[Reprinted Article] Tonga: Blue Open Seas and Rugby- A Proud and Kind People
A Christian Nation Mixed with Traditions and Modernity
(Originally published in Japanese in the September 2020 edition of the Kasumigasekikai Monthly Bulletin. Translated by APIC. Permitted to reprint.)
Author: Japanese Ambassador to the Kingdom of Tonga, Mr. Tetsuya Ishii
I am writing this as of May 1st, 2020, but as I write the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, is changing the situation day-by-day. Thus, it may be that by the time this is officially released, what I have written and the current situation may be two very different things. With that in mind, I ask for your understanding as the following script will revolve around the two-and-a-half years I have been assigned to my post in Tonga, and my impressions of the Kingdom.
As I wrote above, as of May 1st, 2020, there has not been one COVID-19 infection nor death confirmed in the Kingdom of Tonga. This is thought to be the result of government measures and the support of the majority of citizens, but personally I believe the following three points are what have made the measures successful:
(1) Tonga is a small, isolated island nation
(2) Medical standards are not up to par
(3) Families are large and lifestyle diseases are rampant
Considering these points, to put the Tongan government’s stance concisely, “heighten the fence between outside and inside, and lower the domestic partition”. In other words, alongside declaring a state of emergency, tightening border control, in particular extending again and again the measures denying the take-off and landing of international flights and therefore stopping people from entering the country, the government, on the other hand, has loosened some domestic restrictions (restarting public transport, restarting markets, shortening of curfew hours, etc.). It is as though they are walking on thin ice as they barely keep the number of infections at zero, but if even one person were to be confirmed positive for COVID-19, it cannot be denied that it will immediately become a serious matter for the country for the reason of being a small island nation. Under the situation where domestic quarantine isolation facilities and medical workers are not well-prepared, the country must be very careful when it comes to accepting nations residing overseas who return to Tonga in the future. Additionally, regarding the problem of seasonal workers stranded in Australia and New Zealand, the nations have cooperated over the visa status and there is no visible backlash towards the Tongan government at this time.
2. The three elements that define Tonga
I suspect that when I talk about the nation Tonga, many things about the nation do not come to mind right away. Thus, I would like to explain Tonga’s society in terms of three elements- 1. Kingdom 2. Christianity and 3. Climate Change.
(1) Uniqueness and Depth
Tonga is the only kingdom in all of Oceania. And nearly all of its citizens are Christian; this combination is most likely one of its kind in the Asia Pacific region. This unique combination is not a coincidence either; there might be some everyday views on the island that are hard to find in other parts of the world. Despite its small size, the culture is concentrated around the royal system, making for a country with much depth. The pride of being citizens of a kingdom can be felt throughout the nation as well. The King and Queen of Tonga attended the birthday celebration reception for the Japanese Emperor this year, with an increase of VIP attendees compared to other years.
Climate change is the greatest and most imminent threat to Tonga. Last year and the year before last, the King of Tonga gave a speech at the UN shining a spotlight on the problems of climate change. In the Global Risks Report Tonga is ranked second when it comes to disaster risks in the world, and I was personally reminded of nature’s fury in February 2018 when tropical storm Zita struck Tonga and brought about massive damage.
On the other hand, however, although roughly 5,000 people in Tonga (5% of the general population) took cover, and many houses were blown away and wind caused trees to fall over, there were zero deaths. This seems to be attributed to communities and churches that offered immediate voluntary relief operations; families checked in with each other to make sure everyone was safe; the only thing to do was to wait for the storm to pass. I believe the sense of community was contributed to by Tonga’s traditions and closeness of family and neighbors, as well as the spirit of helping others that is part of Christianity; this gives a glimpse of the toughness of the Tongan people.
(2) An easygoing Democracy
Under a relaxed democracy, the number of people’s representatives has increased to 17 (and nine members elected by the nobles), and the Prime Minister being appointed by the King, as designated by the Parliament. On the one hand, the King holds most of the power (dissolve the Legislative Assembly, appoint the prime minister, sign treaties, etc.), and the stability of society and the discipline and order stops abuse of power, with citizens from every level respecting the king. His presence brings out a type of spiritual wealth in society. He gives an average of two speeches a year, one speech directed towards the domestic audience at the opening of the Assembly in May, and another in September at the UN General Assembly directed to the international audience. Comparatively, there is no specific opportunity set aside for the prime minister to deliver a speech on his general policies, thus making it difficult for citizens to understand the direction of and the important aspects of the government’s policies.
As previously mentioned, the Legislative Assembly consists of 17 members of the people’s representatives, and nine members of noble’s representatives, and it is a unicameral parliament. Since the people’s seats comprise 17-seat single-seat constituencies, and each constituency is further broken down into smaller sections, most of the voters’ interests stop at the community scale. Very rarely is it that domestic or international issues become a point of contention. This constituency system is likely to become a challenge in the future for Tonga.
(3) Promotion of the Exporting Industry and Employment Opportunities
The nurturing of domestic industry and the creation of employment opportunities is crucial to Tonga’s mid-to-long-term development. On the outside, it looks as though elementary and middle school education is strong, which can be attributed to Christianity, but many students drop out or fall behind along the way. On top of this, there are not many powerful, developed domestic industries, which limits the employment numbers and especially constrains employment opportunities for the younger generation. There are opportunities to leave Tonga and go overseas, which can be seen with the export of the workforce to Australia and New Zealand; however, for those who are not given such an opportunity the only option is to remain in Tonga. In some cases, this may rather contribute to the deterioration of public safety. In a nut shell, unemployed youth seem to help their family or work on farms, but this is a substantial loss for society.
Tonga’s economic challenges for the time being are the development of the export industry, the expansion of the private sector, repayment of external debt, etc. Tonga’s export sum is only 10% of its import sum, with its imports exceeding its exports for many years. There is also the question of how much its farming and fishing industry (tuna, pumpkin, sea cucumber exports, etc.), along with its tourism industry (whale watching, diving), will grow. Furthermore, the farming industry is at its core micro-managed by families, and so this begs the question of will it be possible to create a collective, cooperative policy under the current royal family and aristocracy’s hold on the land system. As for the export market, another important long-term view to be considered is how to effectively use not only Japan, but China as well.
(4 ) Overseas Remittance and China’s Presence
Another characteristic of Tonga is the amount of overseas remittances from citizens living abroad, which is said to account for over 30% of the country’s GDP. Economically, it may look good as personal income rises and the desire to consume increases, but money from overseas means that it did not originate from domestic production, creating a large gap between production and consumption, which seems to have been happening structurally over a long period of time. What sort of effect is this having on Tonga’s economy? If it is the case that consumption above the level of domestic production is coming from imported goods, on top of being import-reliant, there is the impression that commodity prices are on the rise, starting with import items. In recent years, the number of cars (most of them used Japanese models) has increased considerably and the number of accidents has made implementing safety measures a top concern. This can be seen as a problem with the intervention of overseas remittances in production and consumption in the local economy.
Lastly, China’s intimidating presence over people and things is continuing to grow, to the point where we cannot take our eyes off the situation. What has stood out the most to me since taking up this post is the increase of Chinese merchants and used Japanese automobiles. In particular, the majesty of the government building in the city center built for gratis by China leaves an impression on people walking down the street. There is also a gradual increase in Chinese language experts, business-related personnel, medical teams, etc. contributing to the deep-rooted problem of foreign debt repayment. Additionally, the newly assigned Chinese ambassador to Tonga is now in his second time serving in Tonga.
3. 3 Pillars to Support a Healthy Bilateral Relationship
In the following, I would like to talk about the three pillars; 1. Sentimental/traditional familiarity; 2. Economic/political ties; 3. Cultural/national friendship
(1) Sentimental/traditional Familiarity
In considering a healthy bilateral relationship, I would first like to bring up the deep connection between the Japanese and Tongan royal families. The King and Queen of Tonga royal family attended the coronation events of the new emperor of Japan in October 2019; when Emperor Naruhito was still the Crown Prince, he visited Tonga a total of three times, and on his last visit in 2015 he and his wife attended the coronation ceremony of the Tongan King. The citizens of both nations have social and institutional similarities which bring a subconscious sense of familiarity and affinity.
Both countries are island nations which seem far apart at a glance, but it can be said that the Pacific Ocean directly connects them. Actually, the ancestors of the present-day Tongans are said to have come from Taiwan and South East Asia.
Another similarity is the pronunciation of the Tongan language to Japanese (they both have five vowel sounds); Tonga and Japan also suffer from a large number of natural disasters and are not rich in natural resources. I also want to mention that just as in Japanese culture, Tongan culture considers modesty and reservation as favorable virtues.
On the other hand, a fundamental distinction between the two cultures is whereas Japan has a history of hunger and starvation, Tonga has known no such fate. This difference plays out deeply on people’s everyday lifestyles, behavioral patterns, and the state of society.
(2) Economic/Political Ties
Voluntary support between the two countries runs parallel, where Japan supplies Tonga with economic support (grants and technical cooperation), and Tonga provides support in the international community (elections, positions). This is precisely a valuable vote cast. Japanese support has garnered the reputation of being 1. durable and long-lasting; 2. safe, and 3. receiving technology know-how. While showing respect to the effort of their predecessors, the reputation of Japan’s economic support plays a critical role in bilateral relations.
Last year the Japanese embassy gave two ODA (Official Development Assistance) tours to the local media of projects funded by the Japanese government that are either currently underway or already finished. While investment schemes from donor countries are varied, I believe our tours helped to increase the citizens’ understanding of the type of support Japan is giving. Furthermore, I believe it is effective for Japan to place importance on preparing disaster funds for Tonga.
There is a flurry of grassroots activity going on between the two nations, such as rugby matches, abacus learning, annual national Japanese speech contests, (previously) sumo, etc. JICA volunteers, local governments, Japanese high schools and universities are also involved in a broad range of activities; the cities of Kochi and Kurose-cho in Kochi prefecture, and the city of Nagato in Yamaguchi Prefecture were camp sites and host towns to the Tongan rugby team that participated in the Rugby Worl Cup 2019. I visited these cities myself last year and this year respectively and gave my thanks for their support of Tonga. In all cases, rugby played a valuable role in connecting Tonga and Japanese cities. Additionally, students who won the Regional Abacus Competition gathered together in March this year for the National Competition.
Currently, the main reason why Tongan students choose to study Japanese as their foreign language is because of rugby exchange in Japan; it can be said that rugby holds a special place in Tonga. It is not an exaggeration to say that respect and love for the King and passion about rugby brings a sense identification and solidarity among the people. Young, promising Tongan athletes are sent to Japanese high schools and then proceed to Japanese universities, and after graduation enter Japanese businesses where they play on Japanese rugby teams. The brave figures of Tongans playing and living in Japan is a source of pride for Tongans back home.
4. A Second Step into the 2nd Half of the Century
(1) Following the coronation ceremony of the Japanese emperor and the Rugby World Cup that took place in 2019 Japan and Tonga celebrate 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations in 2020. Reflecting on the past five decades, I would like to begin this so-to-speak ‘new period’ of the next fifty years standing by the side of Tonga and Japan. In December 2019 the then-Japanese Parliamentary Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs Mr. Nakayama, and in February 2020 the then-Minister of Self-Defense Mr. Yamamoto visited Tonga, and already at this time the motto for celebrating Japan-Tonga’s 50-year relationship had been decided and announced by both countries.
Initially, in March following the ministers’ visit to Tonga, the Japan Film Festival, gathering of past exchange students to Japan, and a survey on basic information needed to go forward with the renovation of Tonga’s gateway to the country, Fua`amota International Airport were scheduled to happen; in August 2020 the completion of the currently in-progress NEWS (New Early Warning System) was also scheduled. However, all of these events were either postponed or cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As mentioned above, the interactions between Tonga and Japan are multi-layered, ranging from royal family connections all the way down to grassroots movements; furthermore, I want to stress that these are not one-sided, but rather they are bi-directional. Japan hopes to build a foothold in the second half of the century of Tonga-Japan relations, and aims for an increase in continuous bilateral relations.
(2)Lastly, regarding the internal politics of Tonga, in September 2019 then-Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pōhiva passed away during the middle of his term, and the current administration came into power in October. On the one hand, the general election is scheduled to take place in November 2021, leaving only a short window of time for the administration to demonstrate to the people what concrete results it is able to achieve, being a breaking point between light and dark for the administration. The current prime minister, Pohiva Tu`i`onetoa, vigorously visited all of the constituencies, gathering with residents in the community. It appears that what the residents are concerned about are issues such as road maintenance and water supply. In the beginning of May, the national Diet will open and discuss the budget, but considering the 2021 general election this year’s budget (fiscal year starts in July and ends June the following year) is of keen importance for the current administration and its relationship with Tonga’s citizens. In addition, COVID-19 and cyclone measures deserve close attention in the organization of each ministry.
(This piece is written based on the personal beliefs of the author. Additionally, the author would like to add that as of September 1st, 2020, Tonga has no known confirmed cases of COVID-19.)
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