The Japan NewsWith the world’s largest Muslim population and stable democratic institutions, Indonesia has been increasing its economic and political leverage on the global stage. Located in a strategic zone connecting the Pacific and Indian Oceans, it aspires to be a future maritime power. The Japan News recently spoke with Indonesian Ambassador to Japan Yusron Ihza Mahendra.
Q: Would you tell us the role Japan has played in your life?
Yusron: My presence in Japan now is not an accident but a [result of] planning. I had two professors in my university who approached me to study abroad. One of my professors graduated from an American university and another from a British university. Both of them told me to choose Japan. I was very surprised. They explained to me that it was not because the U.S. was not good or Europe was not good, but because no one [in Indonesia] understood Japan. I had to wait for a scholarship and then came to Japan. No one knew what the next step of my life was.
I finished my degree and then did many jobs here. One of my jobs was [to work as a Japan-based] correspondent for the Kompas daily [Indonesian newspaper]. Then my professors asked me to come back. Both of them joined the Cabinet [of Indonesia]. I was elected as a member of the parliament of Indonesia. My responsibility in the parliament was defense. Maybe I’m unique because I came here as a student, and then became a journalist and then the ambassador.
When I was here [before becoming ambassador], the most important issue in Japan was the bubble economy and then the sluggishness of Japan’s economic growth. Now the main issue is the aging society and declining population. I experienced all of these points.
Q: When you were a correspondent for the Kompas daily, what did you cover?
A: The situation in my country was not so free at that time of President Suharto. I don’t want to say that he was a dictator or something like that, but the level of democracy was not as high as today. So I tried to compare the political cultures of Japan and Indonesia. President Suharto had ruled Indonesia for a long time. It was not easy for people. We had to choose [which news to write about], but I had a message behind that news. For instance, in Japan, if politicians do something wrong, they have to quit. But in Indonesia we have a different style. I wanted [to spread the idea] that if someone did something wrong, as a responsibility they had to quit from their position. I tried to tell about democracy and freedom of speech by adopting some of Japanese culture.
Q: What are the things that have not changed since you came here for the first time?
A: The Japanese are always very polite. If you meet someone, they still say ohayo gozaimasu [good morning], konnichiwa [hello] and irrashaimase [welcome]. It is a good thing to be maintained. I also think this nation still has gambari [striving] spirit.
The situation today is not easy for the Japanese. They can escape from this situation, but they still have the gambari spirit.
Q: Do you observe more mutual understanding on the people-to-people level between Indonesia and Japan than in the 1990s?
A: Yeah, I think now it is better than before. When I was a student in Tsukuba University, so many Japanese asked me funny questions like whether tall buildings could be found in Jakarta.
So many Japanese people know Bali, but don’t know Indonesia. I am proud of Bali, but it is a very small island in my country. We need to make our [mutual] understanding deeper than before. Our population is No. 4 in the world. Our territory from the eastern part to the western part is longer than the distance from Tokyo to Jakarta.
The languages of Indonesia and Japan have so many similarities, especially in terms of pronunciation. In our alphabet we have a, i, u, e, and o. It’s easier for the Indonesians to pronounce Japanese than English.
Japan has obligation for security in E. Asia
Participation in TPP
Q: The Japanese government is trying to promote tourism. What’s your recommendation to attract tourists from Muslim countries?
A: [What is needed is] prayer rooms and mosques. As for hotels, we can find the Bible, so why don’t you also put in the Koran? We pray five times a day, so we need [to know] the direction of Mecca. It is a small thing but very important. Halal food is also one of the most important things.
Q: Speaking of the economy and politics, Indonesia and Japan reportedly agreed on the start of yen loans from the Japanese government for constructing a new large-scale port in Patimban, about 150 kilometers east of Jakarta. What is the significance of the agreement for your economy as well as bilateral relations?
A: The problem that we are now facing is the traffic jams in Jakarta. By making a new port outside of Jakarta, the port will decrease the traffic jams in Jakarta. It’s one of the useful [aspects] of the port [in Patimban]. It also can cut production costs and make our competitiveness higher than before. Now we are doing the feasibility studies [for the Patimban port].
Q: Indonesian President Joko Widodo expressed his willingness to have Indonesia participate in the Trans-Pacific Partnership when he visited the United States last autumn. He also said in February this year that maybe it would take a few years to actually participate in the TPP. Has domestic opposition to the TPP been managed?
A: I think we need to make many calculations. We have so much population and a very big market. We can sell [to other parties to the TPP], but the market is very small. They can sell many things to our country because we are a big market. We need time to think about that. But I believe in the end we will join the TPP.
Q: In a bid to get a high-speed Shinkansen train contract with the Indonesian government, Japan lost. China won. Japan then began to think that yen loans had too many requirements including a repayment guarantee from the recipient country’s government. Do you think this development aid, thought by the Japanese government to highlight self-help, is now questionable due to a different stance taken by China?
A: About the yen loans, the easier, the better. For the Shinkansen project, it is very complicated to explain. But at least I want to say, “Nihon wa motto gambari nasai [Japan should work harder].” In the 1970s, Japan was the only player in Southeast Asia, but now there are so many competitors like China, Taiwan and Korea.
Supporting Japan’s U.N. bid
Q: What’s your evaluation of the security laws enacted by the Japanese government, in terms of ensuring the security of the region and your country?
A: We can understand the development here in Japan. It is the most important thing I want to say to you. [To ensure] more security in East Asia is a must for Japan. As a big nation, Japan also has something like an obligation and a role for security in East Asia.
Q: In March of this year, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel prevented an Indonesian patrol ship from seizing a Chinese vessel near the Natuna Islands of Indonesia. Does this indicate that there exists a territorial dispute between Indonesia and China?
A: Indonesia was not involved in the South China Sea dispute because it was not a claimant to any of the disputed geographical features, including islands, coral reefs and lagoons, which were the basis of the disagreements over the region.
Indonesia’s territorial claim over its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Natuna Islands in the South China Sea was based on the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). All of those incidents took place within Indonesia’s EEZ and, accordingly, the Indonesian Navy had taken appropriate law enforcement measures. All countries must obey and respect existing international laws.
Q: The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has tried to establish a code of conduct with China so that there will be a peaceful solution to the issues in the South China Sea. What are the prospects for the code of conduct to be concluded?
A: We need to fully and consistently implement these rules to avoid tension. The Code of Conduct is important to create peace and prevent open conflict in the South China Sea. It is a must for us to have the COC [code of conduct] signed by all the countries involved because we need more stable territory for economic development. We may need time, but we believe in the end we can conclude it.
Q: The Japanese government has been calling for reforms of the U.N. Security Council. Japan wants to be a permanent member of the council. Do you think it is achievable?
A: I don’t know exactly whether we can achieve it or not, but I think Japan and Indonesia have to be hand-in-hand. During the Suharto era, Indonesia hoped to be a permanent member [of the U.N. Security Council]. President Suharto said that one of the criteria to be a permanent member is population. I believe that Indonesia will support [Japan], because we have the same interests on that point.
Q: Do you support the Japanese bid to become a permanent member?
Q: As the most populous Muslim country in the world, what do you think is the role of your republic in countering terrorism?
A: If there is something like illness, we have to do [something about] the root of the illness itself. Why do so many terrorist activities happen in the world? One of them is disparities of economic distribution. Also, another important problem is the problem in the Middle East. For the Palestinian problem, we [have not been able to] find conclusions until today.
Of course, as a nation we accept so much influence from the Middle East. But also we get influenced by India and Confucianism from China. Because the background of our culture is different from the Middle East, our Islamic way of thinking is moderate.
We recognize five religions in Indonesia, and we try to fit [them] equally. For example, for the Islamic population we have the birthday of prophet Muhammed as a holiday, but also Christmas for Christians. Our duty is to make the ways of thinking of Islamic believers to be moderate.
This interview was conducted with Japan News Staff Writer Michinobu Yanagisawa.
Ambassador Yusron Ihza Mahendra was born in 1958 in Bangka Belitung Province of Indonesia. He started studying at Tsukuba University in Ibaraki Prefecture in 1990 and earned a doctor’s degree in international political economy.
His doctoral dissertation on Asian economic development was titled “The Myth of Flying Geese Model.” He also worked as a Japan correspondent with the Kompass daily newspaper of Indonesia from 1995 to 2000. He was inaugurated ambassador to Japan in December 2013. In Tokyo, he enjoys cycling.