In February, Philippine President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr concluded a state visit to the world’s third richest economy, Japan. It was the second state visit of his administration. Marcos followed the lead of his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, in making a trip to Japan after China, to which he traveled in early January. Japan is important to the Philippines as it is one of the country’s only two strategic partners apart from Vietnam. The Philippines’ National Security Policy (NSP) recognizes Japan as a major economic power and the Philippine National Defense Strategy (NDS) classifies Japan as a “security partner” for education capacity-building, defense equipment and technology, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR), and maritime security.
All post-World War II Philippine presidents have maintained robust relations with Japan. In recent years, then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo forged the Japan-Philippine Economic Partnership Agreement (JPEPA) and her successor, the late Benigno Aquino III, upgraded bilateral ties to a “strategic partnership”. More recently, former president Duterte, who visited Japan five times, called the Philippines’ northern neighbor “a true friend closer than a brother” and instituted new bilateral mechanisms such as the Japan-Philippines Foreign and Defense Ministerial (2+2) Meeting and Joint Committee on Infrastructure Development and Economic Cooperation. When then Japanese prime minister Abe Shinzo relinquished his post in 2020 due to an illness, the Duterte administration called him Japan’s “best postwar prime minister”.
For Marcos Jr, Japan is a “solid and steadfast partner” of the Philippines. Economically, Japan has been the Philippines’ perennial top source of official development assistance (ODA), second largest trade partner, and one of the top ten destinations for Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), with over 300,000 in the country. Throughout the years, most of Japan’s ODA had gone into transportation, energy (electric power and gas), irrigation and flood control projects. Notably, Japan bagged the most number of flagship projects under the Duterte government’s “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure program, followed by China.
Major projects funded by Japan include the Metro Manila Subway and the North-South Commuter Railway. Besides these, Japan has actively supported peace-building programs in the Philippines’ Muslim Mindanao through the Japan-Bangsamoro Initiatives for Reconstruction and Development (J-BIRD). Remarkably, a year before the end of Duterte’s term, the Japanese government announced that it was able to deliver on its pledge of development assistance and private investments amounting to US$3.6 billion over the past five years.
Socio-culturally, Japanese soft power is very strong in the Philippines. As many as 81 percent of Filipinos have a favorable opinion of Japan which is evident as the country is the top holiday destination of Filipinos, Japanese food is the second-most favorite foreign cuisine, and Filipinos are very fond of Japanese pop culture (e.g., anime, video games and cosplay). In fact, it is because of the very warm attitude of Filipinos towards Japan and huge Japanese pop-culture fanbase that Japanese film makers have opted to launch their Asian premier viewing in the Philippines. Moreover, Japanese technology or “Made in Japan” goods such as cars, gadgets and appliances are by default seen as high-quality, and this reputation has spilled over to Japanese-made infrastructure. These factors have had such a positive impact on the perception of Japan in the Philippines that issues about Imperial Japan’s World War II offenses and atrocities have been virtually forgotten.