In the interview for the CorD’s special edition, Japanese Ambassador to Serbia, H.E. Juichi Takahara, explains the bonds that he sees between our two countries and the opportunities for further improving business ties, as well as confirming the continuous willingness of Japan to help Serbia deal with important issues, including the development of infrastructure and particularly related to the environment, where Japanese technology and knowhow could be of precious assistance.
Considering that you arrived in Serbia only recently, have you had time to form an overview of the national economy of Serbia? How would you assess the current situation?
Although only five months have passed since my arrival in Serbia, I have used this initial period of my mandate to meet the officials of the national government and representatives of domestic institutions, international financial organisations and several companies. Thus, I had the opportunity to get better acquainted with the past and current situation when it comes to your country’s economy.
The Serbian economy is at a crucial juncture that will affect the future orientation of national economy development. The global economic crisis of the past seven years has contributed to weakening macroeconomic results and the country’s fiscal position, primarily in terms of budget deficit, public debt and the unemployment rate. However, the entire world is facing similar problems and the condition of the Serbian economy is not an isolated case.
Japan’s assistance since 1999 has been focused on private sector development, environmental protection and healthcare & education, as they impact directly on the lives of Serbian citizens
We realise that the Serbian Government is exerting all efforts in order to overcome the current situation and create a stable and sustainable national economy, which is not a short-term task, nor an easy one. The reforms that the Serbian Government is implementing under the leadership of Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić include the privatisation process, budget consolidation and improvement of the business environment. And we can see positive results already: the budget deficit has reduced significantly, the unemployment rate has fallen slightly and we can see new investors coming to Serbia, or showing interest in doing so in the future.
How could the continuing Serbian reform efforts help improve the business environment and do you think it can contribute to strengthening economic ties between our two countries?
In my understanding, the ongoing reforms realised by the Serbian Government have both short-term and long-term goals. Their short-term goals include the improvement of the country’s fiscal position, macroeconomic and monetary indicators. The long-terms goals are the reorganisation and rationalisation of the public sector, the privatisation and restructuring of public companies and the adoption of new economic policies adjusted to the regulations of the European Union.
It is understandable that Serbian officials are attempting to develop a national economy based on the model of the European economies, and to improve the living standards to those of EU countries. Converging with the standards of the European Union and adjusting to the business environment within the Union will help Serbia improve its trade and investment ties – not only with the EU, but also with other countries, including Japan.
Japan is a huge donor to Serbia. Are you satisfied with the way that help is utilised and where do you see room for the further development of the two countries’ economic cooperation?
Japan has been providing economic assistance to Serbia since 1999, either in the form of financial aid or technical assistance to national institutions, local governments and NGOs. Our assistance to Serbia has been focused on three sectors: private sector development, environmental protection and healthcare & education. All of these sectors impact directly on the lives of Serbian citizens and we believe our efforts are widely recognised in your country.
The Japanese business community in Serbia shares the views of other investors that further efforts are needed in order to improve the rule of law, implement regulations and ensure fair competition.
For example, in 2011 Japan and Serbia signed an agreement on a soft loan for the Flue Gas Desulphurisation Construction Project for the Nikola Tesla Thermal Power Plant, at the request of the Serbian Government. This project has the goal of reducing air pollutants, such as sulphur oxide and dust contained in the flue gas emission at Nikola Tesla TPP, which cause health hazards in the Obrenovac area, and to assist Serbia in harmonising with EU standards on flue gas desulphurisation. Unfortunately, the tender procedure for this project has been at a standstill for more than a year. However, we hope that this halt will soon be solved and the project will be realised in the manner agreed between the two governments.
The allocation of our assistance to Serbia sometimes reflects the current situation in the country. Japan has provided emergency assistance to Serbia both in 2014, after the disastrous floods, and in 2015, for the better handling of the migrant crisis. We are glad to see that our assistance was used in line with emergency needs.
I see that there is still a tremendous need to improve infrastructure, in particular in the environmental sector, such as sewerage system development and waste management. I would be very happy if we could cooperate further in this field, making use of Japan’s advanced technologies.
What are the major impressions and concerns of Japanese investors currently present in Serbia?
The Japanese business community in Serbia includes investors in the manufacturing sector, representative offices of trading companies, as well as domestic companies dealing in Japanese products and services. Some of these companies even had offices in the former Yugoslavia, but there is growing interest in Japanese business in recent years to expand activities to the Serbian market.
Your country’s geographical position and good connections with the EU enable investors to easily reach the EU market, especially considering the Free Trade Agreement Serbia has with the Union. Additionally, the same agreements with the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan, Belarus or Turkey create the opportunity to export products to a market of a billion consumers. That is a major advantage of Serbia and the investors present here.
I was amazed to find out that over 8,000 people in Serbia practice some form of Budo. We continually support many martial arts clubs, in order to promote them as an integral part of Japanese culture and sports.
In talks with the Japanese companies here, I was informed of their positive experience with employees in Serbia. They are fast-learning, dedicated, loyal, and tend to accept new technologies easily. Skilled labour is a very important factor in an investor’s decision-making process when it comes to selecting a new investment location. Japanese investors also seek consistency in policy implementation, a good security situation, good command of the English language, etc.
On the other hand, some concerns still remain that need to be solved in order to improve business circumstances. I was recently invited to the annual conference of the Foreign Investors Council, where I learned how investors assess the current state of the Serbian economy. The conclusions of the FIC are, to a great extent, in line with the assessment of the Japanese business community in Serbia. Investors are mainly focused on improvement of the rule of law, implementation of regulations, more efficient cooperation with the government in investment-related issues, assurances of fair competition and the enhancement of institutional capacity building.
I consider the country’s success in coping with these challenges as something that could contribute to the improvement of the Serbian business environment and result in a larger number of investors arriving in the country.
How do you assess the role Serbia plays in contributing to stability and prosperity in the Western Balkan?
If we analyse the situation over the past 25 years in the Western Balkans, we could say that it has been complicated and unstable. However, Japan sees Serbia as a key country for the stability and development of the Western Balkans, a region to which Japan attaches great importance.
In this context, we appreciate Serbia’s efforts towards reconciliation among the nations of the Western Balkans, such as the recent development in the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue under the auspices of the European Union. Japan supports the dialogue and also encourages both sides to discuss the issue of the protection of cultural heritage in Kosovo.
We also commend the frequent visits of senior Serbian officials to other Western Balkan countries, in particular Prime Minister Vučić’s appearance at the commemorative service marking the 20th anniversary of the crime in Srebrenica, held at the Potočari Memorial Centre in July.
Where do you see the highest potential for mutual cooperation when it comes to education, culture and sport?
I am glad to hear that there is increasing interest in studying the Japanese language, especially among the youth of Serbia. The flourishing of Japanese culture in Serbia results in greater interest in learning the Japanese language. In this regard, last year our Embassy, in cooperation with a Japanese company and Belgrade University’s Faculty of Philology, initiated a project which enabled children at 11 primary and secondary schools throughout Serbia to attend Japanese language classes as an optional course.
The number of students from Serbia who are applying for scholarships provided by the Government of Japan is increasing. Serbian students want to perfect their Japanese language skills and learn more about the country’s culture, arts, architecture, engineering or science. There are also Japanese students who are doing research at the University of Belgrade on history, politics, linguistics, art history and the conservation of frescoes.
More than 100 titles of Japanese literature have been translated into Serbian and they are very popular in Serbia. That is the reason that the Belgrade Book Fair stand of the Embassy of Japan is one of the most visited. The Embassy organises Japanese film festivals, which always receive a great response from the audience. Japanese pop culture, based on anime (animation movies) and manga (comics), is becoming more popular among the Serbian youth. Let me mention “Japanizam”, the event for the promotion of Japanese pop culture that we co-organise every summer with a local group of Japanese culture fans, with more than 7,000 visitors enjoying manga and anime promotions, cosplay (costume culture) shows, etc.
I was amazed to find out that over 8,000 people in Serbia practice some form of Budo, Japanese martial arts. In every town there is a club where you can train Karate, Aikido, Judo or Kendo. We have recognised the passion for Budo and provided continuous support for many martial arts clubs by providing tatami matrasses and sports equipment, or by organising events to promote martial arts as an integral part of Japanese culture and sports.
Japan will host the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2020. Serbia is very famous for its sporting achievements and we are looking forward to welcoming many Serbian athletes. By then, I hope that our athletes and sports experts will have many opportunities to exchange knowledge and experience in various sports, both on and off the court.
What do you see as common features of Serbian and Japanese culture and habits that may explain the deep respect and mutual devotion between two countries?
Since my arrival in Serbia I have had the chance to meet and talk to many people. People here are very hospitable and very proud of their history, culture and cuisine, which are traits they share with the Japanese people. The Japanese love sake and sushi, while Serbs enjoy cevapi (kebabs) and rakija (brandy). In addition to all this, I realised that there is a strong friendship between our two countries, although, geographically, Japan and Serbia are about 9,000 km apart.
The Japanese people will never forget the material and moral support they received from the Serbian people when we were in need after the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. As proof, after the unprecedented floods last year, the Government of Japan had no dilemma about providing emergency aid or supporting the recovery efforts. The Japanese people also visited the Embassy of Serbia in Tokyo for days, in order to make individual contributions to Serbia. In that sense, I think that the people of our two countries are really considerate and warm-hearted towards people in need. Our friendship is based on the simple notion that we trust and support each other through good times and bad.