Big Talk

Countries with Their Own Culture and History Strive to Preserve Their Identity and Traditions

The Hellenic Republic (Greece) is known as the land where the Olympics originated and as an advanced tourism nation that accepts 30 million tourists from overseas every year. The representative spoke with Mr. Loukas Karatsolis, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, about matters which are also of a deep interest to Japan, such as the tourism policy and aging society policy that the Greek government is pouring its efforts into.

Focusing on the Development of Islands: Increasing the Number of Small Resorts

Motoya Thank you for joining me on Big Talk today. I was on very good terms with Nikolaos Tsamados, the previous Ambassador of the Hellenic Republic to Japan. I have been eager to talk to you for some time. I am glad we are finally able to do so today. When were you appointed to the position of ambassador?

Karatsolis Thank you for inviting me today. It has been a year since I was appointed as ambassador.

Motoya This year is when the Olympics will be held. Of course, when we talk about the Olympics, we think of Athens in Greece – the birthplace of this event. I have always made sure to attend the Summer Olympics since the Montreal Olympics of 1976. However, I didn’t go to the Moscow Olympics in 1980 which were boycotted by Japan. I did though go to the opening ceremony for the Athens Olympics in 2004. It was a very hot day.

Karatsolis That Olympics was a great success. The opening ceremony was also wonderful.

Motoya The Olympics is a sports event, but the opening and closing ceremonies show everything about the host nation, such as their arts. This is an opportunity to advertise to the world. These ceremonies are packed with great creativity and ingenuity at every event, so they are fun.

Karatsolis Of course, the Olympics are an event at which athletes from all over the world compete in various contests. However, it is necessary for all the athletes and spectators to consider the meaning and values originally held by this event. The intention of this event is for people to respect each other’s culture to realize world peace and prosperity.

Motoya It is said that “participation is important” in regards to the Olympics. It is also important for participants to build friendly relations beyond national borders and contribute to the development of culture, the arts and sports in each other’s countries.

Karatsolis Of course, it is also important to win! Everyone remembers the medalists from their own countries wherever they are in the world. Once the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games finishes this year, medalists from Japan and Greece are expected to hold joint events towards promoting the Olympic spirit and values at the next Tokyo Olympics.

Motoya The first modern Olympics that started after being advocated by Baron de Coubertin were held in Athens in 1896 as a worldwide sports event based on the Festival of Olympia in ancient Greece. It has been 120 years since then. Greece – the birthplace of this event – is, of course, a special land. The Greek athletes come out first in the entry parade at the opening ceremony. In addition, there is a ceremony to light the Olympic Flame from sunlight that is performed by a woman dressed up as a shrine maiden in Olympia in Greece. This makes it possible to feel the importance of this event.

Karatsolis This ceremony is one that is performed while the world confirms the significance of the Olympics as a holy ritual in the birthplace of this event.

Motoya Greece is not just the motherland of the Olympics; it is also an advanced tourism nation because there are many historic sites there with the country having a long history since the BC era as an area mixing Oriental and Western civilizations. On the other hand, it has just become clear that Japan has recently started down the path toward becoming a major tourism nation. Moreover, the other day, Prime Minister Abe revised upward his target for the number of tourists to visit Japan to 40 million people in 2020 and 60 million people in 2030. I wonder what Japan has to do to become a major tourism nation. First, can you tell me about the current tourism policy of Greece?

Karatsolis Currently, we are implementing a policy focused on our small islands instead of developing large resorts. We are looking to build many small resorts that cherish spaces where you can spend time leisurely by limiting the number of hotels and guests at the island level. We are working on developing many of our islands under the notion that “small is beautiful.” It is particularly enjoyable to wander around several islands and experience the differences between them.

Motoya I see. The economic effect from such tourism will extend across the entire country in addition to those specific areas if many small resorts are built. In the case of Japan as well, there was a bias toward tourists in Tokyo at first. However, tourists who come to Japan a second or third time tend to go to local regions while avoiding Tokyo where rates are high and it is difficult to secure accommodation. In fact, sales in Tokyo for APA Hotel had continued to increase up to two years ago. However, last year, sales did not increase beyond that. Instead, we saw more people staying in our hotels in Osaka, Kanazawa and Hokkaido. I think that repeat visitors to Japan go to various places around the country from Tokyo.

Karatsolis In the past, tourists used to be concentrated mainly in Athens in Greece. However, many people now head to our islands. In addition, it has become possible to fly direct to these islands from Europe.

Motoya Conventionally, it was normal to transfer to a local flight at a hub airport in that area to head to your final destination. However, there has been an increase in low-cost carriers and so it has also become possible to go direct to the airports you want to go to with local-to-local flights. I think this trend will become stronger both in Japan and around the world.

Karatsolis I think you are right.

Motoya There are a number of countries with large populations around Japan – China, India and Indonesia. Of course, as the income levels in those countries increase, the desire of the people there to travel overseas also springs forth. Japan is the perfect destination for them because it is the closest advanced nation to them with safety, delicious food and punctual public transportation. In addition to the rise in the income levels in those countries, the weaker yen ignited a boom in popularity of travel to Japan since about three years ago. The number of foreign tourists to Japan has been exceeding expectations. I have been saying for a long time that a country with tourism potential like in Japan should be expecting 40 or 60 million foreign visitors a year. The target of the Japanese government is now that!

Karatsolis Japan is a model for other nations looking to become travel destinations. Japan is attractive for its safety as you say, but I personally have fallen in love with Japanese culture.

Motoya It makes me proud as a Japanese person to hear that.

Concrete Policy Is Necessary to Increase Accommodation Facilities

Motoya The APA Group started our Five-Year Plan Summit 5 on April 1, 2010. We promoted our project for 40 to 50 hotels and apartment buildings all at once with the target of winning the top share in the center of Tokyo. The occupancy rate of our hotels in the center of the Tokyo created by this is a monthly 100% for all of them. The new urban hotels we advocate have a 30% ordinary profit rate and have become the business model for the world’s highest revenue hotels. These hotels also keep carbon dioxide gas emissions down to about one third that of regular city hotels with consideration for the environment. There are people who find these rooms somewhat confined, but APA hotel sells satisfaction not space. Although these rooms are small, the air conditioning, light switches and power sources are all concentrated around the beds. This convenience leads to many guests becoming repeat customers. We are now receiving inquiries about expanding our hotels in the franchise format from all over the world. The pre-opening of APA Hotel Woodbridge in November last year formed the first part of our overseas expansion. We will remodel all the rooms so that they have toilet seats with bidet functions and then look forward to our grand opening in June this year.

Karatsolis That is wonderful.

Motoya Japan and Greece are both historic countries. I think tourists are attracted to the historic sites, buildings and culture that allow you feel this. I wonder about the United States…

Karatsolis There are cases in which the hotel itself is the destination in the United States. I guess the typical example of this would be Las Vegas. Greece also has great resort hotels. The Westin Resort, Costa Navarino is a representative example of this. This is well-known as having developed the first international standard golf course in Greece, but the beach is also very beautiful.

Motoya In addition to the environment and activities, one of the things that most interests tourists is food.

Karatsolis Japanese food is a particularly great attraction.

Motoya Japanese cuisine is certainly enjoying a boom in popularity across the planet. We are also making preparations to put in place a Japanese restaurant in APA Hotel Woodbridge.

Karatsolis In Greece, where the political situation is returning to normal, we are putting our efforts into agriculture. We hope to promote modernization by updating equipment and proactively introducing technology from overseas to lead to an increase in the export of our agricultural products. In addition, I think it would be great if we can turn food from these crops into one of the attractions of tourism to Greece. We also welcome agricultural technology from Japan. There were 24 million tourists from overseas to Greece last year, and we expect this to increase to 30 million tourists. I think now is an opportunity to invest in Greece.

Motoya You get tired of wonderful views if you look at them for an hour. However, delicious foods are always delicious no matter how many times you eat them. The issue is how to grow these ingredients and develop this food culture.

Karatsolis There is a culture of Greek cuisine with many delicious dishes based on unique ingredients grown on the varied Greek soil that is influenced by different climate conditions.

Motoya Greece is now working very hard, but Japan has not previously put enough effort into its tourism policy. The number of visitors from overseas visiting this wonderful country did not exceed 10 million people until three years ago. We finally attracted almost 20 million people here last year. However, the government has set the splendid target of further increasing this number to 40 million and then 60 million. Therefore, we are entering a phase when we have to think about how we can achieve this. The most severe problem we face at the moment is a lack of accommodation facilities. I made various proposals to increase the floor space index the other day. In the case of apartment buildings, it is fine if the common areas (such as the corridors, balconies and entrance halls) are not included in the calculation of the floor space index. However, these areas must be included in the floor space index for hotels. If this is made the same as for apartment buildings, it will be possible to construct hotels with even more rooms on plots of land of the same size. Moreover, there are many municipalities where there are ordinances that prohibit hotel and ryokan (inn) operations in school zones. However, this does not fit the times. Furthermore, there are also municipalities which specify that a certain amount of housing must be built when constructing a hotel, such as in Minato City or Chiyoda City. This was once considered necessary as a measure to reduce the doughnut phenomenon in which housing was disappearing from the city center. However, this is not necessary in the present day when residents are returning to the city center and when there is a complete lack of hotels. It is necessary to review the existing laws and regulations. I think the regulations that are inhibiting the reduction of the hotel shortage should be eliminated as soon as possible. It will not be possible to achieve the government’s target of 60 million visitors to Japan if something is not done. First, we should expand our hotels and then work on developing tourist spots with multilingual information.

Karatsolis I agree completely.

Necessity of Making Private Pensions by Taking Advantage of Ultra-low Interest Rates

Motoya By the way, how is the present condition of the Tsipras administration?

Karatsolis The Greek government is working hard to stabilize and revitalize the economy, mainly aiming at tackling tax and social security problems under a new policy. As it is often said, the pension system in Greece was previously too generous. The administration is looking to review the pension system itself and to switch to one that is sustainable. The increase in the elderly taking pensions combined with the decrease in young people is a problem shared by both Greece and Japan. Prime Minister Tsipras is demonstrating leadership in attempting to skillfully solve this problem based on a concept of equal burden-sharing among taxpayers.

Motoya The ageing society is often said to be a tragedy, but I believe that to be wrong. It is very important to increase the number of children, but if we focus on increasing the number of people who enjoy their lives as long as they last and who enjoy aging with vigor, the vitality of Japan will not decline. I think we should continue to improve our advanced science and medical technology together with making Japan a travel destination. Medical technology enhances the quality of life of citizens. It will also become a means to attract people from overseas by offering those who come to Japan medical checkups and then providing them with intensive care if there are any problems.

Karatsolis I have also heard of cases of wealthy Japanese people coming to Greece and receiving medical care. I think this is because they are seeking a mild climate with a comfortable standard of living.

Motoya I think Greece is the same, but the population pyramid of Japan is now in the shape of a pot. There can be no kind of peace of mind for the elderly with just a pension in such a population composition. We are now in the age of negative interest rates in Japan. Interest rates are extremely low even when borrowing money. I say that it is necessary for Japanese people to have assets as a private pension. When the population increases and the population pyramid is a true pyramid, this is a healthy shape in which each elderly person is supported by five or six working people and the pension system is effective. However, on the contrary, a working person will have to support three or four elderly people in the future and so the pension system will collapse sooner or later. It is necessary for individuals to take measures to protect themselves against this. Therefore, it is best to borrow money at fixed interest rates now with ultra-low interest to purchase housing and put it out for rent. If you start doing this in your twenties, you will finish paying back the loan when you reach retirement age and you can then use this rental income purely in place of a pension. It is necessary for you to protect your life by yourself. It is no good having excessive expectations of the government. People in Greece are now reflecting upon the fact that they relied too much on their pensions. Japan must avoid repeating this mistake.

Karatsolis I agree.

Motoya It is possible for Greece – with a population of approximately 10 million – to accept 30 million foreign tourists. Therefore, there is no reason why Japan – where 120 million people live – can’t accept 40 or 60 million foreign tourists. Japan has a declining population, so there are people who will find the future tough. However, it is possible to supplement this with tourists from overseas. Travelers also spend more money per day, so it is possible to expect this to lift the economy. Countries that rely on immigrants for population growth are not in a good condition – whether it is Germany where there are many Turkish people or France where there are many people from their former colonies, such as Algeria. Japan should not proceed with a policy to welcome immigration.

Karatsolis Greece has become a bridge for immigrants heading from Syria to Germany. There is no choice but to accept those running away from conflict areas as refugees. However, there are many, many people who are coming for the economic reason of wishing to work in Europe. The EU accepts asylum-seekers from war-zones, but agreed in March that economic migrants should be returned to their own countries. In this context, an agreement was signed with Turkey to admit migrants who have reached Greece by passing through its soil. The Greek government is currently working on the implementation of this agreement.

Motoya Greece is mainly home to Greeks. It is extremely similar to Japan.

Karatsolis We have accepted economic migrants from Afghanistan in the past. Since, in the past, they were coming in limited numbers, they found employment in agriculture. However, a large amount of people are now coming every day. It is impossible to accept them all and there is no work for them.

Motoya Both Japan and Greece have a single language, unique culture and a history as a proud people. The immigrant nation of the United States is gradually turning into a country for people of color. There are some who would claim that Japan should also accept immigrants, but I am opposed to this.

Karatsolis The culture of Greece is unique and it is important that those coming from outside understand and respect it.

Every Country Should Learn the Good and Bad in Their History

Motoya It is said that a nation without mythology will perish. Japan is gradually losing its myths and I am working to revive them. The armed forces of Japan unconditionally surrendered 71 years ago, but the state did not. Nevertheless, the occupation forces Americanized everything. This led to Japan losing its pride, mythology and legends. I feel it is very important that we ensure young people understand what is great about the country of Japan in this period when there is an increase in tourists from overseas. In that respect, I think it is splendid that Greece continues to value and protect its ancient philosophers.

Karatsolis Thank you.

Motoya The origin of current Western civilization comes from ancient Greece. At that time, the countries in Western Europe that had fallen behind the rest of the world met the Age of Discovery through the seamanship of Islam and used guns to repeatedly carry out cruel murders in the New World. Those countries then expanded their colonies over a period of 500 years and conquered the planet. However, there is a lack of depth to their culture compared to Greece and Japan where unique civilization had been established since ancient times.

Karatsolis That is true. I visited Shodo Island the other day. Shodo Island, where the cultivation of olives thrives, is the sister island to Milos in Greece. A large statue of the goddess Athena stands in Shodoshima OLIVE PARK. I heard that olives were originally grown on Shodo Island to produce canned oil for oiled sardines made for the Japanese Navy. Speaking of the navy, Athens had 300 warships in 500 B.C. There was no other country that had 300 warships until the Royal Navy of the United Kingdom in the 19th century.

Motoya It is ordinary around the world to be proud of that kind of thing. However, Japan is always apologizing. Now, 71 years since Japan conquered the Pacific Ocean with the aim of creating the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, I think it would be better to assess our nation more fairly and positively. If we look back, every country has a “bad history” and a “good history.” If we don’t convey both of these, I don’t think it is possible for children to develop properly. In particular, currently, China is seeking maritime hegemony around Japan and is continuing to pick quarrels. For example, with a reef landfill in the Spratley Islands and applying pressure to the Senkaku Islands. Japan needs strength to be able to maintain peace against this. At present, Japan is under the yoke of the US-Japan Security Treaty. However, it is necessary to change this to a mutually beneficial one like the Anglo-Japanese Alliance in the past. It is completely out of the question that Japan would invade another country if we had our own army. Conversely, it is not possible to say that Japan is an independent nation because we are unable to defend our own country by ourselves. If Mr. Trump becomes the president, it will be a great opportunity for Japan to achieve true independence. Finally, I would like to ask you for some words to young people as I always do at this time.

Karatsolis I hope that the young people of Japan do two things toward the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. First, I hope that they once again think about why the Olympics are held. Next, I would like them to review the values in Japanese culture and the Japanese spirit to recognize anew what they themselves cherish. I think this is an excellent opportunity for Japanese people to take a long look at Japan again.

Motoya I think you are absolutely correct. Moreover, the Metropolitan Expressway and Tokaido Shinkansen were developed in just a short period of time when the Tokyo Olympics were held in 1964. I wonder what we will come up with this time. Japanese people should continue to unite together toward 2020. I am very grateful that we could speak about various matters today.

Karatsolis Thank you very much.


Mr. Loukas Karatsolis
Mr. Loukas Karatsolis was born in Athens in Greece in 1962. He majored in Political Sciences and Law at the University of Athens. After attending the National School of Public Administration, he joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1989. He has served in the Greek embassies in Italy, Romania and the Netherlands. He has also held jobs as the Head of the Department for Human Rights and the Director of the Department for Asia and Oceania in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He has been in his present post since 2015.