Japan was the first Asian country to get actively involved in the Central Asian region following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Besides opening embassies in all of the Central Asian states, Japan has also sought to establish economic ties and implement cultural and educational programs. Today, under Japan’s Silk Road diplomacy strategy, special coordinating centers seek to tailor Tokyo’s projects in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. In 2004, Japan initiated the Central Asia Plus Japan initiative, a joint dialogue with all Central Asian states to enhance intra- and inter-regional political, economic, intellectual, and cultural exchanges.
Kyrgyzstan is a prime example of growing ties with Japan in the post-Soviet space. According to the Head of the Kyrgyz Republic-Japan Center for Human Development, Michihiro Hamano, Kyrgyzstan’s open political climate might make it Japan’s guide in the region despite its weak economy, limited territory, and small population. In essence, Kyrgyzstan has the chance to actively promote the Central Asia Plus Japan initiative in the region.
Japan is rarely factored into analyses of the geopolitical competition among Kyrgyzstan’s larger neighbors for influence in the country and the region. Even the Central Asia Plus Japan dialogue, which has been rather feeble since it began in 2004, is not compared with another Asian bloc, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), led by China and Russia. This is partly due to the absence of purely political motives behind Japan’s presence in the region. However, Japan’s representatives in Bishkek confirmed to Jamestown that they will closely observe the upcoming SCO’s summit in Bishkek.
Since independence, Kyrgyzstan has received $430 million in bilateral financial assistance from Japan in the form of credits and grants. Additional Japanese funds flow into Kyrgyzstan through the Asian Development Bank, World Bank, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and the United Nations, where Japan is among the leading donors.
Tokyo’s International Cooperation Agency (JICA) in Bishkek primarily works with the Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Transport. One of Japan’s most important projects in Kyrgyzstan is the reconstruction of the Bishkek-Osh highway. The road is vital in connecting northern and southern Kyrgyzstan. Other long-term projects include promoting good governance, reforming the health care system, improving the agricultural sector, and several projects on tourism.
After 1999, when it became evident that the Kyrgyz economy was not able to return credits to foreign donors, Japan began assisting Kyrgyzstan only through grants. While the Bishkek-Osh road was reconstructed through credits, similar projects in Naryn oblast will be financed through grants. Aziz Kurumbayev, an aide to the minister of foreign affairs, thinks that the Kyrgyz government has not done enough to explore the full potential of Japan’s assistance to Kyrgyzstan by proposing its own projects.
Although business ties between Japan and Kyrgyzstan are weak, some Kyrgyz experts think that Japan might be interested in natural resources and rare minerals in the country. However, the hostage crisis in 1999, when militants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan held four Japanese explorers, considerably discouraged many Japanese businessmen from investing in Kyrgyzstan.
According to Japan’s ambassador in Bishkek, Tatsuhiko Kasai, possible decreases in Japan’s financial assistance in Kyrgyzstan are explained by Tokyo’s general economic policies, not its relations with Bishkek.
The Kyrgyz Republic-Japan Center plays a major part in the growing popularity of the Japanese language and culture in Kyrgyzstan. But unlike the Russian, Chinese, or Turkish languages, Japanese is rarely taught outside of the KRJC. As Hamano told Jamestown, “Japan still hasn’t found its chair in Kyrgyzstan.” Indeed, compared to Russia or Turkey, which have historical connections in the region, Japan, although sharing some cultural similarities with the Central Asian peoples, is still fairly foreign to the local public.
The number of graduates from the four-year Japan language program at the KRJC has been increasing each year. In the 2006 academic year the number of graduates rose to 969. Similarly, KRJC reports that the number of business seminars has increased, numbering 77 seminars since 1995 with 3,436 participants. Today, Kyrgyzstan has several experts in Japanese culture and language who, Hamano believes, have the potential to contribute to Kyrgyz-Japanese relations.
In the future, Japan’s involvement in Kyrgyzstan will increase in the transport, agriculture, social, and security sectors. In addition, Tokyo will continue to promote its Central Asia Plus Japan program. These developments are new in nature both for Japan and the Central Asian states.