An Abridged Historical Commentary on the
ASEAN Council of Japan Alumni (ASCOJA)
The first group of Nanpou Tokubetsu Ryugakusei 南方特別留学生 or “Nantoku (ナントク)” from the Philippines consisted of 27 young Filipinos who arrived Japan on July 16, 1943. One more group of 24 Filipino students would follow bringing their total number in wartime Japan to 51.
The Nantoku were young men from Japan’s occupied territories of East and Southeast Asia who were similarly chosen and sent to study in Japan. Filipinos, Thais, Malays, Indonesians, Indo-Chinese, Burmese. They were young, numbering several hundred. Dispatched to study in the land of their countries’ foreign occupation force, they learned a strange language and began to imbibe a different set of cultural and social values. The Nantoku belonged to a special category of young Asians who were being groomed for future roles of leadership.
They became classmates, dorm mates, friends from other lands who shared a unique experience of living in Japan in the 1940s until the end of the war.
Most of them survived the war and returned to their homelands. War had greatly ravaged the economic infrastructure and social fabric of their countries; the difficult and painful process reconstruction had begun. The returned Nantoku were in their mid-twenties and early thirties and were starting out in life. Over time, not a few stood out in their chosen professions and fields of competence; many rose to positions of leadership in industry, education, local and national government.
Barely thirty years after the end of the war in 1974, Japan had become an economic powerhouse. Per capita GDP in 1974 was US$17,400 which steadily rose to US$23,750 in 1984, then to U$34,000 in 2000. It rose to be the world’s second largest economy.
The mid-70s was also reverberated with radical changes and structural adjustments in a world economy reeling from tectonic crises – the oil shock, the dollar unhinged from the gold standard, and the United States was in recession. Japan had also began looking East.
Sometime in 1974, then Finance Minister of Japan Takeo Fukuda visited Kuala Lumpur where he met Rajah Datuk Nong Chick, a Malaysian Nantoku who by then had become a prominent business and political leader. Rajah Nong Chik spoke passionately about the opportunities that would emerge if Japan would recognize and attend to the wartime students. Within that year (1974), the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) organized the highly successful if emotionally charged first Reunion (Tsudoi 集い) of Wartime Students in Japan. Among the attendees were Rajah Datuk Nong Chik of Malaysia and Halim Abubakar of the Philippines. They spoke of the possibility of forming an ASEAN organization of former students to Japan.
These reunions became yearly events sponsored and organized by the Japanese Government (MOFA) which ran for 35 years, until 2009.
Atty. Leocadio de Asis, President of the Philippine Federation of Japan Alumni (PHILFEJA) joined the third Tsudoi in 1976. He too saw the value of an ASEAN organization of Japan alumni. After the Tsudoi, he tirelessly led efforts to prepare for its eventual establishment.
In 1976, Takeo Fukuda became Prime Minister of Japan and in 1977, he famously declared the Fukuda Doctrine of “Heart-to-Heart” 心と心relations, where Japan committed to build relationships with Southeast Asian countries on the basis of mutual confidence and trust. He also advocated positive cooperation with ASEAN as an equal partner. The Fukuda Doctrine has since served as the foundation of Japan’s foreign policy and diplomacy towards the rest of Asia.
Encouraged by the bold declaration of the Fukuda Doctrine, Japan alumni from Southeast Asia who were gathered in Tokyo for the 3rd Tsudoi (1976) formally proposed the establishment of a Japan alumni organization composed of ASEAN nationals who studied in and graduated from Japanese schools, universities and training institutions. Taking this cue, a three-man delegation from the Philippines (Leocadio De Asis, Benjamin “Benjo” Osias, and Benjamin “Benjie” Laurel) toured Bangkok, Penang, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and Singapore from January 21 to 29, 1977, to lay the groundwork for the formation of ASCOJA.
In their meetings with fellow Nantoku, they discovered the strong, unbroken ties that bind fellow Ryuugakusei ( 留学生; foreign students in Japan). On this, Benjo Osias wrote:
“Sharing mutual hardships, loneliness and insipient danger comradely born of wartime hazards develops special bonds of friendship. During those trying wartime years as students in Japan under very difficult circumstances, we never thought or even dreamt that 35 years later, we will again meet fellow Ryuugakusei from Asia …”
On March 25, 1977, a “Protocol of Intent to Organize” was signed in Singapore by representatives of five Japan alumni associations from ASEAN, namely:
- Association of Indonesia Alumni from Japan (PERSADA),
- Japan Graduates’ Association of Malaysia (JAGAM),
- Japanese University Graduates Association of Singapore (JUGAS),
- Old Japan Students’ Association, Thailand Under the Patronage of His Majesty the King (OJSAT), and
- Philippine Federation of Japan Alumni (PHILFEJA).
On June 11, 1977, after several days of meetings among officials of the five founding associations at the newly built Philippine International Convention Center in Manila, the ASEAN COUNCIL OF JAPAN ALUMNI (ASCOJA) was officially established.
ASCOJA is a private, non-profit and non-political organization. Its Articles of Organization state that the main objectives of the association are;
- To serve as a center for a continuing exchange of information and experience among the member-associations on all matters of common concern.
- To undertake worthwhile projects designed to foster closer ties among the member associations for the improvement of their common cultural and material interests.
- To coordinate the various projects and activities of the different member-associations in order to ensure their successful implementation.
- To establish working relationships among existing business, professional, social and civic organizations in the member-countries and among the member-associations as regional neighbors.
- To strive towards the promotion of friendship and prosperity in ASEAN in close cooperation with other countries and among the member-associations as regional neighbors.
- To foster close study of cultures that promote an Asian orientation in the education of ASEAN youth.
A journalist, describing that unique gathering in Manila of former students in Japan from various countries in Asia, wrote,
“They – a Filipino Diplomat, a Malaysian Senator, an Indonesian Major General, a Singaporean Industrialist, and a Thai Air Force Colonel – have one thing in common. Each was once a student in Japan. Then young and idealistic, yet to be touched and infected by the political viruses of the lands of their birth, they were but seekers of learning.”
Consistent with the spirit of ASEAN, the organization structure of ASCOJA was designed to be governed by a Board of Governors representing each country-member association. The Board functioned as an executive body while an ASCOJA Council (composed of five delegates from each country association) decided on policy matters by consensus. The biannual ASCOJA Conference was originally distinct from the meetings of the Board of Governors or the Council, but over time, these meetings were collapsed within the single event – the ASCOJA Conference.
Three years after ASCOJA was established, the Japan Solidarity Committee for Asian Alumni (JASCAA) was organized in 1980, envisioned to serve as the Japan counterpart organization vis-à-vis ASCOJA, thereby recognizing the importance Japan placed on ASEAN relations – even providing a channel to promote, enhance and funnel Japan relations with ASEAN through the latter’s alumni associations. On the occasion of the establishment of JASCAA, former Prime Minister Fukuda intoned:
“ASCOJA has been formed to serve us as a bridge between ASEAN and Japan. If we do not respond to the wishes of this group, but instead tried to create only an air of good fellowship with the top group of ASEAN leaders, then we will fail to reach the hearts of the ASEAN people. The creation by Japan of a small structure to support ASCOJA will indicate Japan’s commitment to solidarity with ASEAN and will serve as a heart-to-heart bond between Japan and Asian Nations.”
In April 2000, the Asia Japan Alumni (ASJA) International was established to assume the original role of JASCAA. A fulltime ASJA Secretariat was established headed by a Secretary-General. ASJA is now a key conduit of Japan Government scholarships and grants to ASEAN, through ASCOJA. In turn, ASCOJA member associations hold one seat in the ASJA Board of Directors which meets annually in Tokyo.
Aside from scholarships, ASJA and ASCOJA cooperate on a wide range of activities, projects and programs designed to intensify and deepen interpersonal and intercultural exchange between young Japanese and ASEAN youth. ASJA and ASCOJA likewise cooperate with other associations sharing the same advocacies, such as: National Institution for Youth Education or NIYE (www.niye/go.jp), Toshiba International Foundation or TIFO (www.toshiba.co.jp/about/tifo/en), and more recently, the Japan Association for the Promotion of Internationalization or JAPI (http://japi.or.jp/).
ASCOJA in an Integrated ASEAN
From 2001 to 2012, ASCOJA admitted five Japan alumni associations from the rest of ASEAN as charter members, namely:
Brunei Association of Japan Alumni / BAJA (2012, rejoined)
Japan Alumni of Cambodia / JAC (2007)
Japan Alumni Organization of Laos / JAOL (2011)
Myanmar Association of Japan Alumni / MAJA (2001)
Japan Alumni of Vietnam / JAV (2007)
The ASCOJA membership has thus expanded to 10 member associations representing all the countries of ASEAN. This is a timely development considering the full adoption of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) in 2015. As the macro socioeconomic environment of the region realigns towards the requirements of a common free market, a united ASCOJA can help promote the ideals and objectives of AEC as a unique and large regional group of former students in Japan. This extended role is being defined in a new ASCOJA Vision and Mission envisioned to direct the organization up to the middle of the 21st Century.
At this writing (2015), ASCOJA turns 38 years. The world has since changed much; more importantly, change accelerates at a rapid and increasing rate. Japan’s role in the global stage is likewise shifting, as ASEAN moves toward an integrated regional community. Increasingly, Japan and ASEAN seek a stronger, closer partnership which at its core involve the inviolable principles of friendship, mutual trust, mutual respect, understanding and strategic cooperation. These core values are held by people – Japanese and the people of ASEAN at all levels; from the highest echelons of government, business and industry, to the most basic people-to-people relationships.
Former students in Japan from ASEAN hold these values and principles close to their hearts, as they have been molded into the persons they are today by their learning experiences of their youth, especially those spent in Japan as students, trainees, scholars. They have a clear role to play in shaping future of the multilateral relations between Japan and ASEAN, and ASCOJA has the distinct responsibility to help nurture the seeds of friendship into firm bonds of partnership.