1771) ‘Luckily We Are Not Neighbors’ Japanese Ambassador to Ankara, Tomoyuki Abe

 This content mirrored from TurkishArmenians  Site © Click For Larger Image The Japanese Ambassador to Ankara, Tomoyuki Abe, (no relation with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe) is a very humorous diplomat whose main policy is “when in Rome, do as a Roman does.”

But when it comes to Turkish-Japanese relations, he becomes as serious as a samurai . . . . and says that he should do more to develop bilateral economic relations. Since the Turkish labor force is young and talented, if it gets proper training the future will lie in Turkey’s hands, he sys. “Luckily, we are not neighbors,” says Japanese Ambassador Abe, laughing. During the interview, Mr. and Mrs. Abe prove wrong my stereotype about Japanese people being extremely serious and exuding samurai toughness. From the very first question on why Turks have a special kind of empathy with Japan, Ambassador Abe and his wife laugh.

“I want to return the question to you,” Mr. Ambassador said. “We have similar feelings for the Turkish people. So why is it so? I have asked the same question to my Turkish friends and to Japanese people close to Turkey. Their answers differ from one to another, but none of them have convinced me. It is just a mood arising from the fact that the two countries are located far from each other. That means that there is little possibility of conflict. It is a fact that in international relations neighboring countries are the quarreling partners -- luckily, we are not neighbors. That is the only answer I can find, but it does not help,” he says.

Since the question is thrown back to me, I think for a while and I mention one of my favorite TV series when I was a child, “Shogun,” in which Richard Chamberlain played a British captain who had many adventures in 17th-century Japan. At that time there was only TV channel in Turkey and as kids TV played a very important role in our lives. Everybody’s name in the series ended in “san,” so almost all of us addressed each other the same way; my name was Ayşe-san, for example. All those cultural things, which took place far away but were strangely familiar, seemed very attractive. Almost anyone in Turkey older than 35 remembers this series.

So I share my idea with Ambassador and Mrs. Abe. They laugh once more. Ambassador Abe then gets serious, “In that case, I need to change my hair style,” he says and we laugh. He was referring to the fact that in the TV series every Japanese person had long hair worn in a sort of topknot.

However Mrs. Abe spots a flaw in my theory. “But there are only Japanese and English men in Shogun,” she says, pointing out that the show wasn’t an apt example for Turkish-Japanese relations.

She has a point. But as we talk about the similarities between our two cultures, Ambassador Abe gives us some insight: “There are many things the cultures have in common: respect for elders and close ties among family members. However the part of life that impressed me most was the style of the dinner table. The table is traditionally very low in Turkey. ... In Japan we sit on the floor and use a similar low table. And that eating style -- sitting almost on the floor -- resembles our way. Although I can understand that your style historically comes out of tent-style living. So the origins were different when it comes to the phenomenon that gives us a cozy feeling of lying down on the floor and eating together with the family.”

But there are some differences, too, such as our ways of greeting each other. I mention that Japanese people bow when greeting someone, as we learned from “Shogun.” However Turks often embrace. “In some sections of Japanese society, embracing is [seen as] invading,” says Ambassador Abe. After speaking about this difference, he then stops for a while and mentions another, “Also the way of driving…”

While saying this Mrs. Abe gives a deep sigh. He continues, “[The way of driving] is completely different, I should not go elaborate.”

But when I insist on asking how they cope with Turkish traffic, he just smiles and says, “Well, there is a good old saying: When in Rome, do as a Roman does.” Once more, we laugh.

Since it would be impossible not to mention sushi in an interview with the Japanese ambassador, our conversation eventually crosses this topic. I mention the fact that in the last couple of years sushi has become a very popular food in Turkey.

“Turks living in the cities can get used to sushi or any other Japanese food relatively easily,” he says. “But Turks who have strongly traditional behavior, they may have difficulty in getting used to that kind of food. Raw fish! But this is not the point. Japanese food is popular among health-conscious people, and it is becoming more and more popular. At the same time there are many who stay away from Japanese food,” he says, pausing for a second. “Raw fish is rather barbaric.” We laugh again.

But Mrs. Abe, who is trained in preparing sushi, thinks that the sushi restaurants in Turkey are quite successful. “Yes sometimes it is little bit different, but it almost has the same taste,” she says, adding that Japanese people like Turkish food, too. Japanese tourists visiting Turkey return to their countries not only with some knowledge about Turkish cuisine, but also with lots of carpets.

“This is [because] tourist companies take them to carpet shops,” Mrs. Abe says. “Carpets are very expensive. Every Japanese person wants to buy something from Turkey. And if we are taken to a carpet shop, in most of them, especially in Cappadocia, there are nice handsome Turkish men who can speak Japanese. Sometimes they attract Japanese women, who are forced to buy [a carpet].”

Ambassador Abe doesn’t try to hide the fact that he is slightly ignorant of some aspects of traditional Japanese culture. This comes out when we talk about sake, a traditional Japanese drink. I asked whether it is true that at Japanese weddings, the bride and the groom have to drink nine drops of sake.

“It should be carried out in the best form of Shinto style,” he said. (Shinto is an ancient Japanese religion dating from 500 B.C. that was originally an amorphous mix of nature worship, fertility cults, divination techniques, hero worship and shamanism.) “That [tradition you described] is probably correct, although I am ignorant about that. Sake is taken as a sort of medicine that purifies everything; [it is drunk] not only at weddings, but when one needs to purify oneself, they often take sake. So it is just a symbol. It is not for making the bride and groom drunk,” he says. But “if we have more culture exchange, we should use rakı instead of sake in wedding ceremonies.”

Ambassador Abe thinks that rakı is a very strong drink, just as Turkish is a difficult language, which he has difficulties coping with.

“When I was appointed as an ambassador here, I began preparing myself in Japan. Everybody told me I could speak in English here and I didn’t have to worry about the language. When I arrived here, I found out that this is a Turkish country. It is natural, but… to an extent, Turkish is needed and I did not know this,” he says.

However he says he hasn’t made intensive efforts to learn Turkish. “We have a large Turkish-speaking staff. This is one reason and the other one is…” He stops there and adds before laughing, “I am lazy.”

Mrs. Abe’s relationship with Turkish is stronger than her husband’s -- she is giving it a go. “I took private lessons. But I was a lazy student, too. When my teacher asked me to do homework, I never did. You may have no time, or you don’t need to do it; I have lots of time, but I am a lazy student,” she says.

Her husband adds: “When it comes to speaking. I cannot use suffixes, it makes [words] completely different. For this reason I cannot speak, so I was not courageous enough to start.”

A tale of two Abes

Ambassador Abe has mainly served in Southeast Asia, but his resume includes locations from around the globe. He started his career in London, but also worked in Manila, Bangkok and Jakarta. Before coming here, he was in Chicago.

“It is a policy of mine to enjoy a country as it is,” he states, and his principle in diplomacy is to have as many as contacts as possible. “I should not hesitate to get in touch with anyone. That is what I think,” he says.

I remind Ambassador Abe that the Japanese prime minister and one of the former foreign minister’s surname is also Abe. Is there any relation?

He gets very serious: “None at all… In fact in Japanese the way of writing Prime Minister Abe’s name is completely different from my name. Although in the old days people mixed the way of writing [so] it does not mean that he is completely alien to our family -- there may well be some crossing roads -- but … his family is totally different from mine. You mention the foreign minister and the prime minister. In fact that foreign minister is the father of the present prime minister. But I have noting to do with the prime minister.”

Mrs. Abe adds that she has been asked the same question many times. “I say that he is my son. Many Turkish people say, ‘Really?’ and then they say it cannot be,” she adds, smiling.

The Abes have two sons and two grandsons and none of them is the prime minister of Japan.

When it comes to Turkish-Japanese relations, Ambassador Abe once again becomes serious and suddenly conforms to my stereotype of Japanese people. He mentions the fact that Japan and Turkey have strong cooperation in preparing for earthquakes or natural disasters, from the training of local administrations in Turkey to extending loans in order to restructure and reinforce bridges in İstanbul to withstand larger earthquakes.

“When it comes to economics, distance plays a very big role. Distance means cost,” he says, noting that some Japanese business circles are loath to work with Turkish firms. “That is probably due to a lack of knowledge about Turkey. That is the field that I have to concentrate my efforts in the coming days,” he adds.

He also mentions that the Toyota factory in Adapazarı, which has been a great success. “There is a very key element that should invite foreign investment to Turkey. The reason Toyota succeeds in earning an almost balanced amount of money, which helps to bridge the trade gap between Japan and Turkey, is the quality of the Turkish labor force. Toyota trained Turkish workers in Nagoya, in their headquarters. When those Turkish workers return to Adapazarı they returned to be leaders of the workers. They really give a good example how to work and how to behave. In fact this is a point upon which we, as well as Turkey, should build a big campaign. Your labor force is very good if properly trained” he says.

He adds sincerely: “From that point of view not only this, but thinking of all the potential that this country has, the future is certainly in the hands of Turkey. I firmly believe in that.”



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