Connected by the Sea, Japan and Malta Forge New Relations


Sushi staples like ōtoro seem Japanese through and through. But if you have ever enjoyed a tasty serving of bluefin tuna in Japan, there’s a good chance that the fish originated in the Republic of Malta. The tiny Mediterranean island is the second largest exporter of bluefin to Japan, shipping over 5,000 tons in 2016. According to Maltese Prime Minister Dr. Joseph Muscat, growing Japanese demand for tuna from Malta has been a boon to the economy and has even tipped the long-standing trade imbalance with Japan in his country’s favor. Muscat attributes this shift not just to the quality of Maltese tuna, but to years of trust-building between the two nations.

The prime minister is now looking to capitalize on the strength of these ties to expand the relationship into new sectors. He recently headed a Maltese delegation to Japan to lay the groundwork for new cooperation. During his visit, which lasted from July 29 to August 2, he met with his Japanese counterpart Prime Minister Abe Shinzō and other members of the government, along with numerous private organizations.

Prime Minister Muscat hopes to see economic ties bloom with Japan on the strength of his country’s marine resources.

Emphasizing Maritime Issues

On July 30 Muscat gave the keynote address at a Tokyo symposium organized by the Nippon Foundation. Following the event, the prime minister spoke with, discussing Japan-Malta relations and the need for a comprehensive approach to preserving ocean resources.

As an island nation, Malta is deeply dependent on the sea for its well-being and has long advocated maritime laws to safeguard the oceans. Muscat referred to 1967, when Malta’s UN representative Arvid Pardo surprised the international community by proposing changes to longstanding maritime rules. This eventually led to UNCLOS, the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, an international treaty that provides a legal framework for how nations use the world’s oceans.

Malta remains dedicated to protecting the seas amid growing threats like overfishing, pollution, and climate change, and to ensuring the safe and sustainable use of maritime resources. It is home to the International Maritime Law Institute, a center run by the International Maritime Organization, a UN body that trains lawyers in maritime law. And in 2017 it hosted the Our Ocean Conference, an annual gathering of world leaders to consider solutions for maritime challenges and forge commitments to tackling them.

Toward Closer Ties with Japan

Muscat says Malta’s track record, including its efforts in the UNCLOS area, puts it in a unique position to help forge a comprehensive approach to maritime issues. “Other nations, even the important decision-making countries, see we have no hidden agenda.” However, he points out that Malta, the smallest member of the European Union, is limited by its size. This makes cooperation with countries like Japan vital. Muscat has high praise for the different approaches Japan has taken in managing various maritime issues, including promoting effective global ocean governance and sustainable use of maritime resources.

One area in particular where Muscat is looking to collaborate with Japan is the development of Malta’s fishing industry. “We are totally in line with international rules on stock management and fish farming,” he explains. “But at the end of the day there needs to be more innovation.” He stresses the need to develop closed-cycle aquaculture for bluefin tuna, an area where Japan leads, and to diversify by making greater use of tuna derivatives with pharmaceutical applications, like omega-3 fatty acids. Muscat believes the research being carried out in Malta “can be boosted exponentially” with greater investment from Japanese companies and research institutes.

Summing up Malta’s relationship with Japan, Muscat declares that while “the sizes of our countries are very different, the ocean unites us in many ways.”

(Originally written in English. Banner photo: Maltese Prime Minister Dr. Joseph Muscat speaks on July 30, 2018, at a Tokyo symposium sponsored by the Nippon Foundation.)

Nippon Foundation oceans Malta