AKIRA Takamatsu believes that, symbolically speaking, Japan is not as distant from Slovakia as many Slovaks or Japanese might assume. The Japanese ambassador to Slovakia, who arrived last October, says that there are many ways to overcome the language barrier and to get involved in more intense communication between the two countries. Takamatsu would also like to see Japanese tourists stay in Slovakia for more than just a couple of hours on their way to or from other European countries.
The Slovak Spectator spoke to Akira Takamatsu about the challenges that Japan faces in its nuclear energy policy following the 2011 Fukushima tragedy, the potential for business between Japan and Slovakia, and the challenges of an ageing population.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): In early July the first of Japan’s 50 suspended nuclear reactors was re-activated. What impact has last year’s Fukushima accident had on Japan’s energy policy, given that Japan used to cover one third of its energy consumption from nuclear sources?
Akira Takamatsu (AT): Last year in March, a massive earthquake, which caused a terrible tsunami to hit the north-eastern Japanese coast, including the Fukushima atomic energy plant, resulted in a serious atomic energy reactor accident. Since then there has been heated debate over Japan’s approach to nuclear energy and whether we should keep our atomic energy generation in the future; if we have to keep it for the time being; or even how much longer we have to depend on nuclear energy until renewable energy sources get more feasible in order to be applied to daily life.
Meanwhile, all the existing reactors have been suspended for emergency checks. So far we have not come to any clear conclusion. However, at this point, with a series of new stress tests being completed and new, stricter emergency conditions fulfilled, at the beginning of July, one nuclear reactor was restarted, naturally with the consent of the local authority. I think that in order to make life in Japan socially and economically feasible, this is a minimum step, while we have to be fully prepared for the eventual next natural disaster by doing our best to make renewable energy more widely used and practical.
TSS: Slovak President Ivan Gašparovič recently paid an historic official visit to Japan, the first by a Slovak head of state since Slovakia’s independence in 1993. What was the significance of the visit and what do you see as its most important outcomes?
AT: President Ivan Gašparovič was accompanied by Foreign Affairs Minister [Miroslav] Lajčák, Minister of Economy [Tomáš] Malatinský, the head of the Slovak investment agency SARIO, and a group of Slovak businessmen and representatives of Slovak academia. President Gašparovič and the First Lady met with Their Majesties the Emperor and Empress of Japan and the president had a series of meetings with Prime Minister Noda, with the leading figures of Japanese business world and the leaders of Japan’s second largest industrial area, Osaka; they also visited the historical and cultural city of Kyoto. The members of the Slovak delegation were able to meet their Japanese counterparts. This visit could be a very good start to develop further bilateral relations between the countries not only in the field of political or economic relations but also in the field of cultural exchange and science and technology cooperation. The name of Slovakia has now been etched more clearly than ever in the minds of Japanese people. I think this is also very important.
TSS: Japan has made considerable progress in energy conservation in the building industry, for example through zero-emissions building projects as well as projects for sewage disposal and waste processing technology. Do you see room for cooperation between Slovakia and Japan in the area of green and environmental technologies?
AT: Japan has been one of the leading countries in the area of green technology, which has been applied to many daily items, such as automobiles or homebuilding. In the light of climate change, green technology or energy saving technology could be real weapons that can help us to fight for a sustainable future. Since the European Union has been playing a major role in this area, and Slovakia, as a member of the EU, has a large interest in environmental issues, I am sure there will be a huge potential for us to pursue further cooperation in this field as well. We have to find out the concrete areas where this cooperation could actually happen. For example, the Slovak Academy of Sciences (SAV) has been interested in cooperation with Japanese researchers and currently they are in the process of discussing potential areas of interest.
TSS: How would you assess current economic cooperation between Japan and Slovakia, also with respect to the economic crisis and the ongoing situation in the eurozone? Have you registered any changes, either positive or negative, within bilateral economic cooperation? Where do you see potential for further cooperation and investments?
AT: So far, as many as 46 Japanese-related companies have been active in Slovakia, creating more than 10,000 jobs altogether. I think there is still a huge potential to attract more Japanese investment to Slovakia because of the high quality of human resources or the advantage of geographical location. On the other hand, when Japanese private companies – or any other foreign investors, for that matter – start thinking about the possibility of new investments in some country, for example in central or eastern Europe, they tend to compare the economic, social or other conditions of each country in their region of interest. Thus I hope that the Slovak authorities, for example SARIO, will make further efforts to attract further Japanese investments to Slovakia so that those potential investors could recognise the advantages of investing to Slovakia over other countries in the region. Of course there has to be some logic behind attracting certain investments.
The eurozone economic crisis is a very serious concern shared not only by Japan but also by the rest of the world. The world economy is now so closely intertwined. The economic crisis of Europe is literally a crisis for Japan, which has been trying to make all possible efforts to contribute to the stabilisation of the euro. Japan has made a substantial contribution to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), as much as $60 billion, for example, and also €5 billion to the EFSF [European Financial Stability Facility]. Japan would like to see this economic crisis, at first, dealt with quickly and properly by the EU itself.
TSS: Japan is one of the countries facing the challenge of an ageing population, which is increasingly becoming a challenge for European nations. What are the challenges that this trend brings and how has Japan so far addressed this issue?
AT: Current Japanese life expectancy is 83 years and the percentage of people aged over 65 years in the whole population is expected to exceed 40 percent by 2050. Thus the rapid ageing issue is something we have to cope with urgently. First, society, namely the government or the municipality takes care of aged people, provides special facilities and care-givers. Second, aged people are encouraged to seek ways to make a contribution to society, or at least are expected to work, as long as they are able to do so, so that they have a sense of participation in society.
Third, we have to set up better social and financial conditions for younger generations to be able to think positively about having children. We have to pursue a society in which aged people are still able to make a contribution and participate in the life of society. This is a real challenge that Japan has to overcome as a first runner in the ageing world.
TSS: Since your arrival in Slovakia you have already visited several parts of the country. How do you assess the potential for tourism between the two countries? What can Slovakia offer Japanese tourists?
AT: Tourism is very important for a balanced relationship between Japan and Slovakia. Many Japanese tourists visit Europe, but they first come to larger cities like Paris and London, and when they pick the central European region they tend to go to Vienna. When it comes to Bratislava, they would probably stop here for two hours, have lunch and move on. I have been pondering ways to attract more Japanese tourists and make them stay longer than just a couple of hours, and perhaps an emphasis on music and cultural events could be appealing. Japanese tourists would probably also appreciate direct contact with Slovaks; for example in the countryside you produce very good wine and if they are given a chance to follow wine-producing processes right at the site of the producers or enjoy some dancing lessons, it could appeal to them.
Just think how many Japanese tourists are coming to Europe annually: if Slovakia would be able to attract only 1 percent of those visitors it would immediately be reflected in the tourism industry.
Of course, I also would like to see more Slovaks travelling to Japan, but I do understand that such trips are sometimes financial questions and even if someone finds a cheaper flight, the costs of their stay in Japan might not be very economical, especially for the first time visitors. But of course many young visitors go to Japan and they find ways to travel and see the country at an affordable price.
TSS: How do you assess the interest of Slovaks in Japanese culture in general?
AT: In a sense, Slovakia is very close to Japan, especially in terms of national characteristics: Slovaks don’t speak too much, just as Japanese don’t; they are both hard-working nations and this is, for example, something I observe in the Slovak staff working for the embassy – they work very hard. Then there is our love for mountains as well as affection for spas. There are a lot of spas in Japan and Japanese people are accustomed to enjoying themselves in spas – of course, in a slightly different manner from the way Slovaks enjoy their spas, but there are similarities. We have four very distinct seasons in Japan, just as you do here in Slovakia. Maybe one difference is that we eat a lot of fish as part of our national cuisine.
Yet I am very delighted by the intense interest of Slovaks in Japanese culture and cultural aspects: the bonsai, Japanese traditional flower arrangements, and our cuisine – but of course we also promote pop-culture, for example anime and manga-comics. When I watched here a special cartoon channel for kids at least half of the programme was made up of Japanese cartoons or animes. As I mentioned before, we share with Slovaks our passion for music.
Of course there is a huge potential to understand each other much more by visiting, or by more
intense communication and exchanges of views. We need to understand that even if we grow up in different cultural environments there is still very much to share and our basic emotions and human interest remain very similar, and we are part of essentially one huge family.
TSS: You arrived here last October. What has surprised you most since your arrival in Slovakia, what had you least expected?
AT: People. Slovak people are very straightforward and very honest in communication and this is something that Japanese are able to appreciate. Sometimes when you travel the world, you have to be cautious, especially when you are a first-time visitor. But here I did not have that sense.