After nearly 70 years of cautious, arm’s-length relations, Israel and Japan have recently moved to significantly upgrade diplomatic and business ties. Over the past several years, the two countries have entered into a number of important political and economic agreements, transforming their once limited bilateral relationship into one more characteristic of allied partners. From a series of high-level dialogues on national security and cybersecurity to their first bilateral investment agreement, Israeli-Japanese relations are flourishing.
Despite Israel’s and Japan’s shared democratic values, open trade policies, complementary business and industrial environments, and close alliance with the United States, relations between the two countries have long remained strikingly underdeveloped. But today, three forces are driving their rapid improvement: fundamental changes in the global energy market, developments in Japan’s domestic political and economic landscape, and shifts in the distribution of geopolitical power. Together, these have led policymakers in both countries to push for closer cooperation. Although complex historical anxieties will continue to temper this change in foreign policy direction, Tokyo and Tel Aviv’s new “rising sun relations” mark a turn away from the isolationism that had come to define their bilateral ties since the end of World War II.
A NEW JAPAN
The origins of Israel and Japan’s rocky relations can be traced to the oil crisis of 1973–74, when the Arab nations of OPEC declared an oil embargo against the United States and a number of its allies, including Japan, in response to U.S. support for Israel during the Yom Kippur War. Japan, a resource-poor nation heavily reliant on oil imports, chose economic pragmatism over ideals and alliance interests, dissociating itself from U.S. policy in the Middle East and condemning Israel’s role in the war. Japan’s powerful industrial organization Keidanren even lobbied for an economic and political boycott of Israel. Although the government did not officially implement a boycott, many Japanese companies nonetheless refrained from doing business with their Israeli counterparts. The legacy of this de
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