Yoshihiro Katayama: Japanese assistance programs have expanded in almost all areas of Moldovan socioeconomic life. IPN Interview

Why are Moldovan-Japanese relations privileged? What is the philosophy of the support provided by Japan to Moldova? What are the most important Japanese assistance programs? Why is Japan helping Moldova to manage the refugee crisis and why is it condemning the actions of the Russian Federation in Ukraine? What attracts Japanese investors in Moldova? How can Moldovan culture become more accessible around the world, with the support of Japan? How do the ambassadors of Japan come to represent Moldova at famous international competitions? Find the answers to these and other questions from Valeriu Vasilică’s in the following interview with H.E. Yoshihiro Katayama, Ambassador of Japan to the Republic of Moldova.

IPN: Excellency, our interview is dedicated to the 30th anniversary of the establishment of the diplomatic relations between the Republic of Moldova and Japan. Throughout this interview, we will attempt to analyze the state and trends of these relations in different areas separately, but I would like to start with a general assessment. I have recently seen the following phrase in the communication between two high level officials of our countries: “the privileged nature of Moldo-Japanese cooperation over the last three decades was appreciated”. Is this “privileged nature” something really existing or is this a way to speak about good, yet ordinary, relations in diplomatic language? I understand why a small and poor country like the Republic of Moldova needs such relations with a prosperous, strong, and influential country like Japan, but why would Japan need them?

Yoshihiro Katayama: Japan is an important and responsible member of the international community, so it was only natural that following the proclamation of the independence of the Republic of Moldova, we did not just establish the diplomatic relations, but we decided to provide assistance to the young country committed to building a democracy based on the universal values, such as the rule of law, human rights, and market economy which are fundamental for Japan as well.

IPN: To be honest, while preparing for this interview, I tried to understand which areas of cooperation with the Republic of Moldova are of a more special interest for Japan, and I could not find the answer because on one hand, I did not find certain areas in which the assistance of your country is somehow more pronounced than in the other, and on the other hand, I did not really find the domains in which Japan is not present in the Republic of Moldova. How do you choose priorities for assistance offered to the Republic of Moldova? Or which is the philosophy of such assistance?

Yoshihiro Katayama: Japan has been supporting the Republic of Moldova since the first years of independence in its efforts to build a democratic state with a market economy and good living conditions for citizens. In 1993, Japan offered for the first time vaccines and medicines worth more than 2 million US dollars. And since then, you are right, assistance programs have expanded in almost all areas of the Moldovan socio-economic life, including the modernization of agriculture, strengthening the healthcare system, improving the educational environment, supporting local initiatives, increasing sustainable energy production, preserving the national heritage, promoting culture and art, exchanging Japanese know-how with Moldovan civil servants, strengthening the fire prevention and response capacity, and others.

All of these projects are in line with the overall objectives of Japan's Official Development Assistance to Moldova and the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and namely promoting sustainable economic development and improvement of the standard of living. Please note that project proposals always come from Moldovan partners and before making a funding decision, we always conduct feasibility studies together with Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). As for the "philosophy" of assistance for the Moldovan people, everything is quite simple here - Japan, like other development partners, supports Moldova's efforts to become a modern and democratic state, in which the fundamental principles of rule of law, human rights and market economy are ensured, and which harmoniously integrates into the international community and economy.

IPN: The newest area in which Japan announced assistance for the Republic of Moldova is that related to the Russian-Ukrainian war and to the Ukrainian refugees who the Republic of Moldova has to host for a longer or a shorter period. Why does Japan, which is thousands and thousands of kilometers away from this war, do it, and what does your country think about this war in general?

Yoshihiro Katayama: First, I need to underline that the Russian actions clearly infringe upon Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, constitute a serious violation of international law prohibiting use of force, and are a grave breach of the United Nations Charter. Any unilateral change of the status quo by force is totally unacceptable. This is an extremely serious situation that shakes the foundation of international order not only in Europe but also in Asia. Japan condemns the actions in the strongest terms.

Together with other G7 countries, Japan acted immediately to support Ukraine and neighbor countries which receive Ukrainian refugees, including Moldova. On February 27, the Government of Japan announced the emergency humanitarian assistance in the value 100 million U.S. dollars. The funds are distributed to a number of international organizations for immediate interventions. Most recently, on March 24, Prime Minister Kishida Fumio pledged additional 100 million U.S. dollars for this cause. Japan has also opened its doors to the Ukrainian people fleeing the war, and we provided non-lethal military aid to Ukraine as well. The people of Japan are in absolute solidarity with the people of Ukraine.

IPN: I believe that we can say that the one of the most well known domains of Moldo-Japanese cooperation is agriculture and related areas. What did the program known as ‘2KR’, which had been in place for multiple years, mean for Japan and which results had it brought to the Republic of Moldova? Had the expectations of your country been met?

Yoshihiro Katayama: The Republic of Moldova is an agro-industrial country, and the development of agriculture is mandatory to ensure its sustainable economic growth. Therefore, the modernization of agriculture is one of the Japan's priorities in the framework of the Official Development Assistance. Therefore, the amount of assistance provided over time in the form of grants and loans for agriculture exceeds 40 million US dollars. In this context, I would like to note the grant assistance for unprivileged farmers launched in 2000, known to the public as “2KR”. Thanks to them, thousands of farmers across the country, with modest financial opportunities, were able to modernize their agricultural equipment. Japan has also launched other programs in this area, such as the “Project for Improvement of Equipment for the National Training Center for Agricultural Mechanization” in 2007, the “Economic and Social Development Programme” in 2016, and the “Project for Modernization of Agricultural Machineries and Equipment” in 2020. I am very impressed that the Japanese assistance is highly valued among Moldovan farmers, who over time have become more productive and competitive, expanding their business, creating new jobs and added value.

IPN: Another large program of Japan in Moldova is ‘Kusanone’. I understand that it comprises all or virtually all domains of life. Even if very shortly, which are the areas, volume, and impact of this assistance?

Yoshihiro Katayama: Indeed, one of the hallmarks of Japan's Official Development Assistance in Moldova is the “Kusanone” human security grant program. It was launched in 2008, and since then Japan has allocated more than 6 million US dollars to finance local development projects, such as the renovation and equipping of schools and kindergartens, modernization of the equipment in public medical institutions, construction of sewer networks and water treatment facilities, etc. The specificity of this program is to identify and solve problems that affect the communities’ well-being and safety at the local level. I am glad that the “Kusanone” program has covered the entire country, and communities in almost every district today benefit of quality medical services, while children of decent and safe educational environment.

IPN: Do you have a domain of cooperation that you believe we should discuss in detail? Perhaps you have more expectations for this area, or there is a greater potential for development?

Yoshihiro Katayama: I believe that Japan and the Republic of Moldova have the potential to further develop cooperation in other spheres such as investment. I am glad to note the presence in Moldova of two global manufacturers of car components, Fujikura and Sumitomo Electric Bordnetze, each operating two plants producing wire-harnesses. These companies created together over 6,000 well-paid jobs. Their arrival in Moldova in 2017 made a significant contribution to the development of the automotive sector, doubling its share in total industrial output to about 6%. Foreign investment is significant for developing economies such as Moldova. Currently, the IT industry is one of the world leaders in terms of investment expansion. I do consider that Moldova has all the prerequisites to become attractive in IT and outsourcing for foreign companies, including the Japanese, thanks to its advantages in terms availability of multilingual workforce, moderate costs and network infrastructure. I understand that Moldovan authorities have been working to create better investment conditions for foreign investors. Therefore, I am ready to work together with the Moldovan side in making these advantages known by the potential Japanese investors. Of course, the conflict in Ukraine brought a great uncertainty into the investment process in Moldova, but I would like to express the hope that there will be peace, and foreign investors, also the Japanese, will come to Moldova.

IPN: I would like to speak separately about cultural cooperation, which is to a certain extent less visible. Why does Japan consider important the support in this area?

Yoshihiro Katayama: Moldovan culture is an important part of the global cultural heritage. The people of Moldova have a very rich culture and vast and artistic resources that have to be passed to the future generations. This is exactly why, on February 23, on the National Day of Japan, together with our Moldovan partners we opened the National Digitization Center at the National Library of the Republic of Moldova, which would preserve the large collections of the library in the digital format and thus make them accessible not just to all the Moldovans, regardless of where they live, but to the entire globe. The project was possible thanks to a 400,000 U.S. dollars grant by Japan, and I am happy we could make this important contribution.

IPN: In order for relations to be correct, they should also be fair. Which are the domains in which Japan could or would be able to count on Moldova’s support?

Yoshihiro Katayama: Since 1992, the relations between Japan and Moldova have always been cordial and friendly. Moldova has been our important partner in various international organizations and fora, in particular the United Nations. For instance, one of Japan’s long standing priorities is nonproliferation of nuclear weapons, and Moldova has always been a consequential and consistent supporter of Japan in this regard.

IPN: I would like to dedicate the next part of the interview to a better mutual understanding of the Moldovan and the Japanese societies. First, where does your excellent command of the Romanian language come from? I do not know if I could ask you have many people know Romanian in Japan, I think it would not be very modest on my side, but do you know how many people in Moldova know Japanese?

Yoshihiro Katayama: I joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan in April 1980 and in July 1981, I arrived to Bucharest, where I spent two years studying the Romanian language as an intern. During my diplomatic career, which took me, among others, to the United States, Canada, Kenya, and Ukraine, I had three missions in Romania, which allowed me to master the language. Moreover, I had the opportunity to interpret at the high level meetings with Romanian Presidents Ceausescu, Iliescu, Constantinescu, and Basescu, as well as the Japanese Prime Ministers, Foreign Ministers, and Emperor Akihito.

As to the Japanese language in Moldova, our important partner is the Foundation for Moldo-Japanese Relations, where about 125 persons study the Japanese language annually. What is indeed inspiring is that, as the President of the Foundation Mr. Valeriu Binzaru says, the interest that Moldovans have for studying the Japanese is much larger than the capacity of the Foundation. Thus, we have been trying to support them as much as we can – in 2020, for example, we offered 75,000 U.S. dollars to the institution to improve their educational facilities, so that the students enjoy a better learning experience.

IPN: What was it like to be a diplomat in this part of the world in the times of the USSR, of the ‘socialist camp’ and after its collapse? What similarities and differences in the state of the society strike the eye first and foremost?

Yoshihiro Katayama: Travelling to Bucharest in 1981 as a young diplomat in training was my first ever trip outside of Japan, and it was really my dream come true. As I was learning Romanian, already then, in the eighties, I had another dream – to visit Moldova, where the same language was spoken. Unfortunately, it was not possible at that time, but in July 2004, I was appointed counsellor for economic affairs and cooperation at the Embassy of Japan in Kyiv, which was also covering Moldova, and in 2005 I finally arrived in Moldova as an observer dispatched to the Moldovan parliamentary elections. I was lucky to see beautiful Chisinau and meet the hospitable people of Moldova.

For a young diplomat in Socialist Romania, many aspects of life were interesting, yet throughout the years, I have seen the significant progress in Romania, including the membership in the European Union. I hope to see modernization and development in Moldova as well, and I would like to remind that Japan supports the European integration of your country.

IPN: Last year, Toyota was the most bought car brand in Moldova. What other signs or symbols of the massive presence of Japan in Moldova do you see? Which symbols of Moldova have taken root in Japan, in your opinion?

Yoshihiro Katayama: I am very happy to see that the Japanese cars in general, and not only Toyota, are a popular choice of Moldovans. What also surprised me is that many Moldovans know about Sakura flowers. This symbol is very special to the Japanese, and the season of Sakura blossoming is approaching. Regarding the symbols of Moldova, last summer, when I went back to Tokyo, I visited several prestigious wine stores, and I was very pleased to see Moldovan wines there. This shows that the wines of Moldova started to enter the market of Japan and there are already lovers of Moldovan wines among the Japanese people.

IPN: What did the Summer Olympics mean for Japan and for the Japanese, who, by the way, hosted them during a ‘terrible’ period of the pandemic?

Yoshihiro Katayama:
The people of Japan made extraordinary efforts to organize the Summer Olympics. It was very challenging to create optimal and importantly safe conditions for the international athletes, but we succeeded. Unfortunately, most competitions were held without spectators, but I am confident that the athletes, who worked so much to qualify, left Japan with good experiences and memories.

IPN: There are several expressions known to characterize your country. One of them is ‘the country of earthquakes’. What do the Japanese rely on the most in this hard confrontation with the fate: the spirit of the people, the economic potential of the country, the international solidarity, or something else?

Yoshihiro Katayama: Indeed, earthquakes are rather frequent in Japan. I would like to remind of the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 followed by tsunami which took so many lives and caused so much destruction. What helps our people to resist such disasters is immense solidarity within our society, resilience and experience of our institutions, and, of course, international support: even Moldova, which is so far away from Japan, contributed financially to the recovery after the 2011 earthquake.

IPN: What is the most beautiful time of the year in Japan?

Yoshihiro Katayama: I would say that all seasons are beautiful in Japan. The Japanese archipelago stretches over 3,000 km so the nature is unique in each region, from cold and beautiful Hokkaido in the north to tropical Okinawa in the south.

IPN: What is the favorite food of the Japanese?

Yoshihiro Katayama: As Japan is made of thousands of islands, it is natural that our diet comprises much seafood. The Japanese dishes are enjoyed globally, and I also have to underline that they are very healthy.

IPN: What does the Emperor mean to the Japanese?

Yoshihiro Katayama: The Emperor is the symbol of the State and of the unity of the People.

IPN: Mr. Ambassador, do you have any hobbies?

Yoshihiro Katayama: I actually do have one that I continue here in Chisinau. I used to be a football player when I was young. I then became diplomat and got married, fortunate to have four children. When I was posted to Ukraine in July 2004, I lived in Kyiv by myself because my family had to stay in Tokyo so that our children could continue their education in Japan.

During my stay in the capital of Ukraine, I somehow came across the ballroom dance and began to practice. It was just for the purpose of maintaining health. I was 48 years old. 

I moved to Bucharest in April 2008 and joined a club there, and then began to participate in competitions. I continued ballroom dance even after returning to Japan January 2013.

In August 2020, I visited Mr. and Mrs. Gozun who not only understood my desire but also found a Moldovan partner with whom I have been practicing for one year and eight months now. I am so pleased to receive lessons from Mrs. Svetlana Gozun who is considered one of the most respected coaches in the world. Our pair is planning to participate in international competitions including the famous German Open Championship. I will compete as a dancer from the federation of the Republic of Moldova.

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