Development of New Zealand’s Attitudes to Japan in the 20th Century

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18/05/20 Society Reference this

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Briefly outline the development of New Zealand attitudes to Japan since the beginning of the 20th century. Evaluate the significance of WWII and other engagements to this development.

Japan is a crucial part of the New Zealand economy with trade between the two nations making up around $6.4 Billion USD (New Zealand foreign affairs and trade, 2019) with $2.98 billion in exports. On top of this tourism between the two nations plays an important role in New Zealand’s economy with Japan being our second biggest tourist market $266 million a year. As a result, New Zealand shares strong political ties with Japan with a shared interest in maintaining economic growth and democratic stability within the Pacific and our attitude towards Japan can be summed up with this 2000 quote from Foreign Affairs Minister Phil Goff “Today our relationship with Japan is rich and multidimensional. Arguably no other Asian country has had more impact on our economy and our lifestyles than Japan”. In this essay we will look at how this relationship formed and changed over the past 100 years from the signing of the Anglo – Japanese alliance in 1902 to the impact of World War 2. With particular emphasis being placed on the relationships formed after New Zealand’s de jure independence from Britain in 1947 and the shift in economic ties from Britain to Asia due to the latter’s joining of the European Economic Community.

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The first meaningful relationship between NZ and Japan within the 20th century occurred in 1902 with the Anglo- Japanese alliance where England and by extent its colonies, including New Zealand, became allies with Japan. Naval visits occurred between the colony and Japan into the 1930’s despite the alliance ending in 1923. During this time period New Zealand’s attitudes towards Japan aligned with the Mother Country, there was a fascination with this ‘exotic’ culture that challenged prevailing attitudes about Asian races being inferior. However, the early view saw Japanese more as oddities and painted them into Black and white stereotypes about the Japanese being despotic and dishonest (Cornelis Heere, 2016)

The most significant change of attitude towards Japan came with the advent of the second World War in which New Zealand found itself fighting against its former ally, with many New Zealanders fearing an invasion and occupation (, 2019). So, one could conclude that the prevailing attitude towards the Japanese would have been one of fear. As a result, it could be argued that World War 2 played the most significant part in the collective attitude of the nation. Especially the aftermath. In which Japan renounced its warmongering ways and decided on a Pacifist path; this would go on to help better relations between the two nations as they shared a common ideal (Harris, 2016). Furthermore 4,200 New Zealand soldiers and a total of 12, 000 New Zealanders took part in Jay-Force the allied occupation of the war and although they were there on duties of de-militarisation and anti-fraternisation laws prevented contact with the Japanese it did allow for ideas and knowledge about the culture to be brought back to New Zealand with the occupiers. (Peren, 1999) in a paper (Harris. H 2015) she notes that

“Since the war there had been a growing curiosity among New Zealanders about Japan and this has led to attempts to emulate aspects of the Japanese culture, including Japanese arts, sports and pastimes as well as an increase in numbers of New Zealanders visiting Japan. However, there was the impression that the “overall picture ha[d] been patchy”

We can extrapolate this to infer that New Zealand’s attitude towards Japan during the post war decades underwent almost a polar shift from fear to a sort of admiration approach to all things Japanese. Though it should be noted that this view should in no way act as a reflection of the entire countries attitude and should be more viewed as a trend. With the thesis later going on to state that for some old animosities still lingered.

In 1973 Britain joined the European Economic which lead to New Zealand losing its primary export market and forcing it to shift towards Asia in order to support its economy. It is important to note that in the 1970’s New Zealand experienced a severe shift in cultural identity. Moving away from the view that it was a European outpost/ colonial white settler narrative towards a Pacific Nation with a strong role in Oceania with a diverse culture made up of many distinct ethnic groups. During the 1970’s it should be noted that there was a distinct uptake in relationships with visits at both the Prime minister and Cabinet level occurring with increasing frequency (Harris, H. 2015). It should be understood that during this time the main obstacle in the relationship between the two nations was the lack of a common heritage. Completely different traditions led to a struggle between businesses and exporters wanting to trade with Japan. Examples of this ranged from small differences such as grip strength in handshakes to etiquette around meeting behaviour. Nevertheless it was during this time that New Zealand came to the conclusion that in order to maintain a proper positive trading relationship than New Zealand would have to commit to long term relationship improvements (Ibid. p.225.)

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Though many breakthroughs in relationships did begin to emerge in the 70’s it must be said that the relationship was rocky with New Zealand officials highlighting that the Japanese were “very self – centred”  (MFAT, 2018) and this can again be put down to the culture difference between the two nations that was proving difficult to overcome. One cannot highlight enough the importance of understanding that cultural differences play a huge role in creating friction between nations. Specifically, when these differences aren’t well understood or are misinterpreted to be taken as slights and that compromises understanding. Therefore in the context of New Zealand – Japanese relationships it can be seen as one of the earliest hurdles that had to be faced, that in tandem with having to adjust to the Japanese logic of problem solving. The language had to be learnt and the culture understood before any attempts at fruitful longstanding trade and cultural relationships could be formed.

Another 2 major problems hindering the positive relationship between Japan and New Zealand was the formers whaling and nuclear policy. New Zealand has always been staunchly opposed to Japan’s whaling initiatives even in recent months when Japan announced that it would resume commercial whaling New Zealand reacted with disappointment (RNZ, 2019). It remains as a negative on an otherwise positive development shift over the past century as New Zealanders are and have been for many decades staunchly opposed to whaling. The attitude towards each other is further conflicted by Japans stance that it’s whaling is legal and justified. With regards to nuclear policy it should be noted that this had the most detrimental effect on attitude during the 70’s and 80’s and is much less of a problem today. However during the 1980’s as a result of the unease caused by New Zealand’s nuclear policy only one high ranking official came to New Zealand which can be seen as a cooling of the relationship.

In summation New Zealand and Japan have shared a tumultuous relationship over the past century that has been deeply hindered by the animosity created by not just the Second World War but by a lack of cultural understanding. New Zealand new that in order to foster long term relationships with Japan a long-haul approach would be needed.  However the changing attitude of New Zealand towards Japan should be viewed as a success story in which, it is shown that, hurdles can be overcome if there is a mutual respect between cultures and a desire to see the best possible outcome.


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