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Column on Japanese proficiency of ambassadors to Japan, focusing on new Russian envoy

  • February 15, 2018
  • , p. 39
  • JMH Translation
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By Isao Iijima, special adviser to the cabinet


At present, there are a total of 155 foreign embassies in the 23 wards of Tokyo, including the EU mission. Palestine and Taiwan, with whom Japan does not have official diplomatic relations, also have representative offices.


How many of the ambassadors can speak Japanese? More than a decade ago, during the Junichiro Koizumi cabinet, there were less than 20. Five years ago, when the second Shinzo Abe cabinet started, there were 22. Subsequently, despite a short period when this number dropped, there are now 37 Japanese-speaking envoys.


This is proof that Japan’s international status is recovering, thanks to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s flying around the world under his “diplomacy with a global perspective.” Other countries are no longer able to take information on Japan lightly, so they have sent ambassadors with linguistic proficiency to take command of diplomatic activities.


For sure, there are different levels of “proficiency,” ranging from the “beginner’s level” of being able to say a few words of greeting to “completely fluent,” being able to communicate without any problem. For example, Chinese Ambassador Cheng Yonghua studied at Wako University and Soka University, so he is really fluent. The ambassadors of El Salvador in Latin America and of Azerbaijan in Central Asia are also proficient in Japanese. Even these small countries are able to make their presence felt.


Ambassador William Hagerty, sent by President Donald Trump, is the first U.S. envoy who understands Japanese in a long while. He is probably the first such case since Ambassador Edwin Reischauer, whose wife was Japanese and who made significant contributions to Japan-U.S. friendship in the 1960s.


During the time of Ambassador Caroline Kennedy, there were plans to hold a party for the Prime Minister and the Japanese-speaking ambassadors. However, Ambassador Kennedy could not speak Japanese, so it was thought it would be awkward not to include the U.S. ambassador. Various ideas came up, such as holding a party for the female ambassadors first.


Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is facing a presidential election in March, has made a major move. On Jan. 29, he named Mikhail Galuzin, who stands out as an expert on Japan among the Russian politicians and diplomats, as the next ambassador to Japan.


Galuzin lived in Japan when he was six due to his father’s work. He studied at Tokai University and Soka University. He was also minister at the Russian Embassy in Tokyo at the time of the Koizumi cabinet.


Since his Japanese is flawless, we were very close at the time when I was serving as the prime minister’s chief secretary. When a Japanese fishing boat was seized by the Russian authorities in  waters north of Hokkaido, he called up my cellphone to tip me off just before he reported the incident through diplomatic channels. He did the same when the fishermen were released. This was extremely helpful for the Kantei’s crisis management.


Actually, when I accompanied Prime Minister Abe to the Eastern Economic Forum hosted by Putin in Vladivostok last fall, I had an informal meeting with a Russian political heavyweight close to Putin.


When I was asked who would be the best choice for the next ambassador to Japan, I said: “Who else, other than Mikhail Galuzin?” in my attempt to sound him out on the subject.


Galuzin was ambassador to Indonesia at that time. When I called him up later, he said: “I might be going to Tokyo in the near future.” So, this is really going to happen. I called him again after I heard about his new appointment, but he had already gone back to Moscow.


Galuzin is a person who moves around a lot. He is a gentle and honest man with an extensive network of personal connections in Japan. The Russian experts in Japan’s Foreign Ministry will have to do their homework to keep up with him because taking advantage of his Japanese proficiency, Galuzin may go over the head of the Foreign Ministry and appear in unexpected places at unexpected moments, making him difficult to handle.


He is taking up post in late February, so I look forward to seeing him again. I am sure other major countries will now also rush to send Japanese-speaking ambassadors.

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