The Japan NewsGermany and Japan have fostered mature ties as two of the world’s leading industrialized democracies by healthily competing in the economic field while sharing values such as individual freedom and the rule of law. Germany is one of the most powerful nations in the European Union, and is facing a number of challenges the bloc has historically accumulated. German Ambassador to Japan Hans Carl von Werthern discussed the future of bilateral relations and the global political current.
Q: Your official residence just next to the German Embassy has a large Japanese garden with old cultural properties, some of which can be traced back to the Edo period. How do you find it living in such a Japanese-style atmosphere?
von Werthern: It goes without saying that this is a wonderful place to live and also to work. Both the Residence and the Embassy have the function of bringing Japanese and Germans together to establish contacts and to have serious talks sometimes, but also sometimes to meet in a relaxed atmosphere. What could be better than such a beautiful garden with old Japanese trees and bushes and the artifacts? It is also, I think, appreciated by our Japanese guests that we maintain the garden in very good order, and that we use the teahouse for tea ceremonies.
I’m fascinated by how Japan is preserving its old culture. On Sept. 19, I went to a Noh theater performance for the first time in my life, and I was so impressed by the fact that the words, the movements and the music of this piece of theater have remained the same over the centuries. The theater was sold out and full. In Germany, we try to modernize our culture always, and sometimes tend to lose the feeling for the value of what happened hundreds of years ago.
On the other hand, Japan is very open to technological change, much more open than Germany. In that respect as well, Germany can learn a lot from Japan. Japan is very popular in Germany for its modern culture, especially for manga, anime, and for its cuisine.
Chances in nuclear fields
Q: How do the two countries’ different cultural stances work in economic fields?
A: We have a lot of cooperation between German and Japanese companies, and the difference in company culture is both interesting and instructive for the companies concerned. As far as technology is concerned, every country has to find its own way. Germany and Japan have found rather different answers for the same challenges in many cases, and this is the very reason they can [benefit] a lot from each other.
Take the example of nuclear energy. In Germany, we have decided to abandon nuclear energy. In Japan, you are reintroducing nuclear energy. It is clear that the German way is not necessarily the right way for Japan, and the Japanese way is not necessarily the right way for Germany. But we can still talk about the differences, what is behind it and how we can help each other in coping with the problems. For example, because Germany is now abandoning nuclear energy, it has great expertise in the decommissioning of nuclear plants, which is an experience that Japan might profit from.
Q: Have you also observed some commonality between cultural and religious sites in Japan and those in Germany?
A: I once was present at the ceremony to commemorate Emperor Meiji’s birthday at Meiji Jingu shrine in Tokyo. It was a long ceremony with a lot of ritual procedures, which in certain aspects reminded me very much in certain aspects of the high Mass in a Catholic church with chants, that nobody really understands, with music from ancient times and the priests wearing special ceremonial clothing. I think that as far as religious and very basic spiritual needs are concerned, people in all different cultures share the same basic needs and feelings.
Q: How far away did Japan seem to you when you were young?
A: My father, incidentally, worked for the German photographic industry and came to Japan in the 1960s, 70s and 80s almost every year. I’m one of five children of my parents. We were fascinated by what he told us about Japan, and how exotic this country was, that the Japanese eat strange things like raw fish, that they take baths together in hot water. In those days, my fascination for Japan originated.
Q: What do you think are the reasons why the bilateral economic relationship has been developing steadily over the decades?
A: I think there are a number of factors. First of all, we have had a long-standing partnership with 150 years of diplomatic relations and even longer relations especially in the field of science. Both have resulted in the fact that we know and trust each other deeply.
Also, Japan shares a lot of values and characteristics with Germany. We are both stable democracies. We are both mature market economies. We both have a hard-working and efficient labor force. In both countries, small and medium-sized enterprises are very important.
We find Japan a very reliable partner. When a Japanese counterpart makes any promises or signs a contract, we can be absolutely sure that these promises will be kept and that there is no hidden agenda. That is not always the case in this region, and that is why I think Japan and Germany work so closely and easily together.
It is a mutual relationship of trust, confidence and the sharing of values. I think that’s why we are predestined partners, even in the economic fields where we are economic competitors.
Q: Do you think the Brexit decision will somehow affect or even boost Japan-German economic relations?
A: It’s hard to say. I think that the Brexit decision was most unfortunate. The EU will suffer from it and the United Kingdom will suffer from it.
Japan encouraged to do more for its own security
But I think both sides are determined to keep the damage as small as possible. Of course, the United Kingdom will remain a European nation. It will not turn its back on the EU. But they have said “Brexit is Brexit,” so sooner or later they will be out.
Germany already is a bridge for Japan and other countries into the EU. The European Central Bank is in Frankfurt. Duesseldorf is a very strong base for Japanese companies. Germany would always be ready to accept Japanese companies in case they find it more convenient to move to Germany after the Brexit.
Q: Do you think the Brexit decision will somehow affect the ongoing negotiations between Japan and the EU for the Economic Partnership Agreement?
A: I don’t really think so because it is being negotiated by the European Commission, not by the member states. Of course, I could imagine that for Japan it is slightly less attractive to conclude a free trade agreement with a smaller European Union. On the other hand, I think the European Union and the EU market will remain interesting enough to the rest of the world, including Japan. Germany has a strong interest in a substantial EPA, and would like to see it concluded as soon as possible.
Q: From European and German viewpoints, what has been the significance of the Abenomics policy mix?
A: Abenomics is certainly something which has been closely observed both by the German government and industry and, naturally, by the German companies which are active in Japan. We are following both the original Abenomics and “Abenomics 2.0.” I think it has borne fruit, but it could be even more successful if the third arrow of the original Abenomics, namely growth through structural change, could be pursued a bit more vigorously.
We have found in Germany that structural change has set free a lot of economic impulse. Once you don’t have these traditional old structures anymore, a lot of new initiatives will be taken, and things become much more flexible. This is part of the original Abenomics, so we are waiting for that. All European governments are more or less encouraging Japan to pursue that path.
Q: How do you view the security law enacted by the Abe administration?
A: For me, it is highly interesting to follow the discussions in Japan because I’m reminded very much of the German discussion we had in 1989 and 1990 when the German and European divisions were overcome, and the Cold War ended. Germany then was expected by the international community to contribute much more to international security, including by military means. Lots of Germans were very reluctant to follow that path.
We have always encouraged Japan, to do more for its own security and to create a condition in which it is possible for Japan to participate in peacekeeping operations, and this is happening now. I do understand this is not an easy discussion in the Japanese society; in Germany we also needed some time before it happened.
For us, it’s especially interesting because the German Embassy at the moment and for some time to come is the so-called NATO contact embassy in Japan. So any relations between NATO and Japan are being channeled through the German Embassy and we are very happy to facilitate that dialogue.
Q: Do you think the Abe Cabinet’s “proactive contributions to peace” diplomacy has been affecting not just the Japan-U.S. alliance but also Japan’s commitment on the global stage?
A: Yes, absolutely. Japan’s situation in the region is different from the German situation in Europe before and after 1989. Japan has the difficulty of explaining to its neighbors that its proactive contribution to security is not meant as an aggressive act against its neighbors. This makes it more difficult for Japan than it was for us.
But now we have a similar situation as far as Russia is concerned. Russia is now a country whose relationship with NATO and Western Europe is strained. We have to do more for our security but have to keep on explaining to Russia and other neighbors that this is not an act which can in any way be understood as aggressive, but it’s actually positive.
In that sense, I think the Japanese policy is absolutely the right one.
UNSC reform a hard path
Q: Japan and Germany have been cooperating with each other for the reform of the U.N. Security Council as members of the so-called Group of 4 for more than a decade, but there have been little tangible results. What do you think are the keys to success for the G-4?
A: I think it is clear to everyone that the structure of the U.N. reflects the situation of the world after the Second World War, not the situation of the world today. The five so-called victorious powers and nuclear powers are permanent members of the Security Council and have the right to veto any decision. I think it is clear to everybody that something has to change, if the United Nations is to be in the position it is supposed to be.
But it is very difficult because it’s quite natural that the veto powers don’t want to relinquish their right of veto. I think the only thing we can do is what we have been doing in the G-4 and other formations, namely, to discuss the problems, to make proposals, to see where compromises can be found, and to try to reach progress step-by-step.
Q: As a veteran diplomat, what factors would you say have caused instability in East Asia?
A: In Europe, we have been incredibly lucky in a number of aspects. First of all, Germany after the war had neighbors which extended their hands to friendship and reconciliation. East Asia has never had that chance.
I’m not saying the European solution should be a model for East Asia. But I do say that if the archenemies like Germany and France who have fought many wars against each other with hundreds of thousands of people dying in the battlefields, can find a way to become the closest partners imaginable, it should at least give hope to East Asia as well.
One of the key elements, I think, is trying to see the conflict through the eyes of your opposing partner. In Germany, in a very long, very hard, very painful process, we have come to grips with our terrible past of the Nazis and the Hitler regime. That was a good precondition to see the old conflicts through the eyes of the victims.
Q: Germany’s economic relations with China have been growing at a higher speed than those with Japan. Will Germany’s closer economic relationship with China affect its political relations with China in terms of human rights and security?
A: No. We are not going soft on our issues — human rights, rule of law, protection of intellectual property and so on — with China. The fact that we are successfully cooperating economically with China gives us a position to really take a firm stand on these topics. At the same time, we don’t believe in a human rights policy by loudspeaker. That would have detrimental effects. But behind closed doors, in the right channels and on the right levels, we are having intensive human rights dialogue with China. This is not in the way of economic cooperation.
Incidentally, China sometimes says to Western countries and to us, “You are only using your human rights policy as an instrument to put blame on us.” We say, “That’s not true because we talk about human rights with all our partners.” We are talking about capital punishment with Japan and the United States. If we can trust each other in the field of human rights, this trust and confidence can be extended to other fields of cooperation as well.
Rise of populism
Q: In Germany, the governing Christian Democratic Union party suffered historic losses in Berlin and the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in September. Its coalition partner the Social Democratic Party also has lost its share of votes. What does the apparent weakening of the mainstream parties mean for German democracy?
A: I think all over Europe we are experiencing a time of populism. The problem with the populists is that they have seemingly easy answers for complicated problems. People who see that the traditional answers of the big parties do not always sound convincing are very susceptible to the populists’ slogans. Populists don’t have to prove their statements. Their assertions are often completely groundless.
I think that is basically a dangerous situation, but at the same time, I am rather convinced that phenomena like Brexit can contribute to unmasking the populists. In the United Kingdom, after the majority voted for Brexit, they realized that the populists had not even meant to fulfill their promises.
I don’t see any real danger for democracy in Germany, far from it. But often I think the traditional parties have to get closer to the people. They have to explain a lot more, and they have to make much stronger efforts to keep populism at bay.
There will always be a part of the population that believes in easy answers. But I think the test of reality soon makes the pendulum swing back again. We have had populist parties in Germany. Once they came into some regional governments, it was shown that their easy answers were not real answers, and these parties were not reelected.
This interview was conducted by Japan News Assistant Editor Michinobu Yanagisawa.
Hans Carl von Werthern entered the Federal Office of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1984, and has been posted in such countries as Vietnam (1987-90) and Paraguay (1994-97). Having served as the deputy chief of mission of the German Embassy in Beijing from 2008 to 2010, he took his present post in 2014.
He loves taking photos of people and landscapes in Japan, and posts them on his blog. He earned a prize at an annual photo exhibition, “Japan through Diplomats’ Eyes,” this year, which will be held at the Hills Cafe/Space at Roppongi Hills, Minato Ward, Tokyo, from Oct. 4 to 10.