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By Ivan Mrkić, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Serbia (2012-2014), first Serbian ambassador to Japan (2006-2011), recipient of the highest order awarded to foreigners by Emperor Akihito (2018)

140 Years Since Two Monarchs Corresponded

Burdened by the prejudice that it’s only what happens now that’s most important and decisive, we often overlook the fact that deep friendships between states are built over centuries, that their formation includes the participation of a large number of historical figures and that, in this case, it all began with an exchange of letters between two monarchs that paved the 9,000-mile road of friendship that we’re now walking

I had the great honour and pleasure of serving my country as Serbia’s first ambassador to Tokyo. I headed there to begin my service in late August 2006 and remained until May 2011. When I arrived in Tokyo, Serbia was already a separate international player and the successor of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. I would remind you that Montenegro had already left Yugoslavia in May 2006 and Serbia was directly represented in Japan diplomatically for the first time.

Departing to a distant country of the Far East represented a special diplomatic challenge. I must admit that I had a very pleasant feeling from my very arrival in that special country. And the main role in that was played by my hosts, because everyone – from officials to ordinary citizens – ensured that I felt hospitality, sophistication and unusual decorum, which creates a special impression about this unusual country.

Immediately upon arrival, I began considering how I could draw attention to numerous facts of importance to contacts and cooperation between our two peoples, of which, as it turned out, there were significantly more than what was then known. A detailed and precise review of the history of relations between the two peoples led to the conclusion that the period of Tito’s Yugoslavia was merely an important small part in the generally very diverse, deep and considered relations between Serbs and Japanese.

The most pleasant surprise came in the form of a copy of the letter of former Serbian King Milan Obrenović, who wrote in 1882 to inform Japanese Emperor Meiji that, following the Berlin Congress and Serbia’s gaining of full independence, the country decided to declare itself a kingdom to be headed by the author of the letter. The Obrenovićs had practically become a hereditary dynasty in Serbia since the time of Prince Miloš, leader of the Second Serbian Uprising, and with this act it distinguished itself from many other European countries by establishing a royal dynasty from among its own people. The letter arrived via Paris and was written in French, which was commonplace at the time.

It is of critical importance that Emperor Mutsuhito (he was only posthumously referred to as Meiji, in accordance with Japanese custom) responded to King Milan very cordially, thanking him for the information received, congratulating His Majesty on his coronation and, among other things, expressing hope and readiness for cooperation between the Japanese and Serbian peoples. It is particularly interesting that the Japanese emperor addressed King Milan with the words “dear friend”. The response was delivered through regular diplomatic channel, most likely via Paris, where both countries had diplomatic missions. It should be noted that the text of the response of Japanese Emperor Mutsuhito was also translated into French.

It is important to point out that here that we received the copies of these two valuable letters from a great Japanese friend who had access to the archives of the Japanese emperors. This event, which occurred in 2007 at the Serbian Embassy in Tokyo, during the visit of Dr Aleksandar Popović, then minister of mining and energy, marked the 125th anniversary of the establishing of relations between Serbia and Japan. To mark this anniversary in Serbia, the occasion of the birthday of then Japanese Emperor Akihito, on 23rd December, saw the issuing of a jubilee postage stamp and envelope, entitled “First Day” and featuring portraits of the two sovereigns, King Milan and Emperor Meiji. I presented one such envelope to Emperor Akihito following a reception at the Imperial Palace in early 2010.

To mark the 140th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Serbia and Japan in 2022, Post of Serbia will publish a philatelic edition of two postage stamps in a block, with appropriate motifs. The stamp, first published in 2007, features portraits of King Milan I Obrenović and Emperor Meiji, with details of letters exchanged between the two rulers in the background. The 2007 edition was artistically edited by Post of Serbia’s stamp artist Nadežda Skočajić, and was accompanied by a suitable firstday cover envelope, which is also planned for this year’s edition

Thus, the fact that the very warm correspondence between the Serbian and Japanese monarchs had been unearthed impacted on the emergence of the idea for a number of colleagues to attempt to compile a register of the events deemed important to describing the various aspects and fruitfulness of the numerous contacts between Serbia and Japan. The appropriate archives of the two countries had a special role to play in that and, fortunately, did so.

For instance, it wasn’t known for a long time that a number of high-level delegations from Japan came to Serbia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many of these delegations were led by princes from the Japanese royal family, and even brothers of the Japanese emperors. It is interesting that high-ranking Japanese officers, who later became army generals and commanders, often visited military garrisons around Serbia and compiled detailed reports about them. For example, it is recorded in the Japanese archives that Serbia was visited in 1890 by Fukushima Yasumasa, then military attaché at the Embassy of Japan in Berlin. That was the time of Japan full opening up to the world. It was an epoch during which Emperor Meiji deployed envoys of various profiles to acquaint themselves with the situation in distant countries, particularly in Europe and North America. Given that I’ve mentioned Officer Fukushima, it should also be noted that this man forged a blistering military career and became a general in the Japanese army.

Serbia was also visited by Prince Yorihito Komatsu (the nephew of Emperor Meiji, who came to Serbia in 1893, after visiting the United States), then Duke Konoe Atsumaro (1899), Prince Kuni Kuniyoshi (the great-grandfather of current Japanese Emperor Naruhito, 1909) and the princely couple Takamatsu (1931; Prince Takamatsu was the brother of Emperor Hirohito). I mention this to illustrate and enable a fully understanding of just how much weighty importance and high quality was contained in the relationship between the then Empire of Japan and Kingdom of Serbia.

One interesting fact: all Serbian monarchs after Milan Obrenović, including the Karađorđevićs (King Peter I and King Alexander I), corresponded with the Japanese emperors of their time. The circumstances differed in nature, but it is important that the monarchs of two otherwise very distant countries found it necessary to stay in contact and mutually inform one another. If we consider that the distance between Serbia and Japan is 9,000 kilometres, we can easily assume that this correspondence was even more important than one would expect.

Another interesting fact: Japan’s first honorary consul in Serbia was Milutin Stanojević, a renowned businessman of the time and vice president of the Belgrade Chamber of Commerce on three occasions. The Japanese government requested the appointment of an honorary consul of Japan in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, and already by January 1929 the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes confirmed the decision of the Government of Japan and Stanojević began his work in June 1929. In November that same year, Japanese Emperor Hirohito issued an exequatur for Mr Eiichiro Ueyama to perform the function of honorary consul of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in Osaka. Ueyama was known for his invention of a mosquito repellent coil that was based on common daisy flower extract (which then grew extensively on the territory of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia) and for his ownership of what is today a famous company that produces insect repellent and which the Japanese popularly call Kincho. It is also worth stressing that today’s honorary consul of Serbia in Japan, Mr Naohide Ueyama, is a direct descendant of this family, and that his ancestor Eiichiro was placed first on the diplomatic list at the suggestion of the then Serbian king. These events mark the strengthening of Serbian-Japanese ties in the period between the two world wars. And it should also be noted that Serbia and Japan were on the same side in World War I.

In the post-WWII period, the modern Japan has developed to become a complex picture of great economic success, mixed with a unique past and the distinctive mentality of its population, whose culture has been refined over centuries and has created, at its essence, a special story.

At the end of World War II, Japan experienced something that no one else has. Atomic bombs dropped from American planes exploded on its soil, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I visited both cities. I even spoke with some surviving eyewitnesses of those terrible events. In such moments, one would wonder which nation could endure such catastrophes?

Japan was the world’s second largest economy until recently. It is now ranked third, and will obviously hold that position for a long time. I think it deserves that in every sense. It is difficult in a single article to describe all the industrial and other advantages that have been created through the hard work and diligence of the industrious Japanese people. The world’s economic centre is slowly turning towards Asia, where Japan’s role isn’t only unavoidable, but in many ways crucial. I consider it a fact of historical importance that Japan is a signatory of the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) and that there can be no prosperity or secure future for Asia without its full contribution to these developments. The special relationship that Japan has with the United States, guided by wise leadership, could provide an incentive for cooperation in Asia to branch out. Implying the deepening of further cooperation with China, Japan is playing, and can continue to play, a very important role in strengthening the attractiveness of the Asian market space.

A key contribution to cooperation between Japan and Serbia came with the visit to Belgrade of then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in early 2018, and I believe that this event marked a critical juncture in shifting the Japanese understanding of the importance of my country’s position in the Balkans and Europe

The relationship between Japan and Serbia has become increasingly dynamic over the past ten or so years. This is reflected in many things, but first and foremost in frequent political communication, exchanges of visits of the highest officials and investments of Japanese companies in Serbia, but also numerous cultural, scientific and sporting events.

When it comes to the history of our relations, I would like to use this opportunity to remind your readers that it was 12 years ago, at the invitation of the Japanese government, that a then young opposition leader of the Serbian Progressive Party and today’s President of the Republic of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, visited Tokyo and other cities. He had a series of discussions with Japanese officials and was fascinated by the successes and systematic construction of the Japanese state. I mention this primarily because I’m aware of how committed the President of Serbia is to cooperation with Japan, and I’m convinced that he will also pay an official visit to this friendly country as soon as the circumstances permit.

During the last year of my time serving in Japan, Tokyo was officially visited by Boris Tadić, then President of Serbia. That occasion saw Japanese visas for Serbian citizens abolished and Serbia receive a loan under the most favourable possible conditions (an interest rate of a mere 0.6%, with a seven-year grace period and thirty years for repayment) and totalling 260 million euros for the desulphurisation of our thermal power plant in Obrenovac.

I was in Osaka when the great earthquake hit, causing the horrific tragedy at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. I was amazed by the courage, sacrifice and discipline of ordinary Japanese citizens, who showed incredible human virtues at the most difficult moments. Our embassy didn’t evacuate its staff from Tokyo, though radioactivity measurements led to such decisions being taken by a number of embassies, including some Western states and our neighbouring countries.

I remember that when NATO dropped bombs and fired missiles on Belgrade and the whole of FR Yugoslavia, then Japanese ambassador Ovada didn’t leave Belgrade, despite representatives of all Western countries, including Australia, doing so.

I’ll never forget my numerous meetings with Yasushi Akashi, who was once delegated by the Secretary-General of the United Nations to oversee and assist peacekeeping activities in Bosnia-Herzegovina. This brave man never faltered, nor did he follow the trends and anti-Serbian campaigns of the time. He remained true to himself and submitted objective and accurate reports on the situation in B-H.

It was during the presidency of Tomislav Nikolić that Japan donated us a gift of over 60 official vehicles, which the Government of Serbia is still using today. The most significant visit of that time came with the arrival of Ichiro Aisawa, a well-known friend of Serbia and president of one of the Japanese House of Representatives’ most important committees.

A key contribution to cooperation between Japan and Serbia came with the visit to Belgrade of then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in early 2018, and I believe that this event marked a critical juncture in shifting the Japanese understanding of the importance of my country’s position in the Balkans and Europe. Of course, another greatly important factor was the October 2019 visit of Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić to Tokyo, who participated as a guest in the enthronement ceremony of Japanese Emperor Naruhito and held numerous talks with Japanese officials and others. These are just illustrative depictions of the dynamism of contemporary relations between Serbia and Japan, which are by no means exhausted. There have been countless visits in both directions and that only confirms that cooperation between these two distant countries is strengthening constantly and has strong prospects.

I’m sorry that we’re not already in a position to be able to boast that Japan has its own companies operating in Serbia in the kinds of numbers (and this means hundreds and even thousands) that it has today in individual European Union countries, in China and throughout Asia, not to mention North America. However, I believe that the trend of Japanese companies investing in Serbia will continue to increase constantly and that the future will be marked by strong ties in the economic domain and all other areas.

I would like to remind readers that companies Japan Tobacco International, Panasonic and others have been operating successfully in Serbia for a long time, and have been joined more recently by the Toyo Tires Corporation, Nidec Corporation, Yazaki Corporation, NTT Data Corporation etc. These are powerful Japanese and global companies which have estimated that they can increase and improve their operations by doing business in Serbia.

I’m happy that I was able in 2011, with the help of Japanese friends, to publish the book “Mini Guide to the History of Serbian-Japanese Relations”, which lists some important information on the richness and the nature of Serbia’s relations with Japan. Great credit for this belongs to Snežana Janković and Aleksandra Kovač, my then associates in Tokyo (the first is now serving as our ambassador in Berlin and the second is our ambassador in Tokyo; and interestingly they both speak Japanese very well).

On the occasion of his birthday, I would like to wish Japanese Emperor Naruhito a long, happy, healthy and fruitful life. May his Reiwa era be marked fully by the beauty of harmony that’s expressed by this special Japanese word. I hope that the whole world will finally be marked by it.