Slovakia remains an attractive destination for Japanese investors mostly due to the diligence of its workforce. But the authorities seem to be more interested in attracting foreign investors than attracting foreign tourists. A little bit of creativity in promoting tourism would suffice to get the interest of rich Japanese tourists, says Ambassador of Japan to Slovakia, Jun Shimmi, who claims Bratislava is among his two favourite cities where he has served as a diplomat.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Slovak Foreign Affairs Minister Miroslav Lajčák visited Japan in early July. What was the main message of his visit?
Jun Shimmi (JS): Minister Lajčák visited Japan three times in the past two years. This July, he was invited to Japan as an official guest of the Japanese Foreign Minister Kishida. As Mr Lajčák will serve as the next president of the United Nations General Assembly from this September, the main topics discussed by him and his Japanese counterpart concerned UN affairs. They also discussed the positive aspects of bilateral relations between Japan and Slovakia, such as increasing investment from Japan to Slovakia, and people to people exchanges, which included the introduction of a working holidays programme last year as well as the agreement on social security this year. Mr Lajčák also paid a courtesy visit to Princess Takamado and had a constructive meeting with Prime Minister Abe. He was the Slovak ambassador to Japan almost 20 years ago. At that time, he was the youngest and said to be the “most handsome” ambassador among the diplomatic corps in Tokyo. Since then, the minister has been a great connoisseur of Japan and the Japanese society.
TSS: What does Japan expect to be achieved by the UN General Assembly under his supervision?
JS: Japan believes that the reform of the United Security Councils is high on the agenda for global governance. Despite the profound changes in global realities, the basic structure of the Security Council has not changed significantly from its original form in 1945. Many states, including Japan, have strongly advocated the formation of a more legitimate, representative, effective and efficient council, including an increase in both the permanent and non-permanent seats. The UN is also facing many challenges, like regional/global security including the issues of North Korea, peacekeeping/building, sustainable development, public health, or the global environment. We expect Mr Lajčák to take a leading role as the president of UNGA on these challenging agendas.
TSS: Preparations for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo are underway in Japan. As part of the Host Town Initiative, Slovak athletes can prepare in the city of Gifu. Why was this city selected for Slovaks?
JS: The “Host Town Initiative” aims to promote human, economic and cultural exchange between local authorities and participating countries by offering training facilities on the occasion of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Through this initiative, we also hope to make Japan a “Sports Nation”, encouraging globalisation, revitalization of local areas and promoting inbound tourism. With Minister Lajčák’s recommendation, the Japanese Gifu City answered the call for candidates for the Host Town of Slovakia as part of its efforts to deepen the friendly relationship with Bratislava. Gifu City is located at the centre of the main island (Honshu) of Japan, and has a long history and rich culture in tradition. It is located alongside a big river and is famous for its old castle on top of a mountain. It has many similarities with the city of Bratislava.
TSS: When Slovak Education Minister Peter Plavčan met with his Japanese counterpart Matsuno Hirokazu in April, they agreed on expanding their cooperation in science. What will be the main focus of this cooperation?
JS: Slovakia as well as other V4 countries and Japan have been cooperating together in scientific research since 2015 in the field of the Advanced Material. It is expected that this cooperation will lead to an innovative development. Scientists and organisations involved in this cooperation will determine the next main focus or field. The cooperation in the area of scientific research is an important element of the relationship between Slovakia and Japan, and is indispensable when working on common and global social issues through promotion of excellent research to enhance industrial competitiveness.
TSS: Minister Lajčák said during his visit that Japan is a source of investment for Slovakia due to its high potential in innovation. How can Slovakia learn from Japan in these terms?
JS: From our humble experience in Japan, education is the most important factor for developing an innovative economy. It is the young generation that creates and develops the high-level innovation. A comprehensive and sustainable educational system is a must for the development of innovative technology in a country. Japan has a long history of placing importance on education in our society. The Japanese company, MinebeaMitsumi, which started the construction of its new factory in Košice in May, is planning to have a research and development centre in its new factory, through employing more than 100 Slovak engineers and researchers for technology innovation, in cooperation with the Technical University of Košice. This is only an example of our possible future cooperation in the high-tech field. Slovak and Japanese people have many similarities. Of course our appearances are different. But both of us are diligent, hard-working, not so ego-centric, and many of us are a bit shy. We could be a good natural partner and have good chemistry, in developing our industrial-innovation cooperation.
TSS: Several investments have come from Japan recently, among them Asahi and beer (Topvar), and Minebea in eastern Slovakia. Why is Slovakia attractive for Japanese investors?
JS: Japanese companies that are operating or are going to operate in Slovakia often cite the membership in the EU and the eurozone, the location of Slovakia in Europe, the foreign-investor-friendly approach of the Slovak government, and Slovak workers’ diligence as the main reasons for why they decide to invest in Slovakia. Although Slovakia is losing its advantage in labour costs, we still think it is competitive, especially by diligent and hard-working people. We understand that there are several Japanese companies that are interested in investing in Slovakia and are examining their feasibilities below the surface.
TSS: Your embassy has been very active in promoting Japanese culture in Slovakia, many events are taking place, including the Nipponfest, Comics Salon, or a major anime festival. What are the most interesting elements of Japanese culture for Slovaks?
JS: Japan is a “far-east” country for Slovakia, and the interests of most of the Slovak people in Japan is something “economic” or “exotic”. I want to make it deeper, broad, comprehensive. I am very delighted to find, since I came to Slovakia in April last year, that there is a sizable number of Slovak people who are interested in and involved in Japanese culture, such as Okinawa-Karate, Karate, Aikido, Judo, Jujutu, Kendo, Japanese swords, Bonsai-Suiseki, Japanese tea-ceremony, Shogi, Igo, Zen, and so on. Japanese pop culture as TV Manga, comic-strip, TV game, and cosmetic-play (Cos-play) are also come to be popular among young people. They are the “core” for spreading the charms of Japanese culture to other Slovak people.
The number of Slovaks learning Japanese is also increasing. There is a major for Japanese studies at Comenius University and around 50 Slovak students study Japanese languages and society.
Another nice surprise for me was that many Slovaks are interested in Japanese cuisine. Gastronomy is definitely a soft power of Japan in this country. In this regard, I am very lucky as Japanese ambassador, since four new Japanese restaurants with Japanese chefs have opened in Bratislava since I came here.
TSS: One of the points of the agreement between ministers Peter Plavčan and Matsuno Hirokazu was that Slovakia will actively contribute to the selection and participation of student art ensembles in the cultural part of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. What could be the most attractive part of Slovak culture to be presented in Japan?
JS: Classical art like philharmonic orchestra, opera, and ballet could be a charming part of Slovak culture to be presented in Japan. I am very impressed to find that there are many Slovaks who love classical music. Not only in Bratislava but also in major local cities, there are beautiful concert halls and opera theatres which offer high quality of performances. The State Opera of Banská Bystrica visits Japan every year and receives a lot of applause from Japanese audience. I really hope that the Lúčnica folklore ensemble visits Japan in 2020. They visited Japan in 1970, 1996 and 2012, always with great success. Slovak folklore could be definitely one of the most charming parts of Slovak culture for Japanese people.
TSS: You have been in your post since June 2016. How has your time in Slovakia been so far, what are your impressions of Slovakia?
JS: My wife and I moved to Slovakia from Japan in April 2016. Since then we have really enjoyed our life in this beautiful country. I call Bratislava a “compact city” which has greenery and historic views. We go to Horský Park every morning for a walk with our Japanese dog. I go trekking in Železná Studnička every weekend. Food and wine are delicious and people are sympathetic. In my diplomatic career, I had lived in Montpellier (France), Brussels (Belgium), Bangkok (Thailand), New York (US), Washington DC (US), Djibouti (Africa), and now Bratislava. Among them, my most favourites are Bratislava and Washington DC. Both of them are not big capitals, but rich in nature and history. My only frustration here goes to the fact that I can’t speak Slovak. I am taking private lessons with my wife every week.
TSS: What, in your opinion, could be interesting for Japanese tourists who would like to come and spend their holiday in Slovakia?
JS: These are three barriers which hamper a measurable increase of Japanese tourists in this country: Slovakia is a relatively new country in Europe and not yet well known among most Japanese people. Most Japanese tourists visiting Slovakia make just a day trip to Bratislava from Vienna, and don’t stay overnight; most of the UNESCO heritage sites are located in the eastern part of Slovakia and it takes too long for many of the Japanese tourists visiting Bratislava to get to these sites. In other words, if the Slovak authorities in tourism try harder, there is a big potential to attract many rich Japanese tourists in Slovakia. It is said that “eating, sightseeing, shopping” are three important factors for tourists. Slovakia should further strategise its tourism policies and clarify what is worth to eat, shop, and sightsee in this country.
Since my coming to Slovakia as Japanese ambassador, I have approached several government and local tourist authorities to discuss this matter. But I have an impression that they seem not to be as enthusiastic in attracting foreign tourists as they are in attracting foreign investments. Slovakia can do many things for promotion of tourism.
For example, I am surprised that there is no Michelin guidebook (red one for gastronomy, green one for sightseeing) covering Slovakia. Michelin Guide of France is the most authorized guidebook in the world, and is translated into many languages including Japanese. It covers almost all European countries and even Japan. If I were Slovak, I would approach to Michelin to issue its guidebook about Slovakia.
Another thing: Slovak food is very delicious but its portion can be too big for most of the Asian tourists. If I were Slovak, I would try to create “nouvelle Slovak cuisine” which is smaller in portion, and easier and healthier to eat.
As for the souvenirs, one of the most popular souvenirs which Japanese tourists buy at the Vienna airport are the “Mozart Balls”, small chocolate balls wrapped in foil paper decorated with a printed face of Mozart. It is just an ordinary piece of chocolate, but the brand-image of Mozart works!