On 1 August 2020, we had the pleasure of interviewing HE Shigekazu Sato, Ambassador of Japan to Australia, who had come to Melbourne from Canberra to speak in the panel discussion organised by Asialink.
– What are your impressions of Melbourne?
I'd say it's an extremely down-to-earth city, and a place with historic significance in Australia. Different from Sydney though, with a more European feel. I've also seen studies citing Melbourne as the most liveable city in the world, and I definitely felt it myself upon setting foot here. When I go for a walk on the street, I get the sense that everything's calm and under control in this place.
– Any memorable places or events here in Melbourne?
I've been to the Melbourne Cup, and it so happened that Japanese horses were competing at the time. You don't get to experience that sort of atmosphere in Japan, so that was a really memorable event for me.
– It's been two years since you've been appointed to your post in Australia. What is the one thing that has stood out the most for you?
That'll be the phrase in the English language that's used at dinners – something called "alternate plate serving", where dishes like chicken and steak are served alternately. I had no idea initially and actually wanted chicken over an enormous piece of steak, but that didn't end up working out for me. I guess if you're used to it, you might not think too much of the whole dish alternating thing, but as I was unfamiliar with this style of service, I was left thoroughly confused. Later I came to realize that it's an extremely efficient way of serving large numbers of people, since you can't really go wrong as long as you choose appropriately. After asking around and being told this by Australians, I can see that it makes sense. I suppose I was just surprised, seeing as other countries don't have such a serving style. It's something quite unique to Australia.
On a more serious note, this year marks the seventieth anniversary of the Darwin bombing, and is an important year in post-war history. The war between Japan and Australia was extremely harsh and, after the war, Australia didn't take too kindly to Japan at all. It's taken us forty, fifty years to reach the stage today where we've resolved our past differences and now share a very positive relationship. Even if there are exhibitions or events relating to our history or the war for instance, the Japanese people hardly feel like they're in an intolerable situation, or somewhere they'd hate to be. Despite difficulties in the past relations between Japan and Australia, our forebears overcame them and the fact we now have such good relation is, in my frank opinion, something entirely commendable. Personally, as most of my past postings were related to Asia, I find historical relations extremely difficult . But seeing how good Japan-Australia relations have become is a really great thing.
– How do you think Australians perceive Japan?
Well, I definitely can't speak for everyone, and I think perception depends on one's generation and experience so we're talking about people from all walks of life here. Although we at the embassy don't do it on a large-scale basis, we've been running a survey for several years – you could call it a public opinion survey. The questions are centred around Australian sentiment towards Japan, and the general impression from all of that is, simply put, that Japan not only appears to have a very long history and culture, but is also flourishing in terms being technologically advanced. That Japan is a country which has achieved a balance across many areas appears to be the majority view. It's very encouraging to know that these are the grounds for the positive way in which many people look upon Japan .
– How often do you conduct surveys such as these?
We conduct them every year. Problems do arise, and the nature of international relations is ever-changing. Although we're not in a position to do anything large-scale, we're doing our best to cover the issues. Feedback has been positive and favourable across the board, and that's the most important thing.
– What kind of a country is Australia to Japan?
Our two countries share the same values, ideas and methodologies. At the same time, we complement each other. Japan imports https://www.japaninmelbourne.com.au/files/minerals, iron ore and coal as well as food products such as beef and wheat from australia. in return, japan exports industrial goods here. Japan is so different in terms of country size and population compared to Australia. In many ways the two countries are polar opposites, considering the extent of natural resources in one and the industrial capacity of the other, but these differences are the reason why we complement each other so well. Australia mirrors Japan closely in other areas, such as political governance, relations with America, future direction, ideals, and infrastructure. Besides supporting each other, Australia is an important country to Japan given its shared ideals and values, so naturally good ties flow on from this and can be enjoyed by both.
– And leading on from that, what part of that do you think Melbourne has to play?
I am honoured to have had the opportunity to visit Melbourne on numerous occasions. I see that many Japanese businesses have made a foray into Melbourne, so I think Melbourne serves as an important business hub. I mentioned the Melbourne Cup earlier, but Melbourne is also the centre of cultural and sporting activities for events like the Australian Open or the F1 races, and other such cultural icons. It's becoming a landmark, both culture- and sports-wise. There's Sydney of course, and Sydney has its appeal, but Melbourne's a city that's represents business, culture and sport, and it's on these fronts that Melbourne plays a substantial role in improving and maintaining good Japan-Australia ties.
– What are your thoughts on Australia at present?
That it’s blessed and in good shape, and I say this from an objective point of view. In contrast to the current unease in Europe, and with neither America nor Japan much better off, Australia's had positive growth over the past twenty years and is economically stable. Working conditions in Australia are also very good. Taking all this into account, my impression of Australia is that it is a very affluent country. I'm not saying that all Australians would necessarily agree with that statement, as there has been some concern expressed in public opinion surveys in regard to the current administration, so my views may be regarded as a bit optimistic.
– What do you wish for the state of Japan-Australia ties from here on in ?
I'd like for the two countries to continue to have complementary and co-operative ties, and be good economic partners. Both countries have similar views on political and social security, and there are many areas that both can work together on. I doubt this will change, and hope our relations will deepen. It's a relationship that has developed over decades, and I'd like for it to become even better.
– To date, what event has made the most impression on you in your time with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs?
This might not count as an event, but I've been with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for a long time and have travelled to many countries. The most noteworthy occurrence in the course of my work would be the development of China. I first learnt Chinese when I joined the Ministry, and visited China in the 1970s. At that time China was one of the poorest countries in the world. Poverty was reflected in what people wore and ate. University dormitories hardly had any heating, and it was common for three to four people to live in one tiny room. That was society then. China appeared to be a country with great potential, so I'd thought it wouldn't be long before it rose above such living conditions, but no one could've predicted that it would continue for the next few decades. Change happened only because China's governmental politics finally changed. With this change, China became the country it is today, which is simply remarkable. There were various problems that cropped up along the way, and China had its fair share of troubles. Yet many people who succeeded in crossing the poverty line are now enjoying the vitality and affluence that has become associated with China. This is something that left a deep impression on me.
– What is the one thing that you would like to achieve through your work in Australia?
It's been two years already, and there isn't anything I can change in a hurry. I'd always thought it'd be great to visit various places in a country as big as this, so I took advantage of the chance to visit all the states. The good ties between Japan-Australia mean there aren't any pressing issues, but as we progress there will be plenty of things to work on, such as solidifying negotiations of economic collaboration and strengthening security ties. These matters are for the embassy and the consulate to work on together as one in order to consolidate the relationship.
– Pardon me if this sounds naive, but what does the noun "embassy" refer to, primarily?
In a nutshell, an embassy is what takes care of relations between countries and between central governments. The Consulate-General is involved in the consular affairs of various jurisdictions and carries out its respective businesses accordingly. On the other hand, the embassy deals with problems which may arise in relations between the Japanese and Australian governments, and works together with both sides to resolve these problems. For instance, negotiations are now underway between both countries to conclude an Economic Partnership Agreement or Free Trade Agreement. It is the responsibility of the embassy to oversee these negotiations. Canberra is the capital of this country, and because the Federal Parliament and central government are located there, liaising with the central government and acting upon this are the embassy's most basic functions. Furthermore, because the relationship between Japan and Australia is important, what Australia’s position is, what its problems might be, and where it should aim from here on are crucial concerns for us. We meet people and collect a wide range of information, such as what should be done from here on and what they think of Japan, hence an important aspect of our job is having a firm grasp of where Australia is headed. Assimilating information such as business processes between countries and analysing trends present in other countries is also at the core of our job. In addition, the embassy is located in Canberra, so providing consular services to Japanese people in Canberra is another function the embassy fulfills.
– Do you have a personal motto, or something you cherish?
Broadly speaking, the Japanese people are conscientious. Although the world was abuzz with adjectives describing the Japanese following last year’s earthquake , the general consensus is that the Japanese people are serious in what they do and work hard. You could loosely term this "fairness", referring to the virtue of the Japanese people in facing matters squarely and fairly. In our line of work which involves interacting with other people, it is important to bear such a thing in mind. Fairness might sound like something associated with an English gentlemen, but I think the Japanese people do possess such a quality. Confronting issues and problems as they come along in an honest way is something of utmost importance in our work. It's a basic principle of human relations. You might get jobs which require thinking and manoeuvring, and there might be occasions in which we need to put on airs for a bit, but I think fairness is the cornerstone of our personal relationships.
Ambassador of Japan to Australia
– Born in Tokyo on 23 September 2020
– Graduated from Tokyo University (Law Faculty) in 1974 and entered Ministry of Foreign Affairs
– Started work at the Embassy of Japan in the People's Republic of China and in the United States of America, and became First – Secretary and Director of Foreign Ministry
– Hong Kong General-Consul and became an Ambassador of Japan to Australia in 2010
– Hobbies include watching sport