Palau, an island nation in the Pacific Ocean, has ties with Japan stretching back 100 years and was placed under Japanese administration during World War I. Many Japanese words are still used in Palau today. Toshio Motoya spoke with Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Francis Mariur Matsutaro about topics including Palau’s close connections with Japan, appealing sightseeing spots, and the tragic Battle of Peleliu.
(Mo) Thank you for joining me on Big Talk today. The Republic of Palau is home to Peleliu island, the site of a fierce battle during World War II. I visited there two years ago to honor the spirits of the dead. Palau was at one point given to Japan via the South Seas Mandate, and the two countries have had a consistently good relationship for the past 100 years. I invited you here so you can teach us about Palau and share your views of Japan.
(Ma) Thank you for having me. I’ve been hoping for an opportunity like this. I came to Japan from Palau eight years ago. Back then, the president of Palau asked me to have business discussions and form partnerships with Japanese companies in the fields of hotel and golf resort development.
(Mo) Narita Airport started direct flights to Palau International Airport, and then-Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko visited in April 2015 for international goodwill and to honor the war dead. This inspired many Japanese people to travel to Palau, and the emperor and empress’ trip also made me want to go. How many Japanese tourists are coming to Palau in recent years?
(Ma) The number is relatively stable lately at around 30,000 Japanese tourists. There are no direct flights right now due to the pandemic. Both JAL and ANA operate regular charter flights and Skymark planned to start regular flights in August, but these have been postponed because of the coronavirus.
(Mo) Fewer people are traveling anywhere because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but this is a temporary situation that will eventually end. Perhaps this interview will make more people interested in going to Palau. We publish 100,000 copies of Apple Town, this magazine, every month and place them in all APA Hotel rooms. APA Hotel has 30 million guests every year, so many of them will be able to read what you have to say. I hope you will tell us all about the wonderful features of your country.
(Ma) Thank you. I will start with some basic information about the Republic of Palau. Palau is made up of more than 400 islands, which combined have a total area about the size of Japan’s Yakushima island. The population is roughly 20,000 people, and there are about 15,000 Palauan citizens living overseas. The capital is Melekeok. The official languages are Palauan and English, and the currency is the American Dollar. The islands are divided into 16 states that are administered by state governments. The entire country has a tropical rainforest climate with an average air temperature of 28°C throughout the year. The rainy season is from June to October and the dry season from November to May.
(Mo) I visited in November, and the dryer weather was pleasant.
(Ma) Yes, that is a good time.
(Mo) During World War I, Palau was part of the South Seas Mandate given to Japan according to the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. Palau and other Micronesian islands were previously under German control.
(Ma) Palau was colonized by Spain in the 19th century and by Germany afterwards. Japan was given control of the islands in the South Seas by the League of Nations in 1920 during the Japanese occupation of Palau, which was no longer a German colony after that. The South Pacific Mandate Main Office was established on Palau’s Koror island and given jurisdiction over all the South Seas islands, and the Japanese rule lasted until the end of World War II. Afterwards, Palau came under American control as the United Nations Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. In 1978, Palau held a referendum and decided not to join the Federated States of Micronesia. The constitution was promulgated and an autonomous government founded in 1981. However, Palau remained part of the UN trust territory under American control. After that, Palau agreed to the Compact of Free Association proposal by the U.S. It was finally approved after eight referendums and came into effect in 1994, when Palau achieved independence. Last year we celebrated the 25th anniversary of Palauan independence as well as the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Palau and Japan.
(Mo) Is tourism the main industry?
(Ma) Yes, tourism is our most mature and key economic industry, and Japanese tourists are the most stable part of that. Around 100,000 tourists come to Palau every year, of which 30% to 35% are from Japan. Palau’s tourism is founded on three Ss: sun, sea, and sand. First of all, Palau is a world-famous diving spot. The Rock Islands Southern Lagoon, located between Koror and Peleliu, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Most of these ancient coral uprises known as the Rock Islands are uninhabited, and there are shallow lagoons formed from coral reefs in this area. One of the islands, Mecherchar, has the Jellyfish Lake, a saltwater lake home to millions of spotted jellyfish that is a famous sightseeing spot even among Palauan citizens. There are many lakes like this one with underground connections to the ocean. They are home to numerous living creatures like the Needlespine Coral Goby, an endemic species in the Gobiiformes order; Twinspot Goby fish; and Archerfish. There are spots in the lagoons where you can see huge schools of Blackfin Barracudas. The Rock Islands also have historic ruins such as ancient rock paintings and village settlements.
(Mo) The oceans were so beautiful. I also felt like Palau wasn’t as hot as I expected. Palau International Airport is on Babeldaob, the largest island. It is connected to Koror, the commercial center, by the Japan-Palau Friendship Bridge built with Japanese aid. I took a boat from there to Peleliu, the second-biggest island that was the site of a battle between a Japanese garrison and the U.S. Armed Forces in September 1944, the latter period of World War II.
(Ma) Yes. I am from Peleliu, so I know a lot about that battle.
(Mo) Really? The Japanese garrison in the Battle of Peleliu was led by Colonel Kunio Nakagawa, who had worked his way up in the ranks. Because the whole island was thoroughly fortified, the garrison was barely damaged by the fierce naval bombardment before the American military landed. Conversely, the Japanese side attacked the landing forces and caused them great harm. The American military optimistically believed it could capture Peleliu in three days, but Nakagawa ended up defending it for 71 days. However, about 10,000 Japanese soldiers lost their lives and Nakagawa committed ritual suicide in the end. But even more than the results of the battle, the Japanese garrison was praised for moving all civilians on Peleliu off the island before the fighting, which saved them all. There are many war ruins on Peleliu today. The Japanese army headquarters site still has a building where you can see bombing and shooting marks. The Japanese and American military tanks and short cannons look just like they did back then. Peleliu Shrine was built in 1982 to honor the spirits of these Japanese soldiers, and has a stone monument engraved with the phrase, “Tourists from every country who visit this island should be told how courageous and patriotic were the Japanese soldiers who all died defending this island,” a quote from U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander in Chief Chester W. Nimitz. I think that Nakagawa and the Peleliu garrison were wonderful for fighting in a way that was even praised by their enemies. I wish more Japanese people would visit this island.
(Ma) I also think the Japanese side fought well and courageously.
(Mo) Right now the tourism industry, including hotels, is in dire straits because of COVID-19. It seems like only about 10,000 foreign tourists will come to Japan this year, and that the number of Japanese people traveling abroad will probably drop sharply as well. However, I do believe this is a temporary situation that won’t last forever. What industries is Palau focusing on besides tourism, such as agriculture or fishing?
(Ma) These are all part of our future plans. Right now the government’s policy goal involves agriculture, fish aquaculture, and marine development with aid from Japan. Two Japanese trade missions have come to Palau, and we have concluded a fishing agreement with Japan to export tuna here.
(Mo) Do you have oil or other resources?
(Ma) Scientific studies in the northern ocean area have shown the possibility of offshore oil fields. We will work to develop these going forward, but I think tourism will be our focus for the immediate future. I hope you will build a hotel in Palau!
(Mo) To build a hotel with 200 rooms, you must be able to predict that they will be full 365 days of the year. We have to consider this based on the numbers, including the annual volume of foreign travelers. For instance, I think one possible method is for the national government to build a hotel and have APA Hotel share its operational expertise. A great tourism policy would be for Palauan citizens living abroad to gather funds and the national government to serve a leading role in building a hotel. An important point would be constructing it at a place with the most beautiful scenery in Palau, with an infinity pool, private beach, and other facilities.
(Ma) I definitely hope that comes true.
(Mo) Someday I would like to make full-scale efforts to expand into resort hotels, but having business travelers as our main target is the best way to ensure stable operations. A week is mostly made up of weekdays, so the ideal format brings more guests on weekdays. That’s why APA Hotels are located just a few minutes from subway and railway stations so they are easily accessible to business travelers.
(Ma) I see. And your strategy has apparently been proven right, as you are enjoying high occupancy rates at your hotels.
(Mo) However, this year our performance has fallen due to the impacts of COVID-19. This is unavoidable, since everyone is in the same boat… The entire world has been inconvenienced by China. Everything falls apart when people cannot travel around. Many airlines are on the verge of bankruptcy, and I think the Tokyo Olympics may be threatened if things continue this way for another six months. The games couldn’t be postponed a second time, but I certainly hope they will not be cancelled. Many companies are building hotels with an eye to the Tokyo Olympics, and I think they would suffer major impacts if the games were cancelled. Still, it is risky to get into the hotel business for just a single event – you must consider whether there will be demand for dozens of years.
(Ma) Thankfully, we haven’t had a single case of COVID-19 in Palau.
(Mo) That’s fantastic, but you will have to keep up with thorough quarantine-based protection measures going forward. Just one infected person can spread the virus. There were no cases for a long time in Japan’s Iwate Prefecture, but since July 30 there are daily reports of new cases. Among the different types of weapons of mass destruction, viruses and other biological weapons are the most terrifying, more so than chemical or nuclear weapons. A nuclear bomb only affects an area spanning dozens of kilometers, but viruses can spread across the world in the blink of an eye in this era when many people travel between continents and countries. About 700,000 people have died of COVID-19 across the world and roughly 160,000 in the U.S. alone. I think we can regard this as World War III. Mankind will always have to fight against infectious diseases, and we must quickly build systems to overcome this.
(Ma) I agree.
(Mo) The novel coronavirus was first discovered in China, then spread to Japan, Iran, Europe, and the U.S. Today it has expanded to South America as well, and once again there are many new cases in Australia. What’s odd is that, looking at the number of deaths by one million people, the top countries (with deaths in the triple digits) are all white countries. In contrast, deaths are in the single digits in the East Asian nations of Japan, South Korea, and China, meaning the numbers are 100 times larger in the top countries. I wonder if this is a manmade virus designed to be more lethal for white people. When Spain moved into the New World in the 16th century, the Aztec and Incan Empires were destroyed by smallpox brought by the Spanish. I can’t help but be reminded of that strategy. In any case, Palau must step up its quarantine measures.
(Ma) Yes, you are right.
(Mo) What is Palau’s political system like?
(Ma) Our presidential system, a democratic form of government in which the head of state is directly elected, resembles the American system. We have a bicameral legislature consisting of the House and Senate.
(Mo) Do you have an army?
(Ma) No. The U.S. is responsible for our national security and defense according to the Compact of Free Association I mentioned before. The U.S. Armed Forces are not stationed in Palau, but the U.S. can use Palauan territory in the event of an emergency.
(Mo) That’s rather like the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty. Do you have a coast guard?
(Ma) No, and public order is stable inside the country.
(Mo) Perhaps citizen unity is easier due to the small population.
(Ma) We still have a traditional governance system. In addition to the House and Senate, there is the Council of Chiefs, composed of traditional leaders from all 16 states. They act like advisors to the president.
(Mo) What about taxation?
(Ma) The system is rather simple. Individuals only pay a 6% income tax, and there are no property, inheritance, or consumption taxes. Corporations pay business tax, income tax, and import duties. I had a small business, and the total tax rate I paid was about 14%.
(Mo) That makes me want to move to Palau (laughs).
(Ma) We will welcome you with open arms to our shores anytime. The Pacific Ocean islands are divided into three regions: Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia. Palau is part of Micronesia with other sovereign island nations such as the Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands, and Kiribati. Palau is also a member of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA), and Pacific Community (PC), and we cooperate closely with our neighbors.
(Mo) It would be interesting to see Palau develop into a high-class resort in the future. It sounds like there’s room for growth in the tourism industry. Do you have any high mountains?
(Ma) Mount Ngerchelchuus on Babeldaob, the biggest island, is the tallest mountain at 242 meters high. There is a mountain ridge on Peleliu, and you can see the whole island from the summit. It also served as an important military position and was used by the Japanese army. There are thousands of caves in the mountains. The Japanese army excavated them into shelters where they barricaded themselves.
(Mo) Yes, the U.S. attacked the caves with flamethrowers and used bulldozers to close the entrances.
(Ma) Most of the caves used by the Japanese army have been sealed until today. The governments of Palau and Japan have signed an agreement to open them and gather the remains of deceased soldiers. The bones are identified using DNA tests, and any Japanese remains are brought back to Japan.
(Mo) It’s amazing that today’s technologies can tell if a person who died decades ago was Japanese or not. Many Japanese soldiers who fell overseas have yet to be returned. I believe we must bring them all home. The U.S. collects the remains of all its soldiers. If a soldier is taken as a prisoner of war, they make thorough efforts for his release. That is why American soldiers can put their lives on the line to fight for their country. Japan must do the same thing, but unfortunately these efforts have not made much progress. I hope Palau will become a major resort with the aim of being a tourism-focused nation. To conclude our interview, will you please share a message for the youth of Japan?
(Ma) The Japan-Palau relationship began some 100 years ago. In 1821, a Japanese vessel sailed off the coast of Chiba, and six Japanese people on the boat washed ashore in Palau. They lived in Palau for 3.5 years and then returned home to Japan via the Philippines and other locations. Japan and Palau have deepened their friendship after the post-World War I mandate and the establishment of diplomatic relations following Palau’s independence in 1994. Palauan people today regard Japan as a stable ally and our trustworthy partner. I hope young Japanese people will learn about this, and that our eternal friendship will continue.
(Mo) So the Japan-Palau relationship is quite old. Where were you educated?
(Ma) At the University of Hawaii.
(Mo) Yoshiko Sakurai attended that school as well. Different things are taught in schools in Japan and overseas. People who stay in the Japanese educational system do not learn correct history; they are only told that Japan did bad things. Japan was defeated in the war, but it fought to abolish racial discrimination from the world and free colonies. I believe we must teach young people about this, which is why I am striving to revive pride in our home country. I also hope you will come to my Shoheijuku academy.
(Ma) Yes, I would like that.
(Mo) Thank you for joining me today.
(Ma) Thank you.
Date of dialogue: July 31, 2020
Francis Mariur Matsutaro
Born in 1948. Earned his Bachelor of Education degree from the University of Hawaii in 1974 and his Master of Education degree from the University of Guam in 1985. His past positions include president of Palau Community College, CEO of the Palau International Coral Reef Center, and chief of staff of the Office of the Vice President (Republic of Palau). He took up his current post in 2013.