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  • Writer's picturePreechaya Kittipaisalsilpa & Ukit Prakitsri

The role of the Japan Foundation in mending postwar Japan-Thailand relations

Today, Japan and Thailand maintain close diplomatic relations underpinned by economic cooperation and person-to-person contact, but such a relationship was not inevitable. The impact of Japan’s military conquest through Southeast Asia in the 1940s, including an invasion of Thailand itself, contributed to lingering enmity and other obstacles to progress in advancing their postwar ties. However, deliberate efforts to incentivize cooperation and to create opportunities for intercultural engagement were critical to advancing their bilateral relations to what they have become today.


Along the way, the Japan Foundation has played a pivotal role in fostering the cultural exchanges that contributed to the healing of Japan-Thailand relations, from the early focus on postwar economic recovery to interpersonal contact. In parallel with this transformation, the role of the Japan Foundation Bangkok has evolved from being an introducer to a coordinator and transmitter of Japanese cultural activities along with the development of interpersonal networks. This shift marked a significant transition towards leveraging private-orchestrated diplomacy—i.e., centering diplomatic practices and activities on individuals and non-governmental institutions—as a genuine manifestation of soft power in Japan’s postwar foreign policy towards Thailand.


Japan-Thailand relations after World War II

From the early focus on postwar economic recovery to its later emphasis on cultural exchange, Japan’s approach towards Thailand has adapted to shifting regional landscapes. These adjustments were reflected in the evolution of Japan-Thailand relations and the role of governmental agencies in smoothing bilateral ties from economy-focused to value-based foreign policy approaches and outcomes.


Imperial Japanese soldiers prepare for transport from Bangkok to prisoner of war camps at the end of World War II


In the early postwar years, Japan’s policy toward Thailand was primarily focused on economic recovery and direct peacebuilding efforts. One key reason Thailand was ideal for economic cooperation was its less contentious attitude towards Japan compared to other Southeast Asian nations. Unlike other neighboring countries that suffered under Japanese occupation, the Thai government salvaged a modicum of autonomy following the invasion by concluding military agreements with the Imperial Japanese government, although it would later renounce them before the end of World War II. The second key reason was a common ally in the United States, which contributed to an alignment of postwar security and foreign policies.


By the 1960s, both countries’ domestic markets were recovering, which created opportunities for increased economic cooperation but did little to support intercultural ties. Pressure from both international actors and Thai domestic politics meant that Japanese cultural diplomacy was less prevalent given the lingering historical grievances between the two countries.


Thai demonstrators protest then-Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei’s Southeast Asia tour, January 1974


Nevertheless, both Japan and Thailand found themselves navigating another changing political landscape hit by the Cold War. Japan’s rapid economic ascent coupled with the normalization of Sino-U.S. relations (also known as one of the “Nixon Shocks”) prompted a reassessment of the U.S.-Japan relationship. Simultaneously, Japan’s one-sided economic success led to strained foreign relations among Southeast Asian trading partners, including Thailand. Responding to the boycott of Japanese products and unequal economic partnerships, Japan shifted its foreign policy direction, emphasizing expanded international cooperation and deeper social dialogue.


The establishment of the Japan Foundation in 1972 and the Japan Foundation Bangkok in 1974 marked a significant transition from mere economic cooperation to a regional partnership. It helped reinforce the understanding of postwar Japan as a pacifist nation and an equal partner. In Thailand, the significant allocation of Japanese official development assistance started to pour into cultural programs, facilitating more people-to-people exchanges through government and business ties.


By the time the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, there was a major shift in geopolitical trends. The United States had directed its security focus away from Southeast Asia. The growth of liberalism and capitalism drove globalization, and Japan’s cultural and economic impact became more pronounced worldwide. At the regional level, Southeast Asian countries experienced political recovery and stable economic growth, with Thailand showcasing positive stages of economic development.


From the 1990s, Japanese cultural influence expanded to the Thai social level. Anti-Japanese sentiment transformed into a fascination with Japanese products and pop culture, and positive perceptions of Japanese culture grew among the Thai youth, contributing to growing social influence. At the same time, the older generation of Thais had grown up with positive Japanese economic influences, further underpinning a favorable environment for social engagement. Japanese cultural influence permeated Thai society, with Japanese products becoming more accessible to a broader audience and activities organized by individuals and private entities. These interactions thus contributed to positive and mutual cultural appreciation and fostered a strong social bond between the two nations.

Participants at a Japan Foundation-sponsored seminar on 'Indigenous Traditional Theatre in Southeast Asia' in Bangkok, Thailand, 31 March 1991 (photo via X @seameospafa)


The Japan Foundation Bangkok’s evolution over time

The Japan Foundation was established in 1972 as a special legal entity under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to cultivate mutual relations with the United States and Southeast Asian countries amidst rising anti-Japanese sentiments. As a non-profit institution with a non-military motive, its status granted autonomy for utilizing cultural dialogue in enhancing public relations in a way that was divorced from the politics of security competition. The Foundation enjoyed this relative independence from the Japanese government since the beginning. Foreign Minister Fukuda Takeō selected an endowment instead of annual appropriation to cover the budget since the endowment would give more freedom in conducting its cultural activities. Later, more sub-institutions including a liaison office in Bangkok were added to support the Japan Foundation’s activities. At that time, the Bangkok office (previously known as “Japan Cultural Centre, Bangkok”) was the first Japanese liaison office in the Southeast Asian region and has become the longest-lasting Japanese cultural institution in Thailand. The reasons behind its establishment were to alter Japan’s image as an economic bully in the eyes of Thai business counterparts and to rectify the lack of social communication between Japan and Thailand at meaningful levels. Throughout the period, the Bangkok office was one of two in the region that consistently topped the charts for program expenditures (the other being in Indonesia); however, the fact that the Jakarta office was only 0.5-0.8 percent of that received by Thailand illustrates the emphasis that the Japanese government put towards accelerating the development of Japan-Thai relations. The transformation of the Japan Foundation and the Bangkok office reveals the evolution of Japan’s postwar policies toward engagement with Thailand. First, the position of Japan’s state identity in the international system altered the Japan Foundation’s objectives and operational scopes toward Thai society, correlating to Japan’s peaceful rise led by the Fukuda Doctrine. Throughout the decades, the Bangkok office has functioned as a gateway for Japanese culture to enter the Thai community. Thailand was selected due to its resources both for the Japanese economy and willingness to entertain regional cooperation compared to other prospective partners at that time. During its early days, since there was less social connection between Japan and Thailand, the main responsibility of the Foundation was simply to familiarize Thai society with “Japan as a peaceful country” to alleviate economic relations that had been damaged by anti-Japanese sentiments. From the 1990s, the Japan Foundation’s operation has since broadened with a focus on the strategic partnership between Japan and ASEAN. Since the Bangkok office had been established earlier than others, the more experienced office became a regional coordinator in dealing with Japanese cultural promotion between Japanese governmental agencies and other Japan Foundation overseas sites. The number of its cultural programs had increased and split into two responsibilities: one was to promote Japanese foreign relations regarding Japan, Thailand, and ASEAN; another was to conduct cultural programs specifically for Thai people. New sub-agencies formed including the ASEAN Cultural Centre, the Japan Culture Centre, and ASEAN-related cultural programs, such as the Asia Leadership Fellow Program (1996), the Japan ASEAN Multinational Cultural Mission (1999), and the Japan ASEAN Cultural Dialogue Forum (1999)—all under the umbrella of the Bangkok office until they later merged into a larger framework for regional promotion. In this way, the Japan Foundation’s presence in Bangkok not only contributed to advancement of bilateral postwar ties, but relations with other regional partners as well.


Participants at the Japan Foundation-sponsored Asia Leadership Fellow Program Reunion Conference, August 2001 (photo via the ALFP alumni network)


The mechanics of the Japan Foundation’s work

The outcomes of the Japan Foundation’s work demonstrate how concerted actions to foster intercultural engagement contributed to the advancement of Japan-Thailand relations in the postwar era. It enabled the two countries to evolve their ties from those primarily organized by the government to those eventually succeeded by joint private partnerships. This transformation reflects three distinct stages of collaboration between Japanese and Thai cultural networks at different points in time. The early development of cultural programs during the postwar era organized by the Japan Foundation Bangkok started at the intergovernmental level. Since the Japan Foundation Bangkok was the only cultural institution established during that time, there was not enough infrastructure, facilities, and human resources to transfer responsibilities for facilitating its cultural activities to the Thai community. Further, the anti-Japanese sentiments were also strong, creating greater difficulty in developing a social promotion. Lacking both material and human capital, the Japan Foundation Bangkok’s cultural programs first aimed at building its foundation at a national level. These fundamentals included the organization of official dialogues to connect specific groups of governmental officials, infrastructure facilities, and material resources—all of which could be viewed as a major contribution of Japan’s goodwill towards the national development of Thailand. The second development occurred in the 1990s as the foundation started to include private counterparts in the cultural framework. The relations became more in-depth with dialogues from the governmental level to the social level. Its functions also narrowed to focus on locally oriented projects, which specifically aimed at improving Japanese-Thai attitudes toward joint cultural activities. Japan-Thailand relations began to shift once there was sufficient shared understanding and social foundations for Japan and the Bangkok office to deepen cultural relations with Thai society. The expansion of cultural activities occurred along the same lines, with increasing interest from the Japanese business community towards the Southeast Asian region and Thailand. The Bangkok office began to collaborate with other semi-governmental agencies as well as Japanese private counterparts to organize cultural activities, and their operations subsequently transformed to co-organize with non-business counterparts. The final stage occurred during the 2000s when the Japan Foundation’s status was reformed. It gained even more independence from the cultural agenda organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other governmental agencies. Its activities have brought more Japanese cultural activities to ‘people-to-people relations’, enabling Thai people to explore Japanese culture voluntarily and on their own terms. The result of the changing structure allowed the Japan Foundation Bangkok to be more connected to all social levels in Thai society based on a deeper foundation of ties, with exchanges evolving towards two-way communication at the individual level. At present, the Japan Foundation Bangkok has gone beyond simply showcasing Japanese culture to Thai society. The current operation rests on Japanese cultural appreciation at the individual level. The foundation therefore proactively utilizes soft power through non-state agents they have become cultural practitioners. The cultural relations between the two countries are no longer ‘Japan in Thailand’ but ‘Japan and Thailand’—a fundamental change from where the two countries started in the immediate postwar era.

 

Preechaya Kittipaisalsilpa is a Capacity Building and Training Associate at the Asian Development Bank Institute (ADBI) in Tokyo. Her research focuses on new public diplomacy and Japanese foreign policy in Southeast Asia. She earned her Ph.D. in International Relations from the International University of Japan. She also holds a master’s degree in international relations from the University of York and a bachelor’s degree in comparative societies and culture from Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University.


Ukit Prakistri is a consultant in Japanese-Thai import business. He holds a master’s degree in international relations from the International University of Japan and a Bachelor of Laws from Assumption University.

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