This spring, just like every year, Lithuania celebrated the 11th of March in high spirits – this day marks the 26th anniversary of the Re-establishment of our country’s Independence. Sadly, the Japanese people remember the very same day with great pain, loss, and sadness. 5 years ago, on March 11, 2011, a tsunami triggered by a powerful earthquake wiped off the shores of Japan’s northern Tohoku region, causing several thousands of people to lose their lives and hundreds of thousands – to lose their homes. The natural disaster was furthermore intensified by the Fukushima nuclear crisis. This year the Japanese Ambassador to Lithuania, His Excellency Mr. Toyoei Shigeeda has held a special event to commemorate the 5th anniversary of the tragedy and to express Japan‘s gratitude to the Lithuanian people for their support. „Baltic Asia“ had a unique opportunity to interview His Excellency after the event. We talked about the current situation in the region affected by the disaster, the country‘s road to recovery, and on a brighter note – about the Ambassador‘s intention to increase the flow of Japanese tourists to Lithuania.
– Mr. Ambassador, 5 years have passed since the disaster. How could you describe the situation in Japan and the Tohoku region today? Has the country recovered? How much time do you think Japan will need in order to completely rebuild the destroyed areas?
We are doing our best to help the northern region to recover. Most part of the territory affected by the earthquake and tsunami is already rebuilt. However, more time is needed in order to recover the places which suffered the most. We achieved many things by renovating the infrastructure: more than 80% of the buildings are modernized, our aim is to make them as up to date, as earthquake-resistant as possible. I myself had several occasions to visit Onagawa, a town located in Miyagi prefecture – one of the places affected by the earthquake and tsunami the most. After my last visit, I can say that today this town is almost 90% recovered. In Fukushima, the decontamination works are going quite effectively – in most places of the prefecture the radiation levels do not exceed the norms and are almost the same as in any other place in the world. We conduct a strict inspection of the food produced in the prefecture and I can gladly state that it is safe to consume. Today only in a small area surrounding the Fukushima nuclear power plant the radiation levels are above the norm.
Unfortunately, the emotional wounds take much longer to heal. Today about 170.000 people still live in temporary houses. One of the most important problems we face now is how to provide these people with comfortable living conditions there and how to ensure their fast return to their homes. Living in temporary houses for several years, they feel exhausted emotionally and spiritually. For this reason, it is extremely important to encourage them not to give up, to keep their spirits high. Interesting enough, to the evacuees the support from the outside world, our friends and colleagues from overseas, is very important. They find the possibility to communicate, to share their experiences and emotions with foreigners very encouraging.
– On 11th March 2011, Lithuanians, just like the rest of the world, were deeply shocked by what had happened to Japan. Do Japanese people feel the support of Lithuania?
As far as I am aware, in 2011, the year of the tragedy, at least 9 separate events to support the Japanese people were organized in Lithuania. These were charity concerts, picture exhibitions, and other kinds of events. I am grateful to your country for continuing its’ efforts every year. For us, Japanese, it is not easy to express our inner feelings to the outside world. We tend to keep them to ourselves. However, after I arrived here I realized, that the Lithuanian people share the same trait. I feel that you can understand us. Our nations are very friendly to each other, we want to know each other on a deeper level, work together on the shared goals. Also, I personally would like to do my best to increase the number of Japanese visiting Lithuania.
– Speaking of tourists, Mr. Ambassador, during one of the events you have mentioned that your aim is to increase the number of Japanese tourists visiting Lithuania to 1 million. How are you planning to do that?
I think I was talking about half a million [laughs]. Anyway, I believe two things are the most important in this matter. The first one – Lithuania is still relatively unknown in my country. It is important to introduce, promote Lithuania in Japan more widely. The second point is that there are many countries in Europe, including your neighbors, who compete against each other for the tourist flow. It is very important how Lithuania identifies itself among other European countries, how it advertises its’ unique traits in order to draw the attention of Japanese travelers. The easiest and the most efficient way to solve the problems I just mentioned is to invite volunteers, both Lithuanians, and Japanese, who would contribute to a wider promotion of your country in Japan. Today your embassy in Tokyo is doing a good job. However, it is quite small and has a lot of different tasks, responsibilities to cover. Lithuanian tourism organizations also do pretty well in my country, but they lack the help of the locals. For this reason, volunteers and friends I just mentioned could help to promote Lithuania in Japan more efficiently, not only in Tokyo but in other cities and regions as well.
Moreover, if you want to attract more tourists from foreign countries, it is necessary to understand your own culture and its’ real worth. I have an impression that you, Lithuanians, tend to underestimate yourselves. Usually, your organizations present Lithuania as a country of beautiful nature, old architecture, and nice weather. But almost every other European country could be described the same! Your country has a unique culture and, I would say, quite elegant food culture. All Japanese are pleasantly surprised after they arrive here, but the thing is – before the visit they have almost no information about Lithuania. And it is considering that we have 127 million people living in Japan! In Vilnius, you have plenty of elegant shops, restaurants, cozy coffee houses, and bakeries that the Japanese would find charming. My wife was very impressed by the Lithuanian handcrafts she bought during the Kaziukas fair. They would most certainly draw the attention of our women. All in all, it is very important to understand your own unique identity as a country, to carry the analysis of your target audience, and to provide a wider, more efficient advertisement. For instance, why wouldn’t you invite Lithuania your Japanese friends? I am sure they would love to come. How could you find them? Try collaborating more with the Lithuanian Embassy in Tokyo. For example, my wife together with His Excellency the Lithuanian Ambassador‘s to Japan wife is planning to organize the „Lithuanian Day“ event in Japan.
– Wow, that‘s something new!
[laughing] They are planning to bring Lithuanian handicrafts. The idea is to introduce them not only in Tokyo but in other regions as well. Me and my wife, we are both foreigners, but we agree, that you, as a nation, have great cultural assets, which you could use while promoting your country in Japan. Unfortunately, you tend to underestimate them too much.
– Mr. Ambassador, what Lithuanian cultural symbols could appear the most attractive to Japanese travelers?
As I already mentioned, you always emphasize the beauty of Lithuanian nature, outstanding cultural heritage, UNESCO world heritage sites. Undoubtedly, this is great, but if you want to increase the number of tourists, it is not enough. You have to grab the attention of your target audience. When they will visit Lithuania, after them, others will come. For example, women constitute a big and very important part of the Japanese audience. While traveling abroad they are not only drawn to sightseeing and traditional tourist destinations – they want to relax, explore local food, to visit some local shops and boutiques. Lithuania can be proud of another great asset – your human resource. You have very friendly, gentle people. You would probably be surprised, but most Japanese I talked to have mentioned this. This makes their visit to Lithuania an entirely different experience than, for example, a stay in a hotel somewhere in Germany. In Lithuania the Japanese feel comfortable, they feel at home. Moreover, you show exceptional respect for nature and have many related traditions.
During the past 6 months, I have visited around 25 towns and cities all around Lithuania, had a chance to talk to their mayors. I would like to meet them all. I am doing this in order to get a better understanding of how to introduce Lithuania to the Japanese audience, promote it as a tourist destination. Your embassy in Tokyo is doing the same job in Japan, while I‘m doing it here. In the future, I would also like to start learning the Lithuanian language so I could talk to the local government officials without anything being lost in translation.
We express our gratitude to His Excellency for his time and answers.
Interview: Ineza Stankovskytė
Cover photo of the Ambassador – mruni.eu