This 2023 Japan chairs the G7, while Spain holds the presidency of the Council of the European Union in the second half of the year. For this reason, the Japanese ambassador to Spain, Takahiro Nakamae, stresses that it is time to “move forward together to tune the global agenda”. In an interview with Go Aragón during his visit to Zaragoza, the diplomat analyzes the opportunities for cooperation between the two countries and also between Japan and our community, with many avenues still to be explored.
In December 2022 you arrived in Madrid to assume the position of Ambassador of Japan in Spain. How do you evaluate these months at the head of the institution?
Indeed, ten months have passed since my arrival and it has been a very fruitful time. Bilateral relations are developing not only in traditional areas, such as tourism or culture, but also in the economy, with new areas such as renewable energies. And also in a new area of our cooperation, defense policy.
What are the Embassy’s main goals?
First, to consolidate the relations we already have, since this year we are celebrating 155 years of diplomatic relations. Spain is one of the most traditional countries in diplomatic relations with Japan.
We also want to explore several new areas to strengthen ties. In this world where the affairs of one region have a lot to do with those of the other, more specifically between Europe and the Indo-Pacific, there are many things to be considered together. In this regard, this year Japan holds the presidency of the G7, while this semester Spain is chairing the Council of the European Union. We have the responsibility to move forward together to tune in to the global agenda. In diplomacy we have a lot of work to do together.
Beyond that, we need Spain to have a greater interest in the Indo-Pacific and as strategic partners we need to have a global level collaboration to share the interests of both sides and continue to collaborate on various concrete issues.
SPAIN IS ONE OF THE MOST TRADITIONAL COUNTRIES IN DIPLOMATIC RELATIONS WITH JAPAN.
You speak of a long-standing relationship between Japan and Spain, what is it like now?
In addition to the traditional, the two countries are experimenting new aspects of our relations. In terms of economic relations for example, both markets are quite mature.
Along with the global agenda we share that I just mentioned, Japan and Spain are facing a potential to develop the global level agenda together, something we have not experienced before.
You argue that Japan and Spain “are not just friends who are attracted to each other, but are important partners who share fundamental values”. What are these values that bring us closer together?
Fundamental values are not values that belong to a certain group of countries, but values that we share with the entire international community, with all of humanity. They are, more specifically, respect for human rights and for the integrity of every citizen. Respect for the law and for democracy. Although these values were developed mostly in Western Europe, we believe that throughout our history they are the values that are now shared.
Spain and Japan are countries that especially value these principles.
According to the National Institute of Statistics, in 2022 there was a Japanese population in Spain of more than 6,000 people, with about 60 residing in Aragon. Do people of Japanese origin feel at home in the country?
From what I hear from the Japanese residing here, although they are few, they are all very happy. Also, there are quite a number of students studying in Zaragoza, including our colleagues in the diplomatic career, my friends who have had the experience of spending a year or two in Zaragoza studying Spanish. Without exception, they all love this city and cherish the experience of having spent their youth here. So in that sense, I have no doubt.
You recently participated in the inauguration of the Japan Group Congress in Zaragoza, which this year bears the name ‘Japan, influential country’. How is Japan’s influence in Spain reflected?
That’s a good question. When we talk about influence we are talking about several aspects: culture, gastronomy, tourism, economy, politics?
The Japan of 30 or 40 years ago, which was expanding as a goods-exporting country, has since gone through three decades of economic stagnation.
I don’t think Japan today is a country in this sense economically more powerful than Japan 30-40 years ago, but what is true is that Japan is more aware of the responsibility that our country has in the international community. Instead of economic influence in the quantitative, volume sense, I think Japan is becoming more and more quality-oriented and more focused on the essentials. It is also bringing ideas to contribute to the welfare of the international community. In that sense, it is not only limited to culture and economics, but also to politics.
So the conclusion of my lecture at the congress was that, when we talk about influence, I would rather say that Japan’s responsibility has increased. A lot of effort has to be put into fulfilling that responsibility.
JAPAN IS MORE AWARE OF OUR COUNTRY’S RESPONSIBILITY IN THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY.
And now, in the opposite direction, in what areas does Spanish influence Japan the most?
The traditional, such as music, dance, tourism… But now Spain is increasingly present in other areas, such as renewable energy, where Spanish industry has a very strong advantage and some Japanese businessmen are showing great interest.
Some companies already have very important facilities in Japan, where they provide their products and services. In other words, Spanish companies are becoming much more global, they are global players. So, in this context, I think Japan is rediscovering Spain, although more is still needed. In this sense, I think we also have a mission to promote greater understanding and cultural ties.
In 2019, the Economic Partnership Agreement between the European Union and Japan came into force. How have trade relations between Japan and Spain evolved?
Last year, Spain’s exports to Japan were 3.2 billion euros. At the same time, Spain imported 3.9 billion euros from Japan. It is a more or less balanced bilateral trade. Spain’s exports to Japan have increased during these ten years from 2,000 million to 3,000 million approximately. A very important part of this increase is pork.
I want to emphasize that the Japanese market is quite mature, as is the Spanish market, with a very developed economy. So in terms of bilateral trade, from a quantitative point of view, there is not much expectation of an expansion.
What we are paying more attention to is the collaboration between Japanese and Spanish companies, jointly producing products to export to the global market. We are already seeing some examples in the area of infrastructure, transportation and renewable energy.
Above all, from now on renewable energies or green hydrogen are the areas where we foresee a lot of potential for collaboration between the two countries and where Spanish industry has very important advantages at a global level.
RENEWABLE ENERGIES OR GREEN HYDROGEN ARE THE AREAS WHERE MUCH POTENTIAL FOR COLLABORATION BETWEEN THE TWO COUNTRIES IS FORESEEN.
Recently, Go Aragón organized a conference on Japan aimed at businessmen, how do you value this type of actions?
It is very good news for business relations between Japan and Spain. We are very grateful for this initiative. Our hope is that the exchange of information, links and networking between Aragonese and Japanese companies will develop even more on this basis. For this purpose, our embassy or the trade promotion office and the Japanese business associations in Spain are willing to collaborate.
The Aragonese company ARPA is collaborating with the Japanese company Toyota in a green hydrogen project. But relations between Japanese and Aragonese companies are not very common. What advice do you give to our companies to approach the market?
The biggest challenge is that Japanese businessmen and Aragonese businessmen do not know each other yet. For this, it takes a lot of effort and the event you organized last month is a very appreciated project in this sense, because what is missing is to encourage interest.
To reach the other, waiting, is not possible. Other Autonomous Communities are organizing Japanese missions to invite them to get to know the industry of their own region and this kind of meetings are very necessary.
Zaragoza, in spite of being such a historic city with such a strong cultural link to Japan, is little known. The advantages of the Aragonese industry must be made known, because there is a lot of competition at a global and national level. I think it is important that Aragonese companies also participate in these campaigns.
THE ADVANTAGES OF THE ARAGONESE INDUSTRY MUST BE MADE KNOWN, BECAUSE THERE IS A LOT OF COMPETITION AT GLOBAL AND NATIONAL LEVEL.
Let’s talk now about the friendship twinning between the Kan-non Way and the Way of St. James. As a curiosity, the French Way of St. James also passes through Aragon. What does this alliance consist of?
The Kan-non Way is the oldest pilgrimage route in Japan and it is great news in terms of cultural exchange between the two countries.
This pilgrimage culture is not just traveling to a shrine or a religious place, but it is the whole process of days and weeks… I have a friend who has been trying to fulfill this pilgrimage of the Way of St. James for several years, little by little. This experience by itself, arriving at the religious destination, is a spiritual value that is felt on the Camino de Santiago and is shared among the Japanese as well.
Recently, as you mentioned, this agreement was established, but also this year marks the 25th anniversary of the twinning between the Camino de Santiago and the Camino de Cumano. Even though it is a different religion, you can see the similarity of spirituality through this pilgrimage tradition. It is something very valuable to see this similarity, so our wish is that through this twinning, the cultural and religious exchange, as well as the tourism industry, will be further promoted. With this, we can expect the greatest mutual understanding.
THIS EXPERIENCE IN ITSELF, ARRIVING AT THE RELIGIOUS DESTINATION, IS A SPIRITUAL VALUE THAT IS FELT ON THE WAY OF ST. JAMES AND SHARED AMONG THE JAPANESE AS WELL.
Speaking of tourism, what are the main attractions for Spanish tourists in Japan?
Traditionally, I think that Spanish tourists, like other nationalities, concentrated on the most famous spots: Tokyo, Kyoto, Mount Fuji, Hiroshima….
But now they are increasingly aware of the attractions of other places that had less international tourist presence. In Japan, these tourist charms are being rediscovered.
When it comes to the tourism sector, Spain is much more advanced, hosting more than seventy million tourists a year and Japan twelve years ago received only eight million a year.
But some tourists discovered the charms of not only the most popular places, but of a village in the interior, of a small town, of the landscape, of nature… And they think it is worth all the way to get to Japan to experience this.
And in Spain, what do Japanese tourists value most?
Before the pandemic there were about 600,000 Japanese tourists visiting Spain annually. With the pandemic it has been reduced and we have to work on their recovery.
The most traditional places are Madrid, Barcelona and Andalusia, although the Japanese are also discovering new aspects of the country. For example, the Basque Country is becoming quite fashionable, also because of its gastronomy.
I am a traveler and I like to drive with the car to discover the interior; because Spain is a really charming country, with a great diversity of landscapes and cultures. In this sense, it is still little known. For example, Santiago de Compostela, which is very well known, for many tourists it is a bit expensive to get there. There are also cities like Zaragoza or Salamanca, with historical gems, but there is still a long way to go before it is developed among Japanese tourists.
Sociedad Deportiva Huesca has promoted a soccer academy in Japan, with the help of Shinji Okazaki, with which young soccer players come every year.
Of course, in soccer Spain is much more advanced, and in Japan we try to follow what they are doing here and continue learning from Spain. I value very much this kind of initiative to educate, educate and train young people. It’s a very good initiative and certainly in Japan there is a lot of appreciation for the Spanish in terms of soccer, so this type of project also has a branding value and I have no doubt that it will be very successful.
You already knew Spain well, as you lived in Valladolid and Madrid between 1986 and 1988, when you started your career as a diplomat. Have you seen how much the country has changed?
Yes, of course (laughs). First, the economic and social profile has changed, with all the new infrastructures, the fast train, the highways and tourism. Cities have changed a lot, the streets that I used to be forbidden to walk on for security reasons are now full of international tourists, with very sophisticated cafes and stores.
Honestly, I miss the traditional bars and inns a bit, but Spain is becoming more and more welcoming to international tourists.
Spain’s role in the international community has also changed a lot. In 1986 it barely joined the European Community and now it is a leading country in the Union. The economy has grown remarkably and its technologies in areas such as renewable energy or green hydrogen reflect very noticeable aspects of the change in Spain.
OF COURSE, THERE ARE SEVERAL ASPECTS THAT SPANIARDS PRESERVE, SUCH AS HOSPITALITY, THE FRIENDLINESS OF THE PEOPLE… THESE ARE HIGHLY APPRECIATED VALUES.
Personally, what do you like most about Spain?
That’s a very difficult question! (laughs) What I love now is getting to know the history of the country by visiting monuments and historical places with castles, monasteries and reading about history.
Spain is an amazing country, traveling with the car in an unknown village, suddenly, a majestic castle appears that is not in the tourist guide. I love to get into this environment and I usually travel without a guidebook.
Japan and Spain are far apart, but are we very different, or are there similarities between Japanese and Spaniards?
That’s something I want to ask you too (laughs). Although it is not a direct answer, I think it is not necessary to worry about the difference: we are different. We are different because of our historical context, but Spain and Japan have established for more than 400 years a cultural exchange, so Spain for us is a people with whom we have a great feeling of sympathy.
One thing we have in common is the historical feeling, we share a sense of history as our own legacy. On its basis we could interact intellectually or culturally and, in this sense, there is a lot of room to explore.
Japan is said to be a country of millennial history, but so is Spain. This experience, in a way, we share.