Ian Kennedy: NZ-Japan relationship in 'excellent shape'

With Japan top of mind ahead of the Rugby World Cup and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's visit, Ian Kennedy, former ambassador to Japan and still a regular visitor, shares his personal insights into New Zealand’s relationship with Japan.

Ian Kennedy was New Zealand’s Ambassador to Japan when the two countries experienced major disasters in quick succession — the Christchurch earthquake in February 2011, and the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in March 2011 . 

"Amidst the loss of life and sadness, it was a time in which our two peoples came together," Kennedy says.

"I was representing the government, but at the same time working at a very human level directly with the Japanese government and the Japanese people. It was all about relationships.”

In Christchurch, 28 Japanese were among those trapped in the CTV building. Kennedy remembers being asked to update the Japanese Foreign Minister on the situation.

“I rang Wellington on the way in for instructions — what would be useful? The answer was if Japan could send in a search and rescue team that would be very valuable to draw on their knowledge and experience in this area. It would also be a great reassurance to the Japanese parents to know their people were on the ground helping in the search and rescue effort."

Abe Ardern

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. IMAGE: MOFA of Japan

The response was immediate. A plane left the next day with a Japanese urban search and rescue team on board. That was just the beginning, says Kennedy. Within days, New Zealanders in Tokyo were fundraising for Christchurch. It was Rugby World Cup year and all the major Japanese rugby sponsors got on board. So did the Japan Rugby Football Union, and others. A charity dinner and auction drew over 650 guests.

At a Top League rugby game in Tokyo, former Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, then President of the Japan Rugby Football Union, invited Kennedy to go out into the field at half time and address the crowd about Christchurch.  

"At the end of the game, outside the main stadium, led by Mr Mori, I was standing together with a line-up of MPs from across the spectrum of Japanese politics, united in inviting the crowd leaving the game to donate for Christchurch. People were coming up with 10,000 yen notes — equivalent then to about $100. The depth of goodwill to New Zealand was amazing — a real testament to the strength of the relationship at a human level."

Then, on March 11, the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami hit Japan with devastating results. The response by the New Zealand government in sending a search and rescue team, even while aftershocks were continuing in Christchurch, was hugely appreciated, says Kennedy.

"In Tokyo, we thought, 'we can’t just fundraise for Christchurch in these circumstances. It has to be Christchurch and Tohoku'. Half of the money raised was donated to various initiatives in Christchurch. The other half established ‘Support our Kids’ — a homestay programme for Japanese children impacted by the disaster.

"As a bi-product of the programme, there is a growing group of young people in Japan and New Zealand who now know more about one another. I think that’s what we should be doing more and more of — building respect and understanding — or what I call human infrastructure."

Sports diplomacy

Kennedy says sport can be a major enabler in building this ‘human infrastructure'. At the moment, of course, the focus is on the Rugby World Cup, Japan and the All Blacks. They are known and respected for the quality of their play on the field but the values they represent off the field also have fantastic value. 

Through the Rugby World Cup in Japan there’s a great opportunity for New Zealand companies to further their connections with partners in Japan, says Kennedy.

"When you’re playing golf, you have to read the green before you putt, have a wander and see the green before you play. The same in sumo, before the wrestlers come together they purify the dohyo (ring) and go through a ritual to show that they come unarmed. The idea of building confidence and trust — ‘human infrastructure’ — before getting into the transactional stuff is a no-brainer. ‘Made in New Zealand’ is not enough on its own. The key to success is ‘made in New Zealand for Japan’.  You need to do the preliminary work first. It’s about getting known."

This is where the Japan New Zealand Business Council, which Kennedy chairs, comes in, as an enabling organisation working alongside MFAT on trade policy and NZTE on trade promotion. 

Jacinda Ardern’s first visit as PM

As a former ambassador, Kennedy has some thoughts on Jacinda Ardern’s upcoming visit to Japan, which will be her first as Prime Minister.  

“Meetings between prime ministers are a big deal. They are a chance to take stock at a high level of the overall relationship and developments in the region. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is now approaching the longest term in office for a Japanese Prime Minister — he’s very much an elder statesman. Our Prime Minister is newer on the scene, but has made an immediate impact and is from a different generation.”

 It won’t be the first time the two leaders have met. Prime Minister Abe’s leadership was critical in getting CPTPP over the line, as was Prime Minister Ardern’s in securing changes that were important for New Zealand, says Kennedy. The two come with established knowledge of one another and that’s important especially in the current fluid global geopolitical, economic, trade and security environment. 

“As established partners there is much respect and preparedness to listen to the views of one another. In that sense, the conversation on domestic issues as well as international issues could be very interesting. Key issues for Prime Minister Abe include involvement of women in the workforce, childcare arrangements, demographic change, and the impact of new technology — all issues where Prime Minister Ardern will have her own take from a New Zealand perspective and from the perspective of a different generational.”

There’s a saying that "you need to stand on the shoulders of the past to see the next generation", says Kennedy. 

"The relationship between New Zealand and Japan is in excellent shape. Now is the moment to build on that and take things to a new level."

 Interview by Kay Seatter-Dunbar.