Onboard for regional peace and prosperity

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I actually half-thought it could have been a joke when I got the invitation. For it was a “date” jointly organized by important players in the civil societies of China and Japan to go on the Peace Boat for seminars on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) first propounded by China. Having grown up during the years when the replays of the TV series “Giligan’s Island” were all the rage, and being concerned in recent times with the disturbing developments in the East and South China Seas, I hastened to accept the invitation, with a heavy dose of curiosity.

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The seabound journey for peace started in Shanghai, where the participants held a pre-boarding seminar to warm up for the frank discussions onboard. We were a diverse group, with representatives from think tanks from across East Asia and Southeast Asia, all coming onboard in search of – hopefully – peace for the Asia Pacific region. It was, indeed, a majestic sight when we first caught a glimpse of the Peace (and Green) Boat berthed at Shanghai’s outlaying harbor.

The Peace Boat, as I understand it, was, well, an initiative for world peace first started by a group of Japanese students in the 1980s. The idea has been to sail around the world and engage with the many local communities, spreading and learning the message of peace in the process. Over the years, the Peace Boat has evolved into a thriving social business, with paying passengers experiencing a learning-driven, peace-oriented trip onboard and onshore.

Our journey took us across the East China Sea to Okinawa and Kyushu, stopping for a day each at Naha and Nagasaki before getting off at Fukuoka.

An ancient insular kingdom and, in effect, a Chinese vassal state previously, Okinawa experienced, of course, a rather checkered and suffering modern history, having been the site of some of the fiercest land battles during the Second World War. Occupied by the United States for over a quarter of a century after the war, Okinawa was handed over to Japan, with American military bases still dotting the chain of strategically important islands.

In Naha, we visited the former Okinawan palace compound of Shurijo and, of course, the Okinawa Memorial Peace Park. “Shuri” approximates the meaning of “to abide by rites or courtesy,” hinting at the islanders’ pride for being a “civilized” kingdom despite being situated far away from any sort of mainland. And my impression of the Pacific War has always been the hoisting of the American flag, immortalized by the Iwojima Memorial in Washington, DC. This visit to the sites and museum of the actual theater of war impressed upon me tremendously the calamities of the human folly called war.

And many Okinawa residents have also voiced and acted upon their disdains for continuing heavy American military presence on the islands, where unfortunate incidents involving American practices and personnel, ranging from noise nuisance to criminal behaviors continue to plague the island and the islanders, most recently just a few months ago. But I was equally impressed that in the modern democratic society that is Japan, such opposite voices could be freely expressed.

And visiting Nagasaki was, of course, always a heavy-hearted affair. Site of the second ever wartime explosion of the atomic bomb after Hiroshima, Nagasaki has in essence dedicated itself to the promotion of a nuclear-free world. This sentiment is perhaps best summed up by a slogan embossed in many languages at the entrance to its peace memorial museum: “Nagasaki must be the last place exposed to an atomic bomb.”

One cannot help but be left with somber thoughts after examining the various artifacts of the atomic explosion, including twisted household objects (due to high heat) and “silhouettes” of humans and objects “imprinted” on some sturdier surfaces by the atomic blast of heat waves.

We were also brought to a much humbler private museum documenting atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial Army in Korea, China and Southeast Asia during, and in some cases before, the Pacific War. Vocal opponents of current attempts to revise the Japanese peace constitution to allow the use of force overseas also briefed us on the danger of militaristic revivalism. Again, I was impressed with the room for alternative views to be freely expressed in modern Japan.

The seminars onboard the Peace Boat were serious undertakings on how regional prosperity could be revived, albeit with the help of the BRI. I was of the opinion that despite their sometimes jarring differences, many of us in Southeast Asia would like to see our admittedly economically more advanced Northeast Asian neighbors to play a more active role in economic cooperation with us, not only in traditional forms of extracting our abundant natural resources, but actually building up production and manufacturing bases here, partly also to take advantage of the free trade and common market of over 600 million Southeast Asians as envisaged in the ASEAN Economic Community.

Above all I was most impressed by the tremendous efforts put in by both the Chinese and Japanese sides, despite their respective countries’ recent bickering, to make this learning trip an unqualified success. I look forward to the Peace Boat’s next big undertaking, of constructing and operating an Ecoship that will be the most environmentally friendly cruise ship ever. May the peace be with you.

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