A friendship tried and true

DIPLOMATIC POUCH - Koji Haneda (The Philippine Star) - November 19, 2020 - 12:00am

The time has come for me to take my final bow. When I was appointed to the Philippines as a balikbayan ambassador three years ago, I could not have asked for a better assignment. It is the perfect bookends to my 40 years of diplomatic service. I started my career as a junior diplomat in Manila in the early 80s, so what better way to culminate my life’s work on a high note than here in the country I consider my second home. Challenging, rewarding and for the most part enjoyable is how I would describe my tenure. I have been well accustomed to the Filipinos’ brand of kindness and hospitality from then until now, and I never thought of bidding my farewell to my Filipino colleagues and friends in the middle of a pandemic where social distancing has sadly become the norm.

Eight months into this public health emergency, I have further ramped up Japan-Philippines partnership as we foray into these uncharted times. Our contribution to the Philippines’ pandemic response does not only cover medical supplies and equipment, laboratory surveillance sites and clinical trial cooperation for the anti-flu drug Avigan. We also rolled out two massive budget support loans to beef up the government’s COVID-19 war chest, bringing Japan’s total contribution to more than $1 billion. With the Philippines responding through collective action and with sure backing from Japan, I know there is no reason for this country not to make a strong rebound in the near term.

In the run-up to that economic recovery, there is an upward push for the Build Build Build program to advance as lead growth engine. Amid the lockdown, our rehabilitation team’s continued service in replacing MRT-3’s old rails now made possible the increase of its speed and running capacity. Construction works for the North-South Commuter Railway are also well underway, while the first of the 17 tunnel boring machines for the Metro Manila Subway will arrive early next year. I joined the hardworking Secretary Tugade last year to examine these machines, and both of us were elated at the thought of a successfully completed subway spurring more economic activities.

I have also devoted my time to national security issues throughout my tenure. Our cooperation with the Philippine Coast Guard has made waves with the patrol vessels and high-speed boats we provided. We moved our defense cooperation into high gear with the Beechcraft aircraft we delivered to the Navy and air surveillance radar systems and utility helicopter spare parts to the Air Force. During my term, Japan has officially participated in joint exercises with the Philippines, United States and other countries to strengthen interoperability such as in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions.

One important landmark I was able to witness was the historic ratification of the Bangsamoro Organic Law and establishment of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority. Japan has fortified its assistance in the normalization process, capacity development of the BTA and related socio-economic infrastructure. Attending the ceremonial decommissioning of MILF combatants with President Duterte in Cotabato was a momentous occasion not to be forgotten.

I will also always remember my time as the first foreign envoy to step foot in the wake of a war-torn Marawi. We have boosted our efforts to help people experience the dividends of peace, and this commitment to expand our assistance stays on in accordance with the progress of the peace process. Japan has been the largest donor to the Bangsamoro region, extending a total of P26 billion since 2002. I hope our ongoing cooperation would be instrumental in securing lasting peace in the region.

Last year, I was deeply honored to receive the Peace Process Champions Award from the Philippine government in recognition of Japan’s contributions to the peace and development of Mindanao.

But beyond the recognition, it is the ties shared by our peoples that I will miss the most. Our exchanges in tourism, culture, education, training and employment have skyrocketed in the last few years, and these transcended even in sports. Japanese-Filipino achievers in golf, judo, karate and sumo wrestling are gathering momentum in their fields. Rookie golfer Yuka Saso earned her second victory at the 2020 JLPGA Tour following her win at the 2018 Asian Games. The rise to the international stage by Japan-trained gymnast champ Carlos Yulo testifies to the richness of our mutually beneficial relations. I will continue to be on the lookout for his success as he vies for the coveted gold, and I hope the day will soon come when Filipinos can also join me in Japan to cheer for him and other Filipino athletes at the Tokyo Olympics in summer 2021.

From day one, I was looking to build an excellent bilateral partnership, but I found so much more. Our two countries complement each other in such a way that one’s strength also becomes strength to the other. I have since been a witness to this kind of synergy, and what sets it apart is the enduring friendship between our peoples. Filipinos’ friendship is a gift that keeps on giving. Everywhere I go, this genuine appreciation for Japan is written all over the people’s faces. All of these, plus my fondness for adobo, sisig and the world-famous Philippine mangoes, I will bring with me back in Japan. I will leave this country with much gratefulness in my heart, knowing that Japan has found a true friend in the Philippines.

Maraming, maraming salamat, kaibigan!

The author recently concluded his tour of duty as ambassador of Japan to the Philippines.

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