of bilateral cooperation between the Asian giant and each individual African nation in areas from education to agricultural/rural development.

Why is Japan-Africa cooperation such a mystery given the fact that official development assistance from Japan to Africa has been quite significant? Other development partners in Africa such as China, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, the European Union and the United States of America are quite visible.  The Japan-Africa cooperation can be compared to a secret love affair, where a lot goes on but it is not talked about in public.

A long history of Japan-Africa cooperation but little publicity

By 2012, 26 African countries had JICA offices.  These are: Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Côte d’voire, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Djibouti, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. [[4]] We will briefly discuss some of the salient features of JICA, since as we have repeatedly stated, Japan has been doing a lot of good using an excellent model, but few people know about it.  The reader is advised to be patient with a lot of information and figures—they deserve to be displayed.  First, a brief history of JICA.  We shall select some major highlights and issues/programmes of the long history [of JICA] that dates back to 1954.

History of JICA: times and issues/programmes 

  • January 1954: The Overseas Economic Cooperation Fund Law is promulgated;
  • December 1960: The Federation of Japan Overseas Association is established;
  • March 1961: The Overseas Economic Cooperation Fund (OECF) is established. Approximately 5,444 million yen given by the government, establishing the OECF. The statement of Operation Procedures is approved allowing operation to start;
  • June 1962: The Overseas Technical Cooperation Agency (OTCA) is established;
  • April 1965: The Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers (JOCV) Office is established by the OTCA;
  • May 1974: The Act of Japan International Cooperation is promulgated;
  • August 1974: The Japan International Cooperation Agency is established;
  • December 1974: The Statement of Operation Procedures of JICA is implemented;
  • April 1978: Act of JICA is revised to include promotion of Grant Aid Operations;
  • October 1983: The Institute for International Cooperation is established;
  • April 1986:  The Japan Disaster Relief Team (JDRT) is formed;
  • April 1987: The Special Assistance for Project Sustainability (SAPS) is commenced;
  • April 1988: The Special Assistance for Project Formulation (SAPROF) is published;
  • November 1989: OECF Guidelines for Environmental Considerations are published;
  • January 1991: Evaluation Guidelines are published;
  • May 1991: OECF Policy for Consideration of Women in Development (WID) is published;
  • April 1992: The Special Assistance for Project Implementation (SAPI) is commenced;
  • December 1992: The Handbook for Women in Development (WID) Consideration is published;
  • October 1999: The Japan Bank of International Cooperation (JBIC) is established;
  • April 2004: The Guidelines for Environmental and Social Considerations are published

It is very clear that JICA is guided by clear, well thought-out, and progressively developed policies and systems.  Issues that are recurring are: sustainability, environment, women empowerment, evaluation and monitoring of programmes, technical support and humanitarian assistance.  For instance, JICA programmes in Africa for the fiscal year 2011 received a total of 120, 762 million yen. [[5]] Programmes funded included: [[6]] sustainable management of natural resources (Kenya); resilience to unstable weather, water and agriculture, improving livestock (Ethiopia); vocation and technical training (Senegal and DRC); peace and good governance (Sudan and South Sudan); health (Mali).  

Even though Japan-Africa cooperation dates back to the 1950s, we shall focus on the most recent periods since 1993 (5-6 October) when the first Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) was held.  Since then, several TICAD conferences have been held as shown below: [[7]]

TICAD conferences and themes

  • TICAD II: 19-20 October 1998 “African Development towards the 21st Century: the Tokyo Agenda for Action”;
  • TICAD Ministerial Conference: 3-4 December2001 “Dialogue with the Business Community” and “Dialogue with the Civil Society”;
  • TICAD III: 29 September -1 October 2003 “Reviewing the first 10 years of TICAD Asia-Africa Trade and Investment Conference – A major follow-up to TICAD III 1-2November 2004   “Poverty Reduction through Economic Growth”;
  • The Addis Ababa TICAD Conference on Consolidation of Peace in Africa 16-17 February 2006;
  • 22-23 March 2007: TICAD Ministerial Conference on Energy and Environment for Sustainable Development;
  • TICAD IV: 28-30 May 2008 “Towards a Vibrant Africa”;
  • TICAD V: 1-3 June 2013 “Aiming for inclusive and dynamic development of Africa”;
  • TICAD VI – Nairobi, Kenya (held outside Japan for the first time): 27-28 August 2016     “Advancing Africa’s Sustainable Development Agenda: TICAD Partnership for Shared Prosperity”;
  • TICAD Ministerial Conference: 24-25 August 2017 “TICAD VI Follow-up Meeting”;
  • TICAD Ministerial Conference 6-7 October 2018 “Trends and challenges since TICAD VI”.   

TICAD is a joint collaboration between the Japanese Government, United Nations, United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO), the World Bank and the African Union Commission. In principle, invitations to attend TICAD are extended to all African heads of state and government, as well as international organisations, donor countries, private companies and civil society organisations. [[8]] TICAD is, as it were, the vehicle of Japanese diplomacy for Africa. When Japan launched the TICAD in 1993, she wanted “to refocus international attention on the importance and urgency of African development issues as well as to promote high-level policy dialogue between African leaders and development partners.”[[9]]

Japan has also been engaged with the trending issue of industrialisation in Africa through the initiative dubbed the Third Industrial Development Decade for Africa (IDDA 3).  Japan has funded projects in Africa related to inclusive and sustainable industrial development.  Countries that benefitted from this cooperation include: Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Liberia, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal, Somalia, South Africa, South Sudan and Sudan.  Ethiopia has particularly engaged with Japan in a series of industrial policy dialogues that started in 2008 up to 2017, under the arrangements facilitated by the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies Development Forum and JICA. [[10]] What is clear is Japan’s commitment to the issue of sustainable development goals through technical cooperation. 

The philosophy that guides Japan-Africa cooperation

A close look at the various projects and meetings linked to Japan-Africa cooperation reveals a certain consistent philosophy or worldview.  Japan being the third largest economy in the world, after the USA and China, has developed its home-grown philosophy of development and economic growth.  The first pillar of Japan’s development philosophy is “industrialise or perish.” This philosophy is best exemplified in the massive production of automobiles and electronics.  This is Japan’s core competence.  Japan has engaged UNIDO to enhance African industrial development. For instance on 25 March 2019, Japan and UNIDO organised an exhibition highlighting their cooperation for African industrial development.  This is a continuation of what UNIDO and Japan have been doing with regard to TICAD and IDDA 3.  Of course such high-level events are not easily known by the ordinary Africans; not even the popular media report about them.

Given Japan’s introverted role in global politics, it does not get bothered by the internal politics of the countries it engages with.  Of great significance is also the fact that Japan was never involved in the colonial or neo-colonial projects in Africa.  You hardly hear anyone in Africa speaking Japanese.  The brands of Toyota, such as the massively popular Hiluxes and Prados, Mazda, Mitsubishi, notably the Pajeros, Nissan, especially Sunny, Sony, Yamaha, and many others, are the only eloquent symbols of Japan’s economic muscle all over the world, Africa included.  This could be termed the “philosophy of quiet but positive influence in the world.”  You never hear of political statements from Japan about African social political affairs. The sound from Toyota vehicles is deafening though.  Recall the adage that “Money talks.”

Japan may not be bothered so much by internal politics, but the Japanese move is cautiously, first and foremost, carefully considering the safety of their nationals: be it reconnaissance, negotiating or implementing teams. The Japanese also have an obsession with cultural etiquette, and it drives their communication with other people. As one observer has noted, Japan is a country “where cultural elements can have a profound impact on decision-making and, ultimately, on the effectiveness of a business relationship… Many people (in Japan) assume that what is logical and common practice in our home turf is also ipso facto the right path in the rest of the world.”[[11]] The Japanese are meticulous with rules, discipline and order, and Africa may largely have fallen short of benefiting from this industrial enthusiasm the Japanese have – instead our markets and streets are largely flooded with used Japanese good and vehicles – mainly because our politics has for decades been caught up in a quagmire of nepotism, tribalism and corruption. These are obvious obstacles to making deals with the Japanese. The Japanese ‘art of the deal’, to borrow the famous Trumpian cliché, will always, perhaps validly, be contrasted with the many and now controversial deals and projects the other Asian Giant China has accomplished in Africa over the last two decades. Many of these deals have not been transparent.

Only African heads of state and their senior officials have usually been involved. National regulations have been ignored either for domestic political reasons or due to pressure from a Chinese government hell bent on offloading both its surplus domestically produced materials and its surplus labour force. Even though China is widely appreciated on the African continent as the leading infrastructure finance provider, “yet the public also see negatives: many think Chinese products are poor quality, while there is a growing perception that dealing with China tends to favour Chinese labourers.”[[12]] There are also widespread fears of the so-called ‘debt-trap’, where African governments face the risk of losing lucrative state assets to china if they fail to repay huge loans advanced by their Chinese lenders.

Japan will most probably not enter deals that are not transparent. Money spent on projects, domestically or otherwise, will be spent with the kokumin (wananchi in Swahili and citizens in English) in mind. This is reflected in the JICA Volunteer Programme, a route the Japanese government has taken since 1965, to provide official Japanese technical assistance programmes abroad at grassroots level. Which brings us to the other key pillar of Japan’s philosophy of development that informs its cooperation with Africa, namely, a strong commitment to ethical values.  Japan is committed to human-centred sustainable development. This has been emphasised through the Japanese government’s concern for human security by designing projects with UNIDO that benefit those who are neediest and vulnerable, including post-crisis rehabilitation.  Sustainability is reflected in UNIDO-Japan’s multidimensional approach towards a sustainable energy future that fosters sustainable energy solutions that includes climate resilient industries for Africa.  This philosophy of sustainable development is well articulated by Hiroshi Kuniyoshi, the Deputy to the Director General of UNIDO, at the Vienna UNIDO-Japan exhibition on 23 March 2019: “Japan and UNIDO are proud of a solid and trusted partnership to reduce poverty, and enhance inclusiveness while safeguarding the environment.”  The three focus areas are: poverty reduction, inclusiveness, and environment protection.  To these add the philosophy of partnership and trust.

Who has not heard about the famous Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, of 11 December 1997? Briefly put, the main objective of Kyoto Protocol that Japan signed in 1998 “…is the stabilisation of atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”[[13]] By this protocol, contracting parties from developed countries committed themselves to the reduction of their combined greenhouse gas emissions by at least 5 percent from the 1990 levels by the period 2008-2012.  Many people know about Tokyo, the capital city of Japan but few people would know that Kyoto is also in Japan.  Kyoto is a Rukiga-Runyankore word for big and extremely hot fire! A nice coincidence that Kyoto Protocol deals with climate change. 

In any development efforts or design of projects, the most crucial issue is that of ownership. How does Japan address this issue? If this issue is not well addressed, development efforts be it aid or investment, can easily create dependence or neo-colonialism.  Japan is aware of these pitfalls of development cooperation. Mitsuru Kitano, the Permanent Representative of Japan to the International Organisations in Vienna, said, “It is our strong hope that this exhibition will spark discussions on the strengthening of Africa’s ownership and international partnership. Africa’s industrial development is our common goal, and common future.”  The philosophy that informs Japan’s cooperation with Africa and other regions is well summarised by Akihiko Tanaka, President of JICA in his November message introducing the JICA 2012 Report: “And the central tenet of globalisation is that international cooperation is not a one-way street, but rather a broad two-way highroad on which Japan’s own economic and social advancement is inextricably linked with the economic and social health of countries in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, Asia and other regions.”[[14]]

The ball is in Africa’s court, and the sky is the limit

It is not only Mitsuru Kitano and Japan that know that Africa’s industrial development is the common future. Africa herself knows that her demographic potential, among other favourable factors, presents an immense opportunity for change. But change will not come on a platter courtesy of the potential Africa has. We have so much to learn from Japan: from her so-called “miracle recovery” from the ashes of WWII, and from her resilient approach to work and nation-building. 

Africa has recently embarked on an ambitious development agenda called Agenda 2063 that has the vision of “an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in the international arena.”[[15]] Seven aspirations capture so well what Agenda 2063 is all about. Notice how they are similar to the elements in the philosophy guiding Japan’s development paradigm.  These seven aspirations are: [[16]] 1) A prosperous Africa based on inclusive growth and sustainable development; 2) An integrated continent, politically united, based on the ideals of Pan Africanism and the vision of Africa’s Renaissance; 3) An Africa of good governance, respect for human rights, justice and the rule of law; 4) A peaceful and secure Africa; 5) An Africa with a strong cultural identity, common heritage, values and ethics; 6) An Africa whose development is people-driven, relying on the potential of African people, especially its women and youth, and caring for children; 7) Africa as a strong, united, resilient and influential global player and partner.

One may quickly and cynically claim that these are lofty and high-sounding ideals that are impossible to realise.  Agenda 2063 goes into some details to explain what a prosperous Africa based on inclusive growth and sustainable development would mean in concrete terms: [[17]] a high standard of living and quality of life and well-being; well educated citizens and skills revolution underpinned by science, technology and innovation for a knowledge society will be broad-based, and no child misses school due to poverty or any form of discrimination; healthy citizens, who are well fed and have long life spans; cities and rural communities equipped with modern communication, sanitation, education and health facilities, dynamic market economies, access to affordable and decent housing; structurally transformed economies, through industrialisation, manufacturing and value addition, private sector development, entrepreneurship and decent jobs for all; modern agriculture for scaled-up production, improved productivity and value addition through commodity transformation and services; healthy ecosystems and preservation of the African natural environment.

Unlike other previous ambitious African plans, agenda 2063 even came up with flagship programmes to be implemented in the first ten years.  These are: [[18]] 1) The integrated High Speed Train Network (some countries like Kenya, Ethiopia have already constructed High Speed Train Networks and others are in the process); 2) African virtual and e-university; 3) African Commodity Strategy; 4) Annual African Forum; 5) Continental Free Trade Area (this came into effect on 30 May 2019 after being ratified by the required 22 African countries); 6) A single African Airspace; 7) African Passport and Free Movement of People; 8) Continental Financial Institutions; 9) The Grand Inga Dam project; 10) The Pan African e-Network; 11) Silencing the Guns; 12) Outer space.  These are the critical areas that all those who wish to journey with Africa in her long march to prosperity should provide funding for.  This is where Japan-Africa cooperation becomes very strategic.  

Some of Japan’s most known brands like Nissan have already recognised how Africa is the next frontier market.  This accurate understanding of Africa as an emerging market is well articulated by Jim Dondo, General Manager of the Nissan Africa Regional Office: 

“Forecasted to be the next growth region after China with an anticipated GDP growth rate of more than 5 percent per annum, Nissan views Africa as a strategic market in achieving our mid-term objectives….The growing consumer base in Africa will become increasingly motorised and Nissan aims to be at the forefront of initiatives to capture this market”. [[19]]

There are conditions necessary for Africa to engage in meaningful cooperation with Japan given the huge gap between the two economies.  First of all, it is hard to compare Japan (a country) with an entire continent of 54 countries each with a different level of economic growth. Africa has over 1 billion people; 60 percent of whom are below 25 years of age.  The African Development Bank presented shocking facts about Africa’s infrastructure in 2010 (not much has changed): 

“Less than 40 percent of the continent’s population has access to electricity, about a third of the rural population has access to roads and only 5 percent of agriculture is under irrigation.  The situation is no better for social infrastructure, with only 34 percent of the population having access to improved sanitation and a slightly better situation for clean water at about 65 percent…Furthermore, Africa faces higher access costs compared to other developing countries.  The continent’s road freight is about four times more expensive, power cost 14 US cents per kilowatt-hour against 5-10 US cents, and mobile telephony costs US$12 per month compared to US$8 elsewhere”. [[20]

This gloomy picture of Africa’s infrastructure deficit, much as it is shocking and even embarrassing, points to long years of government neglect of a major priority and a precondition for any development.  This clearly points to Africa’s misplaced priorities during the 1980s and 1990s.  It also raises questions of how development assistance was being used during this period. It then points to where the money should be directed before Africa can begin to rise or even engage in meaningful cooperation.  Japan, are you listening?

There is an elephant in the room whenever the issue of why Africa has remained stagnant when other developing regions have taken off. Some of the myths peddled include: geography (being landlocked), others mention history, while others mention culture.  These have been dismissed since all countries have them as challenges but still develop. [[21]] Japan is used as a case study to show how stereotypes about Japanese as lazy during the 19th and 20th centuries did not hinder Japan from becoming a major economic power later.  Writing about Japan in 1915 an Australian engineer who had been hired to advise the Japanese government on how to improve industrial productivity made the following observation: 

“My impression as to your cheap labour was soon disillusioned when I saw your people at work. No doubt they are lowly paid, but the return is equally so; to see men at work made me feel that you are a very satisfied easy-going race who reckon time is no object.  When I spoke to some managers they informed me that, “it was impossible to change the habits of nation heritage”. [[22]]

This rather derogatory description of the Japan of 1915 can easily apply to a good number of African countries where most people are easy going.  Who has not gone to an office and found only a coat on a chair while the government official has gone for “an early lunch.”  Not many people in Africa consider time a factor of production.  The concept of time as one African philosopher John Mbiti said, is quite elastic.  Time is not an abstract reality but rather it is events that shape time.  A wedding starts when the guests have arrived and not the fixed hour like 14:00. So does culture affect economic performance? Contrary to what some scholars like Samuel Huntington and other racist scholars have claimed, the apt conclusion seems to be that the cultural transformation of countries such as Japan, Germany and Korea (and eventually Africa) “…happened mainly because of economic development, which created societies in which people have to behave in more disciplined, rational, and cooperative ways than in agrarian societies.”[[23]]  

This is a subtle insight from a Marxist view that the material base is what changes the superstructure.  If people engage in economic activities that require them to meticulously keep time, they will do so.  Why would someone looking after cows bother whether it is 12:30 or 14:30? But if you are taking a flight at 15:50 you will surely be concerned at the precise time you should be at the airport.  This conclusion of course can attract another counter argument that when people are still guided by that kind of cultural mindset and timeframe, will they not in fact have a poor economic performance until they have changed their cultural mindset? So when will Africa undergo a cultural revolution? What did Japan do to make this paradigm shift in its conception of time?

Learning from Japan: Lessons Africa should have learnt but did not and now must

Building and sustaining peace

After Japan had been literally reduced to ashes at the end of WWII, they put the war behind themselves, embarked on rebuilding a nation, and have never looked back. In his book, Remaking Japan, Theodore Cohen succinctly captures the moment: 

“American leaders were engrossed in preventing the resurgence of Japanese militarism and building democratic bulwarks against it. Nor did the Japanese see that far ahead at the time. They were happy to have their erstwhile domestic oppressors off their backs and a peaceful ‘cultural Japan’ in prospect … The Americans got what they thought they wanted and so did the Japanese. What they got in addition was an ‘economic miracle’”. [[24]]

Africa has lent herself to countless wars since independence. There have been numerous ‘peace talks’, settlements and ceasefires, only for warring groups to resume fighting and wreck more havoc on already devastated economies. A case in point being South Sudan.  Japan emerged from the destruction of WWII to become the world’s third largest industrial country in only 25 years. The Japanese economy and social order have thrived on account of the peace consciously built and sustained throughout the post-war years. Mineral-rich, but war-torn DRC, just like South Sudan and many other African countries have signed as many peace agreements as the wars fought over the past decades. Almost another war breaks out as soon as an agreement has been signed to end the previous one. Our native Uganda is another case in point. How much time has been wasted, and how many hopes have been frustrated since the overthrow of Idi Amin in 1979, and indeed since independence? If it is not a civil war being fought, it is a war on the streets with police fighting government opponents and wanainchi demanding the basic rights to demonstrate. At this pace, it will be difficult, almost impossible, for Africa to realise either the goals of Agenda 2063 or indeed enjoy the benefits of the recently ratified AfCFTA.

Fostering discipline 

Very recently a video has been making rounds on social media of a Singaporean Professor Kishore Mahbubani (71) explaining how his country has managed to make transformation from a third world country to a first world country in his own lifetime. He captures Singapore’s secret formula for success with the acronym in English: MPH. M stands for ‘Meritocracy’ – choosing the best people to run the country. Not your supporters, your friends or family. P stands for ‘Pragmatism’, and the professor argues that this original English concept was best defined by former Chinese communist leader Deng Xioping who said it doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white. As long as it catches mice, it is a good cat. He meant that a good leader will take policies that work and apply them in a mix. Talk about “the meritocracy of ideas”! H stands for ‘Honesty’, the antithesis of corruption. The professor states the obvious, that “indeed what has brought most third world countries (read most sub-Saharan countries) down and what has led to their failures in development, has been corruption.”

Don’t get us wrong. There is corruption everywhere, to start with the H pillar of the acronym, even in Japan and Singapore. But unlike in most of Africa, corruption is punished. People are fired, or they resign before they are pushed. “And so Lee Kuan after he became Prime Minister”, the professor on the SNS video reiterates, “made it a point to punish not the junior people, but the very senior people. So when a junior minister went on holiday with his friend, a businessman, when he came back he was arrested. And so he asked “why am I being arrested?” He said you went on holiday with a businessman, he paid all your expenses, that is corruption, you go to jail …” Japanese media and society will be obsessed for weeks with a (local or national) government official suspected of having “mixed up” private and official business, or those accused of making gaffes in public about women, old people, the sick or disabled. And surely they will soon resign from office or even be dismissed from their respective political parties. In many of our countries ministers and officials caught stealing public funds are often “rewarded” with higher office jobs. National leaders indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity hang on to power, and even when the rest of the world thinks they have become persona non grata, other African states and leaders shield them in shameless defiance! Eventually they are pushed out, but the process costs their countries years of economic uncertainty, chaos on the streets, more mistrust and intrigue among their subjects, and even needless loss of life. Remember Sudan and Omar Al Bashir?

Honesty is closely linked with both meritocracy and pragmatism. The Japanese are political animals too. They have had the business-backed and conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) dominating post-war Japanese politics with only two very brief breaks (1993-1994 and 2009-2012). Politics, however, does not influence the acquisition of jobs or the running of cooperate and private business entities. Students leaving school undergo an arduous job-hunting ritual, all based on merit. It doesn’t really matter which part of the country or family you come from, though it may matter what university you went to and how good you were at your studies.  That’s meritocracy, and at 2.4 percent Japan has one of the lowest unemployment rates among industrialised countries. The Japanese are pragmatic too. Even the long-reigning LDP has either held the reins of power on its own or as the dominant party in a coalition government. The norm in Africa, on the other hand, is to create enemies of opposition parties irrespective of what practical knowledge and expertise their rank and file are capable of bringing to the table.

Turning a liability into an asset

As the anecdote we retold in this essay suggests, Japanese were at first a subject of scone as lazy and not particularly keen on keeping time (Africans have been accused of the same).  Japan has very strong religious and cultural traditions, just like Africa. When you are demeaned on the basis of your identity, you can turn this into an asset by proving your critics wrong. History shows that some of the greatest leaders overcame some personal challenges: Demosthenes the famous Greek orator had a speech impediment; Winston Churchill who used to be at the tail-end of the class since he was not talented as a student, ended up being considered one of the greatest British statesmen, orators and writers.  Africa needs to turn her troubled history and identity into an asset.   


To sum up, Africa needs to emulate the discipline of the Japanese: both fiscal and social discipline. The ‘honesty’ that uplifted Singapore from a position below several post-independence African states to a first world economy is also part of the fabric that has held Japan together. The Japanese have been honest with themselves and to the promise they made after the devastating war: to build the peace they had once squandered, and to diligently work to rebuild their country. As one observer has argued, “deceptively simple as it may sound, the single most important ingredient in Japan’s success is the Japanese attitude toward work … Anyone who has seen how they mop the floor or man a garbage truck must see great truth in this.”[[25]

Africa needs more Kashiwadas (remember the Ugil and Yamato legend in Uganda?), but we need to create an environment that ensures transparency and the stability to strengthen business confidence in making long-term investment. We need meritocracy, pragmatism and honesty in the running of our national affairs if we are to have the Japanese fully on board both as teachers and partners in the struggle to achieve the lofty goals and ideals of Agenda 2063. We need peace and stability if we are to engage the Japanese, and other like-minded partners, as well as our African neighbours, as we strive to enjoy the benefits of the AfCFTA.

Africa above all, needs to invest in its youth who are innovative, ambitious and restless. Some of them have started to challenge the status quo, engaging in running battles with security forces.  Such energy could be well harnessed and put to good use if the respective African governments cared to tap into this youthful energy.  Examples from Kenya and Uganda just to name a few with all manner of ICT applications designed by younger innovators, show that Africa has a lot of talented youth. They need to be empowered by appropriate policies just like Japan did. 

Finally, given the AfCFTA that all Africans are eagerly waiting to see its full implementation and especially the free movement of people across Africa, we need to start thinking as one people and engage the whole continent as a unit of economic and social development.  Japan is a country; why can’t Africa be a country with a common vision as enshrined in Agenda 2063? Some sceptics think this is a pipe dream. All great ideas and plans start as dreams and later become reality.  One Africa, one destiny—but always in collaboration with others in a world that is ever globalising and seeking integration, since humanity is ultimately one.

*Odomaro Mubangizi (PhD) is Dean of the Philosophy Department at the Institute of Philosophy and Theology in Addis Ababa, where he also teaches social and political philosophy.

*Vick L.  Ssali (PhD) is a lecturer at the Department of English Language and Cultures, Aichi Gakuin University, Japan.

*Both authors belonged to Thomas More Writer’s Association during their undergraduate studies at Katigondo Major Seminary in Uganda.  This article is a tribute to this association and its members that shaped their literary interests and skills at an early age.


[4]See JICA 2012: Japan International Cooperation Annual Report,p. 233.

[5]Ibid., p. 46.

[6]Ibid., pp. 47-51.



[10]See Kenich Ohno and Izumi Ohno, “A Japanese Perspective on Ethiopia’s Transformation” in Fantu Cheru et al (Eds), The Oxford Handbook of the Ethiopian Economy(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), pp. 845-849. 

[11]See Bruna Martinuzzi, “Doing Business in Japan: 10 Etiquette Rules You Should Know.” (

[12]See Folashade Soule, “How African governments should negotiate better infrastructure deals with China” (

[13]United Nations, Millennium Summit Multilateral Treaty Framework: An Invitation to Universal Participation, 6-8 2000, p. 80

[14]JICA 20112, p. 1.

[15]African Union Commission, Agenda 2063: The Africa we want—Framework Document(Addis Ababa: AU Commission, 2015), p. 12.


[17]Ibid., pp. 12-13

[18]Ibid., pp. 16-17.

[19]“Shifting Growth in Africa” in Invest in Africa(AU: Washington DC, 2012), p. 18. 

[20]See African Development Bank “Infrastructure Deficit and Opportunities in Africa”, Africa Economic Brief, 1, 2010, p. 2.

[21]See UNECA, Transformative Industrial Policy for Africa  (Addis Ababa: UNECA, 2016), pp. 9-15.

[22]Japan Times, 18 August, 1915, quoted in ibid., p. 14.

[23]Ibid., p. 15.

[24]See Cohen T. cited in Tames, R. A Traveler’s History of Japan, Interlink Books, 1997, p. 176. 

[25]See Seidensticker E. preface to Taylor J. Shadows of the Rising Sun, Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc., p. 11.