Ambassador of Japan to Lithuania Tetsu Ozaki: “I feel that Lithuania needs Asia and Japan as trading partners as much as Japan needs Lithuania”

  • 2023-09-18
  • Linas Jegelevicius / co-author Sofia Zolotarev

The volume of trade between Japan and Lithuania is insignificant –Lithuania’s exports to the Land of the Rising Sun totaled just a little over 60-million-euro last year, much less than exports to  other countries. However, Ambassador of Japan to Lithuania Tetsu Ozaki is optimistic that the numbers will grow. The Baltic Times Magazine spoke to Mr. Ozaki.

As the interview is taking place amidst war in Ukraine and as Japan has suffered particularly horribly through the atomic bombardment in WW2, what solutions is Japan proposing to end bloodshed in Ukraine?

Japan, along with other G7 nations, urges Russia to stop its ongoing aggression and immediately, completely, and unconditionally withdraw its troops and military equipment from the entire internationally recognized territory of Ukraine. Japan believes that a just peace cannot be realized without the complete and unconditional withdrawal of Russian troops and military equipment. Japan is committed to providing Ukraine with the financial, humanitarian, military, and diplomatic support it requires until peace is realized. 

The G7 Joint Leaders' Declaration on Support for Ukraine at the recent NATO summit reinforced this, and the Baltic States decided to join the declaration. In addition, Japan has experienced many reconstruction efforts from the devastation caused by natural disasters and war including the atomic bombings. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Great Kanto Earthquake, which took more than 100,000 of lives. We intend to use our experience and technology in the reconstruction of Ukraine and will soon hold an international conference in Japan to promote reconstruction assistance to Ukraine.

The volume of Lithuanian-Japanese trade is insignificant –Lithuania’s Japan-bound exports totaled just a little over 60 million euro last year, much less than exports to other countries, like Germany and Scandinavia. What do you believe is the reason for the unimpressive volume?

Indeed, the trade volume between Lithuania and Japan is still relatively low, both in absolute terms and in relative terms. For example, the amount of Lithuanian exports to Japan is only 3% of that of Lithuanian exports to Germany. This may be due to the fact that Lithuanian and Japanese companies have not yet been able to launch their business in each other's countries and have not been able to establish supply chains based on long-term business-to-business contracts, and are limited to relatively small transactions for consumers. In the future, we believe it is important to build partnerships that can leverage each other's strengths and increase the number of long-term contracts between companies.

As for the recognition of Lithuanian brands and products in Japan, they have been introduced at events promoting Lithuanian culture, including food, mainly by Japanese local governments that have longstanding relations with Lithuania. In addition to these efforts, under the leadership of Ambassador of Lithuania, H. E. Dr. Aurelijus ZYKAS, who was appointed last June, the activities of the Lithuanian Embassy have been further enhanced through cooperation between the strengthened Embassy staff and local governments and Japanese companies, and we look forward to the future.

Where do you see more trade possibilities for both countries?

Personally, I expect that one of the great opportunities is for Japanese companies in the high-tech, manufacturing and fintech sectors to establish themselves in Lithuania as a new base in the EU region, or to shift resources from other EU regions to Lithuania. Just recently, as the JETRO and Japanese companies visited Lithuania on a mission to the Baltic countries, I was surprised by the vitality of the advanced technology industries, especially start-ups in healthcare, biotechnology, lasers, etc. I feel that Lithuania needs Asia and Japan as trading partners as much as Japan needs Lithuania more and more in these strategic areas.

Although it is not related to trade, I believe that the exchange of students will increase, and I see great potential for the development of human exchange in various industrial fields.

It seems that laser and chemical products make up the majority of Lithuanian export to Japan. What would be your advice to other Lithuanian industry sectors to make an inroad in the Japanese market?

In addition to dairy products, egg products, and beer, beef, honey, and other food products and beverages are of high quality and reasonably priced, so I think it is important to make them known through fairs and promotions in Japan. In addition, although business has leveled off in recent years, we believe that there is room to increase business by raising awareness of linen products, sundries, and amber, which are currently Lithuania's strong areas and popular products. As general advice, the Japanese market may have to shrink as a whole due to the declining birthrate and aging population. In addition, the number of companies in each industry is large and price competition is particularly fierce, so I think it is important to brand value-added products other than by price in order to enter the Japanese market.

What Lithuanian food products can be found on the shelves of Japanese stores? 

These include cheese (hard cheese, cheese bars, smoked), organic soups, breads, and crackers.

What was the impact on trade of the weaker Japanese currency, the yen, against the euro throughout 2022?

Last year in 2022, although imports from Japan remained flat, exports to Japan significantly increased, but there was no particularly noticeable impact from the yen depreciation.

The impact is more likely to be the limited revival of visitors from Japan. Conversely, however, as the number of visitors from Lithuania to Japan has increased rapidly, and I feel that the distance between the two countries is getting closer rather than farther due to the yen depreciation.

Do you see many Japan-produced products in Lithuanian stores? What are they?

These are automobiles, motorcycles, electrical appliances, and cameras.

Can you talk about the Japan state or Tokyo-sponsored programs that aim to attract international investors? Can you please mention the most distinctive ones? And what do they offer?

JETRO (Japan External Trade Organization), under the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, provides information and advice, organizes seminars and exhibitions, and organizes economic missions in order to promote investment and increase trade between the two countries. In addition to Poland, the Baltic States, including Lithuania, and Ukraine are under the jurisdiction of JETRO's Warsaw Office, and as I mentioned earlier, JETRO recently conducted a week-long mission to the Baltic States.

Sometimes I get the impression that due to the geopolitical reasons, Lithuania’s focus in trade in the Far East is Taiwan, not the other countries, and not Japan. Do you share the opinion?

No, I don't think that is necessarily true. Taiwan is not in the Far East to begin with, but in East Asia. Anyway, the focused country in East Asia that Lithuania cheers and supports for geopolitical reasons is definitely Taiwan, symbolically, but it is my understanding that the actual economic and trade strategy in East Asia naturally includes Japan and South Korea in the Indo-Pacific strategy that has now been published for the first time.

Yet seemingly more Japanese tourists are discovering Lithuania. Is that something you’re seeing too?

I think it has decreased dramatically due to Covid, but certainly is slowly increasing. I see it too. Since the war in Ukraine, it has become more and more important for people to get acquainted with Lithuania, and the number of people who want to "discover" Lithuania, including Japanese students, is increasing. Recently, the Deputy Speaker of the House of Councilors of Japan and a non-partisan delegation of Diet members also visited the Baltic States. It was the first visit to Lithuania by Diet members other than cabinet members in the last 4 years. They, too, are aware that they have "discovered" Lithuania. It truly is a case of "Seeing is believing”.

Please, talk about cultural and especially educational exchanges between our two countries. What particularly makes you happy?

In terms of educational exchange, interest in Lithuania from Japan has been increasing recently, not only because of the historical background of Chiune Sugihara's "Visa for Life," but also because of the great admiration of Japan for Lithuania's continued support of Ukraine since Russia's invasion of Ukraine. It is truly gratifying to see an increasing number of schools and students actively learning from various perspectives, including Lithuania's history as a freedom fighter and its history with Poland, Ukraine, and other countries that were part of the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania. This has also led to a trend toward a serious review of Japan's own history, and one of the most important things I have learned since coming to Lithuania is the basic Lithuanian understanding that "A nation's history must be on every citizen's lips, and the nation will be immortal. I believe that Japanese people will be more aware of this basic Lithuanian understanding.

What are your favorite places in Vilnius? Why?

Vingis Park, a place to take a walk with my wife. There is abundant nature, and I feel as if I am practicing meditative mindfulness while taking a walk, listening to the fresh air, the rustling of trees, and the chirping of birds. This is also the place where historical events such as the great meeting on August 23, 1988 were held, and I took my son and his family there when they came from Japan the other day.

How much have you excelled your Lithuanian language by now?

I have been learning a little in secret, but still no luck at all, including elementary conversation. It is very difficult. However, I am beginning to think that it is a very logical language in a sense, and I would like to learn it somehow, at least a little.