Diplomatic relations have grown stronger between Greece and Japan during the past decades, providing both countries with the opportunity to develop common, advantageous activities in business, tourism and culture. The Ambassador of Japan to Athens, His Excellency Masuo Nishibayashi spoke to EmbassyNews.net about Japan’s current initiatives in entrepreneurship, while he stressed that Greece was in need of financial stability in order to attract investments. Ambassador Nishibayashi also spoke of the Greek nature and culture with admiration.
Interview to Demetris Kamaras and Eleftheria Pantziou
Q: Since your arrival in Greece, we had three election processes plus a referendum on the country’s bailout agreement. How different things are in Greece as compared with Japan?
H.E. Masuo Nishibayashi: In Japan also we had rather frequent general elections. We had elections when Mr. Abe got into power three years ago and last year we also had national elections. The issue was VAT. Mr. Abe resolved the Parliament, he called for general elections and he gained a landslide victory.
In Japan we have the two Houses, the Upper House [House of Councilors] and the Lower House [House of Representatives]. The Lower House can be dissolved by the decision of the Prime Minister and it is always ready for elections. In the case of the Upper House, once members get their posts, they last for six years. And, next Upper House election will take place sometime this summer. It is a different system than Greece’s, but certain things are similar to Europe and the US. In Japan, in the last ten years, we had seven prime ministers.
Greece is the birthplace of Democracy. All Japanese citizens learn World History and 15 pages of the relevant high school textbook are dedicated to the Greek History. So, we admire the almost 3,000 years of Greece’s democratic history. Regarding Greek studies in Japan, they are primarily about ancient times and archaeology.
Q: What Greek government should do to attract more Japanese direct investments to the country?
H.E. Masuo Nishibayashi: Bilateral economic relations between Greece and Japan have developed a lot for many years, however, due to the economic crisis, business activity has been stagnant, unfortunately.
Japanese business in Greece is not small, especially in shipping and shipping equipment and in other areas as well. We have presence of course in the automobile sector, with Toyota and Nissan and the tobacco industry with Japan Tobacco International – JTI, one of the biggest cigarette companies in the world; they have a big office here near the airport. Also, Nintendo with the electronic games and Takeda Pharmaceutical Company, one of the global leaders in the field.
Sports goods made in Japan by Mizuno or Asics are sold in many shops in Greece; another example is Panasonic in electronics. There is a big business of Japanese goods and services in Greece. Many of these companies are operated by Greeks, creating jobs for Greek people.
Unfortunately, however, we haven’t any big investments in manufacturing in Greece, so far.
In relation to what the Greek government should do to attract more investments, I could argue that Greeks need to make further efforts to create the atmosphere in order for Japanese companies to run business smoothly. It is not easy for them to run a company here. There are a lot of rules and regulations, some incomprehensive, bureaucratic situations. We need a clear industrial strategy and policy and especially a transparent tax system. In general, there are special characteristics in every country around the world, but in this country, it is not easy to get used to the system…
Recent capital controls also played a role and we hope this will be normalized as soon as possible, along with necessary reforms. It is very important for Japanese companies already operating in the Greek market, as well as for future investments.
Political stability is necessary as well. Unfortunately, we do not have many good news stories coming from Greece and the Japanese newspapers reflect this situation. This does not create a positive public sentiment for Greece in terms of investments.
Q: The Greek Ministry of Tourism has repeatedly said it was interested in attracting even more Japanese tourists. How do you think that could be achieved?
H.E. Masuo Nishibayashi: Greece used to be one of the favorite spots for Japanese tourists. In my generation, many newlyweds arranged their honeymoon trip in the country. In the past there was a direct flight to Athens, which no longer exists.
Twenty years ago, the number of Japanese tourists in the country had reached 130,000 on an annual basis. But recently, less than 20,000 tourists came to Greece from Japan. Even before the economic crisis in Japan in 2004-5, around 60,000 tourists travelled to Greece.
After 2009, the number of tourists dropped dramatically due to the Greek crisis when televised images of riots were broadcasted in Japan. Let me give you the other example After recent attacks in Paris, the number of Japanese visitors to France was immediately cut in half. Some of the direct flight between Tokyo and Paris was suspended due to the sudden drop in the number of travelers. These kinds of problems or bad images affect people in Japan. They are afraid of coming…
Another factor is that Greece seemed to have lost the competition with other popular spots in the neighborhood, like Istanbul, Croatia or Slovenia.
Each time I go to Japan and make a speech I urge people to come to Greece. I stress that it is a safe country, in general.
Q: Greece is caught in the middle of an international refugee-migrant crisis. What Europe (and Greece) should do to deal with the situation?
H.E. Masuo Nishibayashi: We are closely watching this issue. I have a personal interest in particular, due to a previous position I held in Geneva, twenty half year ago when Madam Sadako Ogata was UNHCR High Commissioner.
First of all, I would like to say that we express our solidarity to European countries, which are suffering by the migrant issue; and probably this is one of the top policy issues for Europe for this year. Especially Greece is a gateway to Europe for migrants and refugees. We respect all the efforts made by the Greek government; this is not an easy task of course.
In a recent speech in the UN, Prime Minister Abe said Japan would further enhance its assistance for refugees and internally displaced persons from Syria and Iraq. Converted to a monetary figure, this year’s assistance  comes to approximately 810 million US dollars in total, triple the amount Japan provided last year.
Assistance measures are emergency countermeasures that Japan is able to undertake. However, at the same time, our unchanging principle is at all times to endeavor to return to the root of the problem and improve the situation. As Mr. Abe said: “behind the refugees we find a much larger number of people who are unable even to flee and become refugees…”
Q: The Embassy of Japan in Greece is designed by architect, Dr. Kisho Kurokawa, enhancing the “symbiosis with nature and high technology”, using also eco-friendly and earthquake proof techniques. How Greece could benefit from this know-how?
H.E. Masuo Nishibayashi: There are many ways Greece could benefit from Japan’s know-how. Firstly, I’d like to refer to the construction of the electric power station in Ptolemaida, near Kozani in northern Greece. Japan’s major electricity company Hitachi has been participating in this very big project. The power station is consuming low quality, brown coal. Hitachi specializes in de-hydrating low quality brown coal which contains a lot of water and this is mainly the reason why the company managed to make a successful bid three years ago. The power station’s construction is currently underway and it expected to be completed in 2019 or 2020. We still need a few years but it is a joint project and Greeks will have the opportunity to learn more on this Japanese eco-friendly technology.
Regarding the earthquake proof techniques, you remember of course that Japan suffered the consequences of a great earthquake in 2011 in its northern part. The tsunami that followed killed around 20,000 people. It was a huge disaster. Based on this experience, Japan in March 2015 hosted the 3rd United Nations Conference on Disaster Reduction in Sendai, which is one of the northern cities that were affected the most.
Japan actually initiated the dialogue on disaster reduction techniques in the 1980s. It hosted the 1st United Nations Conference on Disaster Reduction in Yokohama in 2004. In 2005 Kobe hosted a World Conference on Disaster Reduction. The 3rd was held this year  in Sendai. Thousands of officials from 187 countries – including Greece – participated in this conference. Greek geologists and seismologists were present. We welcomed the Greek President of the Earthquake Planning and Protection Organization. I had the chance to talk to these people and they said they had learned a lot from Japan’s experience.
I know that Greece suffered a lot in the past. Several earthquakes recently hit the Ionian Islands. We are willing to talk about our experience and share information on earthquake proof techniques whenever is necessary.
Q: Reading the Japanese proverb “kachou fuugetsu”, which means “experience the beauties of nature and in doing so learn about yourself”, we’d like to ask: Have you had this feeling while travelling in Greece?
H.E. Masuo Nishibayashi: Both countries have a rich nature: We are surrounded by a beautiful sea. Greece’s 70 percent of land is covered by mountains. In Japan as well! When I first came to Greece, I arranged a trip in the Peloponnesus and I had a similar feeling: Greeks are enjoying nature a lot, just like the Japanese do!
I’ve traveled to 13 islands, including Crete and Rhodes, Corfu, Lefkada, Skopelos and Skiathos. It’s a stereotype answer to say that the Greek islands are beautiful, but it is true! Santorini is a truly very beautiful island.
I also visited Zagorohoria last summer, which is an unexplored place, near Ioannina. It was not easy to access and it was not so crowded. I stayed in Papigo village, which is a marvelous place. I like nature, so it’s been the best place I’ve been so far in Greece and also recommend it to my colleagues.
Q: Is the Japanese culture any close to the Greek culture? Some say that both ancient civilizations had many similarities.
H.E. Masuo Nishibayashi: We do have common elements in our cultures. The Japanese worship many, different gods. In Ancient Greece there were 12 gods on mountain Olympus and a lot of myths emerged from them. In Japan we have many gods living on heaven and earth!
I had the opportunity to attend a very interesting event that took place in Epidaurus last July, as part of the Athens – Epidaurus Festival. Greek director Michael Marmarinos staged part of Homer’s “The Odyssey” in collaboration with Japanese artist Rokuro Gensho Umewaka. They narrated Odysseus’ descent into Hades in the manner of the Noh theatre. More than 10,000 watched the performance, which was a huge success!
There are so many common elements. Noh play actors use masks, like in ancient tragedies and the chorus also acquires a major part in the play. There is also the earth and the underworld and the ability of the living and the dead to travel between the two places.
I have to say that that due to the financial crisis, many culture companies cancelled their performances in Greece, but that Noh Theatre group came from Japan! And I am proud of the performance’s success!
Q: What was the best food you have tested in Greece?
H.E. Masuo Nishibayashi: Greece is the ideal place for a Japanese, because there are many types of seafood available here! There is always fresh fish and seafood available, octopus, squid, even the Mediterranean eel, which is my favorite!
Other than seafood, I like “gyro-pita”, which is very tasty, kebab and meatballs. I like baklava, which is too sweet, but I enjoy it with Greek coffee.
I also like mastiha very much. Whenever I host a dinner at my residence, I always conclude the meal with a mastiha liquor. The Japanese find it a bit strange but they enjoy it. It’s my favorite!
Q: What was your best experience with Greek people?
H.E. Masuo Nishibayashi: In general, I think that Greek people are very kind. This is what I’ve observed. They are very friendly and generous, compared maybe to other Europeans. They may be interfering sometimes (laughs), but there is kindness in them.
I also have an interesting example: The island of Lesvos has been hit by the increasing influx of refugees. A Japanese newspaper wrote that the people of Lesvos are very kind and they provide people in need with food, medicine. This is not so often observed in other countries and the Japanese really appreciate kindness.