My Japanology / Peninsula, islands nurture mutual attraction with history

Reiri Kurihara/The Yomiuri Shimbun

Ambassador Gonzalo de Benito talks with The Japan News at the Spanish Embassy in Minato Ward, Tokyo.

The Japan NewsA protagonist in Japan’s initial encounter with Europe in the Age of Exploration, Spain has long inspired and enriched Japanese people’s imagination and understanding of the globe. In the run-up to the state visit by King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia from tomorrow, Spanish Ambassador Gonzalo de Benito presented the historic ties as a foundation for future possibilities for both countries and the world, in an interview on Wednesday.

Q: How have you come into contact with Japan in your life?

De Benito: I like to read history. From my readings, I knew about Japan, including the first contacts in the 16th century between Spain and Japan when [the Spanish Jesuit missionary] San Francisco Xavier arrived here in 1549 and the Keicho mission which traveled in 1613 from Japan to Mexico and Spain.

I had never been to Japan until 2013 when I came here accompanying Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy for his official visit. All who came with him were fascinated by Japan. I came in 2014 for political consultations with my colleagues in the Foreign Ministry of Japan. Then I was appointed here as ambassador.

I really appreciate this new moment in Japan when it wants to be more open to the world. There is a kind of strategic awakening of Japan, which wants to be more present in different parts of the world.

I have been traveling a lot, from Sapporo to Okinawa, visiting universities and giving presentations on Spain. I appreciate that in almost every middle-sized city of Japan, there is always a Japan-Spain association of people who get together, organize visits to Spain, and are interested in Spanish art, culture and flamenco as well.

Q: What do you think supports such relationship between Spain and Japan?

A: There is such an interest in and such knowledge about Spain. There is respect for the role we have played historically as a country towards Europe and Latin America.

In Spain, there is a lot of respect for Japan as a big country and for the character of the Japanese people, called gambari, quest for determination and patience.

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  • Reiri Kurihara/The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Spanish Ambassador Gonzalo de Benito speaks about bilateral ties and world affairs in an interview on Wednesday.

We have some basic common elements. We are very ancient nations. We are also maritime countries. You are islands and we are a peninsula, but almost an island. We have always had the projection through the seas all over the world.

I think what the Japanese like about Spain is spontaneity — the strength to express oneself through the music, art and flamenco.

The way you look at another country depends very much on your own history and personality as a country. What is particular to Japan is this physical or geographical distance from Spain.

We enjoyed having last year 580,000 tourists from Japan visiting Spain. This is huge. And it is increasing. We’re very pleased with this.

Something which is very interesting is that the Japanese know their own history very well. San Francisco Xavier in 1549 is a part of Japanese history. What is called the Christian century lasted here in Japan, and there is respect from the Japanese for this part of their history.

In 1609, a big Spanish ship, the San Francisco, was wrecked off Onjuku, Chiba. This ship was wrecked, and the people of Onjuku in the middle of the night, after this big storm, went out to the sea and rescued more than 200 Spanish sailors.

They were then introduced to Tokugawa Ieyasu. Ieyasu took care of them and built a new ship for them to continue. So King Philip III of Spain decided to send a series of presents to Ieyasu. One of them was a very old clock made in 1581. It is now kept in the Kunozan Toshogu shrine in Shizuoka. It is the oldest clock existing in Japan.

Pilgrimage culture shared

Q: What aspects of Japanese society are you interested in?

A: I would say the youth of Japan. These very creative and forward-looking young people in Japan are known all over the world for design, arts and gastronomy.

Japan’s population is declining, but you have a big strength in the young Japanese. The Japanese gastronomy right now is the biggest fashion. Their respect for the fresh produce and nature is incorporated into their cuisine.

You have two big pilgrimage trails here in Japan. One is the Kumano Kodo route [mainly in Wakayama Prefecture] which has been recognized already as the UNESCO World Heritage site. Another one is the Shikoku Henro route [in the Shikoku region]. Both of them have good cooperation with the Camino de Santiago, a trail from different countries in Europe through northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela.

This trail appeared in about the 12th century. The main road has about 1,200 kilometers from Spain to central France. Both the Kumano Kodo and the Shikoku Henro are also about 1,000 years old and about 1,000 and some kilometers long [in total].

This kind of pilgrimage gives the opportunity to the people to be quiet, and to reflect in direct contact with nature. I think many people are looking nowadays for the opportunity to think about themselves and to be involved with nature.

We are very pleased to see the Camino de Santiago receive more and more Japanese tourists every year. I have visited the Kumano Kodo and the Shikoku Henro. Mayors and people there said they see more and more Spanish arriving.

We had about 92,000 Spanish arriving [in Japan] last year, an increase of about 20 percent from the previous year. The number is growing every year.

Q: With its strong recovery in recent years, which sectors of the Spanish economy do you think are the most hopeful for the two countries to cooperate in?

A: We had a very deep economic crisis, but now we are very solidly on the path of growth. The Spanish economy grew by 3.2 percent both in 2015 and 2016. For this year, the forecast is 3 percent.

We are pleased to see more investment from Japanese companies in Spain, and joint ventures and cooperation between Japanese and Spanish companies. The main sectors are infrastructure such as roads, railway and airports.

We have invested a lot in renewable energy. Very good Japanese and Spanish companies are doing as well water treatment and waste processing in different places of all over the world.

We know very well Latin America. There are many opportunities, and there are ongoing big projects done together by Spanish and Japanese companies. In Asia, Japan is very active, so we would like Spanish companies to work with Japanese companies.

We are very good in high-speed trains. Our network of high-speed trains is 3,100 kilometers, the largest in Europe. So Japanese companies and Spanish companies are going to third markets to jointly cooperate and develop high-speed trains.

Imperial, royal ties excellent

Q: What is the significance of the visit to Japan by the King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia for the bilateral ties?

A: This visit is meant to be a milestone in our relations. It is the first state visit by the King and the Queen to Japan, and one of the first state visits that they have done since His Majesty was proclaimed king in 2014.

This visit happens once in a lifetime because we will probably not have another state visit by the King in the next 20 years or so.

Contacts between the Imperial family and the [Spanish] royal family are very important. Happily, they have been always excellent in an official and personal way. We have records of a meeting of King Alfonso XIII, the great-grandfather of the present king, with then Crown Prince Hirohito in 1921 at a meeting in the Spanish Embassy in Paris.

Our king has been to Japan three times as crown prince. In 2013, I had the honor to witness the visit of Crown Prince Naruhito to Spain.

We have two governments in Spain and Japan which share the same principles and values. We defend and promote democracy, respect for human rights, free trade and free economy. We promote as well peace and security. We have to stick together as countries to promote our values in other parts of the world.

Q: Spanish politics has been largely spared polarization and populism. How was it possible?

A: It is true that we are really immune to populism for the moment. We think it is going to last.

We had a very, very deep economic crisis all over the world for the last 10 years or so. This is a ground for some populist politicians to take advantage of. We think this is not going to solve the problem because populists have never solved the problems of their own people.

We are fortunate not to have this kind of movement in Spain. I think the reason is that we had a very authoritarian regime [of General Francisco Franco]. So there was a quest in Spain for democracy, openness, tolerance, understanding, living in peace, building something for everyone, and even accepting immigrants and integrating them.

We are really fortunate that we do not see politicians saying that we are not going to accept foreigners, or that we are going to expel foreigners. This is not in our character. This is not in our tradition.

Maintain dialogue with Muslims

Q: What is Spain’s role in promoting peaceful coexistence in the world, especially in light of its complex but rich history with the Islamic civilization?

A: We have 45 million inhabitants. [Out of them,] we have 4.5 million immigrants, so 10 percent of the population is immigrants. Large parts of them, about 1 million, are Latin Americans. We have about 1 million Arabs and Muslims, too.

There is a public policy from all the parties in the political spectrum to integrate foreigners. We are very fortunate that this is happening in a positive way.

For instance, the government promotes the teaching of Islam in schools where there are sufficient numbers of Muslim kids or students. The government speaks to representatives of the Muslim community and arranges textbooks through which Islam is taught to the students. So there is cooperation from the government with the Muslim community.

Successive governments have been promoting this integration and cultural and religious dialogue between civilizations. We have been at the basis of two major initiatives on this kind of dialogue.

One is what is called the Alliance of Civilizations. It is a project launched by Spain and Turkey years ago. Now more than 100 countries that are members of the United Nations belong to it. The second is the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) promoted by Saudi Arabia, Spain and Austria.

You have to accept differences. You have to try to understand them. For such a purpose we need information and knowledge. But sitting together and speaking to each other is very important as well. Otherwise, we go backward in history.

Brexit needs transparent process

Q: Closely tied with the British economy, will Spain seek to play a role in finding a middle ground in the Brexit talks?

A: The European Union was created to avoid conflicts in Europe. The EU has put in place a progress of more union or sharing interests. We think it has been very, very positive for Europe and for the world.

To see one of our 28 countries leave is painful for us. We think it’s going to be painful for the United Kingdom as well. The British have to deconstruct what has been built up for the last 44 years since 1973 [when it joined the then European Community].

Now in two years this has to be deconstructed. How is this going to be? Nobody knows what kind of agreement or solution we will see.

Our huge achievement is the four freedoms — the free movement of people, goods, services and capital. You cannot divide them.

It’s going to be a difficult time for the British. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said that we wish a quick, transparent and positive process.

People should not suffer from wrong decisions. We have 300,000 British living in Spain and 200,000 Spanish living in Britain. They should not pay a price for this.

But economically, for the corporations and businesses, it’s going to be more difficult. So we have to try to find a solution for that.

If some Japanese companies have to leave the United Kingdom or redistribute their presence in Europe, we would be more than happy to welcome them and add them to the more than hundred Japanese companies operated in Spain.

Q: Is the issue of sovereignty over Gibraltar going to be on the agenda in the Brexit talks, given the fact that an overwhelming majority of the territory’s voters backed remaining in the EU in the referendum?

A: The United Kingdom takes care of its external relations. So if the United Kingdom leaves the EU, Gibraltar is leaving as well. We think it’s going to be a difficult situation for them. This is why they voted for staying.

But, we will see how things develop. I insist that we think the leaving of the United Kingdom is difficult for all of us, but it’s going to be difficult for the British and for the Gibraltarians [as well].

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

Starting his diplomatic career in 1979, Ambassador Gonzalo de Benito was posted in Lille, France, and in Houston. He then served as ambassador to Peru, Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates. He took his current position in 2014. Ambassador de Benito likes reading, running, which he has enjoyed for the last 45 years or so, and traveling with his family. Born in Madrid, he is 65.

(From April 3, 2017, issue)

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