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My Japanology / Inspired by nation of bonsai

Masahiro Sugimoto/The Yomiuri Shimbun

Ambassador Viorel Isticioaia-Budura speaks during an interview.

The Japan NewsThis new series features Japan-based ambassadors and global-minded corporate leaders who have a unique take on the way this country is navigating its course. The first interview was conducted with the ambassador of the European Union Viorel Isticioaia-Budura, a former ambassador to China and South Korea for his native Romania who is well-versed in Chinese language and literature.

Q: How have you encountered and been involved with Japan and East Asia in your life?

Isticioaia-Budura: I prepared my graduation paper as all university students do. The topic was the intellectual opening and the reforms in China in the second half of the 19th century. Studying and reading books and papers on this topic, I have seen a number of young intellectuals and students from China like Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the father of the Chinese revolution. Japan and China were dealing with requests to open towards the world, to try to reform and to face the challenges of development. That was my first, if you wish, intellectual contact with Japan.

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  • Masahiro Sugimoto/The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Ambassador Viorel Isticioaia-Budura talks about his vision on Japan-EU relations at the EU’s mission in Tokyo.

I joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs [of Romania], and wrote a small article about a topic on Japan, which was published in a magazine for the ministry. I chose bonsai, little miniature trees. It was very much about Japanese culture. I treated bonsai as a symbolic expression of the connection between the Japanese soul and nature. It was my early contact with Japanese culture and intellectual history.

As a diplomat, very much working in these countries, Japan, China and the Republic of Korea, I discovered East Asia remains a geopolitical space which invites additional effort to identify the opportunities of cooperation, friendship and partnership and to work for mutual understanding.

Q: Why did you choose bonsai as a topic to understand Japan?

A: Indeed, choosing bonsai had a political meaning. It was still under oppressive totalitarian regime in Romania. As somebody studying a little bit about philosophy and as a young diplomat aspiring to do more to enjoy traveling and learning, I chose bonsai.

Bonsai is a small tree in a confined and limited space to grow. Wouldn’t a young person in a totalitarian society and in a closed controlled space not able to grow bigger feel the same? What’s the beauty of making bonsai?

Even under this limited condition, still bonsai shows the force of nature and the beauty of nature. In a limited space, it is still beautiful. It symbolizes the whole comprehensive nature. Even under confined circumstances, persons can aim at cultivating themselves and becoming more educated.

By this, the Japanese encourage us, in spite of the limited conditions, to aspire for beauty and to praise nature. It was about Japanese culture, but more about our aspiration of achieving something beyond the limited circumstances.

In 1970, my wife as a teenager visited the Osaka Expo. At that time, her father was in Sydney and he took the family. My wife was 16. He brought the family to the expo and was amazed by the achievement shown, [such as] the biggest TV display in the world. [There was] a very specific pavilion of big industrial companies. She still remembers how impressed she was as a teenager. She paid attention to the beautiful dress, the beautiful attendants and guides at the pavilions, and new mini-skirts.

Q: When you were young, you saw Japan as a cultural model. You then came to Japan as a diplomat in 1992. Now you are serving the EU in Japan. Has the Japan you have seen in each stage changed over time?

A: I have spent almost five years as a Romanian diplomat here. It was the time in the 1990s of excellent opening towards the outside world. What I noticed at the time was the incipient debate of the engagement in the world of Japan.

It was after the Gulf War. You remember how much controversy developed about what’s the real nature of Japan’s engagement — checkbook diplomacy or [becoming] ready to share blood for international peace together with the U.S. and other like-minded partners. I remember listening to Japanese diplomats who were saying: “We are moving. The war in the Gulf was a lesson. We move from commitment to engagement.”

The first international cooperation law [for U.N. peacekeeping] was adopted in 1992. I was here. Last year, a security package was debated in the new international regional circumstances, that is, the possible engagement of Japan in the spirit of new interpretation of collective self-defense.

At that time [in the 1990s], I already felt that indeed Japan was a more mature and effective partner in engaging internationally. The TICAD [Tokyo International Conference on African Development] conference was taking place in Japan. I joined it again with a feeling that Japan was doing the right thing. We may engage together in Central Asia and Southeast or East Asia.

Japan shows more maturity as partner

Q: Do you think Japan has been moving in the right direction in your viewpoint of modernization?

A: We have to admit that East Asia is in a slightly different stage [from Europe]. The European Union itself is the expression of this post-nationalist stage of development. Still the nation states display an important role in Asia. Besides, there are new developments with other states being now more mature, better equipped in terms of economic might. I do not need to indicate to you the big neighbors around.

Witness of Tiananmen

Q: You translated a Chinese novel “Midnight” by Mao Dun into Romanian. Why did you choose this particular book?

A: I started [studying in China] during the dark years of the Cultural Revolution. There were not many opportunities to choose. Classical novels at the time were not available. The libraries in all universities were closed.

The books you would find in the bookstores were in very limited numbers. At the time, I was working with these kinds of books from Hong Kong. That was the only possibility. Unfortunately the intellectual environment in those years was like bonsai. It was very confined and controlled.

I asked the professors what they would recommend. This novel has a big advantage of [being] an early representative of the realist trend in the Chinese literature at the beginning of twentieth century, describing the changes in the Chinese society in Shanghai, a big cosmopolitan center, and the rural society around Shanghai. It’s a very good picture taken at the moment in which China was facing the pressure for new economic developments.

Shanghai had many foreign business people involved, including Japanese and Europeans. This is a novel describing the impact of this opening to the outside world, and the impact of early capitalism and early elements of the market economy on the rural, traditional Chinese society, and the rise of the working class.

In those days of the Cultural Revolution, politically the subject was correct. From a literal point of view, [it] was a good achievement of the novelist to describe the moment of crisis and transformation of the society.

Q: In Romania in 1989, there was a radical change in the political system. Did this big transformation impact your worldview?

A: Indeed, that had an impact on my life, my world outlook and my career. They [Romanian people] wanted to go out from the confined space of the totalitarian regime. They wanted freedom. They wanted more rights.

I was in Beijing in 1989. I went back home in 1990. Really the whole environment had changed. We had more chances to travel abroad, to get education in foreign countries, and to engage in wider choices of professional careers.

I was a young diplomat already at the time. In the old system, a young diplomat would never have had the chance to become an ambassador. Always the ambassadors were political appointees, appointed by the regime at the time.

They were clients and loyal servants of the regime, not professionals. My father-in-law was also a diplomat and also a very good Chinese speaker, He became ambassador only after the changes took place in Romania.

My wife, who was also working in the ministry of foreign affairs, had never got a diplomatic ranking because the women were not properly supported to progress in professional ranks. My daughter, before 1990, could not travel abroad. She was kept in Romania, not being allowed to have a passport and get out from the country because of a decision of the communist regime to have somebody at home while my wife and I were working at the embassy in China, as sort of a hostage.

Q: What was it like to be in China in 1989?

A: I was there during the Tiananmen [Square incident]. China was at that time scoring very well in the opening process, which started at the end of 1970s and the beginning of 80s under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping. Then we had no such leader in Eastern Europe.

This opening of China very much impressed me. We had no Coca-Cola in Romania until 1990. When McDonald’s and Coca-Cola move in, it’s the new market moving in. We were closed, but China opened. Many Eastern Europeans were still entrenched in totalitarian thinking. But China was advancing. It was a good mixture, a very huge mixture of all kinds of ideas. I enjoyed that.

But by not judging what has happened, my big question mark was, how can you absorb, process and advance by integrating all these new ideas, experiences, in your own society. The answer, which is not to be given either by a Japanese or by a European, should be given by the Chinese themselves. And what has happened, you have seen. Students danced in the streets. It was a commotion. It was a crisis, which the Chinese have to judge.

Asia is facing these kinds of challenges. Many countries, from DPRK [North Korea] to many others, are facing these challenges to move to a more open-minded, a more open and reformist society. We as Europeans supported very much and gave good assistance in this march towards reforms and changes. To Myanmar, Japan did the same. Japan and EU member states were among the first to extend a helpful hand to Myanmar. Let’s hope that again, EU and Japan, as like-minded countries, sharing the same values and principles, can do a lot either in Asia or in many other regions of the world.

U.K. benefits from EU

Q: A lot of concerns have been raised over the unity of the EU. Do you hear those concerns from East Asia and Japan?

A: I hear the right questions from members of the Diet, officials in the ministries, professors from think tanks, universities. I would say the concerns are justified.

Brexit [is] another issue on which again the European leaders had to sit together for a number of days and nights. In the end, they responded to the concerns expressed by Prime Minister [David] Cameron on behalf of the British people, and they offered a political deal, which now the people are debating and they will vote in referendum to give an answer.

The strong feeling prevailing among us here is that the U.K. is an important contributor inside the Union and benefits a lot from this membership. We hope the British will give an answer at that time in a way that will benefit the U.K. and the European Union.

Q: On a bilateral issue, how is the prospect of a Japan-EU Economic Partnership Agreement to be achieved?

A: Of course there are a number of sensitive areas. The EU is very much dedicated to give complete, all across the table, liberalization to many sectors, including automotive sectors for car and car parts, which represent a good interest for the Japanese partners, and expect reciprocity from Japan, especially in agricultural products, especially for processed products and drinks.

Japan has to be congratulated for achieving the TPP negotiations with United States and the other partners across the region. But for us this TPP is not a model, not a template. What we want to export to Japan is not necessarily what the United States and other members of TPP would export.

We respect the sensitivity of certain products here in agriculture. We really expect the negotiations to be concluded within the year.

Q: The Abe administration enacted the security laws. What is the significance of the laws from the EU perspective?

A: We really appreciate it. The debates [have been] taking place in the Diet in a democratic way. In the end both houses adopted the new legislation. We see additional possibilities of [Japan] playing an important role as a partner at regional and international levels in security and defense.

We had already excellent experience in working with the Maritime Self-Defense Force in the counter-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia. Japan would be ready to advance to consider joining the European Union either in civilian or military operations abroad in crisis management, in post-conflict management.

In many ways, Japan will look indeed, based on the legal basis, more engaged together as a like-minded partner.

This interview was conducted by Michinobu Yanagisawa, Japan News Assistant Editor.

■ Profile
Isticioaia-Budura was born in Romania in 1952. He studied at Nankai University in Tianjin, China, from 1974 to 1977 and earned a bachelor’s degree in Chinese language and literature. Starting his career as a Romanian diplomat in 1978, he held posts such as press attache of the embassy in Beijing (1985-1990), minister-counsellor of the embassy in Tokyo (1992-1996), ambassador to the Republic of Korea (2000-2002) and ambassador to China and Mongolia (2002-2010). He took up his present post in 2014.

(From June 20, 2016, issue)
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