Big Talk

Bigtalk261 Greece – Japan, an Eternal Friendship

 Greece – a popular country among Japanese people – is home to many historical sites such as the Parthenon, and happens to be the birthplace of democracy, the Olympic Games, and many other institutions of Western culture. As a country that has maintained its unique culture, Greece has many things in common with Japan. Toshio Motoya spoke with His Excellency Mr. Nikolaos Tsamados, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Greece in Japan, on topics including how Greece is recovering from the recent financial crisis that hit Europe in the wake of the Lehman Brothers collapse, as well as other areas of shared interest between the two countries.

Both Japan and Greece are home to ancient civilizations, so understanding is possible even with different languages

Motoya Thank you for joining me on Big Talk today. I have long hoped to speak with you, but my invitation ended up being quite delayed. T: Thank you for coming all the way to the embassy today. As the Greek ambassador in Japan, I have many opportunities to meet with Japanese politicians and high officials in the government, but I don’t often get to speak with regular citizens. Through this magazine, Apple Town, I hope to inform as many Japanese people as possible about Greece. Thank you for giving me this wonderful opportunity.
Motoya Apple Town is available in the APA Hotel rooms, and is seen by as many as six million people each year, so I think it has a significant impact. Incidentally, Japanese people really like Greece, and many people go there for sightseeing every year. When they hear the word “Greece,” I suspect many people think of it as the origin of the Olympic Games. I also went to watch the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. And like Japan, Greece boasts a very long history; I feel like this is another reason for its popularity.
Tsamados As you say, both Japan and Greece have been the locations of great civilizations since ancient times. For that reason, I feel like we can communicate very easily. Even if we don’t understand each other’s language, I think we share a type of empathy due to the fact that we both have these ancient civilizations.
Motoya When one thinks of the Greek civilization, stone buildings such as the Parthenon in Athens come to mind. Perhaps that’s why we have an impression of it as a “stone civilization.” Conversely, Japan is a “wooden civilization.” We have very old wooden buildings, such as the five-story Sai-in pagoda at Horyu-ji Temple that was built in the mid-7th century. However, it’s not nearly as old as the Parthenon, which was built in the 5th century BC.
Tsamados That’s true (laughs). Greece is a travel destination, with tourists coming from all over the world. Despite the recent, rapid fall of the yen, I encourage Japanese tourists to visit Greece and enjoy our history, beautiful beaches, delicious food, and wonderful culture.
Motoya Yes, unfortunately, the devalued yen may discourage people from travelling overseas.
Tsamados I hope you will come to Greece as well, even if for a short stay. Seeing APA’s amazing operating ratios of 98% to 99%, I would like to invite you to visit Greece and share your expertise with Greek hotel owners. Additionally, the Greek Minister of Tourism will visit Japan in March, and I’m hoping that her schedule will permit a meeting with you.
Motoya There are various secrets behind APA Hotel’s high operating ratios, but I will tell you one: the room rates fluctuate 24 hours a day until a reservation is made. Most hotels sell their rooms after determining prices in advance, but the rates at APA Hotel vary hour by hour. It’s like exchange rates (laughs).
Tsamados How do you decide on the rates?
Motoya First of all, managers investigate rates at nearby hotels in order to get a sense of the “market price” that will beat these prices. The rates are raised or lowered based on this sense. The prices go up by 1.3 to two times during times of particular popularity, and conversely they may drop to half of the regular prices at other times.
Tsamados I see. That’s very logical. If the Olympic Games were held in Tokyo in 2020, would you increase your number of hotels?
Motoya We are already increasing our number each day (laughs). Right now we are moving forward on plans to build 50 hotels in five years in central Tokyo according to our “Summit Strategy.” As of today we have completed the designs for 25 hotels, and some have already been opened already. We plan to purchase the sites for and construct the remaining 25 hotels in the next two years or so.
Tsamados Are the room numbers and sizes the same at all APA Hotels?
Motoya No, they are entirely different. Our focus is on “city hotels” that are often patronized by businesspeople, but we also have resort hotels and hot springs ryokan (Japanese-style inns). Tsamados I’m a fairly large person (laughs) – would it be comfortable for me to stay there-
Motoya It’s true that our rooms aren’t very big, but even our single rooms have beds that are 1,400 millimeters wide, so you would be able to rest comfortably. We are also expanding our hotels with 42-inch large-scale LCD televisions. Some hotels also have large public baths, which are very popular.
Tsamados That’s wonderful. Greek people have expertise regarding the operation of hotels during the Olympic Games, so I think we should collaborate to create a system for welcoming overseas guests once the decision is made to hold the Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Motoya That sounds great!

The light of hope has become visible in Greece, where fiscal reconstruction is taking place

Motoya First of all, we need to make sure Tokyo’s bid is successful. I hope you will lend your support to that end.
Tsamados I understand. All I can say for the moment is, “May the best man win!”
Motoya (Laughs)
Tsamados I think Greece, as well as many other nations, experiences the same challenges as Japan. As you know, Greece was the birthplace of many schools of philosophy, one of which is Stoicism. Stoicism demands the acceptance of things beyond one’s control, including the fact that one cannot choose one’s own parents. In the same respect, a country cannot choose its neighbors.
Motoya I understand your meaning well. Peace with neighboring countries should be maintained by protecting a balance of power. On that point, up until today Japan has had an overly weak attitude towards its neighboring countries. Now that Shinzo Abe has become prime minister, I truly hope that Japan will move towards having a firmer stance.
Tsamados I think I understand you, and I know that you are friends with many politicians. I hope that Prime Minister Abe gives you satisfaction.
Motoya That’s right. Please tell us a little bit about Greece.
Tsamados Greece is in one sense unique in that it is linguistically, geographically, and even religiously quite different from other European nations, rather like Japan I would say. Also, like you, we have had many gods in ancient Greece and have learned to be intellectually more flexible, which helped us through the ages to skillfully deal with our environment and neighbors and coexist in peace.
Motoya Yes, I can agree with that.
Tsamados Japan has experienced miraculously rapid development on two occasions: the Meiji Restoration and after World War II. If I may add, Greece also contributed to the Japanese economic miracle at its beginning. Hundreds of ships were commissioned by Greek ship owners and built in Japanese shipyards.
Motoya People like Aristotle Onassis, the shipping magnate, placed orders.
Tsamados Yes, that’s right. But also, more recently the Goulandris and Captain Tsakos, amongst many others. Another reason for Japan’s huge economic success has been the ability to keep defense spending low for the past sixty years.
Motoya As you say, the shipbuilding industry has greatly supported Japan’s rapid progress. The major sources of these technologies were all developed during the era of the Imperial Japanese Army. After the war, the United States prohibited Japan from engaging in aircraft development. But the U.S. wasn’t concerned about shipbuilding, so these technologies have been steadily refined and perfected. Consequently, Japan is able to build high-quality ships of the type that are purchased by the Greek shipping industry.
Tsamados In the past Greece’s defense budget accounted for up to 5% of its GDP – this is seven times more than what Japan has been spending.
Motoya Today the news said that Greece’s primary balance had moved into the black.
Tsamados That’s true. Up until now Greece’s financial state has been dire, but I believe it is recovering steadily. Hopefully we can find a way to spend less on defense and more on education and other social programs. As I understand, Japan could benefit from exactly the opposite strategy.
Motoya You’re right. Japan sets the upper limit for its defense spending at 1% of the GDP, but today it isn’t even that high. I think we should be ashamed of this. Defense spending has decreased in past years, but there has finally been a reversal in this policy since Abe became the prime minister.
Tsamados I understand your point.
Motoya After the Cold War in Europe, Germany was the country that conducted itself in the most skillful way. By itself, the German mark would have become high-valued. But because Germany used the euro, it was able to gain global competitive strength due to the weakness of the new currency – a blessing that it made full use of. Conversely, Japan has suffered due to the high-valued yen. The yen has not become weak now; rather, I think it’s accurate to say that it is gradually returning to its normal state.
Tsamados You’re probably right, although, as you know, some in Europe criticize Japan for currency manipulation.
Motoya Yet Germany was helped by the cheap euro (laughs). But considering her position, I suppose Chancellor Merkel’s reaction is a natural one.
Tsamados I suppose so. Greece is beginning to see a light at the end of the tunnel and strives for a Europe united not only economically, but also politically. You mentioned Greece’s primary balance before – we also feel that the economic situation is steadily improving, though inflation remains a cause of concern.
Motoya Greece is beginning to see the light of hope.

Exchange with people of many races leads to future growth

Tsamados There’s one person we have to talk about in regards to the deep relationship between Greece and Japan. That’s Lafcadio Hearn, who was eventually naturalized as “Koizumi Yakumo.” His father was Anglo-Irish, but his mother was Greek. Despite his turbulent adolescence, Hearn managed to acquire a decent education. He became a magazine reporter in the U.S., and later came to Japan in 1890 to report on the era of a newly opened Japan. When he first arrived in the Port of Yokohama he thought it looked a great deal like Greece, and is believed to have said, “I have found my Greece in Japan!”
Motoya Afterwards, he married a Japanese woman.
Tsamados While teaching English in Matsue, Shimane Prefecture, he married the daughter of a former samurai from the Matsue Domain. He was extremely interested in Japanese mythology and drew many parallels between it and Greek mythology. He essentially opened the door to Japan for the English-speaking world, allowing a peek inside its insular culture. Lafcadio Hearn also brought the Japanese word tsunami into the English lexicon, after writing for an English audience about the Great Tsunami of 1896. Later, he became an English teacher at a high school in Kumamoto. But rather than the comparatively modern Kumamoto, with its atmosphere of a new era, Hearn apparently preferred Matsue, where there were still strong traces of the Edo period.
Motoya If you go to Matsue, you can visit the house where Hearn lived, which is preserved as a historical landmark.
Tsamados Yes, and I would also like to encourage Japanese to visit the birthplace of Lafcadio Hearn, on the beautiful island Lefkada, in Greece. Let me add that afterwards Hearn’s literary achievements were recognized on a large scale, and he later became a lecturer at Tokyo Imperial University. He died at the age of 54 in 1904. His students presented a laurel wreath with the inscription: “In memory of Lafcadio Hearn, whose pen was mightier than the sword of the victorious nation which he loved and lived among, and whose highest honor it is to have given him citizenship and, alas, a grave!”
Motoya He was very young. The beautiful Japan he shared with people is the Japan that we Japanese should think of with pride. Greece is certainly known for the Olympic Games, which have taken place in Athens on two occasions (the first modern Olympic Games and those in 2004). The Olympic Games were held in Tokyo in 1964; I will lend my support so that they can once again be held here in 2020, and I also ask for your help as well.
Tsamados I look forward to that. The number of people in Japan who jog or run has reached 10 million people, which is almost exactly the same as the population of Greece. Japan is a country of runners, and I think it is fully qualified to hold the Olympic Games (laughs). In addition, I’d like to suggest that Japanese take the opportunity to participate in marathons in Greece that will be organized starting from 2014 and tailored especially for Japanese runners during the Golden Week vacation.
Motoya I agree (laughs). In addition, I always ask the ambassadors of different countries about the United Nations’ “former enemy” clause. Almost 70 years have passed since World War II – even though the UN was created with a focus on the allied nations, I would like the clause that regards Germany and Japan as enemies to be immediately erased.
Tsamados I understand. I also have a request – I would like you to help further promote tourism between Japan and Greece, so that as many as possible of your countrymen can fulfill their dreams in the country that invented democracy, shaped western civilization, and made Europe possible. To that end, I would like for us to cooperate further. The Greek Minister of Tourism is a very accomplished and enthusiastic person and I hope you will meet her during her forthcoming visit to Japan.
Motoya I understand. I have visited Greece several times, and I feel like it is a country with many cultural assets that are worth seeing. There are many Japanese people who are very attracted to Greece.
Tsamados Thank you very much. Another thing Japan and Greece share is their love of seafood, particularly tako and karasumi. And I would also like to mention that olive oil, the base in Greek cuisine, is gaining more and more enthusiastic followers in your country.
Motoya Greek food is definitely enjoyable. When I meet with the Minister of Tourism, I will ask her about topics such as other recommended sightseeing spots.
Tsamados Please do so!
Motoya At the end of the interview, I always ask for a “word for the youth.”
Tsamados My youngest son is currently 16 years old. He commutes from our residence to the French school via subway. He really likes Japan, is able to read and write Japanese, and loves manga. He’s also learning karate and is close to attaining a black belt (laughs).
Motoya That’s amazing (laughs).
Tsamados In addition to Japanese, he has a varied group of friends from places like Korea, France, Brazil, the U.S., and all over. I feel it’s extremely beneficial to him and all young people to interact with people of diverse backgrounds from the time they are children. Perhaps Japanese people would also benefit from traveling overseas when they are young and communicating with other young people from around the world. That would certainly help steer the future in a good direction.
Motoya People say that young Japanese aren’t going overseas anymore, but more of them should definitely do so.
Tsamados I agree.
Motoya Thank you for joining me today.

Nikolaos Tsamados
Born in Athens, Greece in 1951. He has studied at the Sorbonne Pantheon’s Faculty of Law, I.E.P (Political Sciences), E.P.H.E. (Semiotics), and the Freie Universitat Berlin. After serving in the military, Tsamados entered the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1982. His positions included Consul General and Charge d’Affaires in countries such as Lebanon, Italy, Tunisia, and Germany. After serving in posts including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Director for Russia and other C.I.S. countries, Tsamados took up his current post in 2009.