Fifty Years of ASEAN–Japan Friendship and Cooperation

The ties between Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)—which are geographically close to each other—have strengthened ever since the start of their friendly relations in 1973. The ASEAN region is emerging and undergoing a generational change with a rise in the number of talented young leaders coming to the forefront. Against this backdrop, three JICA scholars from ASEAN, Ms. Nuraini Binti Muhammad Naim of Kyoto University from Malaysia, Mr. Louie Hitosis of Kobe University from The Philippines, and Ms. Seng Tynei of Doshisha University from Cambodia, discuss measures of engaging Japan for the further growth of the region.

JICA Interviewee Profiles

First Interviewee

First Interviewee

Name: Nuraini Binti Muhammad Naim
Affiliation and country of origin: Ministry of Health, Malaysia
Faculty and university: Graduate School of Informatics, Kyoto University
JICA course: SDGs Global Leader Program
Degree: Doctorate
Period as JICA scholar: 2022/10/4 – 2025/9/30

Second Interviewee

Second Interviewee

Name: Louie Hitosis
Affiliation and country of origin: Development Bank of The Philippines, The Philippines
Faculty and university: Graduate School of International Cooperation Studies (GSICS), Kobe University
JICA course: The Project for Human Resource Development Scholarship (JDS)
Degree: Master’s
Period as JICA scholar: 2021/10/29 – 2023/10/10

Third Interviewee

Third Interviewee

Name: Seng Tynei
Affiliation and country of origin: Ministry of Commerce, Cambodia
Faculty and university name: Business School, Doshisha University
JICA course: Investment Promotion and Industrial Development for Asian Region
Degree: Master’s
Period as JICA scholar: 2022/9/11 – 2024/9/30

We are celebrating the 50th year of friendship and cooperation between ASEAN and Japan, here at JICA. What is the first thought that comes to your mind when you think of ASEAN?

Tynei: ASEAN was established on 8 August 1967 in Bangkok, Thailand. Currently, it has 10 members, with Cambodia being the 10th member to join in 1999. Timor-Leste will become a member soon. I think that the three pillars of ASEAN—political-security community, economic community, and socio-cultural community—represent the reason behind its creation. It is the collective will of the nations of Southeast Asia to bind themselves in friendship and cooperation through joint effort and sacrifice for peace, freedom, and prosperity.

Louie: Growing up, I always associated ASEAN with cooperation and partnership—the mutual support and help given by neighboring countries to one another to achieve the shared goal of the region's economic development. But after coming to Japan, the region’s diversity, in terms of culture and tradition, became more evident to me.

Nuraini: I agree. Our region is the home of somewhat similar yet significantly diverse cultures. We also share the same historical background and hold similar aspirations. Now, we are moving forward together as a group to assimilate with the Western world. To me, ASEAN means brotherhood.

The partnership between ASEAN countries and Japan has made remarkable progress since 1973, forging a truly collaborative partnership. How does it feel to be a student from an ASEAN country in Japan? Please share some insights and experiences from your time here so far.

Nuraini: I just came back from a networking session in Tokyo. It was a very interesting experience as I was able to meet representatives from private companies in Japan and share with them ideas and experiences on how healthcare could be digitalized.

Louie: As a JICA scholar from The Philippines studying in Japan, I feel incredibly fortunate and glad to be part of a program that promotes cultural exchange and academic collaboration. Through my studies and interactions with Japanese and other scholars, I have gained a deeper understanding of our similarities and differences as a region.

I have also had the opportunity to learn from Japan's best practices and innovations, which I can bring back to my home country to contribute to its development. Being able to experience and learn new things while pursuing self-development and widening my horizons is truly an honor.

Tynei: As a JICA scholar, I have learned a lot about how Japanese people diligently educate themselves and work together, and as a result contribute to the development of their nation.

What are some similarities in the challenges faced by Japan and your home country?

Nuraini: Coming from a medical background, my observations focus on the healthcare system. Even though the healthcare systems in both countries are significantly different from one another, I realized that similar problems exist here. While Japan may not face severe congestion in hospitals and clinics as does Malaysia, both countries are currently actively looking for innovative approaches to decentralize their healthcare services. I can see many opportunities for knowledge and experience sharing in this field. However, many ideas remain unshared due to the language differences—this makes it difficult to access and understand publicly available documents and reports.

Louie: I believe that The Philippines and Japan share three major challenges that affect their economy, society, and security. Both countries are situated in the Pacific Ring of Fire and are thus susceptible to natural disasters. Japan has experienced devastating earthquakes and tsunamis, while The Philippines is frequently hit by powerful typhoons. They also face the effects of climate change, including rising sea levels, more intense storms, and changes in precipitation levels, which could adversely impact food availability, water security, and infrastructure.

Lastly, both countries face economic challenges such as income inequality, job creation, and trade imbalances. Japan is dealing with a shrinking workforce and a declining birth rate, while The Philippines is working to diversify its economy and reduce poverty.

Tynei: I also believe that the low female labor rate is strikingly similar in Japan and Cambodia. I think poverty is the major reason why Cambodian women in the rural areas are poorly educated and often remain unemployed. They are confined to the role of being a housewife, giving birth, and taking care of the family.

Ms. Nuraini Binti Muhammad Naim (left), Mr. Louie Hitosis (center), and Ms. Seng Tynei (right) engaged in a discussion.

Ms. Nuraini Binti Muhammad Naim (left), Mr. Louie Hitosis (center), and Ms. Seng Tynei (right) engaged in a discussion.

What ideas and campaigns would you like to initiate in the future to tackle these challenges within your country, other ASEAN countries, and on a global scale? How would you want Japan to support these initiatives?

Nuraini: Despite the advancements in communication technology, data interoperability and portability remain a major issue, especially in healthcare services. It involves various issues such as data privacy, confidentiality, ethics, and security. I envision that one day, healthcare services will become universal and borderless. While it is an ambitious vision, perhaps Japan may be able to lead the initiative in the region.

Louie: In the future, I would like to initiate campaigns focusing on sustainable development, especially in Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises and Agriculture and Rural Development. These sectors enable economic development while ensuring social equity and environmental sustainability. I also hope that Japan will continue providing technical assistance to and sharing knowledge with The Philippines, as it does now.

Tynei: After returning to Cambodia, I would like to focus on promoting investments and digital innovation for sustainable economic growth. It would require capacity building via information dissemination and skill upgradation for human resource development. For instance, we can organize seminars to educate people on how to start their businesses. I also hope that the Cambodian people will get more opportunities to study in Japan through scholarships.

While Japan and ASEAN have been business partners for many years, there is still scope for additional foreign direct investment. I believe that there will be more trade agreements and investments between Japan and Cambodia in the future.

The relationship between ASEAN and Japan is dynamic and constantly evolving. How do you foresee the nature of this relationship with respect to cooperation and collaboration between your country and Japan?

Louie: Japan’s modernization is a hard-earned position by its past leaders and people with an ingrained sense of nationalism, mindfulness, discipline, dedication, and grit. The Japanese adopt good practices from other countries and improve upon them, while still preserving their identity, culture, nature, and values. While The Philippines also has a rather welcoming spirit, we, as a country, must maintain a disciplined mentality while curbing corruption and striving for progress.

Also, Japan has an efficient transport system, and the people here can easily access financial institutions, which is unfortunately not the case in The Philippines. Hence, I hope our country receives support for the development of transport infrastructure and in financial inclusion.

I believe that the relationship between ASEAN and Japan will continue to strengthen in the future, driven by our shared interests in promoting regional stability, economic growth, and sustainable development. I foresee closer cooperation and collaboration between ASEAN and Japan in areas such as trade, investment, technology transfer, and people-to-people exchanges. I am confident that this partnership will benefit not only ASEAN and Japan but also the broader region.

Tynei: Indeed, Japan and ASEAN have a free trade agreement. Besides that, they also cooperate in areas such as culture, language, and religion. However, I believe that the most important aspect is education. The Japanese educate themselves very well. It is a great experience studying Japan’s modernization and development while exploring the country. I hope that Japan will further extend its support to all ASEAN countries in the field of education.

Nuraini: Business ventures aside, the present focus of partnerships between Japan and Malaysia is mostly related to knowledge-sharing in the academic and scientific sectors. It would be great to see a collaboration in the entertainment sphere as well. Creative media is a medium of communication through which people from both countries can share and bond over their cultures and lifestyles.

Any parting words for researchers from ASEAN countries wanting to apply for a JICA scholarship?

Nuraini: I know that a lot of people are hesitant to come to Japan because of the language barrier. That is why they prefer to go to English-speaking countries like the UK and Australia. But I would like to tell them not to be scared. The Japanese can understand English, though they may not be very confident in their conversational skills, especially with a stranger. Regardless, technology has made things rather convenient now with the availability of various translation tools. Come here, learn the language, immerse yourself in the new culture, and have a great time in Japan.

Louie: The students, researchers, and government employees from ASEAN countries planning to apply for a JICA scholarship must identify a research topic of interest and align it with the JICA developmental pillars. At the same time, I advise them to seek opportunities for academic collaboration, cultural exchange, and work experience proactively. Most importantly, the students can benefit a lot by integrating into the Japanese society and broadening their horizons.

Tynei: You must be clear about what you want to do before coming to Japan. For instance, I wanted to interact with policymakers and industry experts, which I did to some extent, and gained valuable experience. Japan is a great place to learn a lot of things. So, make good use of this opportunity and do not get distracted.