Celebrate the ties that bind

Book to mark the 50th anniversary of Singapore's diplomatic ties with Japan reveals how much the countries have in common

From Honda Motors to Harajuku girls, a new book looks at the intricate connections Japan and Singapore have formed over half a century.

The Merlion And Mt. Fuji: 50 Years Of Singapore-Japan Relations was launched last Wednesday by Japan's Ambassador to Singapore Kenji Shinoda.

In a foreword to the book, he notes that Japan and Singapore have a lot in common, both being maritime nations without many natural resources and whose economies thus depend on the qualities of their people.

Singapore, he writes, has "selectively indigenised" Japanese business concepts such as kaizen, the philosophy of continuous improvement and personal efficiency.

The book was edited by SIM University world history senior lecturer Lim Tai Wei, an expert on East Asia, who has authored books on Japanese robotic technologies and pop culture.

To put together a multifaceted volume, Dr Lim, 42, approached not just academics, but also ordinary Singaporeans who have experienced Japanese culture, whether as students on exchange, employees in Singapore-based Japanese companies or fans of Japanese pop culture.

As a result, the essays in the book touch on themes as diverse as the international trade agreement Trans-Pacific Partnership, a childhood ramble through malls such as Isetan and the now-defunct Yaohan and the culture of otaku, or fans obsessed with anime and manga.

The book was commissioned by publisher World Scientific to mark the 50th anniversary of Singapore and Japan's diplomatic relationship.

World Scientific managing director Max Phua says: "Singapore's longstanding close relations with Japan and the many similarities shared between the countries give this book an important place in documenting some of the key cultural, historical, economical as well as political ties."

The book's title juxtaposes two national icons, Singapore's Merlion and Japan's Mount Fuji which, according to Dr Lim, best represent the way each country sees the other.

"The Merlion is the most recognised icon of Singapore for the Japanese," he says. "They see it as a sculpture of progressive modernity.

"Mount Fuji embodies for Singaporeans the respect the Japanese have for nature."

Dr Lim believes Singaporean readers will be surprised at how closely intertwined Japan and Singapore are. Their bilateral relationship is just one year younger than independent Singapore itself.

Both countries share similar challenges ahead, chiefly those of an ageing population and the attendant manpower shortages and healthcare crises.

"They have much to learn from each other on how to cope," he says.

While it may seem that Japan has exerted greater influence over Singapore than vice versa, Dr Lim says there are lessons Japan is trying to draw from Singapore too.

Singapore's long history as a migrant nation can help Japan navigate its increasingly interracial society, for instance.

In terms of cuisine and popular culture, he adds, Singapore has also made in-roads in Japanese society.

Home-grown chicken rice franchise Wee Nam Kee can now be seen in Tokyo's fashionable districts, while a Japanese teenager based in Clementi made headlines last year for being able to whip up a bowl of authentic mee pok.

"We are seeing a growing level of hybridisation," says Dr Lim.

•The Merlion And Mt. Fuji: 50 Years Of Singapore-Japan Relations is sold at major bookstores at $48 (hardcover) and $25 (paperback).

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 18, 2016, with the headline 'Celebrate the ties that bind'. Print Edition | Subscribe