The list of countries visited by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe during his tour of European countries in January also included Serbia. Despite being the only stop of the six on the Japanese PM’s tour that is not an EU member state, PM Abe stated that Serbia nevertheless “holds the key to the stability” of the Western Balkans.
Although Japan and Serbia have good bilateral relations, more than three decades had to elapse before a Japanese premier would be returned to Belgrade, so this visit was characterised as historic. We discuss it here with Japanese Ambassador to Serbia H.E. Junichi Maruyama.
During his talks with the Serbian president and prime minister, PM Abe proposed the strengthening of cooperation with the countries of the Western Balkans, and said that in Serbia he hoped for particular focus to be placed on strengthening the economic cooperation discussed with the representatives of Japanese companies who accompanied PM Abe on his trip to Serbia.
Ambassador Maruyama also announced a new form of linking Serbia and Japan – the engagement of young Japanese volunteers who will help locals in the villages of Serbia and get acquainted with the culture and customs of their hosts.
Your Excellency, how would you estimate the outcome of the recent visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe to Serbia?
– In my opinion, the visit of the Japanese Prime Minister to Serbia turned out to be a big success. Let me remind you that the last time the Japanese prime minister visited Belgrade was 1987 when former Prime Minister Nakasone came to Belgrade. So, after an absence of 31 years, the Japanese prime minister has again visited Belgrade, which is a very meaningful event.
This time a delegation of Japanese businesspeople joined for the visit and, in addition, there was a signing ceremony for the agreement to dispatch our young peace corps to Serbia. All in all, we evaluate the Prime Minister’s visit as a great success.
In which direction could PM Abe’s initiative on cooperation between Japan and the Western Balkan countries, especially Serbia, now develop?
– Of course, due to the Prime Minister’s visit, I hope that bilateral relations with Serbia will be further strengthened. But the Prime minister also spoke about the Western Balkan Cooperative initiative. That would be a useful instrument with which Japan can provide a cooperative framework for Serbia and other Balkan countries. At the same time, it is important that the name of Serbia will penetrate much deeper into Japanese society thanks to the Prime minister’s visit.
Back in Japan, there must have been a lot of news reporting about the visit. So, ordinary Japanese people will hear more about Serbia; learning that it is now a peaceful country, that the warfare is over and that they could now consider travelling to or investing in Serbia. That might be a big opportunity.
A delegation of Japanese businesspeople joined the PM for the visit and in addition we had a signing ceremony for the agreement to dispatch our young peace corps to Serbia. All in all, we evaluate the Prime Minister’s visit as a great success
Speaking of Serbia, in an interview he gave before coming to Belgrade, PM Abe said that Serbia holds the key to the stability of the region. What were the other reasons for including Serbia as the only non-EU member in his European tour?
– The general policy of the Abe administration is to try to visit foreign countries as often as possible. He has taken every opportunity to visit foreign counties since he assumed the position of Prime Minister in January 2013. He had visited 129 countries to date, and with the six countries of the European tour that total is now 135. Why not Serbia? That’s the answer!
There were comments and analyses noting that PM Abe decided to visit European countries that have special relations or problems with Russia. Given the turbulent relationship between the European Union and Russia, and considering Japan’s good relations with both, did such a reality contribute to the selecting of stops for this European tour?
– The aim of this visit was to expand the frontiers of Japanese friendship or the frontiers of Japanese foreign relations. So, that means the Prime minister likes to visit as many counties as possible, including medium or small ones. That’s why he decided this time to visit the Baltic states and some of the Balkan countries.
People who followed relations between Japan and Serbia, and with Yugoslavia in the past, would say that there have been many missed opportunities to benefit from business initiatives coming from Japan. The former Yugoslavia allegedly didn’t really utilise the fact that it had a privileged trade status in Japan. And the economic exchange between Japan and Serbia remains modest even today. Do you believe the visit of Japanese businesspeople, representatives of 16 Japanese companies, who joined PM Abe’s delegation in Serbia, could boost economic relations?
– Of those 16 Japanese companies, several have already started investing in Serbia, while several don’t know much about Serbia. It is a little early to say how things will develop further. However, in my opinion, it was an excellent opportunity for the Japanese business delegation to attend the briefing about the current business climate in Serbia, given by the Serbian Chamber of Commerce.
I also think that during the expanded meeting, which included not only members of the two governments, but also business delegations from both sides, Japanese business leaders were able to express their opinions directly to President Vučić, PM Brnabić and their Serbian partners, which was a very good and meaningful opportunity. But the Prime Minister’s visit is just the beginning; the realisation of investments requires patience. It is now our embassy’s job to keep inviting Japanese people to this country. In order to do that, we need cooperation from the Serbian side, both from the public and private sectors.
Some expressions have already been made as to whether you need such expensive procedures, and we fully understand those kinds of opinions. However, that’s a kind of thing you have to accept in order to develop your county or reach the status of a highly developed country.
Which fields of cooperation are potentially interesting for Japanese companies?
– I don’t know, because that’s a decision of businesspeople. The government doesn’t get to say this or that is right; Japan functions as a market economy. But looking at the example of the companies already present in Serbia – JTI, the tobacco industry, Yazaki, which produces automobile parts, and Panasonic, with its electrical appliance parts – the manufacturing industry is clearly one of the focuses for Japanese companies.
At the same time, I think they are also looking at the IT sector. There were some IT companies in the Japanese delegation, while Serbian companies expressed interest in cooperation in the food processing sector. So, we’ll see how all of this evolves into business investments.
Serbia is negotiating its accession to the EU and protecting the environment is one of the items on the agenda. Special attention was paid during PM Abe’s visit to cooperation between the Japanese company Mitsubishi Hitachi Power System and Serbia’s Nikola Tesla Thermal Power Plant. This relates to the reduction in emissions of sulphur-dioxide or, in other words, the reduction of air pollution. Could that be a field of further cooperation with Japanese companies?
– Those are fields where Japanese companies have the advantage and fields where the Japanese can contribute a lot to Serbia. However, at the same time we ask for your understanding: these kinds of operations, like the one you mentioned related to the reduction of sulphur dioxide emissions, require some costs. Some expressions have already been made as to whether you need such expensive equipment and we fully understand those kinds of opinions. But that’s a kind of thing you have to accept in order to develop your county or to reach the status as a highly developed country.
The framework enables young Japanese people to come to Serbia and go to rural areas, to live with local people and try to help or contribute to the local education system, capacity building, or hospitals…
When it comes to awareness of the importance of environment protection, how much do Serbia and Japan differ?
– Social awareness is very important in Japan, as it is in any developed country. In this country, you do not have a system of waste separation, for example. Here there is no way to separate bottles, cans, paper or food when discarding waste. In Japan, we must separate them. Every time when throwing away our waste, we feel guilty if we don’t separate. It is all part of a mental framework, but it also comes with education and training.
How do you plan to put into practise the Agreement on dispatching Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers, which was signed by yourself and Serbian Minister of European Integration Jadranka Joksimović?
– The framework enables young Japanese people to come to Serbia and go to rural areas, to live with local people and try to help or contribute to the local education system, capacity building, or hospitals. The degree of their contribution is not so large, in fact, but in the long run, it is an investment in human capital. Imagine those young Japanese people living in Serbia with Serbian citizens under the same environments for two years. They will learn the same language, learn about the culture, eat local food etc., and hopefully become big fans of Serbia.
When they go back to Japan, when they become businessmen, professors or teachers, they will speak well of Serbia, where they spent some time while they were students. As I said, it is a long-term human capital investment for Serbia, only that you don’t have to pay any money. That is our job. I think that such a scheme, which Japan has also developed with other countries, will be very good for both Japan and Serbia.
When will the first volunteers arrive in Serbia?
– We will have to launch the procedure this year and, hopefully, complete it by the end of the year, so that young people can start arriving here next year.