Bulgaria has a long history and distinctive culture, including 6,000 years of wine production and the world’s oldest processed gold. Toshio Motoya spoke with Ambassador of the Republic of Bulgaria to Japan H.E. Ms. Marieta Arabadjieva about topics including how Bulgaria has continually passed down its history and culture, the spirit of its people, and the best seasons for sightseeing.
(M) Thank you for joining me on Big Talk today. How long have you been in Japan?
(A) Thank you for inviting me. I took up my post in March 2021, roughly one year ago.
(M) I think the Japanese public isn’t very familiar with the nation of Bulgaria. I hope you will tell us about your country so readers can learn a little bit about it.
(A) All Japanese people are aware of the name “Bulgaria” because of a yogurt sold by a certain food manufacturer. That’s a good thing, but I feel like their knowledge is limited to that. I’m focusing a great deal of effort on conveying more information about Bulgaria and expanding Japanese people’s knowledge about my country. Because connections with young people will last a long time, no matter where I go in Japan, I always make opportunities to speak at universities and high schools.
(M) I agree that one important part of an ambassador’s job is to promote your country and draw Japanese tourists there. For example, I’ve heard Bulgaria is also famous for its wine.
(A) That’s right. Bulgaria doesn’t just produce delicious wine today; we have a history of winemaking going back 6,000 years. The Thracian civilization thrived on the southeast part of the Balkan Peninsula, where Bulgaria is located. This is one of the oldest places in the world where wine was made, and wine has close connections with religious rites as well.
(M) Really? I’m surprised to hear that.
(A) We drink wine for pleasure today, but it had religious significance for people in the distant past. It’s said that today’s Bulgarians descend from the Bulgars, a nomadic people of Asian origin. They mixed with the Thracian and Slavic people who were already living there. The region was also ruled by the Ottoman Empire for a period of 500 years, but Bulgaria has continually maintained its name and language and preserved other elements of its distinctive culture. Priests of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church contributed a great deal to passing down these traditions. Bulgaria’s official language is Bulgarian, and its religion is Bulgarian Orthodox.
(M) How big is the population?
(A) About seven million people, who live in a territory roughly one third the size of Japan.
(M) Is the Orthodox religion different from the Catholic and Protestant faiths?
(A) During the 11th century, Christianity was split into the Roman Catholic Church in the west and the Eastern Orthodox Church in the east. Religious reformation gave rise to Protestantism in the 16th century, quite some time after.
(M) It sounds like Bulgaria formed a rich culture while maintaining its Christian faith and taking in people with different ethnic origins. They say that a mix of ethnicities leads to more intelligent, attractive people.
(A) That’s what we say in Bulgaria (laughs).
(M) Japan’s Yamato ethnic group was formed of indigenous people as well as those who came from the continent and across the seas. I imagine Bulgaria had lots of interactions with other parts of the Eurasian continent.
(A) Bulgaria is located between Europe and Asia. The Crusaders passed through Bulgaria on their way to Constantinople. Bulgaria also has Oriental influences due to the 500 years of Ottoman rule. We have taken in various cultures over long spans of time during our history, which is why we have so many sightseeing attractions that are worth visiting today. Bulgaria was established in the 7th century and is one of the oldest states in Europe.
(M) I’d like to ask you a personal question. Your Japanese is extremely good. Where did you study the language?
(A) I graduated from the Japanese Studies Department of Sofia University, the oldest university in Bulgaria. I also studied for one year on a scholarship from the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) at the Osaka University of Foreign Studies. The Osaka University of Foreign Studies was later integrated with Osaka University as its School of Foreign Studies. Nowadays, Osaka University offers classes in Bulgarian.
(M) How many Japanese universities teach the Bulgarian language?
(A) Five. It’s also available at Hokkaido University, the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, Soka University, and the Kobe City University of Foreign Studies.
(M) Do they all have teachers from Bulgaria?
(A) The two universities in Kansai do. The ones in Hokkaido and Tokyo have Japanese teachers who are Bulgarian specialists and are proficient in Bulgarian.
(M) It would be nice if more Japanese students would study Bulgarian.
(A) That’s my hope. Bulgaria is a very pro-Japanese country, and for several decades some elementary schools have offered Japanese starting from first grade. In fact, Bulgaria has the largest number of Japanese-language learners in Europe proportional to the population.
(M) That’s wonderful! Does the Japanese government provide any assistance for this education?
(A) Yes, and some Japanese people volunteer as teachers.
(M) Why are so many Bulgarians interested in Japan?
(A) People always ask me that. Bulgaria and Japan are very far apart geographically, and our languages are totally different. My opinion is that we must have some kind of spiritual affinity that goes beyond our geographical conditions, languages, and cultures.
(M) Perhaps our long histories have something to do with that. You mentioned the Thracians before the Common Era. Japan also has a history stretching back to that period – this year is the 2,682nd anniversary of Emperor Jimmu’s ascension, and a unique culture has developed since then. Strategic theorist Samuel P. Huntington even named Japan as one of his eight major civilizations.
(A) I’ve been involved with Japan for 25 years, starting when I decided to learn Japanese. When asked what I like about this country, I appreciate how it is a modern nation that has preserved its ancient traditions and skillfully handed them down to future generations. I respect that a great deal.
(M) Japan certainly does cherish its traditions.
(A) Bulgarians are also proud of our long history. Do you know where the world’s oldest processed gold was discovered? Japanese people don’t know that the answer is Bulgaria. Treasures from the Stone Age were unearthed in 1972 at a necropolis in Varna, the biggest Bulgarian port town on the Black Sea. They are believed to be from 4600 BC. These objects are extremely beautiful and were made with great skill.
(M) Bulgaria is located on the Black Sea, meaning it is not a landlocked country. Did it interact with many other civilizations for that reason?
(A) That is true. The Bosporus is the only exit from the Black Sea, which is rather like a large lake. Bulgaria spanned its largest territory in the 9th century, and its territory bordered three seas: the Black, Aegean, and Adriatic Seas. This period is also known as the Golden Age of Bulgarian culture.
(M) I didn’t know that.
(A) Bulgarians also feel great pride in our Cyrillic alphabet. In the 9th century, the missionary brothers Cyril and Methodius created a new writing system for the Slavic-speaking countries, which did not have an alphabet until that point. Under the patronage of the Bulgarian Empire, Cyrillic spread quickly throughout a vast area.
(M) If a civilization lacks a writing system, storytelling is the only way to pass down the culture to future generations. I also think this is extremely significant because written language makes it possible for the civilization to spread to neighboring countries. Japan took in different cultural aspects from the continent in that way, but we rejected foot-binding and eunuchs, for example. I think we were able to pick and choose practices from across the ocean that suited us. Maybe the same is true of the United Kingdom. Japan developed its distinctive civilization over many long years while embracing good things from outside. In contrast to the island nation of Japan, I imagine European civilizations needed a fair amount of wisdom to survive the fierce conflict in that region.
(A) All countries are impacted by others in various ways, and I think the most important thing is to have a flexible mindset to absorb influences. I believe Japan and Bulgaria possess this flexibility.
(M) Have you traveled around Japan over the past year?
(A) I haven’t been able to go as many places as I’d like due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Last November there was a tourism exhibition in Okinawa. Bulgaria showcased its wine, roses, rosehip jam, and ceramics. I also visited Tokushima, Tochigi, Gunma, and Fukushima Prefectures. Everywhere I was met with warm hospitality, for which I am very thankful.
(M) Have you been to Hiroshima yet?
(A) I went when I was an international student at the Osaka University of Foreign Studies. I also traveled to Kyoto, Nara, Kobe, and Himeji. I am planning to attend this year’s Peace Ceremony in Hiroshima.
(M) What is your favorite place so far?
(A) They are all wonderful, but I do love Kyoto. Closer to Tokyo, my family has enjoyed visiting Izu several times. I feel like the coastal atmosphere resembles Bulgaria. There are unique towns every 30 kilometers or so along the Black Sea in eastern Bulgaria, so there’s always something to see. Bulgaria also has the second-largest number of hot springs in Europe.
(M) That’s another thing it shares with Japan. Most countries with lots of hot springs are volcanic. What about Bulgaria?
(A) Luckily, we don’t have volcanoes or earthquakes. There are over 200 springs with hotels and other facilities nearby that are popular destinations for family and friends, just like in Japan. They also are frequently used for therapeutic purposes. The hottest spring is 103 degrees Celsius, a temperature high enough to quickly boil an egg.
(M) Some places in Japan are known for cooking eggs that way, like the “black eggs” you can get at Owakudani in Hakone. I envy Bulgaria for not having volcanoes or earthquakes despite its many hot springs. Have you served abroad before?
(A) Yes, I was in Beijing for two years and in Shanghai for three.
(M) China and Japan are geographically close but have entirely different cultures and ways of thinking. It’s not a nation I’m particularly fond of. As a tourist you only see the good parts of a country, but if you live there for several years I think you get a sense of its history, the temperament of its people, and the like. Japan has mostly been ethnically homogenous for a very long time. It’s never been occupied by another ethnic group, except for the seven-year period after World War II. We’ve maintained our Imperial System for that reason. I think the Imperial line has never been broken due to the sense of unity that persisted despite domestic conflicts. My opinion is that Japan was able to develop its civilization based on the inherent sense of solidarity stemming from its pleasant climate and natural features, including seasonal beauty; its abundant food; and its lack of discomforts. Deserts and other environments where people have to scramble for resources give rise to more competitive civilizations. I went to a Viking museum when I visited Northern Europe that proudly displayed information about their expeditions and pillaging all the way to the Mediterranean Sea. That was probably because they came from a cold region where it was difficult to grow any crops. Considering this, “survival of the fittest” doesn’t just apply to animals – it’s a rule for humans as well.
(A) That may be true.
(M) I suppose it wasn’t easy for the many European ethnic groups and countries to outlast conflicts. Rather than being good at fighting, it’s more important to have strength that discourages enemies from attacking. This is still true today. For a long time Japan’s surrounding oceans provided natural defense, and the bushi warrior class was in power for many years. I think this helped Japan protect itself, which has to be much more difficult for continental nations.
(A) There are still complex issues today, but we must do what we can since we can’t change our geographic position.
(M) Does Bulgaria have a military?
(A) Yes. We are also part of the European Union (EU) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
(M) That provides some security.
(A) For instance, conflicts have occurred in our neighborhood after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Bulgaria peacefully transitioned from socialism to democracy without experiencing fighting of this type.
(M) Was that thanks to skillful government by powerful politicians?
(A) I think so. Bulgaria is still extremely stable today, which is of great importance for both tourists and businesspeople.
(M) Economically, it means a lot to be part of the EU market. It seems Europe has transformed from a place of conflict to one of mutual support.
(A) It has. Bulgaria is a small country with just about seven million people, but from there you can access the EU market of 500 million people. We’ve long had a flourishing agricultural industry and are known for our delicious foods. Our cheese, honey, and jam are renowned in addition to wine. Our IT industry is also thriving in recent years and we have the third-largest number of IT professionals in the world.
(M) That’s amazing.
(A) We have turned out numerous engineers and mathematicians in the past. In 1939 John Vincent Atanasoff invented the Atanasoff-Berry Computer (ABC), which is known as the world’s first computer. He was an American university professor of Bulgarian descent.
(M) I didn’t know that. It sounds like Bulgaria and Japan are both skilled in the technological field. At the end of the interview, I always ask for a “word for the youth.”
(A) I hope they will learn more about Bulgaria, and that they will come visit my country.
(M) How do you get there?
(A) There aren’t any direct flights, so you have to transfer in another European city. I recommend going through Istanbul, which is just one hour by plane from Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. Bulgarians are friendly and very welcoming to Japanese tourists.
(M) I don’t think I can go this year, but I’d definitely like to next year.
(A) A good time is during the rose season in early June. The Bulgarian Damask Rose is a special variety used to make rose oil known as “liquid gold.” Half the world’s rose oil is produced in Bulgaria.
(M) June sounds good! Thank you for speaking with me today.
(A) Thank you.
Born in Yambol, the Republic of Bulgaria. Received the Monbukagakusho (MEXT) scholarship to study Japanese language and culture at the Osaka University of Foreign Studies from 1999 to 2000. Earned her BA and MA in Japanese Studies from Sofia University from 1995 to 2001. Joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Bulgaria (MFA) in 2001. Her past positions include DHoM and head of the Political Section at the Embassy of Bulgaria in Tokyo and in Beijing. She became the first female Bulgarian ambassador to Japan in March 2021. Arabadjieva speaks Bulgarian as well as Japanese, English, Spanish, and Russian.