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H.E. Akira Imamura, Ambassador of Japan to Serbia

Farewell “Japanac”

The 93 yellow buses that were donated by Japan to the City of Belgrade in 2003, and which are affectionately referred to as “Japanac” [Japanese guy], have become well known to Belgraders over the 20 years that they’ve remained in use, thanks to the care and maintenance they’ve received. That’s why the Japanese Embassy in Belgrade awarded a 2022 Ambassador’s Commendation to a service engineer from the Public transport Maintenance Department based in New Belgrade. “It is a pity that these “Japanac” buses, which have come to symbolise friendship between the two countries, are heading into retirement, but it would be nice if we could organise an event, in cooperation with the City of Belgrade, to thank them for their many years of service” ~ Akira Imamura

While these attractive yellow buses, which have for two decades represented one of the most visible symbols of the friendship between Japan and Serbia, are being decommissioned, Japan’s new ambassador to Serbia discusses plans to continue bilateral cooperation with Serbia. Ambassador Imamura reminds us that numerous Japanese companies have also arrived in Serbia during these past 20 years, with the country’s close proximity to the EU market, as well as its “excellent human resources”, having attracted Japanese investors. Apart from auto parts companies that supply the automotive industry in the West, Japanese companies operating in the IT, pharma and energy sectors are also interested in cooperation with Serbia… And the story of city transport buses hasn’t necessarily come to an end either, as Ambassador Imamura explains in this interview for CorD Magazine. “I am sure that Belgrade will work more on the provision of sustainable and eco-friendly public services, including transportation, and there are Japanese companies that are ready to provide a contribution.”

Your Excellency, you arrived last summer to begin your term as ambassador of Japan in a city that you first got acquainted with back in 2004. How does today’s Belgrade look to you and how are you acclimatising to life in Serbia?

— I visited Belgrade briefly on a business trip in 2004. Compared to that time, today’s Serbia has today achieved significant economic development. The change I felt most strongly was the increase in the number of skyscrapers and shopping centres. I was particularly surprised by the scale of the redevelopment of the Sava river Waterfront. The number of foreign companies, including Japanese firms, has also been increasing. I am happy to see this as proof that peace has taken root in Serbia and that the investment environment has improved greatly.

My wife and I have been in Serbia for six months now, and we have got used to life in Serbia. We heard that the theme of Expo 2027 in Belgrade is “Power of Play, Play Music, Play Sports”, which I think is a perfect theme for Serbia. The other day we also enjoyed traditional Serbian music at a kafana tavern.

Serbia is planning to participate in the Osaka- Kansai Expo in 2025, which is expecting to attract 28 million visitors. This will provide an excellent opportunity for Serbia to promote the attractiveness of the country

We are visiting many places in Serbia in order to better understand the history and culture. We saw the cultural rise of medieval Serbia at the Studenica Monastery and learned the history of the Karađorđević dynasty at Topola.

People in Serbia are friendly. I have a lot of opportunities to meet people from various fields and we are able to exchange opinions very openly. In particular, I feel as though there are many capable people in Serbia who are fluent in English, which makes communication easier.

You’ve said that you will focus on implementation of Japan’s Western Balkans Cooperation Initiative, which was launched in 2018 by late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Which specific projects will you insist on?

— Late Prime Minister Abe launched “the Western Balkans Cooperation Initiative” during his visit to Serbia in 2018. It consists of two pillars: support for reforms in the Western Balkans, including Serbia, toward EU accession; and the promotion of regional cooperation. Six years after its launch, this initiative has become even more effective as the region is developing.

Speaking of the first pillar, support for reforms toward EU accession, Japan wants a strong and united Europe, as the EU is our strategic partner. Serbia’s accession to the EU is important for the stability and prosperity of Europe as a whole and the international community. In order to support this process, Japan has been implementing the SME Mentoring Programme in the Western Balkans for many years, aimed at improving the governance of SMEs using Kaizen methods and other approaches.

Investments by Japanese companies also contribute to Serbia’s economic development and political stability, and Japan has been supporting them as it contributes significantly to creating the necessary conditions for Serbia’s EU accession. In the political field, we assisted in conducting a seminar in November last year for Serbian media representatives on media reform, which is one of the challenges facing Serbia’s accession.

In the second pillar of the Western Balkans Cooperation Initiative, various efforts are being exerted to promote regional cooperation. From the second half of this year, a Japanese expert will be sent to Serbia to strengthen cooperation among the countries of the region through the promotion of tourism. The project aims to promote tourism in the Western Balkans by providing advice on tourism strategies, training relevant personnel, promoting knowledge and sharing experience within the region, as well as implementing pilot projects. Tourism development is also aligned with the Open Balkan initiative advocated by President Vučić, as it promotes mutual understanding in the region and encourages people-to-people exchanges.

You’ve noted that high-level political and economic visits will contribute to strengthening bilateral relations in the period ahead. Could you tell us about any specific plans?

— Over recent years, the visits of high officials between the two countries has become more active: Prime Minister Abe’s visit to Belgrade in 2018, accompanied by representatives of the Japanese business community, led to the expansion of bilateral relations, including increases in new Japanese investment. From the Serbian side, Prime Minister Brnabić has visited Japan twice: to attend the Ceremonies of the Enthronement of His Majesty the Emperor (2020) and to attend the state funeral of Prime Minister Abe (2022). They were followed by last year’s visit of Ms Đedović Handanović, Serbian Minister of Mining and Energy. Since Foreign Minister Kono visited Serbia in 2019, we believe it would also be possible for the Serbian Foreign Minister to visit Japan this year. Inter-parliamentary exchanges are also important. Current Japanese Foreign Minister, Yoko Kamikawa, visited Belgrade in 2019 as a member of the Japanese parliamentary delegation to the IPU Congress held in Belgrade. When the parliamentary friendship group for Japan is established at the Serbian National Assembly, following the elections held last December, we would like to promote exchanges with its Japanese counterpart.

Multiple Japanese companies operate in Serbia, which they find interesting thanks to its close proximity to the European single market. Have their experiences prompted other companies to contact you for advice and to enquire about whether to invest in Serbia?

— The recent increase in investment in Serbia by Japanese companies is due not only to geographical characteristics, i.e., to Serbia’s proximity to the EU market, but also to the fact that Japanese companies highly value the Serbian government’s policy of actively promoting foreign investment and its excellent human resources, with high language skills.

Some examples of large investments by Japanese companies in recent years include Toyo Tires’ plant in Inđija, opened in December 2022, and Nidec’s plant in Novi Sad, opened in May 2023. As they showed, automotive-related investments are continuing to rise. This is partly due to the German auto industry’s request to its suppliers to produce auto parts around Europe in order to avoid supply chain risks triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic and other factors. The success of these Japanese companies in Serbia has attracted the interest of other Japanese companies and I would expect further investments to follow.

Which areas of the Serbian economy are of the most investment interest to Japanese companies?

— As I just mentioned, interest in automotive-related areas is prominent, but other areas – such as the renewable energy sector – are also promising. In Vinča, Japanese and French companies are jointly investing in the Belgrade Energy- from-Waste Project, which aims to generate electricity by utilising waste from Belgrade households, with the goal of covering 10% of the heat needs and 5% of the electricity demands of the city of Belgrade. There is also potential in the biotech and IT sectors, which the Serbian government is focused on. Takeda Pharmaceuticals has already signed an MoU with the Serbian government for research on AI-based diagnostic technology for rare diseases, as part of the Bio4 Campus Project.

Many people point out that Japanese investment will not only transfer technology, but will also bring corporate ethics, corporate culture and the concept of corporate social responsibility, including environmental protection

Many people point out that Japanese investment will not only transfer technology, but will also bring corporate ethics, corporate culture and the concept of corporate social responsibility, including environmental protection. It will thus contribute to the development of the human resources required for Serbia’s sustainable development and EU accession. I understand that President Vučić is also fully aware of the importance of high-quality investment. Our Embassy, in cooperation with the Serbian government, would like to support the enhancement of the investment environment and promote further investments by Japanese companies.

You obviously pay great attention to supporting the media, via the Japan International Cooperation Agency, JICA. You are supporting the work of RTK in Pristina, particularly the channel broadcasting in Serbian, while you recently also organised a gathering with media representatives in Belgrade to discuss election reporting. Do you have the impression that many of the challenges confronting journalists are the same in both countries?

— Japan has been supporting Serbia in its various reforms toward EU accession, and as part of this support, a seminar on media freedom during election campaigns was held in Belgrade last November. We chose the topic of media freedom because it is one of the cornerstones of democracy, in the belief that Japan’s experience would be beneficial to Serbia’s reforms.

Talking about Japan’s democracy, we witnessed its development in the 1920s, but it was disrupted in the 1930s due to the rise of militarism, and we paid a huge price by resorting to war. Japan learned from our own mistake and achieved a mature and stable postwar democracy in which the media play a crucial role; the media has even been called the fourth branch of power. However, as JICA Senior Advisor Keiichi Hashimoto, a former journalist, noted at this seminar, the Japanese media hasn’t always been perfect in terms of media reporting on elections. There were cases of politically biased reporting during pre-election periods, which became a problem afterwards. As discussed in the seminar, it is important for the media of any country to be impartial on political opinions and to report facts objectively.

JICA is implementing a project to support the public broadcaster, Radio Television Kosovo (RTK), by establishing branch offices in Prizren and Mitrovica, developing internal standards for fair and unbiased programme production, including broadcasts in the Serbian language, and utilising an archive system to accumulate video material that can be used for programme production.

The city transport buses that were donated by Japan and have served, for the past 20 years, as one of the most recognisable symbols of the friendship between the two nations are set to disappear from the streets of Belgrade soon, as they begin a well-deserved retirement. Are you ready to send them on their way?

— The 93 yellow buses donated by Japan to the city of Belgrade in 2003, which are affectionately referred to as “Japanac”, have been well known among Belgraders and have been in use for 20 years thanks to their careful use and maintenance. In 2022, the Japanese Embassy awarded the Ambassador’s Commendation to a service engineer belonging to the Maintenance Department at the garage in New Belgrade. It is a pity that “Japanac” buses, as symbols of friendship between our two countries, are going to retire, but it would be nice if we could organise an event in cooperation with the Belgrade City government to thank them for their many years of service.

I am sure that Belgrade will work more on the provision of sustainable and eco-friendly public services, including transportation, and there are Japanese companies that are ready to make a contribution. In three years, Belgrade is going to attract people from all over the world for the 2027 Expo, and we would like to support Belgrade in showcasing its sustainable development efforts.

You will have noticed that Japanese pop-culture is popular among young people in Serbia, while the people of Japan know about Serbia’s Piksi and Novak Đoković. Do you plan to expand the sphere of mutual recognition and what would you like to present in Serbia from Japan and vice versa?

— I have met many fans of Japan in Serbia and am pleased to see the popularity of Japanese pop-culture, such as anime and manga, especially among young people. We are aware that many of them are interested in learning the Japanese language. For them, e-learning site Minato is a perfect tool for studying the Japanese language. Please check it out.

On the other hand, I also feel that both traditional and contemporary Japanese culture are not yet fully understood in Serbia. In terms of traditional culture, we hope that cultural activities that are popular in Japan, such as tea ceremonies and ikebana flower arrangement, will become more familiar to the Serbian people. In the area of contemporary culture, we would like to introduce more Japanese movies and literature. The Embassy of Japan organises cultural events throughout the year across various parts of Serbia, so I would like to encourage people to visit our events.

Serbia is known in Japan as a country that’s good at sports. Japanese martial arts, such as karate and judo, are also popular in Serbia. I find that the spirit of Japanese martial arts, which is to show respect even to competitors, is widely shared in this country. In addition to martial arts, we hope to increase sports exchanges through sporting organisations in our countries.

When it comes to the food culture in Japan, you can buy Serbian dishes mućkalica and paprikaš in boilin‐ the‐bag style. The Serbian Embassy in Tokyo provided advice on their production. There are a number of spa facilities in Serbia that are similar to Japanese “onsen”, but they are not so well recognised in Japan. On the other hand, Serbia is planning to participate in the Osaka-Kansai Expo in 2025, which is expecting to attract 28 million visitors. This will provide an excellent opportunity for Serbia to promote the attractiveness of the country. I also hope that Serbian people will take this opportunity to visit Japan more often and experience the real Japan. Young people can take a “pilgrimage” to see their favourite anime and manga (i.e., to visit the locations of scenes in manga and anime) and something they have heard or read about related to Japan. I would like to exert every effort to further develop the friendly relations between our two countries as we approach 2032’s 150th anniversary of the friendship between Japan and Serbia.

EU

Speaking of the support for reforms toward EU accession, Japan wants a strong and united Europe, as the EU is our strategic partner

INVESTMENTS

The success of these Japanese companies in Serbia has attracted the interest of other Japanese companies and I would expect further investments to follow

MEDIA

Japan learned from our own mistake and achieved a mature and stable postwar democracy in which the media play a crucial role; the media has even been called the fourth branch of power