The Republic of Palau is a country in the southwest Pacific that was governed by Japan for 31 years until the end of World War II, and traces of Japanese culture can still be found there today. Toshio Motoya’s discussion with Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary H.E. Mr. Peter Adelbai covered basic information about Palau, the 200-year-old relationship between Palau and Japan, and other topics.
(M) Thank you for joining me on Big Talk today. I interviewed Francis Mariur Matsutaro, the previous ambassador, three years ago. How long have you lived in Japan?
(A) Thank you for inviting me. I arrived in August 2021 as minister counselor, then presented my ambassadorial credentials at the Imperial Palace on June 7, 2022.
(M) So you’ve been the ambassador for 13 months.
(A) That’s right. Next year marks the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Japan and Palau, which were established in 1994 when Palau proclaimed independence from the United States.
(M) Can you start by giving us some basic information about your country?
(A) Of course! Palau is made up of more than 340 islands, located near the Equator roughly 3,200 kilometers directly south of Japan. The total area of all islands is just about the size of Japan’s Yakushima Island. Palau’s population is approximately 20,000 people. The capital city is Melekeok, the official languages are Palauan and English, and we use the American dollar.
(M) Is there a historical reason for that currency?
(A) Palau was colonized by Spain in the 19th century and by Germany afterwards. Japan fought with the Allies in World War I, when it occupied Palau according to the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. Palau was given to Japan as a League of Nations mandate in 1920. The U.S. occupied Palau when World War II ended, and Palau came under American control as the United Nations Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. After a local referendum, Palau established its constitution in 1981. Palau achieved independence by signing the Compact of Free Association with the U.S. in 1994.
(M) The 31-year period of Japanese governance is why Japan and Palau have such strong ties. I even think our flags resemble each other.
(A) Palau’s flag, a yellow circle against a bright blue background, is similar to Japan’s. Our flag has a distinctive meaning. Palauan people have a close relationship with the sea and live in harmony with the natural world. The circle symbolizes the moon, which controls the tides that are particularly important to us. Our primary industry used to be fishing – fishermen would keep an eye on the moon to predict the tides and where fish would be gathering in the coral reefs. Back then there were no refrigerators to store the fish they caught, so it was very important to use these techniques for “reading” the tides when fish were needed for festivals or other reasons. Sea turtles, which we eat on special occasions, breed according to the tides as well. When constructing a new home, Palauans determine when to cut down trees, transport them, and build the house according to the phase of the moon. We always move into a home on either on the new moon or full moon. In this way, we’ve looked to the moon while maintaining a balance between people and the natural environment. The moon reflects light from the sun. In an ideal relationship, I think Palau would be the moon and Japan would be the sun. I’ve lived in Japan for many years, having worked at the Palauan embassy in Japan from 2002 to 2012.
(M) Have you traveled around Japan?
(A) I have. When President Surangel Whipps Jr. came to Japan this June, I accompanied him to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station where the accident occurred. Many South Pacific island nations do not want ALPS-treated water to be released into the ocean this summer, but Palau supports Japan’s plan. President Whipps is the only head of state from that area who has visited the power plant.
(M) They’re going to release it some distance from shore via an undersea tunnel.
(A) Yes, we were told all about the plan. All the radioactive materials have been removed from the ALPS water, except tritium, which is below the acceptable standard values. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced that it agrees with the safety standards. We trust in science. After visiting the power station, President Whipps had a summit and ate dinner together with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.
(M) I think that’s a wonderful attitude.
(A) I accompanied President Whipps when he recently met with Nippon Foundation Chairman Yohei Sasakawa, who suggested that we should invite you to Palau. I thought that was a great idea. I hope you will visit and think about building an APA Hotel in Palau in the future. My greatest mission in Japan is to invite you to my country and give you a warm welcome.
(M) I’ve been to Palau one time, in November 2019. The ocean was so beautiful. I arrived at Palau International Airport on Babeldaob, the largest island, then crossed a bridge to Koror, which is the commercial center. From there I took a boat to Peleliu, the second-largest island that’s known as the location of the September 1944 Battle of Peleliu between the U.S. Military and the Japanese garrison on the island. Colonel Kunio Nakagawa, the head of the garrison, saved all the civilians by moving them to a different island in advance. The American forces thought they could take the island in three days, but Nakagawa’s thorough fortifications meant the fighting stretched into 71 days. He committed ritual suicide after many soldiers were killed. I was able to tour a lot of battle ruins, including headquarters and tanks. I hope Japanese people will go to Peleliu. And if there were more Japanese and other tourists, it’s possible that we might build an APA Hotel in Palau.
(A) Tourism is our main industry today. The annual number of tourists was around 100,000 before the pandemic, with a very stable number of Japanese travelers comprising 30% to 35% of that total. There are World War II ruins like you mentioned, as well as the three “Ss:” sun, sea, and sand. There are so many things to see, from diving spots to coral lagoons and beautiful marine creatures. However, the number of tourists has fallen since the pandemic. Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways used to regularly operate charter flights between Palau and Japan. SKYMARK also planned to start regular direct flights. None of these are available today and it’s been very difficult to re-start these flights, resulting in a huge decline in Japanese travelers. President Whipps requested Prime Minister Kishida’s support to resolve this.
(M) It would be hard to draw more Japanese tourists without direct flights.
(A) Yes, and the weak yen is also an issue. More and more Chinese travelers are wanting to visit Palau each year, but we’re also hoping for tourists from Japan, due to the close ties between our countries. Post-COVID, Air Niugini has started a new route from Brisbane, Australia to Palau via Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. I think Japanese travelers could take advantage of this route to visit both Palau and New Guinea.
(M) How do you get to Palau today?
(A) There are daily flights by United Airlines via Guam, but I recommend a China Airlines flight via Taiwan. China Airlines has two weekly flights from Taipei to Palau. You have to spend the night in Taipei due to the timing of the flights, but it’s still the most convenient way to get there.
(M) When is the best season to visit?
(A) The entire country has a tropical rain forest climate with an average annual temperature of 28°C. The rainy season is from July to December and the dry season from January to June. The dry season is a better choice in general, but due to climate change we are seeing some sunny days even during the rainy season.
(M) I’d like to visit again in a good season for traveling.
(A) You mentioned the island of Peleliu. I think it’s similar to Okinawa, which was also the site of fierce fighting. Around 13,000 Okinawans lived in Palau while it was governed by Japan, and some Palauans have Okinawan last names like “Higa.” Over 25% of Palauans are descended from Japanese people, and we still use some Japanese words like “chōnan” (first son) and “emon-kake” (hanger). People say that Motoji Kono taught Palauans about baseball rules and techniques while working in the Nanyo Government, and today it’s our national sport. We even call it “yakyū.” It’s like how English-language baseball terms have become part of the Japanese language. In Palau we comment “naisu” when someone makes a good play or “hebo” for a bad one (laughs).
(M) Did older people study Japanese in school?
(A) My parents could speak Japanese and write in katakana because they learned it in school. They preferred Japan over the U.S., which controlled Palau after the war.
(M) What in Japan have you found most impressive?
(A) The Imperial Palace, where I presented my credentials, made a big impression on me. It’s a modest palace circled by moats and surrounded by tall buildings. I was surprised by how fort-like it is – it’s not easy to get inside at all.
(M) Sotobori Road is named after the moat that used to be there. I imagine the palace was more heavily defended in the past. Among the people you’ve met in Japan, who has been the most memorable?
(A) The answer is, of course, you. Your large hotel chain is certainly impressive, but I’ve also learned a great deal from Apple Town magazine and your other writings. I’d like to stay at your APA Hotel in Makuhari someday.
(M) With 50 floors, APA Hotel & Resort Tokyo Bay Makuhari is Japan’s tallest hotel comprising a single building. It only had the Central Tower with 1,001 rooms when we purchased the hotel, but we’ve since added the East and West Wings for a total of 2,007 rooms. APA Hotel & Resort Yokohama Bay Tower is one of the largest Japanese hotels with 2,311 guest rooms. The APA Hotel network has more than 100,000 rooms in 47 Japanese prefectures, including our partner hotels. Still, we concentrate many hotels in Tokyo with an eye towards business efficiency. I launched my company from nothing and have managed to grow it to a large scale. One of our strengths is that APA Hotel basically owns all its directly operated hotels. Global hotel groups like Marriot and Hilton often rent out their brand to hotels they don’t own, which are frequently operated by a third party. APA Hotel’s profit is three times higher than other hotel chains because we do everything ourselves, including ownership, operation, and branding.
(A) As a career diplomat, I’m fortunate to have met with numerous government officials, businesspeople, and so forth.
(M) Even at this large size, my company is fully operated by my family members, who own all its stock. My oldest son is CEO, his younger brother is managing director, and my wife is APA Hotel president. Over the past few years banks have been limiting their lending because of bad debt risk in this era of low interest rates. This has been extremely advantageous to APA Group, a highly valued borrower, and we’ve chosen banks that offer us the lowest rates.
(A) That’s an amazing strategy.
(M) It sounds like you’ve traveled around Japan, but are there any other places you want to visit?
(A) I’ve actually been to Nagasaki for a very short visit, but I’d like to take some time to explore the old port city. I also want to see Yamada Town in Iwate Prefecture. During the Edo period in 1820, the Jinja Maru ship was on its way to deliver fish and soybeans to the city of Edo when it was blown off course by a storm. It ended up in Palau, which was then called “Peraho.” The peaceful people of Palau ate tubers and fish. They helped the Jinja Maru crew, who lived with them on the island for four years. There were 12 sailors when the ship left Japan, two of whom died en route and two on Palau. The remaining eight sailors were able to board a foreign ship heading to Japan, but they were sad to leave the Palauans behind. They went to China before arriving in Nagasaki, then to their home prefecture of Iwate. The sailors encountered the scholar Naokai Nishida in Kokura on their way home. Records show that they told him about their voyage and about Palau. That was the start of the relationship between Palau and Japan, 200 years ago.
(M) I heard about the Jinja Maru from the previous ambassador, but many Japanese people aren’t aware of that history.
(A) That’s why the Embassy of Japan in Palau produced an animated video in 2022, called “The Tale of the Jinja Maru, the Drifting Ship.” You can watch it on YouTube. There’s also a monument to this ship near the president’s residence in Palau. I want to go to Yamada because of this historical connection.
(M) Yes, I can understand why.
(A) Japan and Palau have had close ties for the past 200 years. I’m particularly grateful to the Japanese government for donating four Mitsubishi Heavy Industries diesel engine generators in 2012 as Emergency Grant Aid. That was during the final year of my first stint in Japan. I hope our two countries will keep working together to maintain a positive relationship going forward.
(M) Me, too. At the end of the interview, I always ask for a “word for the youth.”
(A) I believe that personal connections are the key to maintaining a friendly relationship between Palau and Japan, and I hope that many young Japanese people will travel to Palau. I want to invite Japanese youth to Palau so they can spend time with the young people of my country. The world is going through many tribulations today, but we are all connected to each other, and friendship leads to peace. We say that the “P” in “Palau” stands for “peace,” the “l” for “love,” and the “u” for “useful.” Palau will continue emphasizing the importance of peace and love as the world goes through unforeseen changes.
(M) Thank you for sharing such an interesting conversation with me today.
(A) Thank you.
Born in Koror, the Republic of Palau’s largest city, in 1959. Earned his Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from the University of Guam, U.S.A. in 1983. Worked on Guam as a teacher and newspaper reporter before becoming a diplomat in Palau. Came to Japan as minister-counsellor at the Palau Embassy in 2002. Was appointed ambassador of Palau to the Republic of China (Taiwan) in 2012. After working at a construction company and as a member of the Airai State Legislature, he took up his current position in June 2022.