We recently interviewed Minister Shinichi Iida (Public Diplomacy and Media), who also took up the post of Director of the Japan Information and Cultural Centre. Below is a summary of the conversation.
Where are you from and can you tell us about your early life?
I am originally from Tochigi prefecture – it is a suburban area north of Tokyo. Most people don’t know anything about Tochigi but probably the first thing that comes to peoples’ minds is Nikko because it’s a World Cultural Heritage site. It has a shrine called Toshogu, which is the final resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Tokugawa government. It is very important not only as a spiritual site but as a touristic site as well. For this reason practically all elementary school kids visit Nikko on official excursions.
In Tochigi, my father used to run a retail business (in fact he still does, though on a much smaller scale), so when I was a child I didn’t have an opportunity to go overseas. However, I always loved reading books about foreign countries and cultures, and developed a strong interest in them, and by the time I reached high school I wanted to do a job in the future that had something to do with foreign countries. I think that was the starting point of my interest in the diplomatic service.
When did you actually first experience going to a foreign country?
That was towards the end of my college days when I was at the University of Tokyo, along with my friends in the Japan-Korea Students’ Association. We visited Seoul for an exchange programme for about a month. I enjoyed it thoroughly.
Apart from that, after I joined the Foreign Ministry, English was designated as my official language and I was instructed to study in the United States. I joined the Foreign Service in 1990 and I was sent to the US for my language training in 1991. I was enrolled for two years in Amherst College in western Massachusetts. It’s about a two- or three-hour drive from Boston.
As for my background in English, I must mention what happened when I was in high school in Tochigi prefecture. I referred to my early interest in foreign countries, and this applied to foreign languages as well. As English was the only foreign language I could study, I worked very hard at it and decided to join the English-speaking society in high school, where I got an opportunity to participate in English speech contests. One of them was called the Churchill Trophy, sponsored by Aoyama Gakuin and Kwansei Gakuin Universities. Luckily I progressed to the national tournament, and managed to win the third prize.
That was quite unprecedented for a country high school student like myself, and at the reception after the contest I had an opportunity to talk with the judges, one of whom was from the US Embassy in Tokyo while the other was from the Australian Embassy. It was a fascinating conversation! If I remember correctly, the American diplomat was actually a US-Soviet nuclear disarmament specialist. He seemed a little dissatisfied with the job he was doing at the time as it had nothing to do with his field. Meanwhile, the Australian diplomat was an Asian specialist whose immediate previous posting had been in Ankara, Turkey. This made quite an impression on a 17-year-old high school kid from the countryside. I was quite surprised to hear that there was a job called “diplomat” and to observe what broad perspectives these diplomats had.
So I think that was the very first time I decided to become a diplomat. Then I entered the Faculty of Law at Tokyo University. My reason for choosing Tokyo University was that that it produced the largest number of successful candidates for the Foreign Ministry every year.
Could you tell us some of the most memorable times of your career so far?
As I mentioned earlier, I was sent to the United States for language training, and after that was over I was sent back to headquarters in Tokyo, where I spent the next ten years. There I basically worked on issues to do with the United States – security and economic affairs. It was when I was dealing with the economic and trade issues with the United States that I first met Ambassador Tsuruoka. He was the director of the division dealing with those matters, and I worked under him. I was later appointed as Deputy Director of the China Division. There I mainly dealt with Taiwan because the Director had to deal with the mainland, and that was also a very interesting experience.
I must tell you that, although dealing with large countries, in fact superpowers like the United States and China, is extremely important for Japanese foreign policy as a whole, the highlights of my career in the foreign service have been more to do with taking care of the smaller countries. Let me explain. Right after I finished my assignment in the China Division, my first serious overseas post was with the Japanese mission to the United Nations in New York, which lasted from 2003 to 2006. Over there, the biggest challenge that I had to tackle was Security Council reform. You might remember that Japan formed a group called the G4 – Japan, Germany, India and Brazil – with the aim of expanding the permanent membership of the Security Council. For that purpose, with the cooperation of my G4 colleagues I came up with a draft resolution to make it happen. With the approval of the Foreign Minister in Tokyo, we submitted it to the General Assembly. We campaigned quite hard to get support for the draft resolution so that it could be passed by the required two-thirds majority of the General Assembly.
This was a very difficult diplomatic manoeuvre. It is no secret that China was quite strongly against it and issued démarches all over the world, including to small countries. However, it was quite surprising and gratifying that such small countries like the Pacific Island nations, despite opposition from some big countries, consistently supported the G4 resolution because it had been sponsored by Japan, and Japan had been helping those nations quite faithfully and consistently without imposing any conditions on them. I keenly felt the importance of nurturing ties with such countries when I was in New York dealing with Security Council reform as part of the Japanese mission to the UN.
In 2010 I became the Oceania Director, in charge of Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Island states, where I organised the Pacific Islands Leaders Meetings (called PALM). They take place every three years, and I worked on PALM 6, hosted by the Prime Minister. We invited all the leaders of the Pacific Island nations, and during the preparation process I always had in mind the great importance of these countries’ relations with Japan.
What assignments have you found particularly challenging?
When I was Oceania Director there was a big earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, where more than 200 people were killed - including 28 Japanese nationals. Most of them were youngsters because there was a language school in Christchurch, which was totally destroyed by the earthquake. As the regional Director – before I became Director of the Consular Policy Division – I did the coordination work for the dispatch to Christchurch of the disaster relief team as well as a consular specialist team to look after the bereaved families of the victims. So that was also a tough job.
My immediate previous assignment in headquarters before I came here was Director of the Consular Policy Division, when it was my primary responsibility to secure the lives and safety of Japanese people overseas. And the most important part of my job was crisis management. For instance, when two Japanese nationals in Syria were kidnapped by the terrorist group called ISIL, I was engrossed in the operation to secure their release. I didn’t go to Jordan, but worked form Tokyo. I must say with the greatest regret that it was in vain, but since the terrorist group in question specifically declared that they would continue to target Japanese nationals, it certainly changed the face of the Consular policies of the Japanese government. It was quite a tough job trying to ensure the safety of Japanese people overseas. I did my best – sometimes things worked out and sometimes not.
Although my previous position in New York, when I was deeply involved in Security Council reform and diplomatic negotiations with basically all the members of the UN, was also a very difficult task, at the same time I have to emphasise that crisis management, in my case dealing with the abduction of Japanese nationals in Syria and the Christchurch earthquake, is also a very important part of the Foreign Ministry’s function, even though the cases I have mentioned are not necessarily categorised as traditional foreign policy-type issues.
Now you find yourself in quite a different setting, in London. What are your general aims while you’re here?
Well, the Anglo-Japanese relationship is new to me, but such challenges are part of a diplomat’s life! If you want to work in the Foreign Ministry as a diplomat, getting new assignments is part of the deal – and another exciting aspect of one’s professional life. So I’m very happy to be in London. Japan and the United Kingdom have a long, friendly relationship, and the UK is a country with a very long history and rich traditions. I’m looking forward to learning about this country.
Let me mention here that I studied Constitution when I was in university. In fact, Constitutional Law was my favourite subject. Even though the current Japanese constitution was drafted by the American occupying powers, it was not modelled on their own constitution. The Japanese political system is parliamentary: we have the emperor as a symbol of the state and of national unity, actual power resides with the cabinet, the cabinet is checked by parliament, and also the judiciary branch is a checking force over the government. However, parliament and government are intertwined in the sense that the political party that has a majority in the Lower House elects the prime minister that heads the government. It’s strikingly similar to the British system. While I’m in London, working in this country, it is my wish to deepen my understanding of the UK, the legislative system and the political traditions related to it, so that when I return to Japan and work in the Japanese government, my knowledge and understanding of British politics and history in that regard will, I’m sure, be tremendously helpful.
Your remit here covers education, culture and sport. How important are these as elements of diplomacy?
Exchanges through sport, culture and education are extremely important in the sense that through those things people in Japan will come to like and to know Britain more, and vice versa. The more British people I can encourage to get to know and to like Japan and its people through educational, cultural and sporting exchanges, the happier I will be.
In fact, just recently I attended an event at Kew Gardens on the theme of the Tanabata festival. I observed a performance for British children, who were really engrossed in it. Occasions such as this can definitely help to nurture an interest in Japan and its culture.
What kind of places would you like to visit during your time here?
Scotland. It seems to me a very interesting creature, if you will, because, if I understand it correctly, England and Scotland were united in the early eighteenth century. Although Americans would say that was a long time ago, from the Japanese point of view it was pretty recent. Scotland has its own traditions and its own language, which make it quite interesting. Of course we have a Consulate-General in Edinburgh, but if I have a chance I would like to see that region with my own eyes and meet with the Scottish people. It’s intriguing that Scotland has its own soccer and rugby teams, so every time World Cups for those sports are held they send separate teams from England. That kind of thing is truly fascinating as it is something we can never ever imagine in Japan.
What other things would you like to do in your spare time?
It’s a bit embarrassing to confess to you, but since you asked I suppose I have to mention my hobby. I was a ballroom dancer, a member of a competitive ballroom dancing club when I was in Tokyo University. After graduation I quit, because I had to work very hard in the Foreign Ministry while young – they don’t usually allow youngsters to do anything else in their spare time! But about ten years ago, I decided to take it up again. I’ve been taking private lessons from a professional dancer. The waltz, foxtrot, tango, quickstep and the Viennese Waltz, those are my specialties rather than Latin. I remember that, when I told my dance teacher that I would be posted to London, she became so envious! Ballroom dancing started in the UK, London is called the Mecca of ballroom dancing, and she herself tries to come to London every two or three years to get lessons here. So from a private point of view I’m very happy, and I’m searching for a good ballroom dancing school in London so that I can resume my hobby.
Any final remarks?
I think it is worth briefly mentioning that I used to serve His Majesty as His official interpreter after I came back from New York. That was from 2006 to 2016, right before I came here. I accompanied Their Majesties as official interpreter, for example on their official visit to The Philippines. Serving His Majesty as interpreter was a very gratifying experience and a real privilege. There are a lot of similarities and differences between the ceremonies of the Japanese Imperial Family and the British Royal Family. In the light of my experience serving His Majesty in such a close manner, I would love to learn, if I have a chance, something about the Royal Family here, because I know that Her Majesty The Queen is deeply loved by the British people to the same extent as His Majesty is revered by the Japanese people. In this connection, I was quite positively surprised when I found a heraldic flag with the imperial chrysanthemum emblem in St George Chapel in Windsor. I was told that His Majesty The Emperor and Her Majesty The Queen bestowed on each other decorations of the highest order, and thus His Majesty is a member of The Most Noble Order of the Garter. I believe this is a fascinating episode indicating the rich relationship between the two Families.