Located at a key traffic point in the Mediterranean Sea, the Republic of Malta has been ruled by many different powers and has developed a rich culture since before the Common Era. It also has many historic ties with Japan. Toshio Motoya spoke with Ambassador of the Republic of Malta to Japan H.E. Mr. Andre Spiteri about Malta’s history, principal industries, relationship with Japan, sightseeing spots, and other topics.
(M) Thank you for joining me on Big Talk today. The Republic of Malta is home to a cemetery with the graves of Imperial Japanese Navy personnel who were killed while fighting in the Mediterranean during World War I. This cemetery is known because Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited there in 2017 to pay his respects. However, I think most Japanese people have very little knowledge about Malta beyond that, which is why I invited you here to tell us about your country.
(S) Thank you for this opportunity. It’s true that many Japanese people are not very knowledgeable about Malta, although some are interested in Malta as a sightseeing destination, and some have traveled there to study English.
(M) Malta is an island nation in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea near Sicily. You said people go there to learn English…what is the national language?
(S) English and Maltese are the official languages. As you mentioned, Malta is an island in the Mediterranean. It has a population of some 500,000 people in an area about half the size of Awaji Island. It has a Mediterranean culture, and it was also a British territory for approximately 160 years until independence in 1964, which had significant impacts on our current constitution, public institutions, educational system, and the like. We also drive on the left side of the road.
(M) I’ve never heard of the Maltese language.
(S) All citizens use Maltese in their daily lives. It’s also spoken by people who emigrated from Malta during World War II to Australia, Canada, and the United States. Many people can also speak Italian, since Italy is so close.
(M) There was a British naval base on Malta until 1979. The Imperial Japanese Navy’s 2nd Special Squadron was dispatched to the Mediterranean in 1917. It guarded transport ships in the Mediterranean from its base in Malta. The British navy highly appraised the squadron for its many achievements. For instance, ships in the 2nd Special Squadron helped rescue passengers from the sinking SS Transylvania, a British troop transport that was torpedoed by a U-boat.
(S) Malta provided supplies to the 2nd Special Squadron as well as treatments for war wounds. The soldiers in the former Imperial Japanese Navy were highly respected not only for their deeds, but also for their solid discipline and courteous behavior. The cemetery on Malta mainly contains the graves of officers and men from the crew of the Sakaki destroyer. Its bow was seriously damaged by torpedoes shot from a U-boat belonging to the Austro-Hungarian Empire in June 1917. Fifty-nine people, including the captain, died in action.
(M) Yes, the Sakaki was towed away, repaired, and used in active duty until 1932.
(S) A total of 73 personnel were interred on Malta in 1918, including soldiers killed in action on the Sakaki and 14 members of the 2nd Special Squadron who died from diseases during the war.
(M) The Austro-Hungarian Empire was a German ally.
(S) The Triple Alliance included Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. The Austro-Hungarian Empire participated in the war on Germany’s behalf. The Japanese navy fought for the Allied powers, working to protect British and French transport ships. The United Kingdom built the cemetery in Malta for the Imperial Japanese Navy, as well as other memorials for the Allies.
(M) Does Malta still have a constitutional monarchy ruled by the British monarch, even after independence?
(S) That was true right after independence in 1964, but the constitution was revised in 1974 to switch to a republican form of government with no monarch. However, Malta is still part of the Commonwealth of Nations. The president is our head of state. We also have a unicameral Parliament.
(M) Malta is a key location for marine transport in the middle of the Mediterranean. Was it controlled by many different powers before becoming a British territory?
(S) That’s correct. It was ruled by Carthage before the Common Era. Malta was part of the Roman Empire until the 6th century and of the Eastern Roman Empire until the 9th century. It was temporarily occupied by Muslim powers from North Africa, then recovered by the Normans in the 10th to 11th century. The Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem ruled Malta in the 16th century. These Knights Hospitaller broke the Ottoman siege in 1565. Malta prospered, then it was occupied by Napoleon of France in 1798. The people of Malta revolted because they disliked French rule. They asked Britain for aid, and Malta consequently became a protectorate of the British Empire in 1800.
(M) That’s an amazing history. What is the main religion?
(S) The Roman Catholic faith.
(M) I think it’s wonderful that the Maltese language has survived so many power struggles. Is education conducted in Maltese?
(S) Schools use both Maltese and English. We can also study Italian, French, and German. Historically Italian and English were the two official languages, but as a British territory Malta came into conflict with the Axis powers during World War II, and Italian was eliminated as an enemy language. Maltese, the native tongue, became an official language instead. However, around 70% of the citizens still understand Italian.
(M) What are Malta’s principal industries?
(S) Tourism is our main industry – more than 2.5 million tourists come to Malta from around the globe. About 26,000 Japanese people traveled there in 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic. In many cases they only stay for a short time while also visiting southern Italy or Sicily.
(M) I’ve been to Malta and drove around the island in a rental car. It had a comfortable, laid-back atmosphere. There weren’t many Japanese people back then, and I didn’t stay very long, either.
(S) Japanese people are fond of history and culture. I’m sure they’d be satisfied by our great climate, too.
(M) What sightseeing spots do you recommend?
(S) Malta has three UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The Ħal Saflieni Hypogeumal Saflieni Hypogeum is a three-level, subterranean structure built around 2500 BCE. It was constructed as a religious facility and then later used as a necropolis. The Hypogeum is the only prehistoric underground gravesite in the world. The City of Valletta, Malta’s capital, is also a World Heritage Site. This fortified city was planned and built by the Knights Hospitaller, centered around the Church of Our Lady of Victory from the 16th century. Although Valletta has been damaged in numerous wars, you can still enjoy beautiful scenery today. The other World Heritage Site is the Megalithic Temples of Malta. Roughly 30 temples have been confirmed on Malta and Gozo islands, of which six are inscribed on the World Heritage List. They are said to have been built from about 4500 to 2000 BCE. Gozo, which lies six kilometers northwest of Malta, is recently being developed as an island resort. In addition to the Ġgantija Temples, it has many attractions like the Blue Hole, a natural ocean pool with beautifully blue water, and Ta’ Pinu, known as “the Church of Miracles.” Malta is a warm, sunny country with delicious food and wine and lots of things to see.
(M) That sounds great. I’d like to visit other islands besides Malta, too.
(M) What are some other industries besides tourism?
(S) We have a thriving manufacturing industry, mainly for automotive parts, semiconductors, and other electronic components. We export these products to Japan and European countries such as Germany and France. But our major exports to Japan are fish and crustaceans, especially our famous Pacific bluefin tuna. Most of the fish grown at tuna farms on Malta Island is transported to Japan, where it is sold at places like the Toyosu Market. Our Pacific bluefin tuna has a good reputation for its delicious flavor, and is the most successful example of trade between Malta and Japan. I’d also love for more Japanese people to try our cheese, olive oil, wine, and honey. “Malta” actually means “honey” in Ancient Greek. The Romans established apiaries 2,000 years ago, and Malta has since been known regionally as a producer of honey.
(M) It sounds like trade between Malta and Japan is growing with a focus on foodstuffs.
(S) We import automobiles and electronics from Japan. And since we drive on the left side like I previously mentioned, Japanese cars – which have steering wheels on the right side – are extremely popular. Many people want to buy Toyota, Honda, and Mazda vehicles in particular.
(M) With such a vigorous manufacturing industry, I imagine that Maltese people must be highly educated.
(S) The national government devotes efforts to education. Tuition is totally free for compulsory education, which lasts until age 16. We have a university even though we are a small country.
(M) What schools did you attend?
(S) I earned my bachelor’s degree in Malta and then won a scholarship from the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology to do graduate studies at Ritsumeikan University. I received my Masters in International Relations in 2010.
(M) So you can speak Japanese.
(S) Yes, I actually came to Japan for the first time when I was enrolled at the University of Malta. I studied abroad at Kansai Gaidai University in 2002 and lived in Japan for just nine months. There were students from many places around the world like Europe, the U.S., Africa, and Asia, but I was the only one from Malta. There wasn’t a Maltese embassy in Japan back then, which was a bit worrisome.
(M) What originally inspired your interest in Japan?
(S) People often ask me that (laughs). My grandfather, who died four years before I was born, used to work at a port in Malta. He frequently saw Japanese ships traveling in and out of the port, and he apparently told my grandmother that he wanted to visit Japan someday. I’m sure the previous Summer Olympics in Tokyo and the Osaka Expo had something to do with it, too. Perhaps hearing about this from my father naturally sparked my interest in Japan.
(M) I assume Japan and Malta had a diplomatic relationship in 2002, back before there was an embassy?
(S) Japan and Malta established diplomatic ties in 1965, the year after Malta declared independence. There wasn’t an embassy back then; the Maltese embassy in Beijing was in charge of Japan. After I earned my master’s degree I returned to Malta and did some work related to the European Union (EU) before I entered the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. After being involved in various projects, I was appointed ambassador to Japan in 2014, when I rode in a horse-drawn carriage to the Imperial Palace and presented my letters of credence to His Majesty the Emperor of Japan. I continued living in Malta until 2020, when the Tokyo embassy was opened. I became the first resident ambassador, based on Malta’s viewpoint that its relationship with Japan would become even more vital in the future.
(M) The current war between Russia and Ukraine has further highlighted the value of peace. Countries must make military preparations to ensure deterrence and prevent war. Does Malta have a military?
(S) Yes, we have the Armed Forces of Malta, which are separate from the police forces. Malta is not a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), but we joined the EU in 2004 and collaborate with other nations in the security field. Although Malta is the smallest EU country, we use the Euro and we’ve signed the Schengen Agreement so travelers who enter Malta can move freely throughout the EU with only their passport and airplane ticket. And since Malta is a key transport location, it’s an extremely convenient base for traveling to Europe. It takes just one hour by plane to Tunisia and France, 1.5 hours to Egypt, and two hours to Spain and the UK.
(M) How do you get to Malta from Japan, since there are no direct flights?
(S) I think the easiest way is to transfer in Istanbul, which is 2.5 hours from Malta by air. Many Japanese people take that route. There are also other routes, including Frankfurt, Helsinki, Dubai, and Doha.
(M) Ah, I see.
(S) The Japan-Malta relationship actually goes back further than the 2nd Special Squadron. The Shogunate sent a mission to Europe in 1862, towards the end of the Edo period, to travel around and attend the International Exhibition in London. Yukichi Fukuzawa was their interpreter. The mission left Nagasaki and traveled to Singapore, then crossed the Indian Ocean and Red Sea before arriving in Suez. Next they took an overland route to Alexandria and crossed the Mediterranean to Malta to proceed to Marseilles. To express their gratitude they gifted two sets of samurai armor, which are still around today. I’d like to bring them to Japan to be restored and returned to the Japanese government.
(M) I didn’t know that! That’s a wonderful idea.
(S) The former Emperor Showa, who was crown price at the time, also made a brief stop in Malta during his trip to Europe in 1921. He probably visited the Imperial Japanese Navy graveyard. That was an important year for Malta; its self-government was recognized when the first national assembly was held, although it remained under British rule. The crown prince visited San Anton Gardens in Valetta, where he planted a cherry tree. We still cherish this tree that blooms so beautifully. One of my dreams is to build a traditional Japanese garden on Malta as a symbol of friendship between our countries.
(M) I’m sure it would draw more Japanese tourists.
(S) I think so.
(M) After talking to you, I definitely want to visit Malta again.
(S) I hope you will!
(M) At the end of the interview, I always ask for a “word for the youth.”
(S) I hope young Japanese people will travel abroad and study hard. When they return home, they should work to make their country a better place.
(M) Thank you for sharing such an interesting conversation with me today.
(S) It was a lot of fun. Thank you.
Graduated in International Relations at the University of Malta in 2005. Was awarded a scholarship from the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) in 2007. Earned his Masters in International Relations at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, Japan in 2010. After returning to Malta, he worked on a European Social Fund (ESF) project before joining the Maltese Ministry for Foreign Affairs. He was appointed the ambassador to Japan (resident in Malta) in 2014. He became the first Maltese resident ambassador in Tokyo following the opening of the Maltese Diplomatic Mission in Japan in 2020.