This interview was originally published in Science & Diplomacy, available here.
Ambassador Koji Tomita has led the Japanese Embassy to the United States since 2021. He has been a member of Japan’s Foreign Service for more than four decades and has held numerous leadership positions, including Ambassador to Israel (2015–18) and to the Republic of Korea (2019–21), Japan’s Representative to the G20 Summit (2018), and Director-General of the North American Affairs Bureau (2013–15). This is Ambassador Tomita’s second time serving at the Embassy of Japan in Washington, DC, where he was Minister Plenipotentiary and Deputy Chief of Mission in 2012.
Ambassador Tomita spoke with Kim Montgomery, Director of International Affairs and Science Diplomacy and Executive Editor of Science & Diplomacy, on Japan’s science diplomacy strategy. This is the twelfth interview in the Ambassador Interview Series.
Kim Montgomery (interviewer): During the last seventy years, Japan and the United States have built a strategic relationship rooted in mutual respect. The year 2020 marked the sixtieth anniversary of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, a cornerstone of the bilateral relationship, and both countries have cooperated on scientific research for thirty-five years under the U.S.-Japan Science and Technology Agreement. What do you believe to be the most important scientific and technological priorities for Japan and the United States to work towards together?
Ambassador Koji Tomita: Cooperation on science and technology (S&T) between the United States and Japan is indeed strong because it is backed by a relationship based on trust. Our two countries have worked together for decades encouraging academic exchanges and summits with the vision of a world in which the benefits of S&T reach all people. The highest priority between our two countries is to deepen the trust that makes that possible.
We just finished cherry blossom season here in Washington. The cherry blossom trees, which Japan gave to the city more than 110 years ago, has become a symbol of friendship. Similarly, we believe S&T diplomacy will lead to a blossoming of the U.S.-Japan relationship. What is more, it is crucial if we are to address complex global challenges and steer the world towards a more sustainable future. These efforts include making rules for the responsible use of emerging technologies, which, of course, can have both positive and negative social impact. This is why close cooperation between the US and Japan is key.
Montgomery: Before becoming Japan’s Ambassador to the United States in 2021, you were the top diplomat in the Republic of Korea. In addition to their deep historical, economic, and cultural connections, Japan and South Korea have a shared interest in science, technology, and innovation and invest high percentages of their GDP in R&D. In your opinion, how has science’s soft power played a role in strengthening Japan’s relations with its neighbors as well as the trilateral relations between Japan, South Korea, and the United States?
Ambassador Tomita: In our increasingly tumultuous world, we must maximize the value of S&T. By relying on academia’s innate inclination towards connectivity and cooperation and the diplomacy to support it, we can advance the policy necessary for a peaceful path forward.
This also applies to the relationship between the United States, Japan, and the Republic of Korea (ROK), which is of great importance for Asia, the Pacific Rim, and beyond. Since the November 2022 Phnom Penh Summit of the U.S.–Japan–ROK Trilateral Partnership for the Indo-Pacific, cooperation has deepened. By expanding the scope of cooperation beyond economic security and our other common interests, S&T will become even more critical. The exchange of professional personnel and students in S&T is one of the most promising diplomatic channels for strengthening relations.
With the rapid development of S&T, there is an increasing demand for diplomats who are also S&T specialists in specific fields. That alone is not enough, however. Modern S&T diplomacy must bridge not only science and diplomacy but academia, politics, and public administration. A country that can nurture human resources with a cross-border perspective and a big-picture view will lead the next generation of international academia and S&T diplomacy. Japan would like to be such a country.
Montgomery: Japan was one of the founding members of the Artemis Accords, an international agreement to promote safety and peace in space exploration. On November 16, NASA launched Artemis I, the first space mission under this program. Why is this a priority for Japan, and how do you think our countries and the world can benefit from this agreement?
Ambassador Tomita: We are witnessing the space sector developing into an industrial sector. Regulatory standards, which are just beginning to be considered, should be pursued with international cooperation. Japan is a space powerhouse that must fulfill its objectives in space as well as meet the expectations of the international community. We were delighted to be one of the initial eight signatories of the Artemis Accords.
Additionally, this past January, the United States and Japan signed the Framework Agreement for Cooperation. This agreement increases the possibility of Japan becoming the second country in the world, after the United States, to land a human on the moon. Japan and the United States will further deepen their cooperation and continue to be at the forefront of developing best practices to guarantee the peaceful use of space.
Montgomery: Emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence and quantum information science, are both exciting developments, but could also pose threats to international security. That being said, how can the United States and Japan expand their collaboration to remain global leaders in cutting edge science and technology as well as to address these potential threats?
Ambassador Tomita: We understand the need to respect the autonomy of academia and the open, free-flowing aspects of science. At the same time, countries must face these complex issues together and find solutions that the international community can agree on. The solutions must be updated to respond to the increasing complexity of global issues and the latest scientific and technological knowledge. Louis Pasteur said, “Science has no borders, but scientists have their homelands.” We must think carefully about the contemporary meaning of borders and homelands, that is, how to balance academic autonomy and national security. In doing so, we must create an R&D ecosystem with “Data Free Flow with Trust” (DFFT)1 underpinned by research integrity, security and democratic values.
Japan has many progressive technologies that can lead the world, such as disaster prevention and mitigation technologies developed through our own experience with various natural disasters. Other areas include health and medical sciences in a rapidly ageing society and critical emerging technologies, such as quantum S&T and advanced information sciences. For Japan to share such knowledge effectively with other countries, we should promote strategic international cooperation as well as mobilizing our domestic public and private sectors. Securing an international “knowledge supply chain” is also vital, since emerging technologies will determine the future.
Montgomery: Between the University of Excellence International Program and plans to invest $2.3 billion annually in universities, Japan is working hard to ensure its research remains prominent globally. How can universities use this funding strategically and how do you expect research in Japan to evolve in the coming years?
Ambassador Tomita: Science and technology are the biggest keys to overcoming many global challenges and directing the world’s future course. Undoubtedly, universities are the engine for generating this new knowledge. International collaboration is indispensable not only to create academic values that expand the horizon of knowledge, but also to ensure that the benefits of S&T reach the greatest number of people possible.
It is important that we have S&T leaders and an education arena not bound by conventional disciplines and norms so that they can generate new ideas and re-evaluating the functions of universities. So, we must not only support universities with established reputations but also those that are boldly moving in new directions in order to meet the needs of the next generation. This is why Japan has established a 10-trillion-yen (about $74.8 billion) fund to support universities aiming for the world’s highest research standards.
Montgomery: Japan is a member of Quad, which is an informal strategic forum between the United States, Japan, Australia, and India. Though it initially focused on maritime cooperation, its interests have expanded to broader issues, such as addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and pressing challenges in the Indo-Pacific region. Do you see this dialogue as becoming more important over the next decade, and do you believe its focus will continue to shift?
Ambassador Tomita: The global map of S&T cooperation is constantly evolving. Some forms of cooperation develop organically from the bottom up, while others are directed from the top down. The activities of the Quad represent the latter, where the focus is to foster regional collaboration among the Quad countries.
At the heart of the Quad activities is what is known as the Quad Fellowship. This is a flagship educational exchange program that will fund one hundred outstanding scholars from each of the four countries to pursue master’s and Ph.D. degrees in STEM fields starting in August 2023. An essential aspect of the program is to foster a fundamental understanding among Quad Scholars of each other’s societies and cultures. Mechanisms are built into the program to promote collaboration among the next generation of scientists and engineers beyond individual research areas.
The world’s essential issues are increasingly multifaceted and must be faced in a cross-disciplinary and cross-sectoral manner. They also require a global approach, of course, and I expect these initiatives will bring about the next generation of international leaders.
Montgomery: What do you consider to be must-see travel destinations in Japan? Is there anything that you would recommend for someone visiting who is particularly interested in science or technology?
Ambassador Tomita: For the readers of Science & Diplomacy, the National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo, is highly recommended. It has a vast and valuable collection that will stimulate anyone’s intellectual curiosity, and the exhibitions are uniquely Japanese. The museum showcases in a variety of ingenious ways how S&T has developed since the Edo period, rooted in Japan’s unique culture while embracing foreign cultures. The Ueno area also has other museums and cultural exhibition halls, including the Tokyo National Museum, the Ueno Zoo, and the National Museum of Western Art.
Let me add that, in May 2023, the G7 Summit will be held in Hiroshima, the home of the world-famous Peace Memorial Museum. It is a museum dedicated to wishes and hopes—that the horrors of war will never be repeated, that nuclear weapons will be eradicated and that world peace will prevail. As the only country to have suffered the atomic bombings of war, Japan has learned many lessons, and the museum leaves an unforgettable impression on visitors. Of course, Japan is full of other beautiful landscapes, world heritage sites, foods, cultural attractions, and arts. I know you would enjoy visiting my country. I hope you will have a chance to visit.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
- In 2019, the late Shinzo Abe, then Prime Minister of Japan, introduced the “Data Free Flow with Trust” (DFFT) concept at the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum. This concept is meant to promote free flow of data “based on securing trust through transparency, where data useful for business and solving social issues can [flow] freely across borders.” See Japan’s Digital Agency, “Overview of DFFT,” https://www.digital.go.jp/en/dfft-en/