Building on Firm Foundations

With Japanese companies among the pioneers that established a presence in Hungary after 1989 and overall Japanese investments exceeding EUR two billion, Japan ranks as the most significant source of capital inflows from Asia. Hungary and Japan, which marked the 150th anniversary of diplomatic relations last year, are set to further strengthen their ties in all areas of cooperation from the current, very strong base, Japanese Ambassador to Hungary Kuni Sato tells Diplomacy&Trade in an exclusive interview.

The year 2019 marked a special milestone in Japanese-Hungarian ties: the two countries celebrated the 150th anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations with a plethora of political and cultural events in Hungary and Japan. Celebrations in Hungary began with an Ikebana demonstration, attended by the Hungarian First Lady, Dr. Anita Herczegh. A series of cultural programs followed, concluded by a hugely successful Wadaiko (Japanese drums) concert, with Dr. János Áder, President of the Republic of Hungary, and the First Lady joining as Guests of Honor. “One of the highlights of the events was the visit by Her Imperial Highness Princess Kako, who made her official debut visit to Austria and Hungary. Still in good memory of many Japanese and Hungarians is the scene where she was greeted by President Áder and the First Lady in the Japanese national costume, the kimono,” the Ambassador recalls. The princess met with Dr. László Kövér, Speaker of the National Assembly, and members of the Hungary-Japan Parliamentary Friendship Association. She visited the Pannonhalma Archabbey, the Bábolna national stud farm, the Herend porcelain manufactory and the Tihany Abbey. “These occasions provided ample opportunities for her and for many Japanese to understand the history, tradition and culture of Hungary. The Princess, together with István Tarlós, then Mayor of Budapest, attended a light-up of the Elisabeth Bridge, commemorating the 150th anniversary,”  the Ambassador notes.

Beginning of a new era
The anniversary coincided with the beginning of a new era in Japan, the Ceremony of the Enthronement of His Majesty the Emperor of Japan. President Áder, together with the First Lady, participated at the event and also took the opportunity to explore cultural sites as well as to visit a hydrogen station in Japan. Last year also marked the visit of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to Japan where he met his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe. Orbán hailed Japan for placing its trust in Hungary at the time of the country’s transition to democracy and a market economy. “I’m a veteran in politics and in 1990, I was present in the Hungarian parliament when we had to transform Hungary. I clearly recall how distrustful the world was about whether we would succeed; there was only one country that showed not even one shred of distrust and this was Japan. Japan did not immediately ask for its loan to be repaid. Instead, it extended new credit and brought new developments to Hungary, thereby helping the country to survive that extremely difficult economic situation,” Orbán said in Tokyo last December at a joint press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The two leaders reconfirmed the importance of cordial, long-standing relations between the two countries and agreed to further strengthen cooperation, looking ahead to the future. They specifically discussed such areas of cooperation as the economy, politics, security, science and technology, culture and education, Ambassador Kuni Sato stresses.

Economy in focus
Osamu Suzuki’s 1988 decision to invest in Hungary opened a new chapter in economic relations between the two nations. “That time, Suzuki took a major economic and political risk with its 200-million-dollar greenfield investment, since – as opposed to the U.S. or other western countries – Japan had significantly less experience concerning trade and, in general, economic relations with Hungary, which had just begun the complex process of transition to market economy. The trust of the company in Hungary’s future, the famous creativity, innovative thinking, and working capacity of the Hungarian people has proven to be true and has paid off multiple times during the last 27 years,” Dr. László Urbán, deputy CEO at Magyar Suzuki, said in December 2019. Suzuki, whose auto manufacturing operation called Magyar Suzuki started production in 1992, was followed by many other Japanese enterprises over the past three decades and today, the number of Japanese companies present in Hungary exceeds 160, giving work to tens of thousands of people. “Since 1989, Japan has been the largest investor among Asian countries in Hungary. Last year, Toray announced the construction of a factory producing battery separator films in Nyergesújfalu. Tire manufacturer Bridgestone, car parts producer Denso, GS-Yuasa, which specializes in car batteries, and spring-maker NHK Spring opened or expanded their production sites in Hungary. Hungary remains one of the attractive destinations for Japanese investors,” the Ambassador says. The EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement, which entered into force in February 2019, offers a variety of benefits and possibilities for boosting bilateral economic relations, the Ambassador stresses. For example, the export of Hungarian honey to Japan increased by over 40% from the previous year in 2019 and it is expected to grow more as the 25.5% tariff on honey products from EU member countries to Japan will be further reduced and eventually eliminated in seven years. Hungary ranked as the 5th largest exporter of honey to Japan after China, New Zealand, Canada, and Argentina last year. Key industries driving Hungarian exports to Japan include agriculture, food, electrical parts, machinery and chemical products.

Aspects of bilateral cooperation
The exchange of views and know-how among think-tanks, scholars and students is another area of important interaction between the two countries, the Ambassador says. Japanese professors and researchers who visited Hungary to give talks on Japan and the challenges it faces returned to Japan with first-hand experience on Hungary and the country’s socio-economic situation. The upcoming summer Olympics, hosted by Tokyo, will undoubtedly be the sports event of the year globally. Under an arrangement, the Hungarian Olympic Federation signed with the Japanese Olympic Committee and Tochigi Prefecture, during preparations for the games, the Japanese side offers Hungarian athletes access to sports facilities, the possibility to train with local partners and get acquainted with the sports technology and the competition venues as support for the Hungarians. She adds that a variety of more municipalities such as Koriyama city have declared to be hosts for Hungarian athletic teams during the Games. They work hard to help athletes prepare and reach their best condition. “There will be numerous close encounters that will weave new links in our bilateral relationship,” the Ambassador concludes.

In 1869, Japan and the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy signed a friendship, commerce and navigation treaty. The agreement was signed at a time characterized by fast-paced modernization and industrialization when both countries were experiencing a great transformation of society. A number of visits and encounters between famous Japanese and Hungarian nationals have helped mold bilateral relations over the past century and a half. It was in 1869 that Hungarian ethnographer János Xantus participated in an Austrian-Hungarian expedition headed to East Asia and spent two months in Japan. The objects and materials he collected during his stay became veritable treasures for the Hungarian Museum of Ethnology, of which he later became the director. He observed in his report that Japan was the most advanced country in East Asia, and that there “people walk with their head straight up, and women stride freely on street.” In 1887, a Japanese samurai called Sanshi Tokai met Lajos Kossuth, who was in political exile at the time in Turin. Tokai had travelled to the United States on a scholarship, became a journalist and writer, and started writing passionately about the life of Kossuth. His work piqued the interest of Japanese readers, who wanted to know about what was happening in Western countries. “There are no written records of what they actually discussed in person, but one can imagine the two men, samurai and revolutionary, talking about the future of Japan, Hungary and that of the world, perhaps over a cup of espresso, a glass of Tokaji, or a bottle of Japanese sake. The strange encounter between Tokai and Kossuth was not recorded in an official page of the diplomatic relations nor is it widely known. It, however, weaved one of the bonds of our long-lasting friendship,” the Ambassador remarks. Juichiro Imaoka, born one year after Tokai met Kossuth, studied German at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies and as a German translator, he helped Hungarian ethnographer Benedek Baráthosi Balogh, who visited Japan on a research trip. They met in 1914 and their encounter ignited Imaoka’s interest in Hungary and propelled him to learn Hungarian. Imaoka spent nine years in Budapest starting from 1922, wrote about Japan in Hungarian newspapers and gave lectures. His talks were so popular that posters advertising them said, “He will talk twice so that the place will not get overcrowded!” He often went to the Central Café, a point of congregation for artists at the time. He had his “usual” table, and would reply to a request for meeting, by writing “you can find me at Central Café normally from one o’clock to four o’clock in the afternoon.” Imaoka devoted his life to strengthening bilateral relations. Back in Japan, he translated Hungarian literature, and published the first Hungarian-Japanese dictionary. Princess Kako visited the Central Café, saw a plaque hung ten years earlier in memory of Mr. Imaoka.

Edith Balázs

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