Under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan has been looking to boost its global standing. In that effort, the country’s relationships with African states have become key. The most recent signs of Tokyo’s pivot to the continent came in late August, when Abe travelled to Kenya to attend the Sixth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD), a meeting convened by Japan, 54 African states, and several international organizations. At the conference, Abe pledged more than $30 billion in Japanese investment to infrastructure projects across the continent over the next three years—the largest such commitment in TICAD’s history.
Abe’s investment pledge reflected a broader shift in Japan’s policy in Africa: from aid to trade and from government to the private sector. Last month’s TICAD was not short of symbolism to this effect. The meeting was the first of its kind held in Africa instead of in Japan, and Abe, whose public remarks painted his country as an economic partner rather than a donor, brought more than a hundred Japanese businesspeople along for the conference.
For decades, Japan’s foreign policy in Africa revolved around the projection of soft power, mainly in the form of development assistance. But in recent years, economic pressure at home and competition with other foreign players on the continent have led Tokyo to reconsider.
Japan’s biggest competitor for influence in the region is China. Over the past decade, Beijing has committed tens of billions of dollars to African countries in a web of investments, loans, and joint ventures. At the 2015 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation—a summit that Beijing first convened in 2000—Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged more than $60 billion in investment to the continent. India has also upped its game: in 2010, it launched the India-Africa Business Forum, and as of 2014, it had some $15 billion invested in ventures in African states. For years, Japan’s foreign