Taking a positive approach

In a new series on ambassadors to Israel, Japanese envoy Shigeo Matsutomi talks about his impressions of the country.

April 25, 2015 21:20
SHIGEO MATSUTOMI, Japan’s ambassador to Israel

SHIGEO MATSUTOMI, Japan’s ambassador to Israel. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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While political newshounds are trying to determine exactly what US President Barack Obama meant when speaking of Iran’s long-term nuclear potential, Shigeo Matsutomi, Japan’s ambassador to Israel, has a more positive approach. His dream, he said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post, is to drive a car from Tel Aviv to Tehran.

That dream is unlikely to be realized in the foreseeable future, not only due to the obvious, intense animosity between Iran and Israel, but also because as ambassador, Matsutomi does not do his own driving; he has a driver, and sitting in the backseat of the limousine is not nearly as exciting as sitting behind the wheel. Aside from all that, a lot has to change before a car with CD license plates issued in Israel will be allowed into the Islamic Republic, regardless of its occupants.

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Matsutomi presented his credentials to President Reuven Rivlin last September.

While many ambassadors have not visited Israel prior to taking up their new postings, Matsutomi was no stranger to the Jewish state, nor to the Palestinian Authority for that matter. A former director-general for Middle Eastern and African affairs in his country’s Foreign Ministry, Matsutomi visited Israel and the PA at least once a year.

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Since taking up his position as ambassador, he does not visit the PA, but does keep track of what is happening there – especially with regard to the considerable economic aid Japan endows it with.

But first and foremost, he’s interested in enhancing Tokyo’s relationship with Jerusalem on every level.

Japan was one of the first countries in Asia to formally recognize Israel, which it did in 1952. Relations progressed in 1954 when Japan’s ambassador to Turkey was also accredited to Israel.

A Japanese legation opened in Israel in 1956 and in 1963, it was upgraded to an embassy.

Matsutomi likes to travel and in the course of his career has visited more approximately 70 countries, including 22 countries of the Middle Eastern and African region. The fact that Japan has excellent relations with several of these countries should not preclude its good relations with Israel, he believes.

Japan does not subscribe to the idea that the enemy of my friend is my enemy.

He enjoyed observing the different cultural lifestyles in each of the countries he visited.

Since his arrival in Israel, Matsutomi has traveled extensively throughout the country, although he has not yet been to Eilat, and looks forward to the opportunity to visit Israel’s southern resort city.

Aside from his personal enjoyment in seeing new places and meeting new faces, he is also expanding his Israel horizons because the Japanese government is now putting greater emphasis on tourism – not only to promote Japan as a holiday destination, but because Tokyo is convinced that tourism can be used as a vehicle for peace, stability and prosperity throughout the Middle East.

Touring Israel is part of a learning experience within the framework of this policy, as it enables the ambassador to take stock of demographic, scenic, creative, industrial and leisure-time diversity. The accumulation of this knowledge will help Japanese tourist authorities better plan routes and activities for Japanese tourists coming to Israel.

Israel is Matsutomi’s first posting as an ambassador, though certainly not his first posting abroad; he has served in various diplomatic capacities in Pakistan, the US, New Zealand and Turkey. A lawyer and trained economist, Matsutomi has twice served as a member of the Japanese delegation to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, firstly as first secretary in 1988 and then as minister in 2002. Japan was the first Asian country to become a member of the OECD, joining in 1964. During the periods in which he represented Japan at the OECD, Matsutomi was deeply involved with investment and multinational corporations, and his overall interest in economics is reflected in promoting further investments by Japanese companies in Israel and Israeli companies in Japan.

Without mentioning some of the tensions in Israel’s relations with Europe and the US, Matsutomi noted Israel’s renewed interest in the East, primarily in regard to India, China and Japan. Of these three Japan is the only member country of the OECD, and shares values similar to those of the Jewish state.

During his visits to Israel before his appointment as ambassador, he had little time to see much of the country. The visits were brief, and he spent most of his time at meetings.

But since taking up his position, Matsutomi is certainly making up for lost opportunities, and his impression of Israel is that it’s “a very peculiar and particular country.”

Because of its reputation as a start-up nation, Matsutomi expected to find hi-tech everywhere, and was very surprised to discover that Israel is “conservative” when it comes to adapting hi-tech to everyday life.

Israel’s adaptation is not as fast as he had anticipated, and even cable TV does not quite adapt to optical fibers, he says.

Matsutomi is very interested in hi-tech, possibly because his first career choice when still at school was in the field of science. He dreamed of being an astrophysicist, but ended up as a diplomat instead.

Nonetheless, he remains fascinated by anything to do with science, with attention currently focused on the cyber aspect.

“We’re dealing with a new phenomenon, and what’s important is the challenge,” he asserts, adding that in Japan, companies are working very hard to find ways and means to combat cyber espionage and interference.

Our interview is conducted in the spacious and very secure premises of the Japanese Embassy on the 20th floor of Tel Aviv’s Museum Tower. I enter on the 19th floor and have to surrender my cellphone before entering a very large waiting room.

Some five to 10 minutes later, I am escorted up the indoor double-glazed staircase to the ambassador’s office. The office is large, with a lot of space between the ambassador’s desk and the comfortable sofas and armchair grouped around a coffee table. It is all very understated and low-key, with the exception of a glass case near the desk; it contains a tall figurine attired in an exquisite Japanese kimono.

The ambassador smiles easily and demonstrates his flexibility by shaking hands with his visitor and not bowing. At receptions in his residence, all the Japanese present bow to each other and to anyone else they happen to greet. The interview is a little difficult because in Japanese culture it is not acceptable to ask intensely personal questions, and although this interviewer did from time to time wander beyond that red line, for the most part the questions were very general for fear of committing a protocol gaffe.

When attempting afterwards with two members of Matsutomi’s staff to clarify a couple of points in his biography, the response was: “We don’t know. We don’t ask those questions.”

One of the beyond-the-red-line questions was asking the ambassador his age. He looks much younger than his 59 years.

The legal retirement age in Japan’s Foreign Ministry is 60, with a three-year extension for anyone who has spent 10 years abroad, he explains. There is no specified retirement age for ambassadors, “so if I’m lucky, I’ll stay here until I’m 63.”

What will Matsutomi do after he retires? “I have to talk to my wife. She has some specifics.”

His wife, Kaori, is an effervescent former television anchor with a contagious enthusiasm for everything around her.

She is never without her small video camera, constantly capturing images of people and places for posterity.

Neither husband nor wife behave with the same degree of formality as some of their predecessors, though they swing easily between Eastern and Western social norms.

When it is put to the ambassador that he does not conform with the stereotyped image of the Japanese male, he smiles and points out that the stereotype is in the minds of the non-Japanese. The Japanese are very much like the Israelis, but more polite and understated, he maintains.

“We are very quiet, but when we fight we are very strong.”

In Japanese parlance people are compared to hawks which are silent, or owls which are wise. “Some people say I’m a hawk, but I’d rather be an owl,” muses Matsutomi. His self-perception is that of being typically Japanese, in that his people are not monolithic and are characterized by their diversity, which includes different religious traditions.

Matsutomi is a Zen Buddhist, “which means no shrimp, no crab, no crustaceans...

it’s close to kosher.”

Unlike some of his colleagues from other countries who asked to be posted to Israel, or who chose the posting when given three or four options, Matsutomi did not request it, but is glad to be here – because Israel is part of a non-Arab tripod from which developments in the Middle East can be observed. Since the Arab Spring, the Middle East has become very fluid, he says, intimating that diplomats want to be close to the action, where they can observe what is going on without becoming unwittingly embroiled in developments – via postings in Israel, Turkey or Iran. “That’s why Tokyo sent me here.”

The only thing he finds a little unsettling in Israel is that there are too many holidays, especially for a workaholic. While Israelis were taking advantage of a string of holidays and festivals, Matsutomi was busy at his desk or outside his office promoting his country’s interests.

When he does take time out, Matsutomi loves to walk along Dizengoff and Allenby streets in Tel Aviv, through Jerusalem’s Old City, or along the boulevard of Haifa’s Mount Carmel.

He also likes to visit art galleries and is particularly fond of contemporary sculpture, where he thinks Israelis are very creative; he is less complimentary about the country’s painters. His love of sculpture is also transferred to the Negev landscape.

“I love the rock formations in the Negev, where I not only see the work of Mother Nature, but I can feel it.”

For relaxation he reads history books, particularly those dealing with Jerusalem during the period 1948-1949, and moving into the present has many opportunities at Israel’s myriad diplomatic events to discuss current events with his colleagues.

Sometimes they may meet as often as three times in a single day, going from a morning function to an afternoon function to an evening function, where in each place they gather in clusters to discuss some new development and its possible ongoing scenarios.

One of the pleasant surprises for Matsutomi has been to see the extent to which Israelis embrace Japanese culture.

There are 400 so-called Japanese restaurants in Israel but only five Japanese chefs; all are registered with the embassy, he observes. Asked to grade the restaurants, Matsutomi says that some are very good, though declining to name them. He also mentions that for the most part, the food is not strictly Japanese – but fusion cuisine, which he loves.

He is impressed by Israel’s appreciation of the Oriental arts, and has been delighted to find some Japanese art in the Megiddo museum as well as at Haifa’s Tikotin Museum.

He has heard that Kibbutz Heftziba has a Japanese garden, and that is still on his list of things to see.

He is amazed at the number of Israelis practicing Japanese martial arts, particularly karate. His own sphere in this regard is judo, which he says is part of high school education in Japan.

In addition to being Japan’s envoy to Israel, he is also its key representative for the resident Japanese community, of whom 950 are registered with the embassy. But that’s just a drop in the ocean compared to the number of Japanese tourists.

According to Matsutomi, at least 14,000 Japanese tourists visit Israel each year, and the numbers are growing.

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