Aurelijus Zykas: “I am always amazed and fascinated by the ability of the Japanese to enjoy and value very tiny, miscellaneous things”

  • 2021-10-07
  • Linas Jegelevicius

You say Japanese is too hard to learn, let alone, to excel? But Aurelijus Zykas, who has mastered the language to such proficiency that he was entrusted with interpreting the incumbent Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda and his predecessors, Valdas Adamkus and already the late Algirdas Brazauzkas at their meetings in Tokyo with some top-tier Japanese officials, including Japanese PMs and the members of the Emperor, on some occasions, grins upon hearing this: “I would never say that Asia or Japan was in my genes.” The Baltic Times Magazine sat down with Aurelijus Zykas, who is now director of his private company Azija LT, and Associate Professor of Vytautas Magnus University, as well as a Board Chair of Kaunas-Japan Friendship Association, to learn more of his unique experiences in the country of the Rising Sun.

Where does your interest in Asia and particularly in Japan come from?

I would never say that Asia or Japan was in my genes. I would say the love story started when I was in my late high school years. After learning Russian and English, two languages almost compulsory for my generation, I expressed my passion for languages by learning Spanish and getting some basic understanding of other European languages…

Later I realized that I would like something more. To learn a language, which has a completely different script, a language, you cannot just simply read. And after quite desperate searches in quite empty bookstores of 1990s Lithuania, I could finally obtain a Russo-Japanese dictionary. It was a window to a completely new world.

Little by little Japan took me by hand and started dominating my life. First Japanese classes at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, the first scholarship in Kanazawa in the late 1990s, studies at Waseda University, work at the Embassy of Lithuania in Japan, the first translations…

And here you are. Japan becomes your life…

You’ve recently released your new Asia-themed book, “Septyni saules veidai” (Seven faces of the Sun). What is it about? What was your focus this time? And how many books do you have under your belt now?

Frankly speaking, it is not my first travel book on Japan. The first one, “Colours and Tastes of Japan” (Japonijos spalvos ir skoniai) was published in 2017 and then needed three editions. It was more like a diary or memoirs and based on very personal experiences. Some readers even commented that this book contained more Zykas, than Japan.

On the contrary, “Seven Faces of Sun” is a travel guide, guiding the reader through different regions of Japan, showing the diversity, introducing some sightseeing places, local foods and crafts. This book could be very handy for traveling to Japan and visiting places. But in our present context of New Normal, it also can take the reader by the wings of imagination to the distant country, and let him know, experience, and see. Because the book is full of nice pictures.

The book introduces the main highlights of Japan. These places are in the central part of Honshu Island and are usually visited during the first trip. Among them are Kyoto and Tokyo, Hiroshima and Miyajima, Hakone, Nikko, Kanazawa, etc. However, if the book is successful, in my mind I have two more travel guides for the northern and southern parts of Japan that reveal completely different faces of the country.

In addition, I am working on two monographs about China’s ethnic minorities, another travel book on Korea… And several other minor books. I hope to finish them sometime (smiles).

As we’re talking amid the coronavirus pandemic, do you believe that disciplined Asian societies stand a better chance of handling it?

In some cases I seems so. In any case, when you deal with unexpected situations like an epidemic or disaster, such factors as strong decision making, discipline, and a responsibility minded society are of key importance. Obviously, these factors, especially the strong central power, contributed much to China’s ability to deal with the problem.

We can see that in the context of the pandemic, the societies of East Asia with strong Confucian values (such as Taiwan, Korea, and Japan) are dealing much better than the societies of the Southern part of Asia or even Europe. Confucian values talk much about the organization and discipline of the society and mutual responsibility among the individuals. The culture of wearing masks, personal hygiene already have had deep roots in East Asian societies, and the new normal was not so surprising for these countries.

Japan has even stronger advantages. The country is greatly experienced in dealing with critical situations, as it finds itself on the Pacific Ring of Fire, and natural disasters such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, typhoons are happening quite frequently here. Moreover, it is an island country and can be very easily isolated, as happened during the Pandemic. These factors have helped Japan to maintain a very low contamination and death rate despite a highly aged and very densely living society.

Can you walk The Baltic Times Magazine readers through your stints in Japan? Which of the jobs you held there left you the most indelible impressions?

Since 1998, my first trip to this country, I have spent 4 years living in Japan and have experienced quite numerous short-term visits. During the first years, I was a student at several universities. Starting from very basic and fancy exotic cultural experience programs, I went through marketing theory classes in Japanese together with local students, and ended up as a teacher teaching history and international relations in Japanese by myself.

Another story was my work at the Embassy of Lithuania in Tokyo. Actually, I have never experienced work in a real global-scale Japanese company, even if there were proposals. However, my friends’ experience in this field was neither very fascinating nor promising. Thus, I decided to refuse.

Being a European in Japanese business society, you have to sacrifice many of your values and change your lifestyle. Hierarchic rituals, forced socialization, work-centred life were among the fiercest demons for me in Japan. Me, a person respecting horizontal hierarchy, valuing free time and family, and avoiding shiningly demonstrative activities (we experienced plenty of them during Soviet times), I consider myself to be of quite a Nordic approach.

Before the pandemic, I spent 5 years guiding Lithuanian travellers to Japan as a tour leader. That was an amazing experience because it let me rediscover Japan in a new light, through the eyes of first-time visitors. This fresh glance every time let me return back to the nostalgic times of new discoveries.

By the way, the new book is a physical result of these trips.

You’ve been to Japan many times. How has the country changed over the last 20 years?

The changes are mutual. Almost 25 years ago, for me, a post-soviet boy from Kaunas, Japan was a shining country of miracles. Even if I was being told that it was experiencing an economic crisis (so called “lost generation” decade), compared to Lithuania of these times, Japan was a country of opportunities, an economic and technologic superpower.

Now, I can witness the long-lasting grimaces of a typical post-industrial society, already continuing for the third decade. Its signs are obvious: vague economic growth, an aging society, a very low birth rate, a very modestly motivated young generation, the increasing shadow of China… Actually, Japan is experiencing the same issues every post-industrial country experiences nowadays. It forces us to think that economic progress itself is not an answer to everything, and raises questions, where we finally move towards…

At the same time, by losing industrial and technological features, Japan is opening to the world as a cultural superpower, generating a global pop culture dispersed worldwide. It is easily recognizable in manga, anime, and food culture, such as sushi, or ramen.

Japan has been opening up as a tourism destination. Being quite expensive, in the 1990s it had surprisingly few foreign tourists. However, increasing Chinese and other Asian markets, relatively decreased domestic prices turned Japan into a magnificent destination for tourists. This changes the country a lot, increases its diversity. For example, in the 1990s, it was normal to have only Japanese signs in the streets. Now, there are signs in English, Chinese, Korean... 

Is it easy to befriend a Japanese? You’ve hammered out some really true long-lasting friendships with some Japanese. This is what I’ve seen in a recent TV programme featuring you. What is your secret?

In Japanese value structures, there is quite a strict distinction between uchi (inner, my, my group) and soto (outside, foreign, alien). As a foreigner, you will start from being perceived as the highest level soto. You do not belong to any group, so you are an outsider, an exotic animal to be admired and cuddled. It could seem quite fascinating for thee several first months, but finally, it becomes an obstacle to integrate, and, yes, to find real friends.

The process is slow, and you have to fight in different circles of hell, little by little approaching the world of uchi. Of course, mastering the language and cross-cultural skills is a minimal requirement in this process. And if you are successful enough, it might be you even succeed (smiles).

Do you agree that with the world mostly talking about China, as the origin of the COVID-19 virus, a rising economic superpower or as a threat perceived by some nations, and Lithuania, too, Japan is being undeservedly forgotten?

Almost two decades ago, China surpassed Japan as the second economy in the world. It is the country that we cannot ignore or forget, and it has been slowly replacing Japan in the region and also in the eyes of the world. In pop culture, mass media, and other fields, the narratives about Japan, as a powerful (and a bit weird) Asian country, are being replaced by the Chinese narratives.

I do understand some pragmatic approaches of European countries and politicians regarding China. However, the cooperation with China is based on absolutely different, and not always transparent, models than we are used to. China gives much (promises even more), but at the same time requires much in return as well.

However, even being very cautious regarding Big Brother, we should not forget whom we share our values with. After 1990, the Baltic States made a decision to develop towards the model of democracy, free market, capitalist economy, and free society. Our allies in this path are the European Union and the US, while in East Asia we should be allied to such countries as Japan, South Korea, or Taiwan.

Taiwan is certainly the other Asian topic prevailing in Lithuanian media headlines. How different do you believe the Taiwanese are from the people of mainland China in terms of their mentality, philosophy and culture?

In the aspect of ethnicity, traditional culture, and as bearers of millennial civilization, Taiwanese people are Chinese. Despite huge regional differences, they all share the same history, language, values, religions, national narrative, etc.

Also, it must be said, that in this aspect Taiwan is even more “Chinese” than the Mainland. During the Cultural Revolution, many traditions, values, social models, historical memories, and even skills were lost in the Mainland. They have survived and were carefully preserved in Taiwan. It is Taiwan, not China, where you can find surviving Confucian values in the families, authentic religious practices, and folk crafts. Paradoxically, the National Palace Museum near Taipei has more Chinese artifacts than there are left in Beijing. Taiwan is an island of authentic Chinese civilization.

At the same time, Taiwan and China create two antipodes by the construction of their modern national identity. Like South and North Korea. They represent two absolutely different ways of political and economic models. Both Chinas claim to be the right ones, and both of them foster mutual hostility.

One of your study fields is soft power, country reputation formation and diplomacy. What do you believe Lithuania, and the Baltics, can learn from Japan in branding and promoting themselves?

Japan is an example of a country with a very rich and generally positive country image. When you hear the name of this country, your head is filled with various associations. I guess you will soon imagine Mount Fuji, kimono and geishas, tea ceremony, high-speed trains, cherry blossoms… Some will remember Pokemon, manga, sushi, ramen… On the contrary, any cultural associations when you hear the name of Korea? Taiwan? Vietnam? These countries also have an extremely rich and unique culture and history…

The image of Japan is saturated by many cultural symbols. Even the neighbouring nations such as Koreans or Chinese, still keeping the bitter memories of the War, do not mind visiting Japan as a tourism destination and enjoying its culture.

Despite having a very strong image and many cultural associations, Japan invests surprisingly little in its country branding and marketing activities, such as logo, catchphrase, or fancy commercials. Its strength hides in very strong cultural diplomacy. The Japanese government invests much to show their culture by sending local artists and experts to the world, organizing numerous events, and spreading Japanese language education worldwide.

Our countries have to recognize that strengthening our soft power and reputation is, first of all, developing our culture. When the government invests in the country’s culture, supports the artists and their initiatives, helps them to reach foreign audiences, it shoots two bunnies with one shot. By helping local cultural activities, it strengthens its international image. Such activities as marketing, communication, and spin doctoring are only ancillary activities. They are very much needed, but they do not make the essence of soft power generation.

I guess few things can surprise you in Japan. Yet is there anything that you still find fascinating about the nation and its people?

There are quite a few things I would like our countries to learn from Japan.

One of these I am always amazed and fascinated, is the ability to enjoy and value very small, miscellaneous things. The fact is that for a long history Japan was quite poor, isolated, lacking resources and opportunities. Many people concentrated in very limited space with poor land, and the continuous danger of disasters shaped Japanese society. So, I would say, in these quite harsh conditions, the Japanese learned to enjoy short moments of happiness.

Cherry blossoms, continuing for a week before they are washed by rain. A beautiful view of Mount Fuji, appearing in the winter sky for several hours. A small gift you have received from a friend you haven’t seen for ages. The sound of cicadas, you can hear during late summer. Such phenomena as the Japanese tea ceremony or ikebana (flower arrangement) are the embodiment of the ability to stop the moment and to enjoy it, as it will never repeat again. Noticing and admiring miscellaneous things, such as a bamboo spoon or a teacup, thoroughly chosen by a master…

I would say, in our societies and lives we tend to rush to the future, try to achieve something we do not have now. In our present, we are usually dissatisfied and grumpy.  Sadly, we have forgotten to enjoy the very present moment of life and to admire the time which will pass very soon.

You teach Japanese courses at Vytautas Magnus University. Do you see an increased interest in Asian culture and the Japanese language? What are the reasons for that?

I do not teach the Japanese language, but I teach several courses related to Asian cultures and Japan. I started working at the university in the late 2000s and I headed the Centre for Asian Studies till 2019. During this decade, I could witness a very sharp increase of students who are interested in East Asian languages, cultures, and societies, as well as an intensified academic exchange between Lithuania and East Asian countries.

The reasons are multiple. I think, since the late 1990s we have been witnessing the increasing global presence of East Asian countries, such as Japan, China, Korea, Taiwan, which contain one-ifth of the World’s population and one-fourth of its economy. They are increasingly important partners for European countries, including the Baltic States. And the momentum should not be lost. As the 1800s could be called the British century, the 1900s – the American century, I believe, the 21 st century will be called the century of East Asia.

Thus, the students naturally feel this increasing presence and the potential of these countries when thinking about their future job perspectives. Knowing the English language becomes a minimal requirement in the global job market while knowing an “exotic” language increases advantages and competitiveness. Nevertheless, many of our students join the studies due to the attractive Japanese and Korean pop culture. Manga, manhwa, anime, K-pop, or Korean dramas act as important windows to Asia.

As an interpreter, you’ve helped incumbent Lithuania President Gitanas Nauseda, as well as his predecessors Valdas Adamkus , the late Algirdas Brazauskas, to communicate with their high-ranking Japanese officials.  From the standpoint of ease of the translation, who was your toughest client? The easiest? Why?

My first interpretation of such a kind was in 2003, when I was interpreting the meeting between the Prime Ministers A. Brazauskas and J. Koizumi. Since then, I have been translating for almost all Lithuanian Prime Ministers, several Presidents, and, yes, the Imperial Family is an important fact of my CV.

Top-level translations are very intensive, they exhaust you psychologically, but a very good thing is that you always can prepare beforehand by reading the materials, checking the possible topics, and learning the relevant issues.

Interpreting for the Imperial Family was one of the easiest tasks because in such cases everything is known beforehand, improvisation is limited, and the topics are usually very general and “soft”. On the contrary, the translation for Prime Ministers always requires very exhaustive knowledge, as the translator, first of all, has to understand the issues discussed. And they can vary from nuclear missiles and synchronization of electricity grids, to open data for medical research and lustration procedures.

Did you have any gaffes or blunders while interpreting? Were they funny or embarrassing?

Every interpretation is like going to the dark and unknown forest. The translator can never be 100 percent sure about his success. It is the language, a huge and amorphous monster that is your superpower and your enemy at once. Even when the work is finished, you are thinking and rethinking the phrases and trying to find some more exact expressions.

One of my experiences I still feel embarrassed about is from my early translations. I was invited to translate at the hospital, and being very self-confident (a common mistake by a young translator), had not even checked the topics beforehand. It turned out that all the conversation was about malignant tumours, full of such terms as carcinoma, sarcoma, adenoma, myoma, blastoma, metastasis, etc.

If it would be a translation to any Western language, it would be quite easy, as they share the “international” words among them, and you need only to change the pronunciation and endings. These terms in English are completely understandable to the specialist in Lithuanian, French, or Russian. However, it is Japanese, the language, which has its own terms for the majority of our “international” words. So, the terms of these tumours appeared to be ganshu, nikushu,  senshu, kinshu, gashu, ten’i, etc.

During this translation, I understood that I could not interpret a single sentence… Indeed, it was a bitter experience...

Where can one obtain your new book, “Septyni saules veidai” (Seven faces of the Sun)? Why is it worth reading?

In every bigger book store of Lithuania or at the Publisher ( ). I recommend it for travellers. For those who plan to visit and experience Japan, and for those, who would like to know and understand this country by the force of their own imagination.