We meet Japanese Ambassador Toyoei Shigeeda in his office. On the little table next to him, there are first-day stamp souvenirs of Lithuania's most famous Japanese, Chiune Sugihara. The Embassy is located on Čiurlionio Street in Vilnius, named after the famous Lithuanian composer and painter. Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis is particularly appreciated in Japan for his mystical paintings.
Japanese Ambassador Shigeeda, Japanese Embassy Vilnius Photo Ludo Segers

It is a cold morning and the ambassador has just come back from a Thanksgiving breakfast presentation with Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius. The link between Lithuania and Japan becomes quickly clear, as the ambassador was very intrigued by the music of the kanklės (family of zither), played during the presentation. Ambassador Shigeeda liked the sound of this instrument as it reminds him of the koto, a traditional Japanese instrument that is also plucked. Ambassador Shigeeda sees many common cultural interactions and influences between European and Japanese culture.

Over a cup of Japanese green tea, a traditional welcome, we sit down in the ambassador's large office. Ambassador Shigeeda has previously been posted to Germany and so we continue talking about commonalities between Europe and Japan. Japan opened up to the West in the late 19th Century. It was a poor country then, but quickly modernised under Emperor Meiji. Japan imported not only European goods and ideas, but also a large part of its culture. Classical music, Mozart, Bach and Beethoven are particular favourites in the ambassador's home country, but also visual arts - Impressionism - and later on, pop art. The Beatles were phenomenally popular and influential in Japan.

Nowadays, many European countries have a fascination with Japanese contemporary art and fashion, including Manga, which is influencing art in Europe. These art forms and ideas all fuse the many common links between Europe and the island nation of Japan.

On the culinary front, the ambassador remarks that westerners seem to have developed love for eating sushi, one of Japan's contributions to world cuisine. Sometimes it takes on regional flavours and local influences, but it is still quintessentially Japanese. The ambassador remarks: "It is a product that requires the highest standards of freshness and a very clean environment, sushi chefs have suggested implementing some global hygienic standards."

Eating Sushi  is becoming increasingly low cost, robotised, and with personalised  choices arriving at record speed    Photo Ludo Segers
Eating Sushi is becoming increasingly low cost, robotised, and with personalised choices arriving at record speed Photo Ludo Segers

Whilst the ambassador laments the impression that Japan's economic influence may be less so than a few decades ago, it seems that cultural exports have compensated for that and become more important. Still, Japan's importance on the economic front came to the foreground during the sad aftermath of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and the deadly tsunami. Many Western companies faced the reality that many precision electronics and optical materials are sourced from innovative Japanese companies. The ambassador focuses on the Japanese character that is so important in overcoming these natural disasters and wonders how, in a larger framework, that was formed.

Japan established diplomatic relations with Lithuania in 1922, shortly after WWI. When did Japan establish diplomatic relations with Lithuania after it regained independence?

Japan established our diplomatic relation with Lithuania in 1991 and we opened our Embassy in 1997. However, relations go back a long time. The Japanese government recognised the newly established Lithuanian Republic in 1921. After the Russian-Japanese war, Lithuania was impressed by Japanese actions. Steponas Kairys, one of the 20 signatories to the Lithuanian Independence act in 1928, wrote a book about Japan. There were also contacts during the time of the Versailles treaty. It was much later in the late 1930s that Sugihara-san (the honorific 'san' stands for Mr. or Ms.) arrived and did so many honourable things in this country. I am very thankful and honoured that the Lithuania people appreciate his efforts. I like that people focus on, not just on who he was, but what he has done. Of course, I am proud that he is Japanese.

During my recent visit to Japan, I was astonished to see that every Japanese that I spoke to was aware of Sugihara-san. Many Japanese told me that he is their (personal) hero and were very proud of what he did. Yet, Sugihara-san in many ways was un-Japanese, as he did not obey the rules and issued Visas without authorisation from his government. What do you attribute this fascination to?

Well some people say that he (Sugihara-san) is a samurai. Samurai also put emphasis on honour. The Lithuanian people may have influenced him and he probably thought that he did not do something special. He has done what he should do.

You may say that it is un-Japanese, but Japanese people can often been seen as doing something in the public interest. The classic essay on Samurai ethics by Inazo Nitobe, 'Bushido: The Soul of Japan', describes how the Samurai ethics can be applied to the individual, particularly respect to others, manners and even the attitude to the loser.

Lesser known may be that Japan implemented after WWI a policy of racial freedom. This was the result of the involvement with the League of Nations; actually, Japan was the only Asia country to implement this policy.

Does this Embassy cover only Lithuania?

This embassy is solely responsible for Lithuania. We also have embassies in the two other Baltic countries. We see these as important countries, also towards the future. Japan has a long-standing relationship with many European countries in so many fields. The countries that became independent after the (collapse) Soviet Union have become important in the world community. Japan also likes to help these countries in their development, just as Japan benefited in the past of European help. We realise that the EU is contributing a lot in their development but the economic interconnection is important to Japan.

In which ways is Lithuania political important to Japan?

In the field of international organisations, the relation is important, as Japan is relatively small and the newly re-established countries grow in importance. Lithuania, in particular, is very active on the international political scene. Japan respects and admires Lithuania's role and I think that Japan will have an important friend in European countries in the 21st Century. Initially, our focus may have been on former east European countries, but we realise the importance of the Baltic countries. Each EU country has an ability to contribute and it is up to the people if they want to do more and it is my impression that Lithuania is willing to do that. Japan may be far away but we appreciate that and in turn, Japan is willing to extend its help where it can.

How many Japanese live in Lithuania and what is their main reason for living in this country?

Officially, we know of about 70 Japanese living here. It is not a large number, but looking at it from a different angle, the number of Japanese living in Lithuania has been increasing since the regaining of independence (smiles). The number may be small compared to other well-known countries like France, Germany and the UK. But, Lithuania is a nice country and it is doing its utmost to promote itself in Japan, particularly through the efforts of Dr. Meilūnas (the Lithuanian Ambassador to Japan).

Japanese should pay more attention to Lithuania, a relatively unknown country, but a very nice one. Movies, such as the newly made movie (Persona Non Grata) about Sugihara-san (to be released on 5 December in Japan) may help Japanese to learn more about Lithuania. That may lead to more Japanese visitors to come to Lithuania. I told the (Lithuanian) Minister of Culture that we might be able to work hard to increase the present number of visitors, 16,000 to about half a million. The Minister was very surprised. How to promote Lithuania is a crucial matter and there is a lot of competition from other well-known tourist destinations.

I have personally invited friends and people that I know, after I arrived here. Next year we will have the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations between our two countries and that will be an occasion for many visits.

At the Avant-première screening of 'Persona Non Grata', the movie about Chiune Sugihara-san, in Vilnius University we noticed a large number of Japanese students. Are they studying in Lithuania?

We know about Japanese students in Kaunas, studying literature. Most students were visiting from Japan to help with the Sugihara-san commemoration (in Kaunas). Many came from Sugihara-san's alma mater, Waseda University (top ranking private Japanese University). They highly respect Sugihara-san and there is a large interest in the activity of Sugihara-san, particularly among students.

In which areas is most activity between Japan and Lithuania taking place?

Politically there has recently been a lot of activity in the international organisations. We worked together in the United Nations and Lithuania and Japan came together with this country working in Afghanistan.

Manga style figure By Niabot Copyright GNU
Manga style figure By Niabot Copyright GNU

Culturally we work a lot together. I just came back from a trip to Klaipėda where a large exhibition of Japanese dolls is taking place. We try to bring Japanese cultural activities closer to Lithuanian people, so that they learn more about Japan. The most important activity takes place in the economic field, particularly energy.

The Hitachi and Visaginas Nuclear project has been put on hold. How long are the Japanese prepared to wait?

It will be a decision that Lithuania has to make, whether or not to proceed with this project. The nuclear project is clearly important to Lithuania and to Japan. But, this is not limited to the building of this reactor. It is also important in the technological and scientific exchange between Lithuania and Japan. Once this project would be activated, many Japanese engineers and technicians and their families would come to Lithuania. This would lead to deepening of scientific cooperation between the two countries and would have a profound effect on Lithuanian-Japanese relations, as well as more macroeconomic effects such as supply chain opportunities for local companies, development of infrastructure and human resources.

Once Lithuania makes a decision, Japan will move quickly to provide the necessary approval, support and assistance. Japan is the second most important supplier of nuclear equipment in the world, and Hitachi is one of the most advanced companies. Hitachi is a private company and has many projects going on in the world. When Lithuania is ready, the company will be able to move fast forward.

Japan is a very competitive market entering, what should Lithuanian business know about the Japanese market?

At this moment there seems to be a surplus in favour of Lithuania when it comes to export, a nice development. What we should do is expand cooperation.

I am often asked by Lithuania about Japanese investments. Market size is an important factor and Lithuania is a relatively small market. Logistics and distribution from Lithuania to nearby markets has opportunity, more so than building factories.

Japanese Ambassador Shigeeda   Photo Ludo Segers
Japanese Ambassador Shigeeda Photo Ludo Segers

That also applies to Lithuanian companies operating in Japan. Japan has a population of about 120 million. Using Japan has a regional hub or basis gives the Lithuanian company access to a very large market. Japan is an important market but the larger (Asian) regional market is very attractive.

Increased governmental and economic support organisations are important to facilitate this and other joint activities.

The Lithuanian Ambassador to Japan, Egidijus Meilūnas, mentioned joint scientific projects as an opportunity for increased Japanese-Lithuania cooperation. What is your view on that?

Many people in Lithuania like to emphasise advanced technology. They like to present that when representatives of advanced technological countries, such as Japan, visit. I am now studying what it is that Lithuania likes to allocate recourses on, particular today. I think that a focused approach is now important for Lithuania, so is it finances, heavy industry, agriculture or science and technology that are being concentrated on?

Where do you see the best opportunities, as an outsider looking in?

Actually, Life Science is very advanced in Lithuania. It is also a very good sector to retain young people in Lithuania. It offers potentially high value added products. How to connect it to agriculture and logistics is then a question and I get the impression that Lithuania likes to have it all. Life Science is one area where there can be increased cooperation with Japan and offers good opportunities.

Shortly after arriving, I discovered for myself, what Japanese companies had been saying about Lithuanians, in that they are very good at doing things, especially mathematics. They do not talk a lot, they do much. It appears to me that Lithuanians can do many things from agriculture to finance. But Lithuania seems to need to present a strategic plan on what it should focus on. That is an important role for government to decide. With a more focused approach, we can approach companies in Japan to do business in Lithuania.

Do you have particular wishes or ideas that our readers may like to know?

Yes, I do have many things to say (laughs). Our bilateral relations go back about 100 years with an important contribution of Sugihara-san. That is the past.

Now we have an expanded area of cooperation. Towards the future, the people-to-people contact and cooperation is important, not just those living in the Capital. We need to invite people and media from all areas (of Japanese prefectures) to visit and to have contact with Lithuanian people and work on cultural and economic issues as well as energy fields. These contacts will be very important in the 21st Century. I will need to work on learning the Lithuanian language to be able to communicate with local people. It will help me to introduce Lithuania to Japan and the Japanese. My goal is to make Japan to be the best partner for Lithuania in Asia and to foster a mutual interest into each other's countries. Japanese will discover Lithuania to be a nice country. Japan likes to do what it likes to be done to its own country and we like to deliver on our promises.

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