ULAN BATOR - Common ethnic roots, a mutual passion for wrestling and a sizable amount of development aid money tightly unite Japan and Mongolia, but over the past year Mongolians have found a reason to worry.
On the friendly side, Mongolians feel close to the Japanese because they believe the two races share ethnic roots. Citing linguistic similarities and Asian migration patterns, many people in Ulan Bator believe Japanese and Koreans descended from Mongolians about 2,000 years ago. Others believe Mongolians descended from the first Japanese emperor.
Modern-day cultural relations are clearer. Ulan Bator native Dolgorsuren Dagvadorj, better known as Asashoryu in Japan, dominates the world of sumo. He is the first Mongolian wrestler to reach the rank of yokozuna, or grand champion.
About 25,000 tourists from Japan, more than from any other country, visit Mongolia every year, putting Mongolia on Japanese people’s list of the 10 most-visited countries.
Buddhist monks exchange visits between Japan’s ancient capital of Nara and Ulan Bator, and a 30-member ensemble plays the moriinkhuur, a horse-headed string instrument, at concerts in Japan every year. From next year, two Mongolian opera troupes intend to perform in Tokyo as well.
“I can tell you that Mongolians have a good view of Japan and Japanese people, and Mongolians have succeeded in Japan,” said Makhaan Orgil, a screen actor and adviser to the Mongolian education minister. He described cultural ties as “intensive” and “even more important than politics.”
State-to-state relations are smooth as well. Japan’s $1.3 billion in official development assistance, grants and loans, since 1990, when Mongolia became a democracy after the fall of the Soviet Union, have resulted in roads and railways for a country with little of either.
Japan’s contribution, which accounts for 65 percent of all foreign aid to Mongolia, protects a country considered strategically important in Tokyo, said Takenori Shimizu, consular officer with the Japanese Embassy in Ulan Bator.
“Mongolia is between two big giants, Russia and China,” Shimizu said. “In 1990, Japan understood stability was crucial to stability in Northeast Asia.”
Cultural ties and aid have advanced Japan-Mongolia relations despite Japan’s attempt to invade Mongolia in 1939. Mongolian-Soviet forces routed the Japanese Imperial Army on 16 key battlefronts, causing about 60,000 Japanese casualties, 1,000 Mongolian casualties and 10,000 Soviet casualties.
Modern Mongolia is cooperating with Japan in finding and mourning its war dead. Blocked after World War II by the former Soviet Union, Japanese officials now visit Mongolia to look for soldiers’ remains.
Relatives of the deceased come every summer to honor 1,600 Japanese war dead at an Ulan Bator monument erected by Mongolia in 1998, despite public controversy, and built up by Japan in 2001.
“It’s a normal humane or humanitarian gesture,” said Mongolian lawmaker Sanjaasurengin Oyun, explaining why the monument was created. “These people weren’t responsible for the atrocities.”
“Mongolians generally don’t have hard feelings (toward the Japanese),” said Tjalling Halbertsma, adviser to the chairman of the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party.
But as Japan talks of redirecting its Mongolia development aid elsewhere, locals worry Tokyo will want something back, such as money or land.
They fear Japan will follow the example of Russia, which last year called in a $250 million Soviet-era debt for factory and apartment construction.
Mongolia paid the debt, at the expense of social welfare and domestic spending for a nation where a third of the population lives in poverty.
Citizens worry about more debt, because paying back the Soviet debt took a “big chunk” out of Mongolia’s economy, said John Poepsel, an American political consultant.
Japan’s ODA budget is decreasing overall, especially with $5 billion committed to reconstruction in Iraq, Shimizu said. He was unsure how much longer Japan could sustain aid to Mongolia.
“We have so many global issues, and Japan has contributed more and more to global issues, so it’s hard to keep up contributions to Mongolia,” he said.
Although Japanese aid is technically unconditional, Mongolians wonder what’s next.
Maralgarav, 18, a university business major in Ulan Bator who like many Mongolians goes by one name, said she was surprised that Japan had donated so much in light of its domestic economic issues.
“Japan is interested in Mongolia, so maybe 10 to 15 years later they’ll be interested in our land,” she said.
Mongolia, population 2.3 million, lives on mostly undeveloped land with so much mineral wealth that coal deposits sit on the desert surface. Japanese trading giant Mitsui & Co. signed papers last month to help develop copper, gold and coal mines.
Ulan Bator hotel worker Uranchimeg, 36, fears that Japan will call in some kind of debt. “Now it’s OK, but in the future, it will be a debt,” she said.
Some rural Mongolians have suggested giving Japan a land concession, said Oyun, who was elected to parliament from a rural region.
But the government is not considering any such move. Mongolia will pay back the loans that are part of the ODA, she said.