His Excellency Dr. Grant Pogosyan came to Japan 22 years ago to work as a professor at International Christian University and was appointed the Ambassador of Armenia in Japan last year. Toshio Motoya spoke with Dr. Pogosyan about a wide range of topics regarding Armenia ? a country that the Japanese public knows relatively little about ? including its tumultuous history, rich culture, and the national characteristics of the Armenians, who just like Jewish people are spread all over the world while preserving their national identity and culture.
Motoya Thank you for joining me on Big Talk today. You have been in Japan for a long time, so we are able to conduct this dialogue in Japanese. How many years have passed since you came to Japan?
Pogosyan I arrived in Japan 22 years ago to work as a professor. I have actually lived continuously in Japan longer than any other country. I came for the first time in 1987, but at that time I stayed for only one year. That was when Armenia was part of the Soviet Union, and the leader of the country was Mikhail Gorbachev.
Motoya Was it difficult to leave the country at that time?
Pogosyan Yes, it was. However, as one facet of “perestroika” there were chances ? albeit very few ? for young researchers to visit other countries. I applied for various exchange programs, and finally it was approved that I could spend a year in Japan.
Motoya I haven’t heard the word “perestroika” in a very long time! During 1987, Japan was right in the middle of the bubble economy.
Pogosyan It was a good era. There were many opportunities and much fun too (laughs).
Motoya (Laughs) What was your major field of study?
Pogosyan Mathematics and Computer Science. Since I returned to Japan to work, I have been involved in research and education in these fields at International Christian University before becoming ambassador in May of last year.
Motoya I asked you to come here today so you could teach me various things about Armenia. I think most Japanese people have no knowledge of your country.
Pogosyan You are correct. The title of my first seminar I held for businesspeople was, “Armenia ? the Unexplored Country” (laughs).
Motoya I suspect many people don’t even know where it is located.
Pogosyan It is between the Black and Caspian Seas in the South Caucasus region. Armenia shares borders with Turkey in the west, Iran in the south, Azerbaijan in the east, and Georgia in the north. The country has existed since ancient times; its recorded history stretches back for about 4,500 years.
Motoya Armenia has a history of being at the mercy of various powers throughout each era.
Pogosyan Yes, we are, as some may call us, a “survivalist” nation that has had to struggle many times for existence. Because of its size and location, Armenia has been subjugated by the Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Mongols, Persians, Turks, Russians, and even ? for a brief period ? by Alexander the Great. The current population is approximately three million people, but there are 10 million Armenians throughout the world. Armenians began spreading across the globe from around the 12th century. They created networks in the places they immigrated to, as well as bases for living, education, and worship.
Motoya When I hear the word “Armenia,” I first recall the tragedy of the genocide.
Pogosyan Is that so? Not so many people in Japan have knowledge of it, unfortunately. From 1915 to 1916, the Ottoman Empire of that time attempted to forcibly emigrate Armenians from the Armenian highlands in Eastern Anatolia, which is located in present-day Turkey and was a long-established residential area for Armenian people. As a result of this “ethnic cleansing,” approximately 1.5 million Armenians were slaughtered ? one third of the Armenian population at that time. The current territory of Armenia was determined during the era of the former Soviet Union, but Armenians lived in a broader region before that point. Both of my grandfathers were born in what we call Western Armenia, which is now part of Turkey. My great-grandfather was a victim of the genocide. In almost every Armenian family there are stories of their ancestors who suffered through or were killed in this first genocide of the 20th century.
Motoya Because one third of the population died, even now the genocide has significant impacts on the relationship between Armenia and Turkey.
Pogosyan Almost 100 years have passed since the genocide. The atmosphere between the two nations has improved a great deal, while the memory will never fade away.
Motoya In recent years, the presidents of Armenia and Turkey are working to improve the relationship, such as visiting the other country.
Pogosyan We can’t change the fact that these two countries are located next to each other. It is therefore in everyone’s best interests ? the governments as well as its citizens ? to establish diplomatic relations between Armenia and Turkey, our important neighbor. To that end, all parties, including the Turkish authorities, are urged to accept the truth of the well-recorded facts related to this genocide. Such an action would ease bilateral talks about a common economic future based on friendly relations.
Motoya As you say, it’s a fact that the great majority of families lost people to the Armenian Genocide. However, there are no people who can say their relatives died in the Nanking Massacre, which is regarded as the work of the Japanese Army. Of course, there is no list of the names of victims either. It is entirely contrary to reality. Yet the misinformation spread by the Chinese Kuomintang government, as one facet of its information stratagem, has become fully established as fact. Mao Zedong of the Chinese Communist Party said the Communist Party was first able to obtain power thanks to the Japanese Army. Despite this, people began criticizing Japan for the Nanking Massacre in line with the Kuomintang’s propaganda. The preservation of a unique language leads to the formation of an ethnic group’s culture
Pogosyan Acknowledging historical facts is important for the peaceful development of world nations, rather than for provisional political propaganda.
Motoya I agree. People keep saying things about Japan in a one-sided way. Because Shinzo Abe is now the prime minister, I hope he will make clearer rebuttals.
Pogosyan For things that are clearly true, various historical materials remain. If you visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, you can see a vast amount of photographs and materials. We must accept these things and pass them to younger generations. In this way we could prevent tragedies happening in the future.
Motoya I think so, too. If you visit the sites of massacres throughout the world ? such as the Holocaust committed by the Nazis, Pol Pot’s purge in Cambodia, and the genocide in Rwanda ? there are museums that display many photographs, weapons, and materials. However, there are no specific photographs or materials at the Nanking Massacre Memorial Hall. The Japanese government should insist that China fully provide proof, since it says a massacre took place. I think Japan should improve its economic strength further and increase its forcefulness of speech so the entire world will listen to its claims.
Pogosyan Unfortunately, I am not well aware of the materials in Nanking. Historians in both countries should continue to investigate the facts of the past. Agreement on this will help build trustworthy bilateral relations and peace.
Motoya Armenia has overcome the massacre and is now a fully peaceful country. A winery from 6,000 years ago has also been discovered.
Pogosyan Yes, that’s true. Of course, we don’t know much about the people living in Armenia at that time, but the discovered facts tell us that they cultivated grapes and made wine for many millennia.
Motoya Indeed, one can understand that grapes and wine have a very long history.
Pogosyan Wine isn’t Armenia’s only special product. In fact, Ararat brandy, also known as Armenian cognac, may be even more famous. Prime Minister Winston Churchill of England loved Armenian brandy. It is said that he purchased about 400 bottles per year.
Motoya It must have been delicious!
Pogosyan Brandy is also made from grapes, so it’s likely that the culture of grapes lead to the creation of these renowned alcoholic beverages from times long past. Besides the variety of grapes, the fruit that represents Armenia is the apricot. The Latin name for apricot is “Prunus armeniaca.” Apricots were also found in East Asia and India, but the best-known production area in the Middle East and Europe was Armenia. You’d be surprised by how apricot flowers resemble Japanese cherry blossoms. The duduk is an ethnic wind instrument made from apricot wood. It produces a fascinating, unique tone, and has recently become popular in other countries as well.
Motoya I can tell from its cuisine and ethnic instruments that Armenia has many unique types of culture. I think one of these is its language. Armenian has been used continually since ancient times, which is perhaps one reason why an ethnic identity was maintained. I feel like this original language is the source of Armenia’s ability to overcome many difficult historical hardships.
Pogosyan Yes. The Jewish people have constructed firm positions all over the world due to the strength they developed by withstanding various tribulations throughout history. Armenians are the same; we have a strong attitude towards protecting our cultural traditions, which helps overcome difficult circumstances, and creates unity based on our culture and traditions.
Motoya Japan is surrounded by ocean, so it’s been easy for us to protect such things. However, inland countries are vulnerable to invasions from surrounding enemies. That’s why the conflicts in Europe were so terrible. I am impressed by Armenia and the Armenian people, who have managed to protect their culture and language and are active across the globe.
Pogosyan Thank you very much.
Motoya The Jewish people were able to found Israel because they put efforts into education. I have heard it said that money and physical objects disappear when they are seized, but the refinement and wisdom mastered by people can always be brought with them if they have to flee. Perhaps the same thing can be said about Armenians.
Pogosyan Yes, it certainly can be applied to Armenia. We have a strong awareness of protecting things through education, such as the sciences and techniques passed down from our predecessors. That’s why many Armenians living in other countries for generations can speak the language of their ancestors. They use Armenian with their families at home, and the local language outside of the home.
Motoya Apparently, Armenian is a very unique language.
Pogosyan Armenian belongs to the Armenian branch of the Indo-European language family. It is the only language in this branch. For example, the Slavic branch contains many languages such as Russian, Bulgarian, Serbian, and Polish. Considering this, Armenian is a rather unique language.
Motoya Does it have its own script?
Pogosyan Yes. The current Armenian alphabet was created in the early 5th century (in 406 AD) with the goal of developing the most suitable script for the spoken Armenian language. Before that point Greek letters were in use, and cuneiform characters even farther back.
Motoya In Japan as well, Chinese characters were not sufficient to express the Japanese language, so the hiragana script was created in the 9th century. I think having an original script has a close relationship with the creation of a country’s unique culture.
Pogosyan I agree entirely.
Motoya Incidentally, what is the best season to visit Armenia for sightseeing?
Pogosyan The latitude of Yerevan, the capital city, is the same as Sendai. For that reason, it’s a bit colder than Tokyo. But the temperature in summer easily reaches 40 degrees Celsius. The air is dry, unlike humid Japan, so even in the summer you can be comfortable in the shade. The best season is probably autumn, when there is a great deal of tasty fruits and vegetables. The season of spring flowers is also beautiful.
Motoya I have heard that Yerevan, the capital, is a city with a great deal of history.
Pogosyan That’s right. According to a stone document written in the cuneiform script, Yerevan was founded by King Argishti in 782 BC ? almost 3,000 years ago ? so it is even older than Rome. Many historical monuments can be found in and around Yerevan. Armenia was the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as its state religion. Mother Cathedral of Holy Echmiadzin, which is close to Yerevan, is said to be one of the world’s oldest churches. The cathedral, together with quite a few other Christian monuments in Armenia, is even registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Motoya Was Christianity propagated at a relatively early period?
Pogosyan It is said that Bartholomew and Thaddeus, two of Christ’s 12 apostles, brought Christianity to Armenia. The Armenian Church that began from there drew from Christianity that differed from the Greek Orthodox Church and other sects. Christianity became the state religion in 301, when Armenia’s king was baptized. A century later, when the Armenian alphabet was created, the first book to be written using the new script was the Bible. Christianity in Armenia has this very long history, so it is now a part of people’s lives and identity. Perhaps it is comparable to Shinto in Japan.
Motoya To Japanese people, the conflicts between Judaism, Islam, and Christianity ? people who believe in the same type of monotheism ? are very curious. In Japan there is the concept of “eight million gods,” so people do not reject each other because they believe in different gods. I hope that Turkey and Armenia can overcome religious barriers based on this spirit.
Pogosyan I agree.
Motoya The U.S. is a fundamentalist Christian country, because it is a nation that was founded by the Puritans, who were unable to remain in England. They believed that God created black people to serve white people, so they imported black slaves, carried out large-scale agriculture, and amassed riches. They also persecuted the Native Americans and continued expanding westward and beyond, moving into the Pacific Ocean all the way to Hawaii and the Philippines. The U.S. knew at an early stage that Japan would serve as a hindrance to its control of the Pacific Ocean, so the U.S. dispatched Matthew C. Perry to Japan to place pressure on it. The fulfillment of these expectations was World War II, when the signing ceremony for the Instrument of Surrender was held aboard the USS Missouri anchored in Tokyo Bay. The American flag hoisted by Perry was purposefully ordered for and displayed there. After the war, Japan’s educational system was reformed under the U.S. occupation, and nothing is taught about these things. Of course, there are also many Christians who are broad-minded and sincere.
Pogosyan As a Christian, I have taught my students that it is wrong to create barriers between people according to religion. Religion should be something that connects people. In the long history of Christianity, schools have been built together with churches, and culture has been nurtured and taught, such as philosophy, music, and painting. This is our history, as well as the foundation of our culture. Still, we must not denounce people who believe in other religions.
Motoya There is a general trend in which, if religions do not expand by increasing the number of adherents, the followers are snatched away and the religion declines. That may be why some are aggressive. Japan is an exception; even though Shinto existed, Japan also accepted the foreign religion of Buddhism. I think you won’t find such a gentle ethnic group anywhere else.
Pogosyan That’s certainly true. If you add the number of Shinto and Buddhism believers in Japan, the total is much larger than the population. In Japan it is normal to be taken to a Shinto shrine directly after birth, have a Christian wedding ceremony as an adult, and then have a Buddhist funeral. I think this flexibility and tolerance is splendidly unique, and the Japanese are a wonderful ethnic group.
Motoya To return to the topic of Armenia, the Armenian Army has 50,000 soldiers, even thought the country isn’t that big. Looking at the population, this percentage is comparable to increasing the size of the current Japan Self-Defense Forces by 10 times to 2.5 million people. Do you feel that an army of this scale is necessary for national defense?
Pogosyan Yes, we do. In the two to three years before Armenia became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union, armed conflict took place with the neighboring Azerbaijan. The dispute with Azerbaijan has yet to be resolved. Armenia is strongly advocating for a peaceful resolution of all issues with its neighbor. Meanwhile, to protect the peaceful life and safety of the population, the current number of soldiers is needed. Of course, the economic burden is quite heavy…
Motoya Speaking of disasters, there was an earthquake right before independence.
Pogosyan That was in 1988. I had just returned to Armenia after my year in Japan when the devastating earthquake occurred. Many buildings were destroyed, and 20,000 people perished. Nurses came from Japan right after the earthquake to give care to the people who had been injured. I had brought Japanese cookware and other items, such as a sukiyaki pot, back with me. My home often served as a place for Japanese friends to gather. On the other hand, after the Great East Japan Earthquake of two years ago, many Armenians gave donations to Japan. Both countries have few resources and a large number of earthquakes, so many Armenians feel great sympathy for Japan.
Motoya When did you start liking Japan?
Pogosyan I made a Japanese friend during my graduate school years. I became more interested as I heard various things from him, and also got fascinated as I read books and essays about your beautiful country and unique culture. When I actually came to Japan, my feelings grew even stronger. I especially like going to rural areas. No matter where you go, you can discover exciting pieces and facts of unique and rich cultures that were wisely cultivated over a long period of time. But since I’ve lived in Japan for a very long time, conversely I have also gained a new appreciation for my homeland Armenia, and have become more patriotic as well.
Motoya I totally agree. People who go overseas definitely become more patriotic.
Pogosyan I often told my students that a “canned patriotism” confined in one place and one culture is deficient, and might even be dangerous at times. By encountering different cultures, places, and people, one broadens one’s perception and improves the understanding of the goodness of one’s own country. As I lived in Japan and many other countries, I think I became able to view Armenia more fairly and consequently to better appreciate the good characteristics of my culture. I also developed a strong feeling that I wish to connect Armenia and Japan ? they are two cultures worth bridging.
Motoya I think so, too. I look forward to your future activities. At the end of the interview, I always ask for a “word for the youth.”
Pogosyan As an educator I have helped develop many young people, both Japanese and international students. There are many different graduates, such as those who have successfully founded companies, became good researchers, or have returned to their home countries, and on at least one occasion, became a university president. One of the problems Japanese society faces today is that with remarkably increased longevity the ratio of young people decreases. In addition, in recent years young people surprisingly are becoming more “uchimuki” (inward looking) and tend to avoid risks. I believe Japan can definitely overcome these problems. I hope that the young people will have a spirit of taking on challenges so they can make their lives exciting and the wonderful country of Japan even better.
Motoya I agree. I have been able to carry out business on this scale exactly because I have visited 77 countries across the world. Thank you very much for speaking with me today.
Born on February 1, 1953 in Armenia. Majored in Mathematics at Moscow State University. PhD degree in Computer Science. Mainly followed a traditional academic career path. From 1991 was a professor, later dean, of International Christian University, Tokyo. Prior to his appointment as ambassador, for many years served as advisor for Japanese affairs to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Armenia.