“There are very strong, long-standing links with the imperial family of Japan”

The royal advantage

Luxembourg Ambassador to Japan Béatrice Kirsch

Text by Andrew Howitt  /  Photos by Kageaki Smith

This year, Luxembourg Ambassador to Japan Béatrice Kirsch celebrates 25 years working for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She started her career representing Luxembourg at the United Nations in New York, dealing with human rights issues, social questions and gender issues. She has also served at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, focusing on disarmament and security issues in Eastern Europe; and on the Council of Europe, once again dealing with human rights issues. After a posting to London as Deputy Head of Mission, Ambassador Kirsch came to Tokyo in 2014. She is also non-resident ambassador to the Republic of Korea and the Philippines. She spoke to Eurobiz Japan about the privileges associated with having a royal family, Luxembourg’s presence in outer space, and changes to the country’s bank secrecy rules.


How is the embassy helping to promote Luxembourg in Japan?

Luxembourg is not very well known. We tend to be a bit underrepresented in the international media, so our mission is to spread the news, to inform the Japanese and South Koreans, about the options and possibilities they have in Luxembourg.

The finance sector they know. There is long-standing cooperation — the first Japanese banks opened up in Luxembourg in the 1970s. With the finance sector, it’s more about telling them what else they could do in Luxembourg.

Tourism is something that we’re working on very hard. What Japanese people tend to like about Luxembourg is the history, and the many Michelin-starred restaurants in Luxembourg — not quite as many as in Tokyo, but almost. And you can visit Europe very comfortably starting from Luxembourg. It’s close to Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, London and Berlin.

Luxembourg is very multicultural. Foreigners make up 45% of our society, and 70% of our workforce is foreign, mostly from the EU. Either they live in Luxembourg or they commute to Luxembourg every day. The population is close to 600,000 at night, and almost 800,000 during the day — which makes for big traffic jams.

What are some of your office’s specific goals for this year?

This year is the 90th anniversary of bilateral diplomatic relations between Japan and Luxembourg, so it has a special atmosphere. There will be more visits from Luxembourg this year — we will be even busier than usual.

We are expecting a high-level official visit, probably at the end of November. Traditionally, our economic missions are led by our Crown Prince. Luxembourg is a monarchy and has a royal family. There are very strong, long-standing links with the imperial family of Japan. That opens many doors. It makes a big difference.

Could you highlight some specific areas of collaboration between Japan and Luxembourg?

It’s not well-known, but the second-largest satellite company in the world, the Société Européenne de Satellite, has headquarters in Luxembourg. Since last year, we have been developing our cooperation with Japan in the area of space mining for precious metals on near-Earth objects. We are developing the framework for countries who want to develop business activities in outer space.

There is also cooperation in life sciences. Luxembourg and Japan have many similar interests in terms of ageing populations. Our National Research Fund signed, in 2015, a cooperation agreement with the Japanese research institute, RIKEN. At the moment, there is a Japanese researcher from RIKEN working in Luxembourg on stem cells. Most of their research is on Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s — the kinds of diseases that concern ageing populations.

What is happening on the level of cultural exchange?

Culturally, Japan is very attractive for Luxembourg artists. There is already quite a tradition of musicians coming — jazz and classical. We have a number of jazz bands that have been coming for four or five years, who are signed to record labels here and release their music in Japan. A couple of years ago, there was a jazz musician, Pascal Schumacher, who composed an album called Left Tokyo Right using the piano upstairs in the Ambassador’s residence.

How do you see an EU–Japan Economic Partnership Agreement benefiting Luxembourg?

It’s a good thing. Luxembourg is a small economy and has benefited so much from the European single market. It started even before the European Union. Because of its location and the fact that there was a steel industry, Luxembourg developed a legal framework that would allow our steel industry to work with the industries of its neighbouring countries and beyond.

Luxembourg has always been a very open market. It has to be. We benefit from all of these free trade agreements, and are obviously very much in favour of them. A protectionist approach would be counterproductive.

How has ending the country’s bank secrecy rules changed the business environment in Luxembourg?

Unfortunately, Luxembourg is often known for the wrong things. In the framework put in place in the 1960s to develop the banking sector there was the option of bank secrecy, which was also common elsewhere at the time. Since the 1990s, it became obvious that this was not relevant anymore, and discussions of abolishing this had been going on for a long time. So, when bank secrecy was abolished on 1 January 2015, no one was really taken by surprise. They had adapted. There were fears that the sector would suffer from those changes, but it didn’t. Those changes have actually proved beneficial.

The fact that Luxembourg did this was very positive for its image and its reputation. Plus, this happened in parallel with a very proactive approach of Luxembourg in the international context, working together to create a transparent, level playing field when it comes to international taxation. Things are changing, and it’s important that this is happening on an international level.

Could you tell me about the annual “Japan Through Diplomats’ Eyes” photography exhibition and how you are involved?

“Japan Through Diplomats’ Eyes” was created 20 years ago by one of my predecessors, Pierre Gramegna, a Luxembourg ambassador who is now minister of finance. It is under the patronage of Her Imperial Highness Princess Takamado. The idea is to show to Japanese people how diplomats — foreigners whose mission it is to try and understand Japan — how they see Japan, and how they represent Japan in pictures.

The exhibition is shown in Tokyo, but it also goes on the road — to Nagoya, Kobe, Sapporo. As president of the committee, I go to the openings when I can. It attracts a lot of attention because of the patronage of her Imperial Highness.

On 11 May, we will have a retrospective exhibition celebrating the 20th anniversary, and then we will have our usual annual exhibition in October. The next topic is going to be, “Japan: Country of Contrasts”.

People’s entries are getting really technically sophisticated. Some people take their photography very, very seriously. 

“Luxembourg has always been a very open market. It has to be”