A recent issue of Diplomacy & Trade carried an interview with the Japanese Ambassador to Hungary, Tetsuo Ito who looked at the various aspects of relations between the two countries. He has since left Hungary with his term expiring here.
Japanese ambassadors stay in Hungary for an average of three years. Tetsuo Ito, whose previous posting as ambassador was in Kazakhstan, arrived to Hungary in September 2009. When he is asked to look back at his term in his country, he opens his carefully written diary not to miss any important occurrences.
He had been in Hungary several times before, visiting this country from his postings in Moscow and Vienna on a number of occasions since 1976. “After the change of regime in 1989-90 I had the opportunity to accompany the then prime minister of Japan, Toshiki Kaifu to Hungary. Coming back to Hungary, some two decades later, in 2009, the beautiful scenery along the Danube basically looked the same, which was surprising to me as in Japan, things change much more rapidly,” Ambassador Ito tells Diplomacy and Trade.
Bettering Hungary's image for Japanese
He says his aim upon arrival was to maintain the momentum and further strengthen bilateral relations. “Japanese people do not know Hungary very well, many of them have a negative image of this country, that of a poor country incorporated into the Soviet bloc. My intention has been to improve this image.”
He recalls that when he arrived in 2009, “it was a very special year as we celebrated the 140th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. When these relations were established, Hungary was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 2009, we had several commemorative events, including the visit of Prince Akishino to Hungary and the visit of Hungarian President László Sólyom to Japan. One of the most fascinating things was the illumination of Elizabeth Bridge in Budapest. Japanese citizens raised money and the illumination was devised by a famous Japanese lighting designer Motoko Ishii. The event is commemorated by a plaque in three languages at the foot of the bridge on the Pest side, being a symbol of Japanese-Hungarian friendship and cooperation.”
The Ambassador is of the view that “Hungarian people respect their own identity, especially their language. I cannot speak Hungarian properly but I learned Hungarian language grammar and found that it has similarities with the Japanese in having postpositions rather than prepositions. This way, I can read and understand Hungarian essays with the help of a dictionary. At important events, I try to speak Hungarian to show my respect for the Hungarian people.”
Business & Economy
As regards Japanese economic presence in Hungary, there are some 120 Japanese companies in this country, employing a total of 23,000 people. One third of them are manufacturers and the largest of them is Suzuki in Esztergom, northwest of Budapest. It was the first Japanese company which made a large investment in Hungary after the change of the political system in 1989-90. It had more than 6,000 employees but – due to the crisis – it had to reduce this number to 3,500. Ambassador Ito says that at the beginning, Suzuki’s target was the Hungarian domestic market but now, 90% of the production goes to exports to European countries and even to Japan. “Since I arrived here, I have visited almost all the Japanese manufacturing companies: big companies like Denso or Alpine and smaller ones, too. The Japanese managers are generally of the view that the Hungarian workforce is excellent and hard-working.”
The Ambassador recalls a recent survey among Japanese businesses in Hungary conducted by the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO), in which 72% responded that it is difficult to secure good personnel in science and technology as there is a shortage of talented young people in this field. 48% quoted administrative and management shortages. Ambassador Ito’s conclusion is that “there are a lot of graduates but they go to other companies. Japanese managers also said they suffer from high level of social security burden. In order to expand economic relations, improvement is needed on the part of the Hungarian government. In the face of economic difficulties, some of these firms, like Suzuki, had to reduce their operations but there are very few companies that withdrew from the Hungarian market. Last year, Sony was one of them, but moving to Malaysia was part of their global strategy.”
He adds that “we regularly have meetings with the representatives of Japanese enterprises but we do not hear as many complaints, compared to other countries, regarding transparency and predictability. Japanese companies are not typically in the service sector (banking, communications or retail) that is the most heavily influenced by quick changes in policy, extra taxes, etc.”
Japanese in Hungary
As for the size of the Japanese community in Hungary, there are 1,200 people registered with the Embassy. The majority of them are businessmen and their families. There is a Japanese school with 100 students between first and ninth grade. Japanese students at the Liszt Academy in Budapest that the Ambassador calls “one of the best music academies in Europe” and account for nearly half of the 90 foreign students. Many of them have taken and popularized the Kodály method of music education in Japan. Speaking of Hungary, Japan and classical music, it is important to mention that Japanese composer and conductor Ken-Ichiro Kobayashi became very famous in Hungary after winning the 1st prize and the special award at the International Conductors’ Competition of Hungarian Television in 1974.
Besides music students, there are nearly 200 Japanese medical students in Hungary and the number is increasing. They come here because of the high standard and prestige of Hungarian medical education and also because tuition fees are competitive. “Japanese students attend all four Hungarian universities where medical courses are offered in English and next year, we will probably have the first graduate,” the Ambassador notes.
There are numerous cultural exchanges between the two countries, especially by sister cities and organizations. “In Hungary, I’ve visited all of the sister cities of Japanese cities or regions when they hold a Japan day or Japan festival. There are more than 500 Hungarian members belonging to the friendship societies. It is the Hungarians who organize these events of Japanese culture, demonstrate martial arts, display beautiful kimonos and hold tea ceremonies, etc. There is even an expert in Japanese sword production! It makes me proud when I talk to Japanese ambassadors in neighboring countries, that in those countries there is no such close cooperation,” he says. Hungarian orchestras visit Japan while Japanese chorus groups arrive in Hungary. This March, for instance, there were three different groups of Japanese musicians visiting here on the same week-end.
Ambassador Ito says that – like all Japanese – he especially likes to visit the hot springs in Hungary. He and his wife have already been to almost all the spas in Budapest. He likes Rudas spa the most because “it is very old, from the time of Turkish occupation, and not too big.” Outside the capital, his favorite hot spring is in Egerszalók, east of Budapest. One place, he says, not likely to be mentioned by fellow ambassadors as a destination is Dobogókõ. Very close to that hill summit can be found areas believed to be ‘energy spots’. “It took me and my wife almost two hours of up-and-down walk on a narrow trail to get to Ferenczy Rock, a menhir considered the Heart Chakra of the Earth in Sanskrit literature. After a long walk there, I didn’t feel tired – maybe, I got a lot of energy from this spot!”
More than a year and half have now passed since the terrible earthquake and tsunami disaster in Japan. For the Japanese, it was the most serious disaster since World War II. 20,000 people dead or missing, and even today, some 300,000 people are displaced in temporary housing. “We have received a lot of help from all over the world. The Hungarian government offered emergency food aid. Interestingly enough, it included – in addition to chocolates and sweets – noodles produced by a Japanese company in the Hungarian town of Kecskemét. This help was warmly received by the victims of the disaster. Also, the branches of friendship societies and sister cities organized charity events to raise money. We were notified of at least 50 such events. Solidarity was shown towards the Japanese people from all over Hungary, which was a great encouragement. Also, 17 Japanese students were invited to Hungary from the disaster-stricken areas and stayed here for two weeks.”
As a coincidence, a couple of months before, it was the Japanese who sent disaster aid to Hungary. In October 2010, settlements near Veszprém, in western Hungary were struck by a poisonous red sludge disaster. Veszprém County has sister relations with the Japanese Gifu Prefecture that raised money to send 420,000 high-quality masks to Hungary.
Ambassador Ito is of the view that mutual solidarity in these disasters has made the relationship between the two peoples even stronger.