Common virtues, uncommon success
An interview with Japanese Ambassador to Israel Hideo Sato on his country
and the Jewish state.
Japanese Ambassador to Israel Hideo Sato Photo: Courtesy: Diplomatic Club Israel/Mark Nieman
Though he was appointed to serve as Japan’s ambassador to Israel a year ago,
Hideo Sato is far from being a newcomer to the Jewish state. In 1977, he came to
study at Tel Aviv University and served his country in Israel multiple times
over the past three decades. Fluent in Hebrew, Sato often surprises local
audiences by delivering speeches in the language of the Bible.
diplomat, Sato previously was Japan’s ambassador to Afghanistan and Bahrain, so
he is quite familiar with the region and its varied challenges. Since Israel and
Japan are marking six decades since the establishment of formal diplomatic
relations, Ambassador Sato agreed to sit down for an exclusive interview with
The Jerusalem Post.
Israel and Japan are marking 60 years since the
establishment of diplomatic ties between the two countries. How would you
describe the current bilateral relationship?
Japan and Israel have developed an
excellent cordial relationship since the establishment of diplomatic relations
in 1952. I would especially like to welcome the recent steady progress made in
our political and economic relations as well as in the sphere of science and
Still, we all are aware that the big potential
which exists between our countries has not been fully explored and I expect that
such potential will be further exploited in the coming years, in particular in
the areas of economy and science and technology.
By the way, I must note
with much satisfaction that so much has been achieved in the areas of Japanese
studies and cultural exchanges. Today, over a thousand Israeli students are
taking courses on Japan at the universities of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa. On
the occasion of the international conference held in May, an academic society
for Japanese studies was officially established to promote further Japanese
studies in Israel. We intend to continue our efforts to further broaden and
deepen such cultural exchanges.
The popularity of Japanese cuisine is
also something so impressive. It is a pleasant surprise to find that sushi has
become such a favorite menu [item] for Israelis. With today’s trend for more
healthy food, I think there is much to do to make Japanese food even more
popular in Israel.
So, agriculture, space science, and joint
technological research and development are only a few of [the] promising areas
of future cooperation. But more than anything else, I believe people-to-people
exchange is what we need more. Upon the request of the Israeli government, we concluded an aviation agreement in 2000,
but for various reasons, El Al has not yet started its operation to Japan. It
would bring about a dramatic change in tourism and commerce if a direct flight
was available from Israel to Japan.
How is the 60th anniversary of the
forging of relations being marked in Japan?
The 60th anniversary has been marked
by a series of special events in various fields, including cultural events,
academic meetings and visits by senior officials. The Embassy of Israel in Tokyo
organized, for example, “Israel Technology Day” in February to promote
cooperation between the two countries, and at the end of May it hosted a special
gala concert marking the occasion with the unique collaboration of the Tokyo
Philharmonic Orchestra and leading Israeli musicians.
From September 4 to
25, a big musical and fashion event called “Teder Tel Aviv Tokyo” was held in
the heart of Tokyo with the famous Internet radio Teder and the design team
Rafsoda. The closing event of the anniversary was The Trojan Women, a Greek
tragedy by Euripides, which was jointly played by Japanese and Israeli actors
both in Tokyo and in Tel Aviv in December.
What is your opinion regarding
Israel’s economic and technological potential?
Israel’s economy is a
technologically advanced market economy and I recognize that Israel’s economic
and technological potential is extremely high. It has developed top-notch
technologies in IT, medical equipment, solar energy, water, space science, to
name a few, and it has won world recognition as shown in the fact that global
companies have established their own R&D centers and factories in
Small start-up companies are also offering attractive business
opportunities and Japanese companies, like everybody else, are showing great
interest in the new technologies developed by those start-up
Do you see any similarities between Jewish culture and values
and Japanese tradition?
Sixty years ago, Japan was struggling to recover from
the devastation of war, and Israel was working hard for its
[independence]. Both countries have surprised the world with tremendous
achievements since then.
This success can be attributed to our common
virtues such as diligence, pursuit of knowledge and emphasis on education,
strong sense of community welfare and so on. Needless to say, the two nations
also share the most important and fundamental values like freedom and
Although the founding fathers of Israel came mostly from
Europe, geographically and historically it was and still is part of Asia. Prof.
Shillony, a leading Japanologist at the Hebrew University, used to say that,
situated at both ends of Asia and being non-Christian countries, Israel and
Japan were the first two countries in Asia that succeeded in democratization and
modernization. There are of course lots of differences too between us,
and we can complement each other with our differences.
Japan is the only
country in the world to have been attacked with the atomic bomb. How does this
affect your views on nuclear proliferation?
Being the only country to have ever
suffered from atomic bombs, Japan is particularly convinced that the tragic
consequences of the use of nuclear weapons must never be repeated. Japan has
been firmly committed to the Three Non- Nuclear Principles of not possessing
nuclear weapons, not producing them and not permitting their entry into the
country. We will continue to make our best efforts to play a leading role
in the international community towards realizing “a world without nuclear
But Japan continues to be one of the leading importers of
Iranian oil, despite that regime’s attempts to build nuclear weapons in defiance
of UN resolutions and its declared aim to wipe Israel off the map. Why does your
country continue to do business with the ayatollahs?
Japan is seriously
concerned about the Iranian nuclear issue. In last December and the following
March, we expanded our additional accompanying measures pursuant to the United
Nations Security Council resolutions on Iran, based on the dual-track approach
of “dialogue” and “pressure” of the international community.
imports from Iran have been reduced by 40 percent in the past five years. In
2011, they fell by 16% from the first half to the second half of the
year. More recent data shows that our imports in the first quarter of
this year dropped by 22.6% year-to-year.
It should be noted that this
reduction was made against the background of the current difficult situation
where dependency on fossil fuels has increased in the course of the
reconstruction process after the great East Japan earthquake. Given the
importance of keeping [up] concerted international efforts, we will continue to
reduce our imports from Iran.
If Israel were to decide to use military
force against Iranian nuclear installations, what would your government’s
As I have mentioned, regarding the Iranian nuclear issue, the
international community, including Japan, supports the dual-track approach of
“dialogue” and “pressure,” and it has been exerting an unprecedented magnitude
of pressure on Iran.
The resumption of the talks with Iran came as a
result of such pressure, having led to dialogue. While any satisfactory result
is yet to be seen, it is important to continue to place truly effective pressure
on Iran, and make tangible progress toward a peaceful and diplomatic resolution
of the issue.
A military option would not only give a stronger motive and
excuse to Iran to accelerate its nuclear program, but it would also bring the
entire region into a more volatile, unpredictably dangerous situation, which
would then pose more threats to Israel itself. Needless to say, its impact on
the global economy, including Israel, could be enormous. It is our view that the
diplomatic efforts have not been exhausted and we should give more time for a
peaceful solution to this issue.
Japan has encouraged Israel to turn over
Judea and Samaria and agree to the establishment of an independent Palestinian
state. And yet, your country has its own territorial disputes, such as the Kuril
Islands, Takeshima and the Senkaku Islands. How would you feel if Israel were to
take a stance on these disputes and offer an opinion to Japan regarding what
their future status should be?
First of all, I would like to reiterate our basic
position that we support the vision that the borders under a two-state solution
should be defined through negotiations, based on the 1967 lines, with mutually
agreed swaps, in a way that will achieve peaceful coexistence of a viable
Palestinian state and Israel with secure and recognized borders.
position as to Judea and Samaria, as long as it means the occupied West Bank
after the war of 1967, Israel had no sovereignty over this territory for it had
never been part of Israel since its independence.
The islands you asked
[about] were historically under Japan’s sovereignty and the comparison you are
making is irrelevant. Of course any suggestion [regarding] how to solve these
issues will be most welcome.
Japanese culture emphasizes the need to show
respect for one’s hosts. Nonetheless, the Japanese embassy in Israel is located
in Tel Aviv, not Jerusalem. Why doesn’t Japan recognize Israel’s right to
determine its own capital city?
Of course Israel has every right to determine
its own capital. The problem, however, is that the final status of Jerusalem
should be resolved through negotiations in a way that reconciles the positions
of both parties on their future capital.
Japan disapproves any act which
may prejudge the final status of Jerusalem, including the Israeli annexation of
east Jerusalem, and under the circumstances we simply cannot move our embassy to
Jerusalem. I hope that the peace negotiations will be concluded as soon as
possible so that we will no longer be bound by those constraints.
statement released on June 8, the Japanese Foreign Ministry declared that it
“deplores the construction of new housing units for Jewish people in Beit El and
other areas in the West Bank” because this might affect the final status of the
territories. But the Palestinian Authority is also busy constructing
homes for Muslims in Judea and Samaria, which could also affect the outcome. Why
does Japan only condemn construction for Jews and not for Muslims Isn’t that
As stated in the statement, we see the settlement activities in
the “occupied territories” as a violation of international law, and have been
repeatedly called upon Israel to fully freeze settlement activities in the West Bank, including in east Jerusalem. We do not admit any
unilateral change and act by either party which may prejudge the final status of
the territories in the pre-1967 borders, which we believe needs to be negotiated
by the two parties concerned. What the PA does in its territories is totally
different from the settlement activities.
Japan, like Israel, is a
relatively small country in a region that is dominated by much larger neighbors.
Does this create a deeper sense of understanding for Israel’s strategic
The security environment surrounding Japan is not the same as the one
Israel is facing and I don’t think our region is dominated by any country. Japan
has diplomatic relations with all its neighbors except North Korea, with which
talks are ongoing.
Our relations with China, for example, are not those
of confrontation; we all know that it is to the benefit of everyone to maintain
and develop peaceful relations for mutual prosperity. So despite all the
difference of opinions and claims, we share a common understanding to go further
Japan, China and South Korea started working-level
consultations on FTA and we are hoping that formal negotiations will start by
the end of the year. We are convinced that it is only through dialogue and
negotiations that we will get to a peaceful solution and we hope that the peace
negotiations will be eventually resumed soon despite the difficult situations on
After World War II, Japan underwent its own transition to
democracy, leaving behind an authoritarian past and embracing representative
government. Since the start of the Arab spring, a number of Arab
autocrats have been removed from power, but there is a growing sense that their
Islamist replacements may prove to be even worse. How does Japan view the rise
of Islamic fundamentalism?
The so-called Arab Spring or Arab Awakening is a
widespread movement across North Africa and the Middle East, which turned out to
be revolutionary. It swept away the long-lasting regimes of Tunisia, Egypt and
Libya and defined the path for regime change in Yemen, while bringing about
various anti-regime protests both major and minor in most of the other Arab
nations, some still ongoing.
I hear many people expressing concern
regarding the rise of more articulate Islam-advocating regimes or the rise of
fundamentalism, but while it depends on how you define fundamentalism, it is not
the same as extremism. It is important to distinguish between the two, as
if you look back on history, whenever a fundamental change was called for, there
arose a movement to return to the original teachings to find solutions, like the
time of the Reformation in Europe.
Fundamentalism and extremism exist in
every religion and ideology. So we need more time to see what kind of political
system they are coming up with, and if any Islamist regime democratically
elected adopts policies of, say, intolerance and discrimination or disregards
basic tenets of democracy like human rights, women’s rights and empowerment and
equal rights for all citizens, then we will have a reason to be
During World War II, Japan was allied with Nazi Germany even
as the latter engaged in the murder of more than six million Jews. Does Japan
have regrets for its wartime path?
During the war, many people lost their lives
all over the world and tremendous damage was caused. Japan has expressed on a
number of occasions its profound remorse and sincere mourning for the victims of
the war and their bereaved family members.
We must hand down the past
lessons of that horrible war to the next generations so that the lessons will
never erode. Japan vows to uphold its pledge not to engage in war, and as
a member of the international community, we have made the realization of
international peace one of the pillars of our foreign policy in order to ensure
that the tragedy of war is never repeated.
I must also emphasize the fact
that Japan never supported Nazi Germany’s anti-Semitic policy. The story of Mr.
Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat who saved Jewish refugees, estimated to amount
to 6,000, in Lithuania by issuing entry visas to Japan is well known, and the
Japanese authorities received those refugees in Japan despite the demand by Nazi
Germany to hand them over.
Some people have claimed that the Japanese are
descendants of one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. What do you think of this
I am aware of such arguments but personally I have never been convinced
of them. Of course during the past more than 2,700 years since the disappearance
of the Ten Tribes, some of the descendants may have reached the Far East, but
however interesting the discussions of our origin may be, I don’t believe there
is any way of proving it. No DNA test has proven otherwise yet.