The Republic of Lebanon in the Middle East has a long history stretching back to before the Common Era, when it was a thriving Phoenician city-state. Toshio Motoya spoke with H.E. Mr. Nidal Yehya, ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary of the Embassy of Lebanon in Japan, about how Lebanon is recovering from the 15-year-long civil war and how its capital city Beirut is once again becoming the “Paris of the Middle East.”
(M) Thank you for joining me on Big Talk today.
(Y) No, thank you for this opportunity. I am also very grateful for the many times you’ve invited me to your hotel openings.
(M) I visited Lebanon in February 1974. Beirut, the capital city, was called the “Paris of the Middle East” back then, and I recall it was very beautiful. Civil war broke out after that and ended in 1990. I’ve heard active efforts are underway to develop a new Lebanon today. Japanese citizens are the main readers of Apple Town, this monthly magazine, and many do not know much about Lebanon. I hope you will teach us all about your country today.
(Y) Of course. Lebanon is bordered by the Mediterranean Sea to the west, Israel to the south, and Syria to the east and north. It is about the size of Japan’s Gifu Prefecture and has a population of roughly six million people. Beirut is the capital. Arabs comprise 95% of the population and Arabic is the official language, but people can also speak French and English. Lebanon is unique because our history means that we are not only home to Shia and Sunni Muslims. There are 18 religions in Lebanon, including Christians in the Maronite and Greek Orthodox Churches.
(M) So there are many Christians in Lebanon.
(Y) Yes, and our political structure prioritizes balance between these religions. For example, Parliament seats are held by the same number of Christians and Muslims.
(M) When did the Lebanese Civil War take place?
(Y) From 1975 to 1990.
(M) It started right after I visited.
(Y) That’s right. First, 100,000 Palestinian refugees came to Lebanon due to the Arab-Israeli conflict and other factors. Muslim refugees changed the ratio of Christians and Muslims in Lebanon, which led to fighting with Israel, a conflict that is connected to the long civil war afterwards. Israel invaded Southern Lebanon in 1978 and occupied it until 2000. Various things happened during this time, including resistance against Israel. Lebanon was finally able to drive Israel out. Israel invaded Lebanon again in 2006 to regain honor, but the United Nations and other countries provided support to make Israel withdraw after a short time.
(M) We’ve regarded the Lebanese Civil War as merely a fight between Christians and Muslims, but it sounds like the conflict with Israel was also a major factor.
(Y) Japan actively provided aid after the war with Israel ended in 2006, and buildings have been restored. However, after that a civil war broke out in our neighbor Syria, inspired by the 2011 Arab Spring. Many Syrian refugees flowed into Lebanon. The total number is around 1.5 million. I think Lebanon must be the only country with a population comprised of more than 25% refugees. Still, we have rebuilt all sorts of organizations and are striving for revival with cooperation from across the world.
(M) Lebanese people are intelligent and active across the world. A Lebanese resident of the United States once showed me around Dubai. He came to meet me in his private jet from Las Vegas, and treated me to a meal at the world’s highest restaurant in the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. There are many successful Lebanese businesspeople, and Lebanese industry is expected to grow because it is an important transport location that is easy to access. It’s also on the Mediterranean, suggesting that the tourism industry will grow, including resorts. But I think Japanese people still have a strong impression of the civil war, so you may have to skillfully promote the great qualities of Lebanon.
(Y) I previously had the chance to visit the Imperial Palace. I saw the imperial throne, which was used at the enthronement ceremony for the emperor. When I saw the ho-o birds on the top part of the throne, I realized that Japan and Lebanon have some cultural similarities. The ho-o is the phoenix of the East, and the word “phoenix” has the same roots as “Phoenicia.” Phoenicia was located in what is today’s Lebanon. I intend to promote the Japanese-Lebanese relationship – connected by this bird – by widely sharing that Lebanon used to be Phoenicia. As you know, that’s also where the alphabet was developed.
(M) When was Phoenicia most prosperous?
(Y) Phoenicia is believed to have thrived from around 2,500 BCE. The seafaring Phoenicians, who lived in the area of today’s Lebanon, were skilled at navigation. They used the North Star to travel around the Mediterranean, and founded colonies all over the region including Tunisia in North Africa, France, and Sardinia and Sicily in Italy. I think the most famous is Carthage, which was founded by Phoenicians in the 9th Century BCE, based in today’s Tunisia. Carthage was a splendid city that controlled the area from Morocco to Egypt, including parts of the North African coast and Iberian Peninsula. Hannibal helped Carthage put up a fierce fight, yet it was defeated by the Roman Empire in the three Punic Wars and collapsed in the 2nd Century BCE. As I mentioned, the Phoenician alphabet is the predecessor of the alphabet we use today. People also say the name “Europe” is named after Queen Europa of Tyre, a Phoenician colony.
(M) It sounds like the Phoenicians had significant impacts on the area that became Europe.
(Y) Yes, Phoenicians introduced many things to Europe through Mediterranean trade. One example is wine, which is said to have been brought by the Phoenicians to Greece and then Europe. Another famous example is Lebanon cedar, a type of wood that was regarded as the strongest in the world. It was exported and used to build army and commercial ships in various nations. The 42-meter-long “solar barge” of Egyptian King Khufu, today displayed in the museum next to his pyramid, is made of Lebanon cedar with no nails.
(M) I saw that ship when I went to Egypt. Lebanon must have had large forests if it exported so much wood.
(Y) It did, although today forests cover around 18% of Lebanon’s territory. But Lebanon is still known for its cedar, and our flag has a cedar tree in the center.
(M) It’s wonderful that Lebanon is so proud of its history. This is a natural thing, yet the Japanese people of today lack this sense of national pride.
(Y) How does that happen in a country like Japan, with such a long history?
(M) Japan lost its pride after just one defeat in World War II. Considering the many victories and defeats European countries have experienced while maintaining their pride, I find it deplorable that Japanese people cannot speak of their pride during interviews. This is part of the Japanese character today. I am not resigned to this, so I am making efforts to revive pride in our home nation.
(Y) That sounds like a movement of great import.
(M) What are the must-see sightseeing spots in Lebanon?
(Y) First, I recommend Byblos, where you can get a sense of our Phoenician history. It’s located about 40 kilometers north of the capital Beirut. You can see historical remains from different eras, such as pre-Common Era dwellings, Phoenician temples, and a Crusader castle. Kadisha Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where you can see Lebanon cedars growing, is also not to be missed. I also hope everyone will visit Beirut, which has regained its presence as the “Paris of the Middle East.” Many are surprised by the European atmosphere of its streets. Before the civil war, hundreds of Japanese people studied at the American University of Beirut. The Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) also opened a Beirut office 60 years ago, which became a center of Middle Eastern business from Japan and was visited by many Japanese businesspeople. More than 3,000 Japanese were permanent residents of Lebanon at the start of the 1970s. Now that the country is peaceful again, I hope JETRO will open another office in Beirut.
(M) I’d like to visit Lebanon again for many different reasons.
(Y) Japan and Lebanon are far apart, yet we have many things in common. One example is our past immigration policies. Japanese people immigrated to the U.S. and South America before World War II, and currently there are two million Brazilians of Japanese heritage. Lebanese people also immigrated there, and Brazilians of Lebanese descent today number five million. This isn’t limited to Latin America – there are over 10 million Lebanese around the world in Africa and other countries, all of whom are proud of their roots.
(M) I imagine these people left their home country for various reasons, including wars. Nations that share land borders tend to experience these types of tragedies. It’s wonderful that Lebanon still maintains its pride in a difficult environment, including the continual, balanced co-existence between Christians and Muslims. Lebanese people have overcome great struggles to be active in various ways across the world.
(Y) I think they have continually worked hard in different fields.
(M) In contrast, Japan is fortunate since it is an island nation, and we’ve had no religious conflict thanks to our concept of “eight million gods.” But Japanese people have become overly positive and complacent because we have forgotten our blessings. They must wake up to the state of the world and realize that technological progress means the ocean is no longer as strong a barrier as it used to be. You mentioned promoting Lebanon in Japan. As you say, I think more Japanese people would travel there if they were aware of its history. When a nation gains affluence, more of its people journey overseas. Recently the citizens of our close neighbors are traveling farther afield to countries they’ve never visited before. Japan is striving to become a major tourist destination visited by travelers from many nations. The number of foreign tourists numbered around eight million just 10 years ago, but in 2018 this number surpassed 30 million. The number of travelers dropped sharply in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic started in Wuhan, China, but I think we can say the tourism industry will grow after the pandemic ends with the development of vaccines and drugs to treat the disease. Economic progress allows more people to travel abroad. Tourism is a major industry across the world, and happily many of Japan’s neighbors are experiencing remarkable growth and have large populations.
(Y) It’s great how you are rapidly expanding your number of APA Hotels to keep up with these quickly increasing foreign travelers.
(M) We had just six APA Hotels in Tokyo in April 2010. Today there are 84, including those under design and construction. That is a fast pace (laughs). The current low interest rates are another big reason for our growth.
(Y) In French there is a phrase we use at such times: “Je touché du bois.” It means “touch wood,” and signifies hope that a favorable situation will continue. You are the most successful businessman I have met. Thanks to the business you do, we are able to stay at comfortable hotels costing 8,000 to 9,000 yen per night. All foreign travelers appreciate this.
(M) Our roughly 19 million APA Hotel members are the foundation of this business.
(Y) Yes. I’ve heard that APA Hotels are very environmentally friendly, too.
(M) APA’s policy is to sell satisfaction, not space, in our hotel business. We boost customer satisfaction with compact yet functional rooms that have large TVs. All switches are located at the bedside. However, our hotels produce just one third of the CO2 emissions of regular city hotels.
(Y) You must have the world’s largest number of rooms for a family-operated hotel chain, with one owner holding all the shares.
(M) That may be true. For most world-class hotel brands, separate companies are in charge of ownership, operation, and the brand. However, APA Hotel does all of these ourselves. Each has a profit rate of 10%, which added together results in a high profit margin of 30%. I think most Japanese hotels have many Asian guests, but APA Hotel has a higher percentage of travelers from Europe and the U.S. Many of these visitors stay longer than Asian guests, which is another reason for our high earnings. Americans and Europeans are also more interested in environmental friendliness. Our newest large hotels also have pools and fitness gyms. APA Hotel & Resort Yokohama Bay Tower, which has a total of 2,311 rooms, overturns the past image of APA Hotels with a pool, gym, large baths with open-air baths, and banquet room. I definitely hope you will stay there some time.
(Y) Yes, I would like to.
(M) How long have you been in Japan?
(Y) Three years.
(M) I imagine you’ve traveled around during that time. What are your impressions and feelings so far?
(Y) It’s like a big school where I discover new things every day (laughs). There are so many things, both tangible and intangible, that are unique to this country. I feel that Japan has very profound traditions and culture stemming from its long history.
(M) I think you’ve gotten a good sense of the true Japan in a short time. At the end of the interview, I always ask for a “word for the youth.”
(Y) My wife and I frequently talk about the large number of suicides in Japan. The high rate of young people who commit suicide also concerns me. The number of isolated young “hikkikomori” who do not leave their homes is said to exceed 500,000 people. I think Japan should use the media to reach these young people somehow. One idea is to create TV and radio programs with psychiatrists and counselors. I also think there should be programs where people discuss Japan’s correct history. World-renowned scholars, businesspeople, and others should appear on these programs to help the youth of Japan regain their confidence. I think the need for this sort of programming will only grow, and that the increasing number of sponsors would make it a sound business.
(M) That’s a fantastic idea.
(Y) The American movie Joker was a huge hit in Japan as well. It depicts a man who is bullied and disregarded by society. He ends up becoming a brutal villain against his own wishes. People who are abandoned by society want to strike back and denigrate other people. I think many crimes of this sort must exist in Japan as well.
(M) How to save people like that is a serious problem we must think about in Japan as well. Thank you for sharing such an interesting conversation with me today. Many Japanese people are scared of the Middle East, but you have shown us that Lebanon is a peaceful place that is worth visiting. Thank you.
(Y) Thank you.
Date of dialogue: December 25, 2020
His Excellency Mr. Nidal Yehya, ambassador of the Republic of Lebanon to Japan and nominated non-resident ambassador of Lebanon to the Republic of the Philippines, arrived for his post in Japan in early 2018. His prior diplomatic positions include head of the Cultural Department in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Lebanon; ambassador to Sierra Leone; consul in Senegal, Australia, and Iran; chargé d’affaires in the former Yugoslavia; chargé d’affaires ad interim in Venezuela; consul general in Egypt; and dean of the Consular Core in Alexandria, Egypt. He has a law degree from Lebanese University and speaks Arabic, French, English, and Persian.