Beyond Handshakes

It is through the words exchanged between ambassadors that countries have conversations.

Worldly-wise and sincere, Haruhisa Takeuchi is venerated for his assiduity in Japan’s foreign service sector.

Appointed Japan’s Ambassador to Singapore in 2013, he conveys how after the Tohoku Earthquake “Singapore came in a truly impressive way to support the devastated areas”.

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One year after the earthquake, Singaporeans had donated more than S$35 million dollars towards Japan’s reconstruction efforts. The Singapore Embassy in Japan collaborated with local authorities to identify projects that would have maximum impact: most of the funds were allocated to four reconstruction projects in the worst affected areas of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures. The Singapore Red Cross (SRC), appointed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was the lead agency to co-ordinate Singapore’s funding and relief

Since the earthquake, three of the four projects have been built, with the final construction scheduled for completion later this year or early next year.

In 2013, Takeuchi visited two of these projects, Shichigahama Toyama Nursery School (also known as “the Lion Park”) and the Taro Support Centre for the elderly in Miyagi and Iwate.

“[Japanese] people are really appreciative and I can see firsthand your [Singapore’s] contribution really functioning nicely in the process of the rehabilitation of the community there,” he says.

For Takeuchi, the nursery and rehabilitation centres are tangible and ongoing expressions of compassion from the people of Singapore.

Moved by these veritable acts of empathy, something less obvious but no less important became apparent for Takeuchi. “Another thing which struck me during my visit is the people there, [their] brief conversations [with us]. On the way when they drove us [around], they told their experiences at the time of the disaster and I realise that there are so many untold stories of heroism and courage,” he says. “We will never know the complete picture but we should recognise that kind of courage to carry on, stand up and be defiant.”

Untold stories of triumph and disaster may never be heard, but for those that are, much can be learned. “We at the embassy, we will do our bit by informing the people who have been so generous in supporting us, to report back to [them] and share as appropriate, through international conferences, seminars [or] whatsoever, our experiences, [to better prepare] for future disasters.”

When considering the information available, Takeuchi advises countries to be prudent in distilling experiences that would be most useful to them.

“[…] you are defined by where you are. If you [are a] landlocked country then you don’t necessarily need to think about tsunamis. [So] if you are in [a] different situation, the way you cope with natural disaster will surely vary. We put on the table our experience and what we have learned, and every country should pick up what went wrong and what went alright in the given situation and draw the lesson and apply to their [own] situation.”

It’s not just disaster management and the other official relationships between governments  that determine diplomatic relations between countries, the emerging trend of civil society participation is also changing the contents of diplomacy.

“The role of the embassy or the role of the government is not everything actually. It has a role to play but it is one facet of a multifaceted relation, which already exists between our two countries [Japan and Singapore]. My sense of [my] role here is to be the catalyser – sugar, salt and pepper – not the main dish, and try to connect people to people [through] exchange,” Takeuchi says.

Echoing Takeuchi’s sentiments on the future course of diplomacy is Toshihide Ando, the Director of Japan Creative Centre (JCC) Singapore and the Minister-Counsellor of the Japanese Embassy. He emphasises the role of arts and culture in diplomacy and its importance in the aftermath of events such as the earthquake.

“JCC has been actively involved in earthquake-related events. We have held events to introduce recovery efforts in Tohoku. On the first and second anniversaries of the 3.11 Earthquake, we organised photo exhibitions and presentations, showing relief efforts going on in Tohoku and assistance activities so that Singaporeans will know what’s happening in Japan.”

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“We wanted Singaporeans to know the real situation in Tohoku, what they are going through and how much recovery [has been made],” he explains.

The first centre of its kind outside Japan, JCC encourages the exchange of culture between Japan and Singapore. “The Japan Creative Centre was established a little over four years ago in 2009, to showcase Japanese culture to Singaporeans and at the same time to facilitate interactions between Japanese and Singaporean artists and designers. This centre was agreed [on] by the two Prime Ministers of Japan and Singapore. Singapore has been playing a great role as a regional hub in many areas. So we thought it might be an excellent idea to have this JCC in Singapore,” says Ando.

“My role here is to lead a team and come up with the best available contents, especially those with new and creative ideas, to showcase Japan in Singapore,” Ando adds.

To illustrate some of the creative exchanges between Japan and Singapore, Ando recounts a fashion contest held by JCC to promote sustainability through creative means, “We [hold] annual fashion contests here in JCC. Through this contest, we [ask] Singaporean [and] Japanese students of fashion schools to incorporate the concept of sustainability in their fashion design. They have come [up] with a number of different ideas for sustainability. Some for example use used denim as a design. Some even use furoshiki, a piece of cloth used to wrap things in Japan. Furoshiki is seen as a symbol of sustainability because instead of using wrapping papers and then throwing them away every time, you use furoshiki over and over again, such as for gift boxes and bottles.”

Ando also speaks of mottainai, a Japanese concept for conservation. “In [simple terms] it is called ‘don’t waste things.’ You use this word when you have [leftovers], for example, your dinner, you say mottainai, don’t waste. If you keep your lights on when you leave the room, mottainai, don’t waste electricity. […] mottainai is some sort of concept, all things used and all things saved.”

Through conversations with Takeuchi and Ando, one begins to understand that diplomacy is no longer exclusive to politicians. Civil society and the arts can be important contributors to diplomatic relations, advancing cooperation and support between countries.

“We often talk about solidarity,” says Ando. “Of course assistance is important in a situation like natural disasters, but at the end of the day what’s most important is kizuna, the solidarity or bond of peoples – standing together in times of difficulties. I would like to see kizuna between both peoples get stronger through arts and cultures.”

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