Big Talk

Countries Should Protect Their History and Culture and Share Them With Future Generations

The Republic of Tajikistan, which became independent in 1991, is a country of the Tajik people with a culture developed over its long history since before the common era. Toshio Motoya spoke with Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Tajikistan in Japan Dr. Hamrokhon Zarifi, the former minister of foreign affairs, about various aspects of the mountainous Tajikistan including its history, contemporary society, industry, and the era when it was part of the Soviet Union.

Ample water resources and the world’s tallest dam

(M) Thank you for joining me on Big Talk today. Mr. Saidov Davlatali, the former ambassador from Tajikistan, attended my Wine Tasting and Discussion About Japan event published in the November 2008 issue of Apple Town.

(Z) He was the first Tajik ambassador to Japan, and today he’s the first deputy prime minister.

(M) An extremely large number of the ambassadors I interviewed on Big Talk have returned to their home countries to become top bureaucrats or ministers.

(Z) I am the opposite; I was appointed as the ambassador after I quit my position as minister of foreign affairs. I’m planning to retire after the end of my current tenure.

(M) So, you are a former minister of foreign affairs. Many Japanese people don’t know very much about Tajikistan. I hope you can teach us various things about your country today.

(Z) Thank you. As you say, Tajikistan has a very low level of familiarity in Japan. It is located in Central Asia with China to the east, Kyrgyzstan to the north, Uzbekistan to the west, and Afghanistan to the south. The area is roughly 40% the size of Japan and the population is approximately 8.7 million people. The capital is Dushanbe. Tajik is the official language, but most people also speak Russian. Central Asia is also home to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. All four of these countries have languages in the Turkish language family, but Tajik is in the Persian language family. In other words, it’s a member of the language family spoken in Iran today, and Old Persian still survives. Another major characteristic of Tajikistan is that it is a very mountainous country, with mountains covering 93% of the land.

(M) What is the elevation of the regions where people live?

(Z) Most of the citizens live between 400 to 1,500 meters. Dushanbe, the capital, has an elevation of 700 to 900 meters. Some people also live in high ground of 4,500 meters.

(M) How tall is the highest mountain?

(Z) Ismoil Somoni Peak is the tallest with a height of 7,495 meters. When I was talking with Mr. Hajime Kitaoka, who became the Japanese ambassador to Tajikistan in 2016, I joked about this. I said that I have climbed Mount Fuji, the tallest mountain in Japan, so Ambassador Kitaoka should try scaling Ismoil Somoni. He said it would be difficult, but he’d give it a try for the sake of the Japan-Tajikistan relationship. With Kitaoka as ambassador, I expect that relations between the two countries will reach higher levels, both in the economic and cultural realms.

(M) 7,495 meters is exactly twice the height of Mount Fuji (laughs).

(Z) Yes (laughs). Since Tajikistan is a mountainous country, it has abundant water resources totaling 60% of Central Asia overall. The Fedchenko Glacier is the longest in the world outside of the North and South Poles. It starts near an elevation of 6,200 meters and is fully melted around 3,000 meters. That is why 90% of Tajikistan’s power comes from hydroelectric generation. The Nurek Dam, which was built when Tajikistan was part of the Soviet Union, has the tallest embankments in the world at 300 meters. It has never been exceeded in the roughly 40 years since it was constructed.

(M) That’s amazing! I’ve visited the Aswan High Dam in Egypt, which was also built by the Soviet Union.

(Z) The Aswan High Dam’s embankments are just 111 meters tall. Another dam in Tajikistan is going to break the record held by the Nurek Dam. It is expected that the first phase of the new tallest dam in Tajikistan, the Rogun Dam, will start generating electricity on November 16, 2018 at a location 100 meters higher than the Nurek Dam, and it will have embankments that are 335 meters tall. It will generate 3,600 megawatts of power, doubling the hydroelectric generation amount in Tajikistan. Dam construction for hydroelectric power generation takes time and money, but it has the lowest costs over the long term.

(M) How is this electric power used?

(Z) We export surplus electricity to our neighbors. The CASA-1000 project is also underway to build a large power grid and constantly send power over a roughly 750-kilometer distance via Afghanistan all the way to Pakistan, which is experiencing electricity shortages. When this project will be completed, a structure will be in place to supply electricity to various countries in the south including Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India during the summer period, as well as Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan in other seasons. The project is making steady progress with involvement from many finance-related international institutions.

(M) That’s a grand project. Does Tajikistan use electric power for industry, such as aluminum refining?

(Z) As you say, another way we utilize this low-cost power is to produce 300,000 to 400,000 tons of aluminum each year. We could double this amount to one million tons over the short term, but this is hindered by the fact that we must import bauxite, the raw material, from South America, Russia, Ukraine, Australia, and other locations. However, Tajikistan plans to start producing bauxite in the near future. The issue is that other natural resources are mined together with the bauxite, so we need processes to separate them. Because Tajikistan is a mountainous country, we can obtain various types of natural resources from the mountains like gold, silver, and the rare metals that are drawing attention lately. Efforts are underway to build a close, cooperative relationship with Japan, which manufactures many electronic devices, for these rare metals. That is exactly the role I must fulfill.

(M) I look forward to seeing what happens.

Enjoy abundant nature in Tajikistan, a country that is pleasant to drive to

(M) Ethnically speaking, is Tajikistan a country of the Tajik people?

(Z) Yes, it is. But in addition to Tajikistan, Tajiks also live in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and other parts of the world. Together they total around 30 million people, and there are more Tajiks living outside of Tajikistan than inside it.

(M) What sightseeing spots do you recommend when visiting Tajikistan?

(Z) Once, the former deputy director-general of the United Nations Office at Vienna asked me about Tajikistan’s “Marco Polo.” I was confused by this question about the 13th-century explorer, but he was actually asking about a type of sheep that lives in Tajikistan. The Marco Polo sheep lives at high elevations from 4,500 to 6,500 meters and is a popular target for hunters. I think Tajikistan is a great place to enjoy abundant nature, from exciting experiences like hunting to hiking. I definitely recommend visiting the National Museum of Antiquities in the capital city of Dushanbe. It was opened in 2001, the year the Buddhas of Bamiyan were destroyed by the Taliban. Saddened by this, President of Tajikistan H.E. Mr. Emomali Rahmon established this museum to conserve the Buddhist culture of the region. The highlight is the 13-meter-long reclining Buddha. It was moved to St. Petersburg during the Soviet era and then brought back to the museum.

(M) I would like to see those things. How do you get from Japan to Tajikistan?

(Z) You can transfer in various locations like Vladivostok, Istanbul, Moscow, or Seoul to Almaty in Kazakhstan. However, I recommend traveling to Tashkent in Uzbekistan and then driving to Tajikistan by car. The distance is roughly 420 kilometers, and you cross over the border into Tajikistan about one third into the route. Tajikistan is praised across the world for the quality of its roads, and this is a very pleasant drive with beautiful scenery.

(M) I love to drive, so that’s how I’d like to go.

A great deal of historical research took place during the Soviet era, when there were few restrictions

(M) Can you tell us a little more about the society of Tajikistan?

(Z) We cannot say the economy is good yet. However, GDP growth is 7%, and it reached 60 billion somoni last year. According to projections, our GDP will increase by 30% and reach up to 82 billion somoni during the next three years. Tajikistan is a very young country with an extremely high birth rate, and 45% of the population is age 27 or below. Today we are discussing with Japan a framework to organize a series of long-term training programs for young Tajik people to gain skills and working experience in Japan. Japanese language courses and university faculties are being founded, and many young people are becoming interested in Japanese. I have studied Japan since I arrived in 2015, and worthy of particular mention are its cleanliness, safety, honest citizens, organizational capability, and diligence. I have come to truly love Japan. I think your generation has certainly created an exemplary and unique nation to hand down to younger generations.

(M) The high birth rate seems to be the exact opposite of Japan. Japan’s biggest issue is depopulation stemming from the declining birthrate and ageing population. I believe this is caused by the trend of nuclear and individual families.

(Z) I am the oldest son from a family of 10 children – I have four brothers and five sisters. All of us have graduated from universities and worked as university teachers, engineers, and farmers. My late mother had 72 grandchildren, 16 great-grandchildren, and four great-great-grandchildren. No camera can take a group photo of everyone together (laughs).

(M) How have the people of Tajikistan made a living?

(Z) Cotton was the top industry in the Soviet era, when Tajikistan produced one million tons of raw cotton products annually. Raw cotton production has recently declined to 30% of that amount, but we are instead growing many vegetables and fruits that are exported to Kazakhstan and Russia. Tajikistan’s fruits, represented by our apricots and lemons grown with no agricultural chemicals, are highly appraised for their taste and quality. Honey is another of our major products. Some Japanese department stores and supermarkets are carrying dried fruits and honey from Tajikistan, which are gradually gaining popularity.

(M) What is the currency?

(Z) The somoni was introduced in 2000. It is named after an emperor from the 10th century.

(M) China’s policy is to assimilate the foreign cultures in regions it incorporates into the country. It is sending many Han Chinese to regions like Tibet, East Turkestan, and Mongolia to make them the majority there. Did the Soviet Union do something similar to its republics?

(Z) I’m not well versed in China, but I know a great deal about the Soviet Union’s policies. Speaking frankly, the citizens of Tajikistan did not lose anything during the Soviet era. An example is our language. Tajik was used in all school classes from elementary school to university, and there were TV programs in both Russian and Tajik.

(M) Religion was not permitted under the socialist structure. The ambassador from Uzbekistan said that churches and other buildings were turned into storehouses. What happened in Tajikistan, where there are many Muslims?

(Z) The Muslims were not oppressed. However, because the Soviet Union’s official stance was secular, civil servants and Communist Party leaders had to pretend to be without religion even if they were believers. Other people were allowed to be religious.

(M) The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Did the people of Tajikistan take part?

(Z) Soldiers were sent there. The language spoken in Afghanistan resembles Tajik, so most of the soldiers from Tajikistan served as interpreters. Because Afghanistan and Tajikistan also have cultural similarities, Tajikistan facilitated mutual understanding between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan and ensured Afghan people who didn’t speak the language were not oppressed.

(M) In addition to language, was Tajikistan’s distinctive culture esteemed during the Soviet era?

(Z) Yes, a great deal of research was conducted on Tajikistan’s history and culture even during the Soviet era, and many books were published. The Soviet government also raised orphans into politicians and academics. Mr. Talbak Nazarov, who was minister of foreign affairs before myself, is an orphan. Today he is respected as one of Tajikistan’s most talented economists and academicians.

ARussian bases and a collective security system to protect the country

(M) It seems to me that many central figures in socialist governments have scientific backgrounds. What did you study in university?

(Z) I studied physics at Kulob State Pedagogical Institute in Tajikistan, and after graduating I worked as a teacher.

(M) So, you have a scientific background as well. During the Soviet era, did many Tajiks study abroad at universities in Moscow?

(Z) Tajikistan’s universities were of an extremely high level even in the Soviet Union, and 70% of the students were from other republics. Oriental Studies and medicine were particularly advanced. In fact, all of the Soviet Union’s Arabic- and Persian-language education took place in Tajikistan. Many renowned academics in Oriental Studies from the Soviet Union are from Tajikistan. One example is Bobojon Ghafurov, who worked for 10 years as director of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the USSR Academy of Sciences, which was a world-famous authority in the field of Oriental Studies. He wrote a book called The Tajiks, which was translated into 20 languages.

(M) So, many people actually traveled to Tajikistan to study. Listening to you, I can tell that Tajikistan places great importance on language, scholarship, and culture, and also that it is proud of these things. It sounds like they are the driving force in today’s growth as a nation.

(Z) Culture preservation is the government’s most important task. There was the risk that our culture would be lost when civil war broke out in the 1990s, and based on this fear I wrote a book called The Tajik Golden Heritage. I am preparing to have it published in Japanese right now.

(M) I look forward to that! Some citizens of Japan have anti-Japanese stances. They drag us down so Japanese people cannot feel pride in their own country. I advocate that we must safeguard our language and culture with the aim of helping Japanese people regain pride in their home country. Japanese people should feel a sense of pride, and it is bizarre that they are looked upon with contempt.

(Z) People often talk about globalization, which has some good points. But we also must understand the negative aspects of ethnic groups’ cultures being lost.

(M) Incidentally, what does Tajikistan’s national security structure look like?

(Z) This is basically the job of the Tajikistan army, but there are also Russian army bases, including on the outskirts of Dushanbe and Qurghonteppa in Khatlon. These are stabilization measures to protect the country from terrorism and extremism. In particular, Tajikistan shares a border with Afghanistan – where conflict is continuing – that spans 1,400 kilometers in a mountainous region. The Tajikistan army protects the border itself, and the Russian army provides backup. This partnership is also significant for Central Asia as a whole. There is also a collective security system between the six countries of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, and Armenia, and joint military exercises are conducted in these territories.

(M) Speaking of history, many people know the Navoi Theater in Uzbekistan was built by Japanese soldiers who were imprisoned in the Soviet Union after World War II. Were there Japanese soldiers in Tajikistan, too?

(Z) Basically, the Japanese soldiers were detained in Uzbekistan and the German soldiers in Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, so there weren’t many Japanese soldiers in Tajikistan. One Japanese person with close ties to Tajikistan was archeologist Kyuzo Kato. He was active in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan for over 40 years until passing away at the age of 94 last year.

(M) He sounds like an amazing man. At the end of the interview, I always ask for a “word for the youth.

(Z) The generation of yourself and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe achieved amazing growth in Japan. Young people have the obligation to protect and develop what they have received from previous generations. And even as globalization progresses, they must not forget their own history and culture, and must pass them down to future generations.

(M) I agree. It is essential that Japan protect itself as a truly independent nation. I hope the Abe administration will continue and guide Japan down the path to becoming a decent country.

(Z) I think stability is the most important thing for any country. When I was minister of foreign affairs, I worked to enhance relations with Japan, but that was impossible when there was a different prime minister every year. But the Abe administration has been governing for five years, and it seems to me that Japan has regained stability.

(M) If the Abe administration lasts for another four years, we can definitely amend the constitution. I will provide support to that end. Let’s both work hard for the sake of our home countries. Thank you for joining me today.

(Z) Thank you.

Date of dialogue: February 5, 2018


Dr. Hamrokhon Zarifi
Born in 1948 in Tajikistan. Graduated from the Faculty of Physics and Mathematics of Kulob State Pedagogical Institute in 1971. After working as a lecturer at the same institute, he joined the national security organization and became deputy chairman of the State Committee on National Security. He has worked in the diplomatic service since 1993 in positions including deputy minister of foreign affairs; permanent representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE); and ambassador to Austria, Hungary, the Swiss Confederation, and the United States. As the minister of foreign affairs, he was active on the global diplomatic stage from 2006 to 2013. He took up his current position in 2015. Zarifi has a PhD degree in Political Science and has published many books, including some on Tajik culture.