“Hungary and Japan display a close affinity for one another.” That is according to the Ambassador of Japan to Hungary, Masato Otaka. In addition to describing the various aspects of bilateral and multilateral cooperation the two countries have based on trust and friendship, he also outlines, in an extensive interview with Diplomacy&Trade, the many things Japan and Hungary have in common as well as what the Japanese people particularly like about Hungary, not forgetting his personal favorites.
Ambassador Otaka arrived to Hungary over a year ago to take up his current position in Budapest. “First and foremost, as an ambassador, my ultimate mission is to further develop bilateral relations between Japan and Hungary based on trust and friendship, which can only be achieved by continuous contact and dialogue with the people of Hungary. This is not exclusively reserved for government officials as diplomacy is shaped also by people of all ages in various areas including the private sector. I have promised myself to promote the understanding of Japan with passion by actively communicating information relating to our country including governances, policies, culture and values,” he tells Diplomacy&Trade.
He adds that knowing Hungary through learning Hungarian history and official trips to the countryside is an essential aspect as well. He believes that each city and town has its own valuable history. “I have visited various places where Japanese companies are located, where Japanese students are pursuing their study, where Japanese artists are doing their activities, and where Hungarian people are actively engaged in learning Japanese language and culture. I am always amazed by their passion. I hope to learn more about Hungarian history and visit more places, and thus, deepen my knowledge and understanding on Hungary and the Hungarian people.”
Describing the bilateral relationship, the Ambassador mentioned earlier that “Hungary and Japan display a close affinity for one another.” As for what that means, he explains that close affinity is displayed in many fields. Regarding business, similar level of labor quality in Hungary is well known in Japan. “Many Japanese companies say that Hungary and Japan share much in common in terms of diligence and the spirit of craftsmanship – and the companies know how important this is.”
He mentions that in terms of industry, Hungary has built a mature automobile industry similar to that of Japan. “Magyar Suzuki Corporation Ltd. was the earliest investor among foreign firms in Hungary. A number of Japanese-owned companies followed and started to build highly reliable supply chains for this industry. Currently, there are about 180 Japanese-owned companies operating in Hungary. The Japanese government was also actively involved in supporting Hungary, where such support was needed. Soon after the change of regime in Hungary in 1989, Japan started to provide support to Hungary through official development assistance such as the construction of sewage and heating systems. At the same time, technical cooperation began. Japan has accepted Hungarian trainees, dispatched experts and provided equipment, mainly in the fields of Hungarian culture, production management, business management and environmental conservation. About half of the total assistance to Hungary was allocated to cultural institutions such as the State Opera House, the Liszt Academy of Music and the Hungarian National Museum, which received many assets of equipment and human resources development programs. Moreover, in 1991, the Japan Foundation office, which is Japan's only institution dedicated to carrying out comprehensive international cultural exchange programs, was established in Budapest, covering 13 countries in Central and Eastern Europe. Through the Japan Foundation, cultural exchange between the two countries has become drastically active. I am also delighted to have been able to witness the recent grand opening of the House of Music, which was designed by Sou Fujimoto, a Japanese architect.”
Ambassador Otaka sees an unwavering phenomenon in common between Hungary and Japan: “we both share the experience of making every effort to revitalize and re-develop the country after the war.” He highlights that communism in Hungary, which is often referred to as Goulash Communism, provided its people with relative freedom compared to other eastern bloc countries. “Perhaps, this could explain how Hungarians were able to stay so strong to keep their heads up and were always looking ahead to the brighter future. They were looking at not only their neighboring regions but at the Eastern part of the world, including Japan. And we successfully turned the hardship of Hungary’s regime change into an opportunity of cooperation by providing Hungary with both spiritual and material support.” As he puts it, “starting from scratch” is one signature phrase to represent bilateral relationship between Japan and Hungary. Therefore, helping Hungary, which was undergoing turbulent years after the drastic regime transition, was only natural for Japan, he says. Investments and economic cooperation not only by the Japanese government but also by some Japanese private companies, such as Suzuki, were carried out in Hungary. “We believe that these have contributed significantly to the development of Hungary.
Today, as international cooperation becomes even closer, Japan attaches great importance not only to the stability of Asia but also to that of the European region. Beyond the concept of regions, we, as responsible international players, must keep seeking ways to contribute to global peace and stability. This is another idea that we can firmly agree on,” he states.
The Ambassador points out that Japan and Hungary are cooperating not only in bilateral formats but also in several multilateral frameworks. The Budapest Convention on Cybercrime, which was named after the city where the signing took place, is a good example. Japan is amongst the few participating countries from Asia to join this agreement. Coupled with accelerating evolution of technology, responding strictly and promptly to cross-border cybercrime has become even more imperative ever since the agreement entered into force in 2004. “Together, Japan and Hungary have been making strenuous efforts to convince the world of its importance,” he notes.
As the only country to have suffered atomic bombings, Japan has been leading the international discussion on disarmament and non-proliferation. Achieving a nuclear-free world, the realization of which the current Japanese premier Fumio Kishida has been particularly enthusiastic about, is another goal that both Hungary and Japan share.
Ambassador Otaka notes that in Afghanistan, for instance, Japan has been active in various forms and mentions the example of Dr. Tetsu Nakamura, a Japanese doctor who devoted his career to improving the lives of Afghans and lost his life there. Hungary has also been making every effort to maintain the stability of Afghanistan, and in this respect, we share the same goal of making the world a better place, he adds.
Supporting a strong, united Europe
In a wider context, Ambassador Otaka notes that Japan and the EU, of which Hungary is also a member, are closely tied to take forward their close and comprehensive partnership, grounded in common interests and shared values of freedom. As cooperation with the EU is particularly important in terms of enhancing Japan’s presence and influence in the international community, Japan supports a strong united Europe.
“The year of 2019 was a milestone for our ever-closer relationship: the Japan-EU Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) entered into force. As we talk about it later, for instance, Japan is an enthusiastic importer of Hungarian products including wine and food. Accordingly, these series of agreements definitely have had a positive impact on the presence of Hungarian products in Japan,” he notes.
In the Joint Communication on the Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region by the EU, issued on September 16, 2021, there are several references to Japan as a partner country to promote cooperation in various fields. “The document resonates with Japan’s views and efforts for a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP)’. The Government of Japan welcomes the support by the EU and Hungary, together with their strong will, and their engagement. Hungary is one important member state of the EU. We believe that learning about Hungary by deepening our relationship eventually leads us to learning about the EU as a whole,” he stresses.
With regard to bilateral economic relations, Ambassador Otaka reminds us that both the EU and Japan have announced and are committed to achieving the goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. In line with that target, the demand for environment-friendly products has increased rapidly. “Japanese companies have significant technical know-how in recycling and managing a circular economy, so they can contribute to Hungary in reaching the target. In April 2021, SEIREN, a Japanese fiber manufacturing company, announced that it would invest about EUR 42 million to establish a plant in Pécs, southern Hungary. Their eco-friendly car upholstery might be one of the examples for contribution to the circular economy.”
The Ambassador believes that there is further potential for investment by Japanese companies not only in the automotive space but also in sectors such as food, pharmaceutical and chemical industries. There are many other countries looking to invite foreign investments, and Hungary is among the promising investment destinations, although labor shortage is becoming a bigger issue for its economy. “In order to achieve further economic growth in such a situation, it is important for some industries to shift from labor-intensive to capital-intensive status and produce more high-added value items. For realizing the shift, improvement of production efficiency, training of engineers and expansion of the R&D field are inevitable. And I believe that there is also some potential for Japanese companies to form partnerships with Hungary.”
Japan is known to be the importer of various quality products from Hungary. For instance, Japan is the second largest Hungarian wine importer in Asia. As Ambassador Otaka highlights, Hungarian honey, foie-gras and wines, specifically Tokaj are famous among the Japanese because of their quality. “Japanese people are always interested in quality food products, and it is only natural that Hungarian products become popular in Japan. In terms of honey, I have seen Hungarian products in several supermarkets in Tokyo. We can buy it at not only imported product stores but also in common grocery stores where Hungarian honey is visibly displayed on the shelves. Hungary also maintains its position as one of the top three countries, on annual basis, in the import value of foie-gras in Japan.”
He stresses that the Embassy’s staff as well as he himself and many his compatriots here in Hungary are big fans of Hungarian wines. “Hungary has many regions with suitable terroir for making high quality wines. Japanese businesses are importing more and more Hungarian wines including Tokaj Aszú. And I can see that Japanese wine fans are fascinated by the many wonderful wineries that are located all over Hungary like twinkling stars.”
At the same time, he notes what only a few people may know that Japan produces wines as well. “You might not believe but should know that their quality has been improving consistently. Some farmers of grapes in Japan produce Japan’s endemic varieties such as ‘Koshu’ for white wine and ‘Muscat Bailey A’ for red wine. We hope those varieties will become similarly popular to Hungary’s ‘Furmint’ and ‘Kadarka’ and be loved by many people.”
Tourists and students
Japanese people are said to have a surprisingly good knowledge of Hungary and the Hungarians. As to what he believes makes them so interested in this country and culture, the Ambassador explains that the night view of Budapest along the Danube River, the city being called ‘the pearl of Danube’, attracts many Japanese visitors. “Following their visit to Hungary, they say that they cannot forget the beautiful view from alongside of the river. Moreover, there is a place that many Japanese visit when they come to Hungary. It’s the hot springs. I was surprised to learn that a variety of hot springs exist all over Hungary. Japan is also a country of hot springs. Therefore, they like to try out hot springs in Hungary.”
He also highlights that many Japanese students come to Hungary to study, and music and medical science are the most popular fields among them. There are approximately 500 students staying in Hungary at moment. About 400 of them pursue studies at medical universities. 30-40 of them attend the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music. The great Hungarian composer, Ferenc Liszt, is naturally well known by the Japanese students at musical college. Moreover, many Japanese who love classical music respect Hungarian music, which contributed to the rise of not only Liszt, but people such as Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók.
As he points out, Japanese people recognize that Hungary is a sport powerhouse, especially in water sports, fencing, Judo and wrestling as well as handball and basketball. “At the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games last year, the achievements of Hungarian athletes impressed Japanese people even more. We are hopeful that the people-to-people and cultural exchange established through the Tokyo Game will be everlasting,” the Ambassador concludes.
A professional of vast experience
Masato Otaka joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) in 1986. Before assuming his current post last year, he served in various capacities such as Counsel for International Legal Affairs (2005), Director of Southeast Economic Partnership Division (2005-2007), Director of Southwest Asia Division (2007-2009), Deputy Press Secretary/Deputy Director-General in charge of Press and Public Diplomacy (2016-2017) and Press Secretary/Director-General for Press and Public Diplomacy (2019-2020).
His overseas posts included First Secretary in charge of the Security Council U.N. Mission (New York, 1998-2001), Economic Minister of the Embassy of Japan in Thailand (2009-2012), Minister for Public Affairs of Embassy of Japan in the U.S.A. (2012-2016). “I was honored to be appointed Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Hungary in 2020,” he says.