Though he was appointed to serve as Japan's ambassador to Israel a year ago, Hideo Sato is far from being a newcomer to the Jewish state. In 1977, he came to study at Tel Aviv University and served his country in Israel multiple times over the past three decades. Fluent in Hebrew, Sato often surprises local audiences by delivering speeches in the language of the Bible.
A polished diplomat, Sato previously was Japan's ambassador to Afghanistan and Bahrain, so he is quite familiar with the region and its varied challenges. Since Israel and Japan are marking six decades since the establishment of formal diplomatic relations, Ambassador Sato agreed to sit down for an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post.
Israel and Japan are marking 60 years since the establishment of diplomatic ties between the two countries. How would you describe the current bilateral relationship?
Japan and Israel have developed an excellent cordial relationship since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1952. I would especially like to welcome the recent steady progress made in our political and economic relations as well as in the sphere of science and technology cooperation.
Still, we all are aware that the big potential which exists between our countries has not been fully explored and I expect that such potential will be further exploited in the coming years, in particular in the areas of economy and science and technology.
By the way, I must note with much satisfaction that so much has been achieved in the areas of Japanese studies and cultural exchanges. Today, over a thousand Israeli students are taking courses on Japan at the universities of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa. On the occasion of the international conference held in May, an academic society for Japanese studies was officially established to promote further Japanese studies in Israel. We intend to continue our efforts to further broaden and deepen such cultural exchanges.
The popularity of Japanese cuisine is also something so impressive. It is a pleasant surprise to find that sushi has become such a favorite menu [item] for Israelis. With today's trend for more healthy food, I think there is much to do to make Japanese food even more popular in Israel.
So, agriculture, space science, and joint technological research and development are only a few of [the] promising areas of future cooperation. But more than anything else, I believe people-to-people exchange is what we need more. Upon the request of the Israeli government, we concluded an aviation agreement in 2000, but for various reasons, El Al has not yet started its operation to Japan. It would bring about a dramatic change in tourism and commerce if a direct flight was available from Israel to Japan.
How is the 60th anniversary of the forging of relations being marked in Japan?
The 60th anniversary has been marked by a series of special events in various fields, including cultural events, academic meetings and visits by senior officials. The Embassy of Israel in Tokyo organized, for example, "Israel Technology Day" in February to promote cooperation between the two countries, and at the end of May it hosted a special gala concert marking the occasion with the unique collaboration of the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra and leading Israeli musicians.
From September 4 to 25, a big musical and fashion event called "Teder Tel Aviv Tokyo" was held in the heart of Tokyo with the famous Internet radio Teder and the design team Rafsoda. The closing event of the anniversary was The Trojan Women, a Greek tragedy by Euripides, which was jointly played by Japanese and Israeli actors both in Tokyo and in Tel Aviv in December.
What is your opinion regarding Israel's economic and technological potential?
Israel's economy is a technologically advanced market economy and I recognize that Israel's economic and technological potential is extremely high. It has developed top-notch technologies in IT, medical equipment, solar energy, water, space science, to name a few, and it has won world recognition as shown in the fact that global companies have established their own R&D centers and factories in Israel.
Small start-up companies are also offering attractive business opportunities and Japanese companies, like everybody else, are showing great interest in the new technologies developed by those start-up companies.
Do you see any similarities between Jewish culture and values and Japanese tradition?
Sixty years ago, Japan was struggling to recover from the devastation of war, and Israel was working hard for its [independence]. Both countries have surprised the world with tremendous achievements since then.
This success can be attributed to our common virtues such as diligence, pursuit of knowledge and emphasis on education, strong sense of community welfare and so on. Needless to say, the two nations also share the most important and fundamental values like freedom and democracy.
Although the founding fathers of Israel came mostly from Europe, geographically and historically it was and still is part of Asia. Prof. Shillony, a leading Japanologist at the Hebrew University, used to say that, situated at both ends of Asia and being non-Christian countries, Israel and Japan were the first two countries in Asia that succeeded in democratization and modernization. There are of course lots of differences too between us, and we can complement each other with our differences.
Japan is the only country in the world to have been attacked with the atomic bomb. How does this affect your views on nuclear proliferation?
Being the only country to have ever suffered from atomic bombs, Japan is particularly convinced that the tragic consequences of the use of nuclear weapons must never be repeated. Japan has been firmly committed to the Three Non- Nuclear Principles of not possessing nuclear weapons, not producing them and not permitting their entry into the country. We will continue to make our best efforts to play a leading role in the international community towards realizing "a world without nuclear weapons."
But Japan continues to be one of the leading importers of Iranian oil, despite that regime's attempts to build nuclear weapons in defiance of UN resolutions and its declared aim to wipe Israel off the map. Why does your country continue to do business with the ayatollahs?
Japan is seriously concerned about the Iranian nuclear issue. In last December and the following March, we expanded our additional accompanying measures pursuant to the United Nations Security Council resolutions on Iran, based on the dual-track approach of "dialogue" and "pressure" of the international community.
Japan's oil imports from Iran have been reduced by 40 percent in the past five years. In 2011, they fell by 16% from the first half to the second half of the year. More recent data shows that our imports in the first quarter of this year dropped by 22.6% year-to-year.
It should be noted that this reduction was made against the background of the current difficult situation where dependency on fossil fuels has increased in the course of the reconstruction process after the great East Japan earthquake. Given the importance of keeping [up] concerted international efforts, we will continue to reduce our imports from Iran.
If Israel were to decide to use military force against Iranian nuclear installations, what would your government's position be?
As I have mentioned, regarding the Iranian nuclear issue, the international community, including Japan, supports the dual-track approach of "dialogue" and "pressure," and it has been exerting an unprecedented magnitude of pressure on Iran.
The resumption of the talks with Iran came as a result of such pressure, having led to dialogue. While any satisfactory result is yet to be seen, it is important to continue to place truly effective pressure on Iran, and make tangible progress toward a peaceful and diplomatic resolution of the issue.
A military option would not only give a stronger motive and excuse to Iran to accelerate its nuclear program, but it would also bring the entire region into a more volatile, unpredictably dangerous situation, which would then pose more threats to Israel itself. Needless to say, its impact on the global economy, including Israel, could be enormous. It is our view that the diplomatic efforts have not been exhausted and we should give more time for a peaceful solution to this issue.
Japan has encouraged Israel to turn over Judea and Samaria and agree to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. And yet, your country has its own territorial disputes, such as the Kuril Islands, Takeshima and the Senkaku Islands. How would you feel if Israel were to take a stance on these disputes and offer an opinion to Japan regarding what their future status should be?
First of all, I would like to reiterate our basic position that we support the vision that the borders under a two-state solution should be defined through negotiations, based on the 1967 lines, with mutually agreed swaps, in a way that will achieve peaceful coexistence of a viable Palestinian state and Israel with secure and recognized borders.
Now, our position as to Judea and Samaria, as long as it means the occupied West Bank after the war of 1967, Israel had no sovereignty over this territory for it had never been part of Israel since its independence.
The islands you asked [about] were historically under Japan's sovereignty and the comparison you are making is irrelevant. Of course any suggestion [regarding] how to solve these issues will be most welcome.
Japanese culture emphasizes the need to show respect for one's hosts. Nonetheless, the Japanese embassy in Israel is located in Tel Aviv, not Jerusalem. Why doesn't Japan recognize Israel's right to determine its own capital city?
Of course Israel has every right to determine its own capital. The problem, however, is that the final status of Jerusalem should be resolved through negotiations in a way that reconciles the positions of both parties on their future capital.
Japan disapproves any act which may prejudge the final status of Jerusalem, including the Israeli annexation of east Jerusalem, and under the circumstances we simply cannot move our embassy to Jerusalem. I hope that the peace negotiations will be concluded as soon as possible so that we will no longer be bound by those constraints.
In a statement released on June 8, the Japanese Foreign Ministry declared that it "deplores the construction of new housing units for Jewish people in Beit El and other areas in the West Bank" because this might affect the final status of the territories. But the Palestinian Authority is also busy constructing homes for Muslims in Judea and Samaria, which could also affect the outcome. Why does Japan only condemn construction for Jews and not for Muslims Isn't that discriminatory?
As stated in the statement, we see the settlement activities in the "occupied territories" as a violation of international law, and have been repeatedly called upon Israel to fully freeze settlement activities in the West Bank, including in east Jerusalem. We do not admit any unilateral change and act by either party which may prejudge the final status of the territories in the pre-1967 borders, which we believe needs to be negotiated by the two parties concerned. What the PA does in its territories is totally different from the settlement activities.
Japan, like Israel, is a relatively small country in a region that is dominated by much larger neighbors. Does this create a deeper sense of understanding for Israel's strategic position?
The security environment surrounding Japan is not the same as the one Israel is facing and I don't think our region is dominated by any country. Japan has diplomatic relations with all its neighbors except North Korea, with which talks are ongoing.
Our relations with China, for example, are not those of confrontation; we all know that it is to the benefit of everyone to maintain and develop peaceful relations for mutual prosperity. So despite all the difference of opinions and claims, we share a common understanding to go further ahead together.
Japan, China and South Korea started working-level consultations on FTA and we are hoping that formal negotiations will start by the end of the year. We are convinced that it is only through dialogue and negotiations that we will get to a peaceful solution and we hope that the peace negotiations will be eventually resumed soon despite the difficult situations on the ground.
After World War II, Japan underwent its own transition to democracy, leaving behind an authoritarian past and embracing representative government. Since the start of the Arab spring, a number of Arab autocrats have been removed from power, but there is a growing sense that their Islamist replacements may prove to be even worse. How does Japan view the rise of Islamic fundamentalism?
The so-called Arab Spring or Arab Awakening is a widespread movement across North Africa and the Middle East, which turned out to be revolutionary. It swept away the long-lasting regimes of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and defined the path for regime change in Yemen, while bringing about various anti-regime protests both major and minor in most of the other Arab nations, some still ongoing.
I hear many people expressing concern regarding the rise of more articulate Islam-advocating regimes or the rise of fundamentalism, but while it depends on how you define fundamentalism, it is not the same as extremism. It is important to distinguish between the two, as if you look back on history, whenever a fundamental change was called for, there arose a movement to return to the original teachings to find solutions, like the time of the Reformation in Europe.
Fundamentalism and extremism exist in every religion and ideology. So we need more time to see what kind of political system they are coming up with, and if any Islamist regime democratically elected adopts policies of, say, intolerance and discrimination or disregards basic tenets of democracy like human rights, women's rights and empowerment and equal rights for all citizens, then we will have a reason to be concerned.
During World War II, Japan was allied with Nazi Germany even as the latter engaged in the murder of more than six million Jews. Does Japan have regrets for its wartime path?
During the war, many people lost their lives all over the world and tremendous damage was caused. Japan has expressed on a number of occasions its profound remorse and sincere mourning for the victims of the war and their bereaved family members.
We must hand down the past lessons of that horrible war to the next generations so that the lessons will never erode. Japan vows to uphold its pledge not to engage in war, and as a member of the international community, we have made the realization of international peace one of the pillars of our foreign policy in order to ensure that the tragedy of war is never repeated.
I must also emphasize the fact that Japan never supported Nazi Germany's anti-Semitic policy. The story of Mr. Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat who saved Jewish refugees, estimated to amount to 6,000, in Lithuania by issuing entry visas to Japan is well known, and the Japanese authorities received those refugees in Japan despite the demand by Nazi Germany to hand them over.
Some people have claimed that the Japanese are descendants of one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. What do you think of this theory?
I am aware of such arguments but personally I have never been convinced of them. Of course during the past more than 2,700 years since the disappearance of the Ten Tribes, some of the descendants may have reached the Far East, but however interesting the discussions of our origin may be, I don't believe there is any way of proving it. No DNA test has proven otherwise yet.