Cambodia became the 10th country to join ASEAN on April 30, 1999. “It was destroyed so much. Our priority was on its infrastructure and basic needs. Human resources were also destroyed. Since then, quite a lot of progress has been made but it still needs more roads, ports, clean water, hospitals and schools so we are continuing to help. It also needs soft assistance such as legal help for better civil laws and construction laws. We have experience of rebuilding so we have sympathy. Cambodian people deserve to be happy because they suffered so much. I am happy to help.”
“I’m only a small individual but I’m happy to contribute. I want to make people’s lives better. Also, Cambodia is located in the centre of Indo- China which is important for the wider region. Countries are now so interconnected that we look at Cambodia in terms of the wider region as well. We also share similar culture, including Buddhism. I feel close with Cambodians. To date, our official grant and technical assistance totals about 300 billion yen [about $2.76 billion] and the highly concessional yen loans are about 180 billion yen [about $1.66 billion]. In addition, Japan’s population is shrinking so we are looking at the Mekong region. I am hoping to turn our investment from a one-way street to a bilateral relationship. Cambodia needs to put the fruits of growth to good use and benefit its society. Good governance is important. Every country has its own deficiencies in the system that don’t disappear quickly. The important thing is to make progress in the right direction. I don’t expect Cambodia to fix the problems quickly. We will help but I don’t think it will happen overnight. But we are trying.”
The ambassador said 200,000 Japanese come to Cambodia every year but the figure is stable. “But in the last five years, Cambodian visitors to Japan have quadrupled.” he said. “In 2013, only 5,000 Cambodians went to Japan. Now it’s more than 20,000. I see great potential there regarding the development of Cambodia. The trend is positive although COVID-19 is a major setback. It’s a common challenge and we need to cooperate to overcome this difficulty. It meant my people could not sit together under the cherry blossom (Sakura) trees during March and April as they traditionally do in a season known as “Hanami”. He hopes the Japanese people can do so next year and also enjoy the postponed Olympic and Paralympic Games. “We last hosted the Olympics in 1964. It signalled the revival of Japan after the devastating war. I hope next year will signal the defeat of this horrible disease and we can welcome people of the world. It’s a great challenge, but we have overcome so many challenges including the tsunami and nuclear power plant accident in 2011. We will always overcome such problems with help from other countries, including Cambodia.”
On foreign policy, Ambassador Mikami said there was a natural rivalry between the US and China but the world must ensure there is no real confrontation. “For Japan, both are important. The Japan-US alliance is the cornerstone of our foreign policy, while China is our biggest trading partner.A balanced relationship is good for stability.”
The 57-year-old, who is learning Khmer, first visited Cambodia in 2002 when it hosted an ASEAN summit for the first time. At the time, he was working at the Japanese embassy in Bangkok. His impression was the lack of tall buildings and cars then. It reminded him of Japan when he was aged 10 in 1972, 27 years after WWII. Now Cambodia is in that similar position. “We called it ‘traffic war’. There were many road deaths and much pollution because of rapid economic growth. Now, Cambodia is seeing similar problems. We can provide some lessons. Cambodian society will also age like ours so we can offer lessons there regarding the medical system and welfare.”
The ambassador’s wife is stuck in Tokyo because of the pandemic but will join him when it’s over. He has two children – one daughter aged 19, studying literature at university and a son, 29, who works in Tokyo as a lawyer. In February and March, the daughter taught Japanese at a lower secondary school in Siem Reap as a volunteer. “I am enjoying my life here. I can buy Japanese goods. Life is quite comfortable. The people are nice, polite, kind and easy to work with.”
Ambassador Mikami’s dad was a manager of a remote ski resort when he was young so he never saw foreigners until he was 18 years old. But attracted by the world of diplomacy, he joined the foreign ministry after studying law at Tokyo University, and spent two years at Oxford University. He then moved to Egypt as a junior diplomat working in the political section at the time of the first Gulf War, returned to Tokyo, had stints in Washington DC, Bangkok, Tokyo again and Beijing. Given his record, he can be regarded as a cosmopolitan. But I look forward to enjoying more of the great Japanese restaurants here, he said.