The Horn of Africa  has been the focus of attention for many regional and international powers. The region’s importance lies in its strategic location, controlling international trade crossing from the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and the Red Sea. In addition, it is connected to the geography of the Nile River Basin region, which is of paramount importance. It is also linked to the East and Central African countries that control the headwaters of the Nile.
Japan’s immense importance for the region has not changed despite a change of government and a new prime minister in 2020. Tokyo seeks to secure and maximize overall strategic interests in the region and is aware of the challenges posed by competing international powers, such as China. It is an additional incentive for Japan to strengthen its presence in the region and maximize its influence.
This paper sheds light on contemporary Japanese moves in the Horn of Africa based on its raised profile in Japanese perception. It highlights the interests and features related to this approach and attempts to explore the future of Japanese influence in the region.
Strategic significance in Japanese politics
The Horn of Africa’s geostrategic position has been a matter of interest in Japanese politics as the country seeks to build strategic partnerships with countries in the region. It wants to maximize its vital interests and enhance its influence amid strong international competition. Japan is also keen to counter China’s influence in the Horn of Africa, which has grown immensely in recent years.
Several intrinsic factors give strategic importance to the Horn of Africa. The foremost is the geographical factor that gives the region geopolitical advantages, making it the focus of attention and interest of international powers. The region is connected to several vital waterways that serve as the link for international trade routes, such as the Red Sea, whose importance is growing, as nearly 13 percent to 15 percent of the volume of international trade  passes through it.
It is a crucial trading corridor for many strategic commodities, such as oil and gas. The region also represents an extension of the Indian Ocean region and the intense race between the United States and China over hegemony and influence. The circumstances also dictate Tokyo’s enhanced interest in the region as part of its continuing competition with Beijing. The Indian Ocean is a major route for Japanese trade with Europe, East Africa, and the Middle East. Moreover, the Horn of Africa is an important focal point from a broader geostrategic perspective, given the geographical proximity to strategic areas, such as the Middle East, the Arabian Gulf, the Indian Ocean, and the Mediterranean Sea.
The Red Sea is the only maritime point connecting the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean through the Strait of Bab Al-Mandab at the southern entrance to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal in the north. This gives Japan the possibility to protect its strategic interests and extend its influence to strategic areas in this region. With increasing opportunities in the Horn of Africa in sectors such as infrastructure, oil and gas exploration, agriculture, and animal production, the growing interest in the structure of seaports overlooking the Red Sea has strengthened the region’s position as an important gateway for Japanese investments. The region is also characterized by abundant natural resources and a population exceeding about 240 million,  making it a broad market for Japanese companies and products.
Furthermore, the Horn of Africa enjoys regional political weight, reflected in Addis Ababa’s embrace of the African Union headquarters, and Djibouti hosting the headquarters of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, known as IGAD. Some UN offices in Kenya help Tokyo boost its communication with African countries through the gateway. This is also a crucial voting bloc that can help Japan achieve its goals and enhance its position in international politics and various international forums. 
Moreover, this enables it to communicate with international institutions for cooperation in development processes in the region and address these countries’ challenges. The region is also considered an important pillar of security for the Japanese forces permanently stationed at a military base in Djibouti since 2011.  The idea is to expand Japan’s military presence and protect Tokyo’s interests to counter a robust rise in China’s influence.
The interests and features of Japanese attention
There are multiple approaches to the Japanese interest in the Horn of Africa, the most prominent of which are the following:
Political and diplomatic approach
Tokyo seeks to strengthen its political and diplomatic relations with the Horn of Africa countries. It aims to reinforce its foothold in the region and open new horizons for cooperation in the economy, Japanese investments, and security. Additionally, Tokyo seeks to play an international role that gives it greater influence. It also seeks African countries’ backing on issues that Tokyo raises at the international level, such as reforming the United Nations Security Council. Some ambitions are common to Africa and Japan even though China rejects them. 
Tokyo realizes the importance of opening communication channels with countries in the Horn of Africa for a strong Japanese influence in the region. Another aim is to expand its political and diplomatic presence to reduce the growing Chinese influence there. In this regard, former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s administration’s political and economic diplomacy differed from the policies of previous Japanese governments. Tokyo targeted some countries in the region, such as Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Mozambique as political and investment destinations. 
Japanese Foreign Minister visited several African countries between December 2020 and January 2021. The tour included Kenya, which hosted the Sixth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) in August 2016, besides Mozambique, Mauritius, South Africa, Senegal, and Tunisia.  The purpose of the visit was to strengthen future cooperation with it, especially with the approaching date of the TICAD summit, which is scheduled to be hosted by Tunisia in 2022.
Japan also attaches remarkable importance to relations with Ethiopia. Officials on both sides have visited the two countries to further this process. Japan’s former Foreign Minister, Taro Kono, visited Addis Ababa as part of his tour of the region. He also visited South Sudan in May 2019. He made efforts to strengthen economic, trade, and investment relations and enhance the flow of aid. Japan is also a major development partner to Ethiopia.  Some African officials have also visited Tokyo to strengthen relations. One such visit was that of Eritrean Foreign Minister Osman Saleh in March 2019. 
Relations between Japan and African countries are based on respect for sovereignty and equal partnership to win African minds and hearts. This was strengthened through the inauguration of the Tokyo International Conference on Africa’s Development (TICAD) in 1993, which has been held periodically every three years since 2016. The objective behind TICAD is to discuss Japanese-African bilateral relations and support and strengthen Japanese aid to Africa with the participation of some international and regional organizations, such as the African Union, the United Nations, and the World Bank. 
Japan also affirms its support in building peace in the Horn of Africa, which depends on economic development. Tokyo hailed the resumption of diplomatic relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea following the peace agreement between them in July 2018. It was the only donor country that provided financial support to implement the peace agreement process in southern Sudan led by IGAD. 
Japanese interests in the Horn of Africa are mainly related to economic and development aspects. The scarcity of Japan’s natural resources has played a role in expanding its search for them in other regions, such as Africa. Tokyo also considers the region’s countries an important market,  especially concerning infrastructure projects and the technology needed by African countries. Furthermore, Japan is strengthening cooperation with India to establish the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor. The corridor focuses on areas of importance to economic and social development in Africa, such as agriculture, food security, healthcare, and natural disaster management. Tokyo’s development diplomacy in Africa is linked to the support of African partners in its international issues at the international level.
Japanese economic diplomacy in the Horn of Africa focuses on investing in several important sectors that maximize its strategic interests there, most notably the export of infrastructure. That is because Japan plays a key role in infrastructure in some countries. This is among Tokyo’s priorities to support economic development, given that it is essential to link the emerging economies in East Africa. This is mainly related to the growing Japanese interest in the maritime corridors, especially the Red Sea and Strait of the Bab al-Mandab, which connects Africa and Asia through the seas of Asia and the Indian Ocean.
This comes within the framework of Tokyo’s commitment to invest US$ 10 billion in this sector in Africa as part of a US$ 30 billion investment package pledged by former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD). The investment was to be made in three years since the announcement.  As part of this package, the Japanese government has pledged to implement some South Sudan projects and improve the infrastructure between Ethiopia and Eritrea.  Tokyo also signed a US$ 4.8 million Grant Agreement with Ethiopia in February 2021 to support efforts to boost road operation and maintenance.  Japan is also the largest investor in Kenya, where the Japan Ports and Consulting Corporation is developing and expanding the Kenyan port of Mombasa  with a value of US$ 247 million.
On the other hand, the Japanese government is developing some corridors that aim to build cross-border road networks to facilitate trade at the regional level and promoting development at the regional and continental levels. Among the most prominent ones is the Northern Corridor, which involves several African countries, such as Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi.  The 1,545-kilometer-long corridor stretches from Mombasa in Kenya to Burundi. Tokyo is also embarking on a 6,259-kilometer-long trans-African highway linking the port of Mombasa in the east of the continent with the Nigerian port of Lagos in the west. 
Furthermore, Tokyo presents itself as an economic partner to African countries more than a donor or a creditor. A vital component of the success of its policy in the region is related to its efforts to form strategic partnerships. That is in light of Japan’s efforts to diversify its trading partners and encourage small and medium-sized companies in the continent and the region. A survey conducted by the Japanese External Trade Organization (JETRO) showed that Kenya ranked first as the most attractive destination for Japanese companies aiming to implement investments by 31 percent due to its position as an economic center in East Africa. Ethiopia came third with 21.3 percent. 
Japan provides several loans to Kenya to enhance logistics services in some of its seaports.  and has also cooperated with the country in building a geothermal power generation plant in 2018.
In Ethiopia, the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) grants annual funding of US$ 100 million to support rural activities, such as handicraft in villages,  as well as financing the construction of a 5MW geothermal power plant worth US$ 18 million.  Some of the more than 1,000 Japanese companies operating on the continent, , such as Samurai Incubate, are launching an Africa Investment Fund worth US$ 18.3 million. The Fund covers Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, South Africa, and Nigeria. 
JICA is one of the most important economic policy instruments for Japan in the Horn of Africa. It focuses on implementing several projects. The agency finances some infrastructure projects in some countries of the region, such as the hydroelectric transmission line in Kampala, Uganda, which draws energy from the Karuma Dam. JICA also provides funding for the railway flyover bridge between Tanzania and Zambia.  On March 28, 2021, the JICA signed a loan agreement with Addis Ababa worth US$ 92.6 million, mainly directed at official development assistance in Ethiopia.  A Human Resources Development Center for Business and Industry is also expected to open in Ethiopia by the end of this year to support the country’s industrial development.
JICA’s cooperation with Ethiopia is focused on agriculture, rural development, infrastructure development, and education. In Djibouti, Japan is focused on water, energy, and enhancing security capabilities to secure maritime safety and vocational training. In Eritrea, it focuses on human resource development and improving the basic living environment, and in Kenya, it is about infrastructure, private sector development, agriculture, water, environment, and health. In Somalia, it seeks to strengthen the capabilities of the central government, alleviate poverty, and improve citizens’ livelihood.
In Southern Sudan, it focuses on improving the economy and infrastructure, developing alternative industries, improving livelihoods, and strengthening governance and security. In Uganda, it focuses on improving the environment to achieve economic growth, increasing income in rural areas, and improving health services and water supply.  Finally, in Tanzania, Japanese cooperation is focused on economic growth, poverty reduction, infrastructure development, and improvement of public services for citizens. 
The Asia Africa Growth Corridor also gained momentum after the third India-Africa Forum Summit, held in New Delhi in October 2015. This was an attractive option for the countries of the Horn of Africa.  This is a Japanese-India alliance with investments worth nearly US$ 200 billion. Though not yet launched, it combines Indian expertise and understanding of the African market with Japanese technological advances and financing capabilities. This would lead to a win-win scenario of achieving growth opportunities in Africa. The corridor aims to promote joint endeavors to improve development aid in Africa to promote peace and stability through economic growth and development in the Indian Ocean region, including the Horn of Africa.  Although this alliance aims primarily to counter the Chinese economic influence through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which was launched in 2013,  tries to protect African countries from Chinese debt. Japan is consciously trying to play a role in saving Africa from burgeoning Chinese debt. Some of these countries in debt even have had to cede major assets to the Beijing government.
This way, China ended up owning one of its main ports in Sri Lanka. Despite Japan being a key player in this investment race in Africa and the Horn of Africa and a strong competitor to many international actors, such as China,  the balance of economic power is still in China’s favor. The competition is stiff, though, despite a large gap between the volume of investments made by China and Japan in Africa. For example, the volume of trade between China and Africa reached about US$ 200 billion in 2018, about 12 times the volume of trade between Japan and the continent, which amounted to about US$ 17 billion between 2000 and 2017. 
Japan has a more positive image in the collective African mind compared to China as Japanese projects take into account Africa’s needs. Moreover, they rely heavily on local African labor and materials. Japan also focuses, in its economic dealings with the region, on Africa’s development. It also devotes more aid to capacity building in rural development, water resources, education, and health,  distinguishing it from the Chinese priority for profit.
In the Horn of Africa, Tokyo focuses its efforts on soft power diplomacy by providing development aid to countries in the region. It plays a constructive role by offering many development initiatives there. Moreover, the Japanese government realizes that providing aid should be more connected to its basic foreign policy interests, including its expanded strategic vision for the Indian and Pacific regions. The Horn of Africa represents its strategic extension.
The Japanese government has provided US$ 2.4 million in funding within the United Nations Development Program to support the most vulnerable and weakest communities in Sudan, including North, West, and Southern Kordofan, Blue Nile, White Nile, Darfur, and Khartoum. The aid was meant to enhance the stability of communities affected by conflicts and disputes and to increase their resilience in the face of social and economic risks, such as unemployment, organized crime, pressure on basic services, providing job opportunities, improving local capacities, community development, and conflict resolution.
As part of its commitment to meet the development needs in the Horn of Africa, Tokyo signed an agreement with UNESCO on March 2, 2020, to start a project to prevent natural disasters in East Africa. Additionally, the government provided funding support for the project worth US$ 700 million in December 2019. Some countries, such as Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Comoros benefited from such a project.
Security and military approach
Tokyo is concerned with security issues in the Horn of Africa and maintains a military presence in the form of a military base in Djibouti, close to the Bab al-Mandab Strait at the southern entrance to the Red Sea. The region is vital for Japan’s trade route as most of the country’s energy imports come from the Middle East. The base also aims to protect Japanese nationals in the region in a conflict or natural disaster situation.
There is also the growing Japanese concern about security threats in the Red Sea, such as piracy off the Somali coasts and the Gulf of Aden. The Japanese military presence in the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea opens the way for strategic expansion in the Indian Ocean region. It allows Japan to monitor Chinese movements in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. This is part of the efforts to counter Chinese military and commercial projects in the region.
Japan also believes that African waters are an essential part of its strategic vision regarding the Indian and Pacific Oceans, which extend from eastern Africa to western North America. This is linked in some ways to providing an alternative to the Chinese BRI through the Asian-African Growth Corridor (AAGC). It seeks to protect and secure its access to the waters of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, as it is vital to the flow of its trade.
Tokyo believes that confronting security threats is an important pathway to expanding its political and military influence in the region. Therefore, it is rushing to open horizons for security and military cooperation with countries in the region, such as Somalia, to ensure the security of maritime navigation in the Red Sea, and to combat terrorist activities, including enhancing the capabilities of the Somali army in the coming years.
Several strategic objectives drive the endeavor to strengthen the Japanese presence in the Horn of Africa. The most prominent of these objectives is enhancing Japanese influence in the region, and balancing Chinese influence, which has been escalating especially after the Chinese military base opened in Djibouti in 2017. That is beside the objective to secure the Bab al-Mandab Strait. This strategic passage has witnessed conflicts in recent times.
Tokyo also realizes the importance of the Japanese military presence in the Horn of Africa due to the instability caused by acts of piracy. For this purpose, it provides financial assistance to improve the capabilities of the regional armies such as Djibouti, Somalia, and Kenya. The Japanese government provides financial assistance to enhance the capabilities of the Djibouti Coast Guard. The presence of the Japanese military base in the country  gives the impression that it has long-term interests in the military and maritime fields. Some reports even suggest that Japan is expanding its military base investing US$ million annually, which indicates that Djibouti is considered a regional center for its forces. Besides increasing Japanese involvement in regional security in the Red Sea, it also ensures Japan’s participation in the operations to secure and protect international maritime navigation there.
To achieve a security balance, Japan is also trying to expand its international alliances with the United States, Australia, and India. This is taking shape through security cooperation to build capacity and ensure regional security and stability. The Japanese government allocated nearly US$ 41 million in 2017 for this purpose.  Cooperation between the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force and the European Union’s Atalanta Operation in the Horn of Africa also leads to several joint exercises to enhance tactical efficiency. The two sides are also trying to strengthen maritime security cooperation and coordinate joint efforts in the Indian Ocean.  The military presence in the Horn of Africa serves as a cornerstone of Japan’s broader Africa policy to reinforce its role and influence.
Japan has promoted a security and military cooperation agreement with India, called the Mutual Logistics Services Pact, under which India is allowed access to the Japanese base in Djibouti. This is a clear counter to the Chinese interests in the region.
Furthermore, Tokyo supports endeavors to promote peace and regional stability in the Horn of Africa. It cooperates with some African regional organizations, such as the African Union. This is meant to prevent conflicts in the region, and participate in UN peacekeeping missions on the continent. Japan sent troops to South Sudan in 2017,  and provided financial support worth $ 1.4 million in peacebuilding efforts to prevent violent extremism in Ethiopia.
It is one of the most prominent entrances on which Japanese politics is based in the Horn of Africa. The Japanese government provides a lot of humanitarian aid to the region, especially to those suffering from deteriorating political, economic, and humanitarian conditions due to political conflicts, civil strife, terrorism, and natural disasters. Tokyo provided US$ 3 million in funding to Somalia in 2017 to strengthen health services, sanitation, improve nutrition, and save women and children affected by the drought.
The Japanese Mumlix Foundation also designed a humanitarian logistics base in Djibouti at the cost of US$ 800,000 as part of the World Food Program. As a result, it became the first grain elevator in the Horn of Africa, with a capacity of about 40,000 tons. The base has been meeting Djibouti’s needs following the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. The program aims to provide food aid to the population affected by the pandemic and the spread of desert locusts. It also supports pastoral agricultural activities to make them more resistant to the effects of natural phenomena.
Japanese humanitarian aid to Ethiopia during 2020-2021 focuses on food security, improving livelihoods and malnutrition, education, health, and water.  In July 2020, the Japanese government sent a US$ 4 million grant to Ethiopia as part of its emergency assistance to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. The grant helped around 750,000 people with water supplies and health services. This also included providing information on pandemic prevention to nearly two million people and training about 8,000 healthcare sector workers. 
Tokyo is also financing a project worth US$ 5.2 million in collaboration with the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) to improve water supply, sanitation, and general environmental quality in Addis Ababa. This project provides approximately 2 tons of clean water for about 100-200 families in Ethiopia. Japan also contributed US$ 800,000 to provide food and medical aid to Ethiopian refugees in eastern Sudan under the umbrella of the World Food Program.
Conclusion and the future
Japanese efforts to enhance its influence in the Horn of Africa continue to persist in the wake of concerns related to the escalation of Chinese leverage in the region. This is reinforced by Tokyo’s keenness to protect and maximize its strategic interests in the region and the political will demonstrated by the new Prime Minister, Yoshihide Suga, following in the footsteps of the Shinzo Abe government’s open policy toward Africa. Japanese Foreign Minister’s two visits to Africa and the region, in December 2020 and January 2021, and the determination to hold the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) in Tunisia in 2022 demonstrates this eagerness. These moves are deepening the Japan-Africa relations despite the Covid-19 pandemic.
However, this proposition depends on overcoming numerous challenges. The Covid-19 pandemic, which has hindered the flow of trade worldwide since 2020, is an example. Some Japanese companies are also concerned about the risks facing the business environment in the region due to security instability resulting from the continuing conflicts. In addition, there is competition between major economic powers such as China because of the large gap between the volume of trade and investments.
Despite bilateral exchanges between Japan and some international powers, such as the US, and calls for security cooperation, the growing Chinese challenge in the Horn of Africa may necessitate strengthening bilateral cooperation. The international competition over the region may also push Tokyo to expand its international alliances to protect its interests and consolidate its strategic presence in the Horn of Africa, Red Sea, and Indian ocean, anticipating any shift in relations with Washington.
Although Tokyo finds in New Delhi a strong ally that enables them to balance Chinese influence in the Horn of Africa, strengthening their alliance and moves on the ground depends on the availability of financial support. This might pose a challenge in the future due to the difficult economic conditions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. The real challenge is to match the growing Chinese economic influence in Africa in general and the Horn of Africa in particular.
 The Horn of Africa is located in the east of the African Continent, west of the Red Sea, and the Gulf of Aden. The Indian Ocean borders it to the south in the form of a horn extending into the Indian Gulf. It includes four countries: Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea, and Ethiopia.
. Dr. Muhammad Mujahid Al-Zayat, The Red Sea Security & Its implications for Arab National Security. 12 international and regional conflicts currently taking place in the Red Sea, directly and indirectly, Opinions on the Gulf, Saudi Arabia, Issue 127, January 2018, p. 21.
. Michele D’alessandro, Zemelak A. Ayele and Giovanni Putoto, Covid-19 in the Horn: Health and Social Impact, in Africa’s Thorny Horn. Searching for A new Balance in the age of Pandemic, ISPI, P.32.
4. Elias Bouckaert, Japan and Africa: Development Aid or Equal Partners? EIAS, November 17, 2020: https://bit.ly/2RTb8Dq
6 David Whitehouse, Japan trails China in race for Africa, The Africa Report, March 19, 2019: https://www.theafricareport.com/10529/japan-trails-china-in-race-for-africa/
7. Brendon J. Cannon, Grand Strategies in Contested Zones: Japan’s Indo-Pacific, China’s BRI and Eastern Africa, Rising Powers Quarterly, August 2018: https://bit.ly/3vmxU5f
8. Akio Takahara and Atsushi Hanatani, Japan: Engaging Africa Through Universal Values, Italian Institute for International Political Studies, March 5, 2021: https://bit.ly/3dQ4cQ2
9. Japan’s Foreign Minister visits Ethiopia, Africa News, December 9, 2019: https://bit.ly/32JkjIT
. Akio Takahara and Atsushi Hanatani, Ibid.
. Maaike Okano-Heijmans, Jagannath P. Panda, Development Cooperation Partnerships: Forging an EU-India-Japan Trilateral in Africa, Netherlands Institute of International Relations, PP. 1-20.
. Japan supports peace, stability in Horn of Africa, Ibid.
. Brendon J. Cannon, Ibid,.
. Vijay Sakhuja, Ibid.
. Alexander Richter, The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) is funding the set up of a 5 MW portable geothermal power plant in Ethiopia, Think Geoenergy, March 18, 2021: https://bit.ly/3sQaEus
. Jevans Nyabiage, Ibid.
. Ethiopia and Japan sign US $4.8m grant agreement for road operation and maintenance, Ibid.
. Ethiopia, Japan International Cooperation Agency: https://www.jica.go.jp/ethiopia/english/index.html
. Tanzania, Japan International Cooperation Agency: https://www.jica.go.jp/tanzania/english/index.html
. Agreement signed between UNESCO and the Government of Japan for the commencement of the project: “Strengthening Disaster Prevention Approaches in Eastern Africa”, UNESCO, March 20, 2020: https://bit.ly/3nelPfA
. EU Naval Force Somalia Operation ATALANTA and the Japanese Navy have been developing further their cooperation in the Indian Ocean in order to strengthen maritime security in the region, EU Naval Force- Somalia Operation ATALANTA, October 26, 2020: https://bit.ly/3ngJZpw
. Japan donates US$3 million to support UNICEF’s continuing emergency response to the prolonged drought in Somalia [EN/SO], Ibid.
. Susan Reidy, Japanese officials visit WFP facility built by Mulmix in Africa, World Grain, June 23, 2020:
. Japan Provides New Humanitarian Assistance Package to Ethiopia as Follow-up to TICAD7, Ibid.