Unique friendship and major achievements | Sunday Observer
Sri Lanka-Japan relations:

Unique friendship and major achievements

28 November, 2021
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Ambassador Gunasekara with the Marubeni Corporation delegation
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Ambassador Gunasekara with the Marubeni Corporation delegation

Much has been achieved during the short period since Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Japan Sanjiv Gunasekara assumed duties on January 6 this year. It was an even more challenging background as it was during this time that the Japan-funded Light Rail Transit (LRT) program was cancelled. However, the Ambassador’s tenure has proved that true friendships can overcome any barrier and it is possible to build stronger bonds despite the challenges.

Ambassador Gunasekara settled in the US after his education and built his real estate company in California. His businesses include real estate construction, commercial land acquisition, and private school operations. Ambassador Gunasekara is also committed to philanthropy, being involved in numerous charitable organisations.

Speaking to the Sunday Observer, the Ambassador said Sri Lanka is in a unique relationship with Japan. Highlighting major investments being explored by bluechip companies from Japan, the Ambassador said there’s much potential for further collaborations.

Following are excerpts of the interview:

Q What has been the nature of relations between Sri Lanka and Japan in the past?

A. Sri Lanka and Japan has a historically unique relationship. It is not based on defence, economy, politics or geo politics. It is purely based on friendship, which goes back to 1893 when Anagarika Dharmapala and Colonel Henry Steel Olcott took Theravada Buddhism to Japan.

Fast forward to 1951, after World War II, Sri Lanka was the only country that stood up on behalf of Asia for Japan. It was a coordinated effort by the then Sri Lankan Government which started at the Colombo Conference with Asian leaders. It was decided there that Asia should support a unified Japan.

Sri Lanka lobbied all Asian nations including India, Myanmar and China. When J. R. Jayewardene was Finance Minister, he stopped in Tokyo for four days on his way to the San Francisco Peace Treaty, met the Japanese Prime Minister and discussed the future of Japan. J.R. Jayewardene’s speech on September 6, 1951 in San Francisco, united the Western world and the whole world to garner 48 votes in favour of Japan being unified. If not for Sri Lanka, Japan would have been three countries. Hokaido would have gone to Russia and Okinawa would have been a part of the US. Therefore, Japan is very appreciative of Sri Lanka’s actions based on kindness and friendship.

This is why I say we have a unique friendship but we have not used its full potential. Of course, there have been ups and downs in this relationship, especially with the Light Railway Transit project cancellation. It was during this time that I accepted the Ambassadorship on January 6, 2021. But since then, our relationship has greatly improved.

Q How have the investment relations improved between the two countries since the LRT?

A When I took over, JICA – the Japanese Government’s lending arm – had its projects frozen except for the ongoing ones. But the mission continued working with public agencies in Japan, and after seven years, the JICA Director General visited Sri Lanka this month to evaluate new projects after a lapse of about eleven months. This is a great achievement in itself and a significant boost to investment relations.

On November 25, a delegation from Marubeni Corporation – a blue- chip top 10 company in Japan and 100 years old with US$ 70 billion in revenue – came to evaluate a 200 megawatt wind power plant in Mannar. It is an investment worth US$ 375 million. The head of power for Marubeni also arrived to evaluate other renewable energy projects.

Green energy rhymes well with the Japanese economy as it’s geared towards green development. Their companies have the technology and apt for investing in green technology. Marubeni specialises in solar power, floating solar and wind power, and they generate about 34,000 megawatts around the world – enough to light about eight times Sri Lanka’s total power needs. The Marubeni delegation, during their visit here, held discussions with all stakeholders in Sri Lanka in this regard.

We want to bring more blue chip companies to invest in Sri Lanka. The Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) works to guarantee Japanese investments. Private investments enter into projects when the JBIC gives approval. So, when a company such as Marubeni places trust on us, smaller companies follow.

I have been working with about five or six companies and I hope Marubeni will be the first of many more to come. The current doctrine of our government is to boost foreign relations through economic relations and Japan is a very important country. Our Government is giving a lot of attention and priority to Japan, especially because it is an all-weather friend.

Q. How can we benefit from Japan’s loan system?

A. Japan gives loans on 0.1 percent interest for 30 years with a 10 year grace period. So, for 40 years, the interest is only 0.1 percent. The quality is good and the price is a little high. But they are flexible with the grace period. Other foreign loans are only for 10 years, which is not practical as completing a project itself would take 10 years.

We are in a dilemma as our projects are just finishing and the loans are due without any time to generate an income. This is why we are getting on a cash flow issue. Therefore, it is important to educate our population that we need to go into long-term loans and give Japan the highest priority. Japan’s gifts are sincere without ulterior motives. For example, Sri Jayewardenepura General Hospital, Parliament, and Rupavahini are gifts from Japan.

Q. How is the mission promoting tourism?

A. In 2019, we had the highest of over 50,000 tourists from Japan. At present, Sri Lanka has opened for tourism. However, when Japanese tourists return to their country, they have to undergo two weeks of quarantine. But we are working with the Japanese government to reduce it to three days. In the next 60 - 90 days, we are expecting a positive reply from them. That’s when we will see an inflow of Japanese tourists.

Between March to December next year, we hope to surpass the 50,000 mark of 2019 due to the promotion the mission is carrying out. We had the first ever connection between Japanese outbound tour operators and Sri Lankan inbound operators. We connected them through zoom with the translation assistance. Tour operators numbering 265 participated in it. We collect flyers and videos from Sri Lankan tour operators on a monthly basis, translate them to Japanese and send the Japanese tour operators once a month.

We are also initiating a workshop in two months for tour operators in both countries in coordination with SriLankan Airlines and the Sri Lanka Tourism Authority.

We are targeting three segments for tourism. They’re wellness and Ayurveda for the ageing population in Japan, eco safari, and Buddhism and culture.

What are the employment opportunities for our youth there?

Japan has opened the Specialized Skilled Worker (SSW) program to attract foreign workers. Japan usually gives priority to the ASEAN and the first five countries that obtained approval to hold exams were from the ASEAN. But because of the mission’s continued engagement with the Japanese Government, we are the sixth country to obtain approval for exams.

Thus, the exams in Sri Lanka will be held in February for the first time under the SSW system, starting with a caregivers’ exam. This and food serving exams will be held every month thereon. The language requirement is N4 level. The minimum wage for jobs is 200,000 Yen without counting overtime. A person can get a job free of charge and the Sri Lankan Embassy in Japan is the centre point to connect with employers. Our website has employer details and there are plenty of jobs.

The President’s vision, as per the Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour, is to redirect the Middle Eastern skilled labour to higher paying and higher quality-of-life countries. Japan is a priority country for Sri Lanka. By the end of next year, we aim for 500 Lankans to arrive in Japan each month for work, starting with 100 in March and progressing throughout the year to 500.

Q. How does the Embassy engage with the Sri Lankan diaspora in Japan?

A. The Embassy has a staff of about 17 and the Sri Lankan diaspora registered is 30,000. We expect this to double in the next five years with the SSW program. Our staff has not changed for the past nine years.

We use technology to stay connected and provide information of our activities through the Sri Lankan Embassy website and Facebook page. The latter has over 32,000 followers from 2,000 when I assumed office. We give updates on quarantiningand visa requirements every week Japan is gradually opening up for students and business people. We communicate all the updates using the latest technology. Our website was revamped and upgraded during my tenure. For the first time, the Ambassador’s email is public so that anyone can reach me and they will get a response within 24 hours.

We are also engaging with Japanese Buddhist temples to support Sri Lankan temples in the villages. This is not only a part of my official duties but also my personal mission too.

Q. How did the Embassy obtain support from Japan for Sri Lanka’s Covid control measures?

A. In April this year, we raised Rs. 50 million for Sri Lanka. This is the highest amount raised in one time by any Ambassador. We identified 14 Government hospitals, got their needs list and identified the commonly needed equipment. We spoke to the vendors and negotiated the prices. We deposited the money directly to vendors while the volunteer staff in Sri Lanka coordinated the donations to hospitals.

Early this year, I learnt that Japan had paid for twice the number of vaccinations needed for their country. They had made large deposits to manufactures so that their entire country was covered. So they had double the vaccinations needed. I knew about this and received guidance from our President and Prime Minister to get the relevant request letter from the Government of Sri Lanka.

The letter said that we are ready to purchase 600,000 vaccines to administer as the second dose. After the letter went through the usual channels, I coordinated with the Japanese Government to expedite the process, sending them reminders every week about the humanitarian crisis that Sri Lanka is facing and giving them updates on Covid numbers.

This was the time when the LRT project was cancelled and Sri Lanka didn’t receive much priority from the Japanese. But under the President’s directives, I continued engagement with them and urged to support Sri Lanka in the hour of need. After several weeks, they finally heeded the request and decided, not to sell 1.45 billion vaccines but give them to Sri Lanka free. The value of the vaccines was US$ 30 million, enough to cover mission expenses for the next 12 years! This major achievement was possible due to the President’s directives on foreign policy and the hard work of our mission.

Q. What lessons can be learnt from Japan in our path to progress?

A. Japan is a unique country for the discipline of the people, and their respect for the rule of law. It doesn’t even have to be the law. For example, during the quarantine period, government instructions were strictly followed.

People respect each other. Whatever the job they do, big or small, they do it with their head held high. This is what we can learn from Japan that will serve our nation well.