My Japanology / Yearning for 1964 Tokyo Olympics

Masahiro Sugimoto / The Yomiuri Shimbun

Ambassador Ahmet Bulent Meric speaks during an interview.

The Japan NewsPoised between Europe and Asia, Turkey is a crossroads of civilizations with a vibrant modern economy and deep historical ties with Japan. Its influence and roles in world affairs such as in counterterrorism and migration are expanding. We recently spoke with Turkey’s ambassador to this nation, Ahmet Bulent Meric.

Q: Could you tell us how you encountered Japan in your life?

Meric: In fact, Japan is not new to me. This is the second time that I have served as a diplomat in Japan. However, my interest in Japan goes back to my childhood. We learned about Japan through the incident of the [Turkish naval frigate] Ertugrul [which sank off the coast of Wakayama in 1890, and some of whose crew members were rescued by local people].

There were few written documents at that time. We learned about this incident by hearsay from our grandfathers, grandmothers. Another important event was the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. The Olympics provided a very attractive showcase. Thereby, we learned about the achievements made by Japan in the field of modernization.

After getting into this [diplomatic] profession, I was sent to Japan as a first secretary in 1986 and I served until 1988. During that term of duty, I married a Japanese. I am attached to Japan and that attachment grows.

Q: You were here from 1986 to 1988 as a diplomat. Do you see a different face of Japan now?

A: The 1980s were a boom time. Everybody was in a positive mood at the time.

Japanese companies were all over the world. They were making good profits, and Tokyo was a lively city with so many festivities.

When I came back to Japan [in 2014], I saw that in terms of liveliness and dynamism, Japan has unfortunately changed. Economic difficulties set in. Yet, in terms of the openness of the society to the outside world, in the 1980s Japan was rather a closed society. For example, everything was written in kanji [characters]. For foreigners it was very difficult to find directions. At that time, English wasn’t widely spoken in the street. This has changed. Therefore, despite economic deterioration, Japan has managed to integrate further in the international society.

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  • Masahiro Sugimoto / The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Ambassador Ahmet Bulent Meric at the Turkish Embassy in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo

Q: Japan has been focusing on tourism and Turkey has been known as a big tourism country. How do you see the development of tourism infrastructure in Japan?

A: Japan is a very rich country for tourism. Japan has a very deep culture and history, beautiful landscapes and immense hospitality. Japan should use this potential more by attracting tourists — not only from the Asia-Pacific region, but from other corners of the world as well.

I see that Japan is yet to improve its [tourism] infrastructure. I mention infrastructure not only in terms of hotels, entertainment and resorts, but also treatment of tourists and [foreign] language-speaking people and guides.

Japan can attract tourists from Muslim countries. For that, she has to develop the necessary amenities. I am happy to see that the Japanese government is very much sensitive in that regard, in the period running up to the Tokyo Olympics 2020.

When I get in contact with the ministers, they ask me what can be done in terms of receiving Muslim sports people and tourists. I tell them that my government and this embassy are ready to help the government of Japan in developing the necessary infrastructure. Muslim tourists need different treatment and specifications. Halal food is one of them. I happily note that there is awareness [in the government] that there should be [more] halal food restaurants, especially in Tokyo, by the time the Olympics take place.

N-plant cooperation

Q: On a bilateral issue, an agreement was reached between a Japanese-French consortium and the Turkish side to build a second nuclear power plant, in the Black Sea town of Sinop. Do you see the Japanese government’s policy to use nuclear power for civilian purposes as beneficial for your country?

A: As the economy develops, it needs more energy and more energy resources. In the modern world people are very sensitive to clean energy and nuclear energy is the cleanest despite its risks. It is an expensive energy source, yet it is an enduring one.

We are following the Japanese pattern of modernization and industrialization. We have a vision. We call it the 2023 vision. [The year] 2023 is the centennial of the establishment of our republic.

What is this vision? Our population will be 84 million people. We are now 78 million. There will be a dramatic population increase. We will be among the 10 biggest economies, with a gross domestic product of $2 trillion. We aim to be the main production base in both Europe and Asia. We surmise that by the year 2023 our need for energy will double. In the year 2023 we aim to have 10 percent of our energy mix from nuclear energy.

Specifically, we are aiming to establish three main nuclear plants with one on the Mediterranean coast and two on the Black Sea coast. For the first one in Akkuyu, we cooperate with Russia. For the second one, we started cooperating with Japan in Sinop. This will be an overall $20 billion investment.

The technology will be provided by both Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. and Areva [of France]. There would be four units, providing 4,400 megawatts overall. The first unit is supposed to be finished by the year 2023, the second unit by 2024, the third by 2027, and the fourth by 2028.

Q: Turkey is part of the G-20. What is the significance of the G-7 these days?

A: The G-7 is a distinct club, but the influence of the G-7 is definitely decreasing. Now, the conditions in the aftermath of the Second World War are changing. We see new rising centers, centers of influence in terms of international politics and economics. As a more inclusive forum, the G-20 is more amenable and more instrumental in addressing the exigencies of the present and bringing about effective solutions for the current challenges.

To give you an example, nowadays the lead question is Syria. How would we bring a solution to the Syrian question? G-7 has limits in bringing about an effective panacea because of its limited composition. We need more inclusive groupings. There should be Russia, China, Turkey and other regional actors in them. So, all in all, although G-7 maintains its leadership role, G-20 is gaining allure.

Q: How do you see the significance of the security laws enacted in 2015 in terms of maintaining stability in East Asia?

A: As I mentioned earlier, the conditions in the aftermath of the Second World War no longer exist. The dynamics of international politics are changing. In a period of transition, every country has the right to change its defense posture and defense doctrine accordingly.

Therefore we have a positive stance on what is taking place in Japan’s domestic politics. Japan has the right to defend itself and its interests, definitely. This is an internal matter of Japan.

Q: As for Syria, political solutions have been sought through the United Nations as well as various multilateral discussions, but there haven’t been any clear solutions yet. Do you think there is anything that Japan could do?

A: I think besides her contributions to humanitarian activities, Japan can play a more active role in the conflict resolution process. Yet the cardinal question is whether a solution could be found with the present regime involved. Some protagonists, like Russia or Iran, claim that [Syrian President Bashar] Assad should be given a role in the future of the country. We take another view. We say that the present regime has lost its legitimacy because of its inhuman, brutal treatment of its people.

Therefore, there is no future for Syria with Assad playing a role. I see that Japan is not in that position yet. Japan still has connections with the present regime.

Q: Terrorism appears to have divided cultures and faiths. As one of the most populous Muslim countries, what do you think is the role of Turkey?

A: Terrorism should not be permitted to divide the world in terms of religion, civilization or culture. We are no longer living in medieval societies. In the Dark Ages, religions used to be the main cause of warfare. We are now living in a modern, global world. “The Clash of Civilizations” is a fiction and it should remain a fiction. There should be tolerance and harmony amongst civilizations. We should respect each other. Turkey takes this view.

Terrorism is a sort of asymmetrical warfare. It is also sustained by some states. Terrorism is international. It is not regional or national. In order to fight against terrorism, there should be international solidarity and understanding. If we just keep up the notion that my enemy’s terrorist is my freedom fighter, we cannot come to a solution. Unfortunately, in today’s world, we see that notion very much alive. We should change our viewpoint and mentality.

Q: A lot of migrants are coming from the war-stricken countries such as Syria and Iraq into Europe. Do you see a change in the political attitude of European people in terms of accepting people from outside?

A: Europe is getting more inward-looking. As far as Turkey is concerned, I think Turkey made the right decision in 2011 by opening its borders, because the Syria conflict gave way to a tragic humanitarian problem. So far we have mostly relied on our national means.

When we asked for international assistance, it came only in a trickle with so far only $250 million. On the other hand Turkey spent more than $13 billion for the asylum-seekers in Turkey. There are 3 million of them now with about 2½ million from Syria and 500,000 from Iraq. We established 26 camps. 300,000 people are living in camps. Turkey has used her full capacity and we cannot sustain the new incoming asylum-seekers. Yet, we keep our borders open. They usually transit Turkey and opt to go to Europe to find a safe haven.

The European countries, champions of human rights, are closing their borders. One leader in Europe says that Turkey is a safe country so they better return to Turkey. This is an extremely irresponsible attitude. When it comes to human rights, they give lofty speeches. But when the problem comes to their doorstep, they pursue double standards.

Secularism for tolerance

Q: What kind of picture would you like to propose to the international community for the coexistence of various elements of modern society?

A: We are inheritors of a big empire. Like Japan we have a deep history and culture. This culture is very much based on harmony and tolerance of the differences, different ethnicities and societies.

We are a secular society. Secularism also sustains this tolerance. Turkey presents an exemplary case in its region in terms of tolerance among cultures. We should just look towards others with tolerant eyes and try to reach out to help those in need.

Q: Do you think Japan, with different religious traditions from the West and the Muslim world, can provide some solution to terrorism?

A: I don’t think that religion is the real cause of conflicts. I think the main reason is the economic difficulties that modern societies face. Religion is used as a pretext. On the one hand, industrialized countries have difficulties now in generating enough growth and employment. Their societies are aging.

On the other hand, we unfortunately failed to design a fair world. There are haves and have-nots. The world’s population is 7.4 billion people roughly. One-ninth of this population is in abject poverty. 450 million people live on less than $1 per day. Thirteen percent are undernourished. Seventeen percent are illiterate. When we look at the world’s GDP, developed countries provide 61 percent, and the least developed countries only 1 percent of the GDP. In terms of average per capita income, OECD countries have roughly $40,000, the least developed countries only $800. So there is a diverging gap. This should be improved.

Definitely Japan is able to and should play a role in the fight against terrorism. Indeed Japan is playing a constructive role by addressing the root causes, not only by financially supporting the U.N. development objectives but also in terms of joining the ranks against terrorism.

Q: With this constructive role played by Japan, do you think it’s high time for the United Nations to talk about enlarging the U.N. Security Council?

A: Definitely the U.N. needs restructuring of its institutions. It is no longer addressing or truly representing the world. In particular, the Security Council should be reformed.

We see that the Security Council, with the veto power of the five permanent members, sometimes becomes ineffective in addressing the present challenges, which require urgent action. Sometimes the United Nations is bypassed and some regional and international powers are doing the job on their own. This shouldn’t be the manner of approaching the questions.

The United Nations should remain the source of legitimacy in terms of intervening in conflict situations, in terms of rectifying the situations. Unfortunately, with this vetoing power and the notion of permanent members, this is not working smoothly.

So yes, it should be restructured, but it should be restructured in a manner ensuring more even and democratic representation on the one hand and increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of the United Nations on the other.

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

Ambassador Ahmet Bulent Meric started his professional career at Turkey’s Ministry of Finance in 1980 and later joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the same year. As a diplomat, he has worked at the Turkish embassies in Tel Aviv, Tokyo, Helsinki and Tehran, among others. In 2007, he was appointed ambassador to Singapore. Two years later, he became ambassador to Ukraine. He has held his present post since April 2014.

He was born in Ankara on February 22, 1957. His hobbies in Japan are walking in nature and taking photos.

(From July 5, 2016, issue)

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