TAIPEI – Senior Vice Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications Jiro Akama visited Taiwan on Saturday, becoming the most senior government official to visit the island since the two sides severed diplomatic ties in 1972.
Although Akama is in Taiwan to attend a two-day event promoting Japanese culture and tourism, some expressed concern that his visit is likely to upset China, which regards Taiwan as a renegade province awaiting unification, by force if necessary.
Welcoming Akama to Taiwan, Chiou I-jen, president of the Association of East Asian Relations, Taiwan’s semi-official agency for handling relations with Japan, said at the opening ceremony for the event that “it was not easy” for Akama to make the trip and that he had to “go through many difficulties.”
“Both Taiwan and Japan face many difficulties,” Chiou said. “But because we both face the same difficulties, it only shows how closely connected we are.”
Later, when asked about the difficulties he meant, he replied: “Isn’t that a rhetorical question?” Asked whether he could mention the obvious answer, he gave his trademark smile and said, “I will not tell.”
Through a translator, Akama avoided similar questions but acknowledged that Japanese officials sometimes encounter difficulties if they have to travel abroad.
When asked whether he received any pressure from China before making the trip, Akama said, “There was no big problem” but added it was rather difficult that he had to “factor in many international situations before making the final decision,” without elaborating.
Akama also urged the Taiwanese media to promote Japanese tourism and food.
He said he hopes his visit will help the Taiwanese public better understand that many food products from the region hit hardest by the March 11, 2011, earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis have passed strict examinations and are safe to consume.
Taiwan and Japan continue to enjoy a close relationship despite the lack of official ties. Since severing diplomatic relations in 1972, the two sides have signed more than 60 trade deals, including a landmark fisheries agreement inked in April 2013 to mollify Taipei after Japan effectively nationalized the Senkaku Islands, which are claimed as Tiaoyutai by Taiwan and Diaoyu by China.
Since President Tsai Ing-wen took office in May last year, her administration has expressed hope of bringing bilateral relations to a higher level.
In January, Japan’s de facto diplomatic establishment, the Interchange Association, changed its name to the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association. It was not surprising that the move angered Beijing, which urged Japan to uphold the “One China” principle, refrain from creating new disturbances in China-Japan ties and from sending a wrong message to Taiwan and the international community.
To reciprocate Japan’s goodwill, Taiwan Foreign Minister David Lee revealed earlier this month that Taiwan will change the name of the ministry-linked Association of East Asian Relations.
The ministry has also been negotiating with Tokyo on changing the name of Taiwan’s representative office in Japan, Lee said.