“Let’s take our friendship and cooperation to a higher level”
Text: Martina Hošková and M. Zisso; Photo: Archive
“2023 is the year of the rabbit in the traditional Asian calendar. It symbolizes a great leap forward, and prosperity. I wish that, for Czechia and Japan, it will be a year that takes our friendship and cooperation to an even higher level,” desires H.E. Mr. Hideo Suzuki, Japanese Ambassador, who first visited Prague in 1990 during the Velvet revolution, and arrived as ambassador in 2021, during the COVID-19 pandemic.
What brought you to a diplomatic career, and eventually made you an ambassador?
Well, it goes back to the early 70s, and my three years of experience as a child in Paris. Back then, Japan remained mostly unknown to the world, and all that my small French friends knew about us was that we 8 lost WWII. A bit of a discouraging first encounter with international realpolitik. However, there was a turning point: the visit of Emperor Showa to Paris. Japanese children, including myself, were sent by the embassy to the airport to welcome His Majesty. That day, I was taken in by the magic of our unique tradition. I hazily foresaw the pride and joy of working for Him and serving the country. The mission was set: to elevate the standing of my country to an honourable and proud member of the international community.
I can say that this sense of honour has animated my entire diplomatic life, wherever I was assigned to and whatever dossier I oversaw – be it Europe, the US, Asia, national security, development assistance, global issues, etc.
Fifty years after that decisive moment in my life, I was appointed Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary by His grandson, the current Emperor of Japan, and assigned to the Czech Republic.
You have been in the Czech Republic for over 2 years. Can you share some impressions of that time?
I already visited Prague in January 1990, during the Velvet Revolution. The heated atmosphere of the revolution was present everywhere, especially in Wenceslas Square, but you could still find some kind of reminiscence of the past. Today’s Prague has metamorphosed into a modern European city. The streets are vibrant with shoppers and tourists. Creative cultural activities are flourishing at every corner of the city. However, the beautiful historical cityscape and the flow of the Vltava River have not changed at all.
Prague was in the midst of the pandemic when we arrived at the embassy two years ago. The lockdown had been decreed, and we did not see much for the first few months. Over the past year though, we have had many opportunities to discover the jewels of the Czech historical, cultural, and natural heritage all over the country.
Everywhere in the Czech Republic, we meet people with great interest in Japanese culture. Events representing martial arts, calligraphy, tea ceremony, ikebana, and comical theatre production called kyogen are practisced at a very high level of proficiency, not only in Prague but also in the (other) regions. It is also a pleasant surprise to find exquisite Japanese gardens in several cities. I could not be more grateful to all the people who are passionately devoting themselves to promoting these activities.
Which countries did you serve in before coming to Prague?
This is my fifth country. I served twice in France where I started my career, including studies at the Ecole National d’Administration (ENA), the second assignment being the Japanese Delegation to the OECD. Then, it was the United States, where I travelled all around from Denali, Alaska, down to Key West, Florida, with my family to discover its diversity. Vietnam, a very dynamic and young country with which we have a full range of cooperation, including a maritime security program. The Republic of Korea, our closest neighbour, and an important partner for security in the Indo-Pacific. And now, the Czech Republic, a trustworthy partner sharing our fundamental values, and enjoying 100 years of friendship together.
What is the most difficult part of being an ambassador?
Good question. Constantly standing at the forefront requires experience. We are expected to have the right answer to any kind of topic, ranging from military issues to modern art, science and technology to cybersecurity. You need to know every detail of not only foreign policy but also the socioeconomic challenges of your country, and explain things in a convincing way. This requires everyday learning and a solid backbone, conviction, and skill based on your wide-ranging past experience. A lot to do, but I enjoy it. It could be completely different from working at headquarters, where you oversee a specific portfolio. Ambassadors are also the leaders of their own nationals in times of crisis. That was my case during the COVID-19 pandemic. Securing the rights of vaccination for foreigners in the Czech Republic, and making sure that the Japanese can safely return to the country when needed was of primordial importance. With the generous cooperation of the Czech government, I was able to fulfil my duty.
An ambassador could never perform only by himself. Garnering the understanding and cooperation of the host country and fellow ambassadors, as well as uniting the staff as one team, are also important missions for an ambassador.
How do you spend your free time?
Almost every weekend, together with my wife, I enjoy searching for beautiful new places in the Czech Republic. We often go to Průhonice Park, where we enjoy the seasonal change of sceneries and the refreshing sound of the streams. It is also a delight for us to be invited to openings of cultural events and local festivals, not only in Prague but also in the provinces. It was a wonderful memory to parade in Kunovice on a horse cart for the Ride of the Kings festival, classified as a UNESCO heritage event, or to take part in a costume play at the Animefest in Brno, to name just a few examples. Never do I consider these as “duties”. It is full of surprises and discoveries. I wonder if there is a distinction between “work time” and “free time” for ambassadors. Maybe not.
Can you give a piece of advice to the next generation of ambassadors?
As the world becomes more diverse and complex, the mission required from ambassadors will become even more difficult. I believe that ambassadors should, at all times and in all places, continue to cultivate a broad perspective and a flexible mindset. This is to enable them to assess the situation precisely, in order to find the best strategy to enhance cooperation and promote the common interest of their own country, their host country, and the international community. Most importantly, ambassadors need to have the courage and determination to implement these strategies with conviction. To make the world a better place to live.
Japan is a very interesting destination for the Czech people. How do you promote your country?
Let me say that Japan is an incredibly multidimensional country. In fact, two-thirds of the country is mountains. The north-to-south stretched Japanese archipelago is a treasure trove of varied and rich nature. From cherry blossoms in spring to fresh summer greenery, autumn leaves to snowy winter landscapes, the four seasons are so enchanting you can never get tired of them. The microclimate varies from region to region. From winter skiing in Hokkaido to diving in subtropical Okinawa, the choice is yours. The vibrant urban culture well represented by Tokyo is world-renowned. But we also take pride in the historical wooden architecture in our regional cities, not to mention the ancient capitals of Kyoto and Nara, as well as the epic shrines and temples throughout the country. These should be fresh in the Czech eyes. But it is not only about seeing but also about experiencing – let yourself get initiated into traditional agriculture, temple life, or the world of ceramics. A different side of Japan, a different side of you.
Up until 160 years ago, Japan was a decentralized state, divided into 300 fiefs of regional lords (daimyo). This led to the development of a number of competing cultures, unique to each different part of Japan, symbolized by its castles, schools, cityscapes, and crafts, which are boasted as ‚local pride‘. They are multifaceted marvels.
We must also not forget the Japanese food culture. Sushi is now widely popular around the world, but of course we have more. In the countryside, you could find a wealth of local delicacies and specialities. Every time you visit a new place, I could assure you that you will encounter a different taste.
What is the current status of Czechia – Japan relations?
Japan and the Czech Republic are strategic partners who share fundamental values, and our long-time friendship is steadily developing. We celebrated the 100th anniversary of the bilateral exchanges in 2020, and this year (2023) marks the 30th anniversary of our diplomatic relations.
We have a long tradition of economic cooperation, driven by over 270 Japanese companies operating in the Czech Republic that play an active role in the Czech economy and contribute to its export, creating more than 52,000 jobs. The Japan-EU EPA (Economic Partnership Agreement), entered into force in 2019, has quickly boosted bilateral trade from 3.4 billion Euros in 2018 to 5 billion in 2022. Noteworthy is the sharp increase in Moravian wine export to Japan.
The cultural exchanges in various fields such as architecture, literature, painting, and music have also been the spiritual backbone of our friendship.
What about the political and security areas?
We must step up our cooperation in the political and security areas. The two countries today share each other’s visions, and tackle various agendas on the world stage.
First, the response to the war in Ukraine. Together, along with other like-minded countries, Japan and the Czech Republic are leading in imposing tough sanctions against Russia, and strongly supporting Ukraine. Japan is also assisting Ukrainian refugees who fled to the Czech Republic, by providing over 2 million USD to international organizations operating here.
A strong bond of solidarity. Realizing a Free and Open Indo-Pacific is another common goal. The Czech Republic formulated its Indo-Pacific Strategy last September, while Japan adopted a new National Defence Strategy in December.
Both documents mention each other’s country as a trustworthy partner for deepening cooperation. Our relationship is stepping forward into a new phase. Third, achieving a carbon-neutral sustainable society. We share the common goal of “realizing carbon neutrality by 2050”. This is highly challenging, but it is also a great opportunity for new business cooperation, and for innovation with the aim of enhancing energy security.
To achieve this goal, we have many options: renewables, nuclear, hydrogen, CO2 Capture and Storage (CCS) or CO2 Capture and Utilization (CCU) technologies, etc. I firmly believe that Japan and the Czech Republic, with their traditional excellence in science and technology, have great potential for future cooperation in these areas.
To conclude this interview, do you have a wish for both countries?
2023 is the year of the rabbit in the traditional Asian calendar. It symbolizes a great leap forward, and prosperity. I wish that 2023 will be a year that takes our friendship and cooperation to another higher level, and brings blessing to the people of our two countries and of the world.