Yasushi Sato has been, for the past three years, the Consul General of Japan in Barcelona. From this city he carries out a work that encompasses the Catalan, Valencian and Balearic Islands. However, this diplomat maintains a special bond with Aragon, as he lived in Zaragoza for two years, from 1985 to 1987.
In an interview with Go Aragón, Sato recalls with nostalgia his time in the Aragonese capital, analyzes the reality of his work and highlights the business opportunities that may exist between Spain and Japan, especially since the economic partnership agreement between the European Union and Japan was launched in 2018.
You are consul general of Japan in Barcelona and your area of work encompasses Catalonia, Valencia and the Balearic Islands, what does it mean to hold this position?
We are a team of six diplomats, two support staff sent from Tokyo and twelve people employed locally. In total, we are a team of twenty people and I am in charge of it. We work in these three autonomous communities and our work is mainly to offer consular services to Japanese residents in this area and to strengthen the ties between Spain and Japan in the areas we are involved in.
What are your current goals?
Since I arrived in Barcelona three years ago, I have seen a growing interest in Japan and Japanese culture. Obviously it is one of the most important cities in Spain, but Spain is not only its big cities. Yes, Barcelona or Valencia have a lot of weight in our work, however, I want to expand our activities more geographically, especially cultural activities. Barcelona is very important, but we also go outside the city. We have collaborated in towns of only 1,500 inhabitants, where we have organized Japanese culture festivals, and I want to be wherever there is demand for this culture, regardless of the size of the municipality.
You arrived at a complicated time, in July 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, was it difficult to take on this challenge?
In the first few months I would come to the office, go home, maybe go out to buy a few things and that was it. I think in the first year we couldn’t do a lot of things. I knew very few people and not being able to go out to meet, to make contacts, for a diplomat is very hard. The ties are our treasure and not being able to meet people is very hard. It was quite a difficult time, I think for everybody.
In the spring of 2021 they lifted the mobility restrictions and I could travel even outside Catalonia. Then, work was already easier; I could go to Valencia, which is one of the areas I cover. The most important thing is that the feeling of danger before the covid decreased a lot with the lifting of restrictions; it was easier to do events. And in mid-2022 we were able to start organizing things more or less well. This year, in 2023, we organized for the first time the National Day reception, which is the Emperor’s birthday, which for us is a big event. What was important to me was that there was no case of contagion inside the consulate. We took the necessary measures and, happily, there were none.
Barcelona is very close to Zaragoza, where you lived from 1985 to 1987. How do you remember those years?
Very well. What I feel for Zaragoza and what I feel for those two years cannot be expressed in two words; it goes beyond that. I lived alone, I did not yet speak Spanish well, there was culture shock at the beginning and there were not many Japanese; perhaps, in the first year, I was the only Japanese in the city. Japan was practically unknown in Zaragoza and I must confess that there were difficult moments. However, the people I met in Zaragoza, the friends and professors at the university, the neighbors in the Kasan building (in the Actur neighborhood), the owners of the stores I frequented… treated me really well. The good thing is that they treated me not as a foreigner, but as their own. And, being a foreigner, I could feel that I was part of this city. That’s what I felt and, after three decades without communicating with all these people I met, I talk to them and now I understand better how they saw me. They saw me as a friend, not as a Japanese or a foreigner. And this fascinates me and excites me very much. Those two years occupy a very important place in my own life.
When you returned to Spain, were you happy to be near Zaragoza?
Happily, I’m in Barcelona, which is three hours away from Zaragoza. I feel very fortunate and I go to Zaragoza a lot. The other day I was counting how many times I have returned to this city. And, after the arrival in Barcelona, I went for the first time in June 2021. I was able to meet some friends and I also went to Tarazona, where another friend of mine works. It was a very happy four-day trip.
On the last day I went with my wife to the Holy Chapel of the Basilica of Our Lady of Pilar and remembered everything that had happened in those four days. I looked at the Virgin and saw the vault, the pillars… and I thought: “All this that I am seeing has not changed”. Suddenly, something came from above and filled me. And I started to cry. And I was saying: “I was here!”. I think it was an encounter with my 30-year-old self. It was more than exciting. Of course, when they told me I was going to Barcelona, it was great news for me, but I wasn’t planning to meet my friends or my 30-year-old self again. I have already been to Zaragoza eight times and to Aragón 14 times, so you can see how much I like it.
What struck you most about Aragon?
When I came here, Zaragoza was a very big city but, even so, it was still a village. That’s why the people treated me like their own; it’s very welcoming. I have an anecdote with my neighbors: the lady next door, Ana, from time to time invited me to have a coffee in her apartment and, sometimes, to eat. And one of the times, when they came back from their summer holidays, she and her husband, Tomás, told me: “We have seen many foreigners… and they eat hedgehogs! So I told her: “Ana, I am also a foreigner and I also eat hedgehogs”. And she replied, “But you speak Spanish” (laughs). At the time, I didn’t understand that, but it’s a sign that she treated me like a boy, nothing more.
I was also invited once to spend a day at her farm in the countryside, in Samper de Calanda. She had prepared a paella, she poured me a quantity that apparently I could not finish, but I had to eat it all. I thought it was the only thing she was offering me, but after the paella came the meat, the ternasco. I couldn’t eat any more and even her husband couldn’t and said, “Give it to Sato” (laughs). I had two pieces of meat and I told her: “Ana, I’m very sorry, but I’m full, I can’t eat any more”. To which she replied, “This meat is from the village.” And when Ana says ‘it’s from the village’, you can’t say ‘I can’t’. Now I am very grateful because she wanted to give me the best she had. That kindness, those attentions, that affection and that affection are the things I like about Aragon.
In Zaragoza, as in the rest of the country, Japan arouses a lot of interest. In the city, for example, there is the Aragon-Japan association, focused on spreading Japanese culture. Is this interest reciprocal?
Of course it is. I must say that, 30 years ago, Japan was practically unknown in Zaragoza. And for me it is a very pleasant surprise that there is an association between Aragon and Japan directed by Kumiko Fujimura, who is a friend of mine. And at the university there is the Japan research group, led by Carmen Tirado, who is a professor at the Faculty of Law. There are also professors who specialize in Japanese art, as is the case of Elena Barlés, the dean of the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters, Alejandra Rodríguez is also an expert, as is David Almazán. This development of Japanese studies in Zaragoza for me is a pleasant surprise and is impressive. I am very happy that the city is becoming one of the most important venues for Japanese studies in Spain.
And, regarding the interest in Japan, I say yes. In Spain I have seen a growing interest and in the areas I cover there are groups of Japanese culture enthusiasts who organize events, there are even city councils that do it. And, in Japan, I think there was already a very strong interest in the culture of Spain before. It’s not very difficult to find a flamenco class or a Spanish restaurant in major cities for a long time. Nowadays, there are many groups of university students learning the history, language and culture of Spain not as a career, but outside of it. The interest is totally mutual.
Does the Japanese community feel comfortable living in Spain?
Yes, totally. Above all, since I arrived in Barcelona, I have spoken with many Japanese and with many businessmen, who are very happy to be here. They highlight the work that the Spanish people do, the high level of Spanish engineers and the food, which is very good. I believe that the Japanese residents in Spain feel very welcome.
Speaking of entrepreneurs, a few days ago Go Aragon held the first of the conferences of the Cycle of Business Opportunities in Asia, which in September will focus on Japan, what strengths does the Japanese market have for the Spanish entrepreneur?
In February 2019 the economic partnership agreement between the EU and Japan came into force; with this, tariffs go down and there are clearer rules on investment. We Spaniards and Japanese have to take advantage of this opportunity. Spain is currently exporting pork, for example, and I believe it is in third or fourth place in pork imports. The import of Spanish wine has increased thanks to the lowering of the tariff. I know that wine is produced in Aragon, in Somontano, Cariñena, Campo de Borja and Calatayud. I believe that Spaniards and Aragonese should take advantage of this agreement.
Regarding investment, the Government of Japan is promoting, encouraging Japanese investors to invest outside the country. On the other hand, when the agreement came into force, a seminar was organized in which a representative of ICEX said that Spaniards can be expected to invest in the automobile, science, textile or food sectors. Japan has an advantage, it is a very safe country, it has a well-built infrastructure, public transport is very punctual… these are details, but also advantages that we have.
What advice would you give to an Aragonese businessman about what he should and should not do to enter the Japanese market?
Japan welcomes foreign investors, there is a policy to attract direct investments. If you are looking for an easy, immediate gain, maybe Japan is not an ideal country, but if you want to work on the basis of a lasting and trusting relationship, you are talking about the Japanese.
What Aragonese products could work well in the Japanese market?
The truth is that I have no idea what might or might not work. But it is important to create a recognizable brand that is different.
How are the current relations between Spain and Japan?
I think very good, perhaps, better than ever. In 2018, President Sanchez visited Japan and, at that time, the two countries agreed to raise the framework of the relationship to the rank of strategic partnership. That means not just talking about bilateral relations, but we are going to be strategic partners in the international community, we are going to work together and we are going to talk about many issues that concern the whole world. With this agreement, I believe that relations between Spain and Japan will be broader and deeper.