My Japanology / Understanding omotenashi and Japanese people’s sense of fun

Kazuo Akimoto/The Yomiuri Shimbun

Irish Ambassador to Japan Anne Barrington speaks during an interview at the Irish Embassy in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo.

The Japan News A small island nation in Europe, Ireland has a centuries-old history of sending its people across the globe as migrants, and thus attaches importance to international openness. However, the decision by its closest neighbor, Britain, to exit from the European Union is casting a shadow over Ireland’s strategy based on ever closer European and global integration. Irish Ambassador to Japan Anne Barrington spoke to The Japan News about her thoughts on the rising protectionism in the world as well as this year’s 60th anniversary of Ireland’s diplomatic ties with Japan.

Q: Can you tell me how you first became interested in Japan?

Barrington: When I was studying history and politics at university, a visiting professor from the U.S. who was an expert in Japanese history came and gave a course on Japan. So I studied Japanese history from the Meiji Restoration up to the Second World War. From that point on, I was a fan of Japan.

This was in the ’70s, so Japan was emerging as one of the great economies of the world, so there was a lot of interest in Japan. It’s so extraordinary to see the development of Japan over that period.

My intention was always to come and visit [Japan], but events got in the way and life takes different turns. We have a very small diplomatic service, so you don’t always have a huge choice of where you might wish to go. I was delighted to be given this opportunity eventually after all those years to come to Japan.

Before I came here as ambassador-designate, I spent a couple of weeks in Matsue, Shimane Prefecture, staying with three wonderful families and learning about Japanese culture and a little bit of the language. I really got a sense of Japanese omotenashi — the great hospitality and wonderful sense of fun of the Japanese people.

Of course, Matsue had this relationship with Lafcadio Hearn, or Koizumi Yakumo, so it seemed like a good place to go. I would recommend it to everyone [named ambassador-designate].

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  • Kazuo Akimoto / The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Irish Ambassador to Japan Anne Barrington speaks during an interview at the Irish Embassy in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo.

The thing that I hadn’t really realized was how much Japanese people love to party, and this has been great because as a result, Japan has adopted our St. Patrick’s Day as yet another reason to party. This year we’ll have 14 festivals and parades. Japanese people are very curious and like to find out about things.

Q: How do you feel about the fact that many Japanese still don’t know much about Ireland?

A: We do have a very good following among some sectors. For example, our literature — Yeats, Beckett, Heaney and Colm Toibin — they all have a strong following here. There are many affinities between Ireland and Japan.

I, quite frankly, would like to get more Japanese people to come and visit Ireland. About 10,000 Irish people come to Japan, but only about 20,000 Japanese people go to Ireland in a year. Given the disparity in our population size — 4.6 million as opposed to 127 million — we should have 10 times and more the numbers of Japanese people coming to Ireland.

Q: What is the significance of the 60th anniversary of the Japan-Ireland relationship?

A: We see this anniversary as an opportunity to renew and refresh our relationship. We have a very vibrant relationship and we share the same values and we do a lot of trade together and we’re trying to increase the people-to-people exchanges.

So we were greatly honored by the visit of Foreign Minister [Fumio] Kishida in January. Minister Kishida gave our minister [Charles Flanagan] a daruma doll to fill out the eye, and our minister is coming here at the end of this month for a reciprocal visit. We have an art exhibition in May, friendly rugby matches in June, and the Ireland Trophy horse race in October. So there are lots of things coming down the track.

In 2013, Prime Minister [Shinzo] Abe visited Ireland and our prime minister [Enda Kenny] visited here, and they agreed on a declaration for innovation and growth. It’s my hope that we can review what is in that declaration, see how far we’ve come, and then look to the future.

Border issue key in Brexit

Q: Can you explain the possible impacts Ireland will experience due to Brexit?

A: The most immediate economic impact of the Brexit vote on Ireland has been the depreciation of the British pound. Parts of Ireland’s agriculture sector are fully dependent on the U.K. market. When the pound devalued, their profit margin was wiped out, and they had to close their businesses. So that’s been one very tangible impact of the Brexit vote on the Irish economy.

But the big impact of the Brexit vote has been uncertainty. Economic actors like to be able to plan for the future, and that has been very difficult, and markets don’t like that. I don’t think the uncertainty will be eliminated until the shape of the Brexit deal is known in about two or so years’ time.

We will be negotiating with our partners in the EU and of course we’ll bring our national interests into that negotiation. Because of our specific history and geography, we will have specific concerns and particular concerns that we will need to see addressed.

One of these will be the implications for Northern Ireland. [Ireland is] the only country in the EU with a border with the U.K. We also have the peace process, which was predicated on the fact of both of us being members of the EU. The process has been underpinned by support from the EU, very importantly. We want to ensure the minimum disruption across the border.

That goes without saying that it’s in the interests of everyone that the peace process that was established under the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 is preserved and nurtured and that we move forward and don’t move backward.

There’s obviously a political crisis in Northern Ireland. We have elections on the 2nd of March and have to wait and see the outcome of those elections. Hopefully we will have a functioning government there before long, because with Brexit coming along, it will be useful to have all the inputs from the political parties in Northern Ireland to that process.

We’re hopeful that those countries that are concerned about the U.K. not being part of the single market will look to Ireland as a possible place where they can remain within the EU and do businesses.

Japanese banks may be concerned about passporting rights. We’re very happy to talk to any Japanese banks, or any company. There are approximately 70 Japanese companies operating in Ireland now, and they’ve proven to be a great benefit to our economy and we really would be very happy to see more Japanese companies come and settle in Ireland.

Q: With a possibility of new tariffs on Irish products in a post-Brexit U.K., do you see the need to develop trade with the rest of the world?

A: The EU is the largest trading partner with Ireland, and in the past, the U.K. was our largest trading partner, but since we joined the EU in 1973, we have diversified a lot. But, yes, it does highlight the fact that a dependence on one country when you’re an international trading nation is not good.

I think it’s very healthy that Ireland and Japan dialogue more with each other because it seems to me we have a lot of areas of mutual interest, such as financial services, but also pharmaceuticals, also internet, the internet of things. We’re a small economy, obviously, but there are some areas where we have excellent research and development and where we think partnering with a country like Japan is to our mutual benefit.

Tax system needs global solutions

Q: How do you see the global race to lower corporate tax rates?

A: It’s entirely possible that the international environment on corporate tax will become more competitive. But many international companies will still need a European base to access the market of 500 million people that the EU represents.

While we do have a low tax rate of 12.5 percent, we provide the infrastructure, the support, the innovation that are essential for businesses to succeed. We have a strong pool of highly skilled multilingual workers in the only English-speaking member of the eurozone, possibly soon the EU. With 40 percent of our population under 29, we have the youngest population in Europe, and our education system ranks in the top 10 in the world.

On top of that, we’ve maintained our position as the best country in the eurozone for doing business in Forbes magazine for 2016, and we come in overall fourth in the world. Because of all these reasons, we have nine of the top 10 global software companies and nine of the top 10 global pharmaceutical firms in Ireland.

Q: How do you respond to the view that Ireland assisted tax evasion?

A: It’s certainly a reputational issue. But first of all I should say that the Irish government does not accept the European Commission’s ruling on the Apple case and is currently appealing that decision to the European Court of Justice. We have an open and transparent tax regime and we do not make special deals with individual companies. That’s the bottom line. We believe we have a very strong case to make before the court and that we will win this case.

The aggressive tax planning by multinational companies is a global problem requiring global solutions and we’re working hard to address those issues. We brought in domestic legislation in 2014, which has had a real impact and made changes to our corporate tax residents rules to combat so-called stateless companies, and then to end the so-called double Irish tax structure. But whatever we do will not bring an end to aggressive international tax planning and for that we need the OECD countries, or world, all countries to continue to work to find global solutions to this global issue.

Moves toward gender equality

Q: How does Ireland view the global trend of growing populism and protectionism?

A: I think it’s too early to say. We just have to wait and see. But I suppose if we look at how the EU has weathered storms, usually the EU comes out of crises strengthened rather than weakened, and I’m hopeful that this will be the same again because we need groups of countries, such as within the EU and countries like Japan who have similar values and who believe in free trade as being the basis for both economic development and peaceful trade, peaceful and harmonious relations between countries. I think the more those voices are heard, the better.

My prime minister will travel to Washington to meet the president in March for St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. So we’ll be working hard to ensure that he [U.S. President Donald Trump] is aware of our adherence to a global trading regime and a rules-based system. We’ll also be obviously putting our point of view on issues, such as Brexit and the EU.

My strong view is that the EU will not break apart, but it will survive and it will thrive into the future. This will require, of course, the continuing commitment from the member states. Ireland, as a committed member, will be working to ensure that that happens. There are very significant challenges in the EU at the moment. But we believe in this age that by working together we can have greater strength to live up to the values that we stand for and achieve the economic development and progress for our citizens.

Q: You are the first female Irish ambassador to Japan. What are your thoughts on the future of gender equality?

A: First of all, I’ll point out that Ambassador Mari Miyoshi is the second Japanese woman ambassador to Ireland, so Japan is winning on that front. Of course I’m very happy that Ireland does so well in the World Economic Forum gender index, particularly because this index looks at outcomes, which is very important.

But it would be useful to dig into the figures a little bit, because the index shows that Ireland and Japan both do extremely well in terms of education and health outcomes. Where we both need to do better is in the area of women in politics and women in management, where the outcomes there are simply not good enough for both of us. Here, I think, is an area where we can learn from each other, and within the EU we’re seeking to engage with Japan and exchange on the range of our experiences.

But you should look at history because my reading of history is that when Japan puts its collective genius to solving a problem, it succeeds. I’ve no doubt that Japan will succeed on this one as well.

This interview was conducted by Japan News Staff Writer Atsuko Matsumoto.

Graduating from the National University of Ireland, Anne Barrington began her career in the Irish Foreign Affairs Department in 1977. Her diplomatic missions include Washington and New York, and as ambassador, she has served in the Irish Embassy in Tanzania, which also covers Kenya and Burundi. She assumed her current post in September 2014.

(From February 27, 2017, issue)

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