We interviewed His Excellency Masato OTAKA, the Japanese ambassador to Budapest. In the interview he talked about Hungarian-Japanese relations, Hungary’s treasures, North Korea and many other interesting topics:
Daily News Hungary (DNH): Let’s start with a little introduction. Could you tell us a bit about yourself? How did you get into the world of diplomacy?
HE Ambassador Masato OTAKA: I joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) in 1986. Before assuming my current post in December 2020, I served in various capacities such as Deputy-Director for International Legal Affairs (2005), Director of Southeast Economic Partnership Division (2005-2007), Director of Southwest Asia Division (2007-2009), Deputy Press Secretary/Deputy Director-General in charge of Press and Public Diplomacy (2016-2017) and Press Secretary/Director-General for Press and Public Diplomacy (2019-2020).
My overseas posts included First Secretary in charge of the Security Council U.N. Mission (New York, 1998-2001), Economic Minister of the Embassy of Japan in Thailand (2009-2012), Minister for Public Affairs of the Embassy of Japan in the U.S.A. (2012-2016) and finally, I was honored to be appointed Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Hungary in 2020.
DNH: What is it like living in Budapest, so far away from home? What are the biggest differences between the two countries for an average citizen? (in terms of traffic, living, food, etc.)
HE Ambassador Masato OTAKA: Hungarian cuisine has an excellent reputation worldwide. Traditional Hungarian cuisine, with ingredients such as meat, seasoned vegetables, fruit, freshly baked bread, cheese and honey, is well suited to Japanese tastes.
Moreover, the public transport system in Budapest is reliable. I myself often use buses and trams when I go out for private matters, and it is very convenient to get anywhere in the city by them. In particular, tram 4 and 6, which circulate between Buda and Pest, run 24 hours a day, which is very useful. In my opinion, Budapest is a city of great convenience in this respect, as a public transport system that operates 24 hours a day does not exist in Japan.
DNH: What is the current relationship between Japan and Hungary at the government level, regarding past and future meetings?
HE Ambassador Masato OTAKA: I should first mention that 2019 was a milestone year that marked 150 years since Japan concluded the “Treaty of Amity and Commerce” with the Austro-Hungarian monarchy (1869). In this monumental year marking 150 years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between Japan and Hungary, Her Imperial Highness Princess Kako of Akishino made her first official overseas visit to Hungary and Austria from September 15 to 25 in 2019.
In the same year, Prime Minister Orbán and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Szijjártó visited Japan, held a summit meeting and foreign ministers’ meeting with a Japanese counterpart respectively. Moreover, former President of Hungary, Áder, attended the H.E. Emperor Naruhito’s Enthronement ceremony held in the same year.
More recently, in October 2022, the Minister of Culture and Innovation, János Csák, visited Japan and met with Japan’s Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Nagaoka to exchange views on cooperation in the fields of education, science and technology and culture between the two countries. Also in December, the Minister of the Prime Minister’s Office, Gulyás visited Japan and met Chief Cabinet Secretary Matsuno and Minister for Foreign Affairs Hayashi. Hungary and Japan has been able to maintain frequent and meaningful high-level exchanges in recent years, even in the context of Covid-19.
I would emphatically state that Japan is placing great importance on Hungary as an investment destination, with the volume of direct investment from Japan in Hungary at the end of 2020 amounting to approximately EUR 1.5 billion, accounting for about 1.8 percent of all foreign direct investment in Hungary. From a long-term perspective, many Japanese companies have been operating in Hungary since shortly after “Rendszerváltás” (the change of regime) in Hungary, making Japan the largest aggressive investor in Asia.
Moreover, importance of Japan-Europe relations is increasing under the current international circumstances, and Japan hopes to expand its cooperation in a variety of areas, including regional affairs and the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’, with European countries and with Hungary in particular.
In the current situation where the foundations of the international order are being threatened by Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, it is important for the international community to raise a united voice that it cannot accept unilateral attempt to violate the international order under the UN Charter and change the status quo by force. Meanwhile, as Hungary has suffered tremendous hardship as a direct neighbour of Ukraine, Japan has provided financial assistance to Hungary through international organisations such as UNHCR, IOM and IFRC.
DNH: After the communist era, in 1991, “Our Car” (“A Mi Autónk”), Suzuki, arrived from Japan. How did the economic and business relations between the two countries develop during the past 31 years?
HE Ambassador Masato OTAKA: There has been large volumes of overseas direct investment by Japanese companies in Hungary, with more than 180 companies currently operating in the country. Investments (stock) by Japanese companies amounted to EUR 1.5 billion in Hungary. In the last 30 years, exports and imports between the two countries have both increased more than sixfold.
The increased exports from Japan to Hungary are machinery and transport equipment, while the increased imports from Hungary to Japan are cars and electrical equipment compared to 30 years ago. The Japan-EU EPA, which is an economic partnership agreement aimed at strengthening cooperation by liberalising trade, investment and other economic activities, also applies between Japan and Hungary, one of members of the European Union.
DNH: What kind of Hungarian products can you find on supermarket shelves in Japan?
HE Ambassador Masato OTAKA: Hungarian acacia honey, registered as “Hungarikum” in 2014, is often found in Japanese supermarkets. The honey is very popular among the Japanese consumers as a safe and tasty product.
In addition, Hungarian noble wines, especially Tokaji Aszú, are well known in Japan and are available through wine shops and electronic commerce websites. Hungarian wines are exquisitely tasty and therefore have the potential to become popular in Japan.
In addition, there is one more thing to mention that traditional Hungarian cuisine, gulyás soup, has been acknowledged as a typical Hungarian dish among the Japanese. Although gulyás is served in several Hungarian restaurants in Japan, many Japanese people wish to try authentic Hungarian gulyás. Those who travel to Hungary from our country always look forward to eating the real gulyás.
DNH: I cannot leave out this question: how does the current energy crisis affect you? As I have read, some business leaders and experts believe Japan will not survive without Russian gas and oil. Can you elaborate a bit on your country’s situation?
HE Ambassador Masato OTAKA: Japan has been diversifying its energy sources as a result of careful consideration. Japan’s natural gas imports – mainly LNG – are diverse, including Australia (about 40 percent), the largest exporter, as well as Qatar and the USA. Imports of natural gas from Russia account for only 9 percent. Japan’s oil imports are diverse as well, including from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. Imports of oil from Russia account for 5 percent. Further, we have implemented many energy effective measures.
DNH: The fact that North Korea is getting more fearless may also mean that it is becoming more of a threat to South Korea and Japan. Is it possible a deal with Kim Jong Un? Or is it time to prepare for a possible conflict?
HE Ambassador Masato OTAKA: Recently, North Korea has repeatedly launched ballistic missiles with extremely high frequency and in new ways. This is yet another violation of relevant United Nations Security Council Resolutions and a flagrant violation of Japan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. This act represents a serious threat to peace and security in the region and worldwide.
Japan urges North Korea to comply immediately with UN Security Council resolutions by abandoning all its nuclear weapons, other weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programmes in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner and cease immediately all related activities.
Japan will continue to fully implement the relevant UNSC resolutions and aim for the complete denuclearisation of North Korea, coordinating closely with the US and South Korea and cooperating with the international community.
DNH: Let’s move on to a less serious topic. Your Facebook page clearly shows that you are a fan of art. Can you tell us some of your Hungarian favourites, whether in music or other disciplines?
HE Ambassador Masato OTAKA: Indeed. I love music and arts. Hungary is a culturally rich country that has produced great classical musicians such as Ferenc Liszt, Béla Bartók, and Zoltán Kodály. A large number of Japanese people are fond of their music and many students are enthusiastic to learn music originating from Hungary. More than 20 students attend the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music currently. I usually visit concerts by the students as well as concerts by other great musicians. As the Embassy of Japan, we organise “Sound of Spring” concert by the Japanese students in collaboration with Hungary-Japan Friendship Society and the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music every year. Furthermore, Hungary has high-level dancers, amongst whom there are around 10 Japanese dancers in the Hungarian National Ballet. Their performances always amaze me. I am committed to supporting both young artists and professional artists.
Hungary has a wide range of arts and culture such as porcelain of Herend and Zsolnay, and also has different types of museums: Hungarian National Gallery, Hopp Ferenc Museum of East Asian Art, Műcsarnok, Ludwig Museum, etc. They have aspects deeply related with Japanese history and culture. I am willing to keep visiting art galleries to deepen my understanding about Hugarian arts.
On the other hand, new venues, which have strong ties with Japan, have been built or are being planned to construct. In January 2022, Magyar Zene Háza (House of Music Hungary) was newly opened in the Budapest city part. Mr. Sou Fujimoto, Japanese architect, designed this modern and iconic museum. His design was selected among 168 designs in the competition of Magyar Zene Háza. In September 2022, the First Far Eastern Classical Music Festival took place at this venue and many artists including Japanese and Hungarian attracted the audience for four consecutive days. Moreover, another emblematic institution, the New National Gallery, being designed by a Japanese architectural firm SANAA (Sejima and Nishizawa and Associates) will be constructed in the city park as well. I am delighted to learn about such talented Japanese architects being involved in the re-development of the City Park, which is of great importance to the vibrance of Budapest.
Needless to say, visiting “Japan Day” festival and Japanese culture related events at various cities in Hungary, such as Szombathely. They introduce various areas of the Japanese culture including Ikebana, Japanese tea ceremony, Gastronomy, Japanese sake, Budo (Japanese martial arts) and pop culture always attract my interest. I will continue to support their activities.
Most of my activities are introduced on our embassy’s Facebook. Also, Japanese culture and arts such as Japanese restaurant, Bento (Japanese lunch box), Budo and Ikebana are being introduced on the Facebook pages. I hope you can visit the Facebook pages and find interesting contents about Japan, my Facebook page link is here.
DNH: What are the first things you would mention about our country if you invited a friend to Hungary?
HE Ambassador Masato OTAKA: I would love to tell my Japanese friends about Budapest, the “Pearl of the Danube” – starting with the Buda Castle towering over the Danube, which boasts a magnificent view. I would also mention the rich cultural soil that has produced great musicians such as Liszt, Bartók and Kodály, as mentioned earlier, many magnificent historical buildings, such as the Parliament and the Opera House. I would also draw people’s attention to Hungary’s deep history, starting from the time of the “Honfoglalás” (Hungarian conquest of the Carpathian Basin) and the coronation of King István I.
The Széchenyi Chain Bridge, which is fantastically beautiful when lit up at night, should not be forgotten to mention. Unfortunately, the bridge is currently under regular traffic restrictions due to repair work and only open to buses and taxis, but we are very much looking forward to the completion of the work in autumn 2023.
Moreover, it must definitely be mentioned that there is a rich food culture, such as Hungarian wines and Mangalica pork, which has recently become well-known in Japan. Hungary is also a safe and very secure place. I am proud to work for the development of bilateral relations in such a wonderful country.
DNH: And what would you recommend to a Hungarian tourist who is planning his first trip to Japan?
HE Ambassador Masato OTAKA: There are countless wonderful places to visit in Japan, and it is hard to choose between them all. Firstly, however, I would recommend Kyoto, which was the capital of Japan from 794 to 1869 and had been the country’s political, economic and cultural centre. Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost prefecture, has a unique culture that differs from that of the mainland, while Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost prefecture, is known as a ‘treasure house of ingredients’, offering fresh seafood and nationally renowned ramen.
When it comes to food, the local sake from all over Japan and so-called “B-grade gourmet(good cheap eats)” such as ramen, takoyaki (octopus dumplings), beef bowls and Japanese-style curry are also very tasty and reasonably priced. Furthermore, Japan is one of the world’s major hot spring countries, which Hungarians, who also love hot springs, are sure to like. In any case, Japan never bores travellers, whether they are in the East, West, South or North.
In recent years, the interest in Japanese traditional culture, such as ikebana (the Japanese art of flower arrangement), Tea ceremony, Kimono, Martial arts, Japanese cuisine, Sake and Anime, has been very high in Hungary, and we also hear that the enthusiasm for learning Japanese language is also very strong. It would be a great pleasure if this growing interest in Japan would one day lead to greater desire to visit Japan, and if more and more Hungarians would actually visit Japan. The recent depreciation of the yen is an opportunity that foreign visitors must not miss.
DNH: Can you please mention some upcoming cultural, economic and folklore programmes the Embassy organises?
HE Ambassador Masato OTAKA: We are planning to organise various programs. Firstly, we will have a booth on the Educational Expo in January in order to present Japanese government scholarship programs. Many students in Hungary and neighbouring countries always come to the Expo to plan their future career. We are grateful that students visit our booth and get interested in Japan. Subsequently, as I mentioned earlier, the “Sound of Spring” concert at the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music will take place in March, and our embassy’s booth on Children’s Day at Budapest City Park will be presented in May. Our booth is one of the most popular booths. We usually have demonstration of martial arts such as Aikido, Kendo and Karate. Calligraphy, traditional toy and face painting of Kabuki or Anime characters are also popular. A Japanese company will introduce their product to visitors as well.
As I mentioned earlier, there are “Japan’s Day” events in several places such as Budapest, Szombathely and Gyula. Hungarian people who are keen to promote Japanese culture organise the events. They sometimes invite Japanese experts or artists from Japan or other countries and many visitors can experience the various authentic Japanese culture. I hope you can visit those interesting events.
Moreover, various Japanese cultural programmes will be held during Veszprém-Balaton European Capital of Culture 2023. As a part of “Balaton Wine Gourmet Festival” a Japanese cuisine event took place as a pre-program in September 2023. We will continue to participate in some programs and hope that as many people as possible will get to know Japanese culture and Japanese artist’s activities in Hungary.
If you want to indulge in a good book, here in Budapest, I would like to recommend to visit a Japanese cultural center “The Japan Foundation Budapest”. They have a great library where you can borrow many Japanese books. They also organise many cultural events. Therefore, I hope you will visit their website HERE and check their programmes as well.