“The Netherlands is the second-largest exporter of agricultural goods in the world”

A unique position

Netherlands Ambassador to Japan Aart Jacobi

Text by Andrew Howitt  /  Photos by Benjamin Parks

Since starting his career in the early 1980s at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in The Hague, Netherlands Ambassador to Japan Aart Jacobi has had postings to the US and Spain, and served as ambassador to the South American country Suriname and to China. He has had a lifelong interest in Japan — studying constitutional law at Kyoto University and Japanology at Leiden University — and, between 2001 and 2005, worked at the embassy in Japan as head of the Economic Affairs department. Ambassador Jacobi sat down with Eurobiz Japan to speak about his posting to Suriname, the astounding successes of the Netherlands’ agricultural sector, and his thoughts on the popularity of painter Vincent van Gogh in Japan.


Could you tell me about your time in Suriname?

That was my first posting as an ambassador — I was there from 2009 to 2012. We have a very intimate relationship with Suriname since it’s an ex-colony of the Netherlands. People there speak beautiful Dutch. And everybody has family in the Netherlands — after independence, about a third of the country moved to Holland.

I was there at quite a difficult time in our relationship. Dési Bouterse was elected as president of Suriname, and he was someone on our list in the Netherlands to be arrested for drug trafficking. He had also been involved in the execution of 15 people in Suriname in 1982 when he became the leader of the government following a military coup. After being elected president of Suriname in 2010, the relations between the Netherlands and Suriname quickly deteriorated. And as the ambassador, you’re in the middle of it.

How would you describe Japan’s relationship with the Netherlands?

It’s very harmonious. We are like-minded countries, and there are very few points of friction. Everybody at school in Japan, during their history lessons, is told about the special relationship Japan has with the Netherlands.

In 1600, a ship — the De Liefde — arrived in Kyushu after having travelled for two years from Holland to South America and then to Japan. Of the 100 people on board, there were still 24 alive, and only six of them could walk. That was the first contact between the Dutch and the Japanese. We started trading first from a place called Hirado. And after that, in 1639, from Nagasaki — Deshima to be exact. And, together with the Chinese, we were the only ones allowed to trade with Japan for nearly 250 years.

We were quite instrumental in Japan’s development, not only in trading, but during that 250-year period, we brought the latest books on topics such as science, medicine, architecture and metallurgy, through Nagasaki into Japan. In a way, we helped Japan to prepare for what was going to happen in the Meiji era.

In what ways is your office working to strengthen trade relations between the Netherlands and Japan?

Economically speaking, this is a very important country for us. I would say 70% of the embassy’s work is economy-related. We assist Dutch companies that want to enter the Japanese market or want to expand their efforts here, such as those in healthcare, offshore wind energy, gaming, and businesses related to the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games. We also put a lot of effort into attracting Japanese companies to invest in the Netherlands, and we keep track of the latest scientific developments in Japan, acting as a bridge between academics in Japan and the Netherlands.

Could you give me some details about the agriculture-related exports of the Netherlands?

The Netherlands is the second-largest exporter of agricultural goods in the world. And we are the size of Kyushu, more or less. After the United States, we’re the biggest — which is astonishing. And we are trying to convince the Japanese that they could imitate what we have done in Asia.

We’re big in beef, in pork, and in all sorts of vegetables. But our success has to do with agricultural technology. We are very advanced.

What are some specific examples of the kind of technologies you use?

In a hi-tech Dutch-style greenhouse, we can produce on one square metre about 80kg of tomatoes per year. Within that greenhouse, we control the composition of the air. We know which sort of light is suitable for which plant. The Romantic idea of a farmer digging in the soil — that’s in the past.

We also have advanced technology for the dairy industry. How can two people take care of, and maintain, 100 cows? It’s only possible because the cows milk themselves. Once the cow feels that their udder is getting heavy, then they walk into a machine and a computer recognises the cow by its tags. The computer identifies exactly where the sucking elements have to go — slightly different places for each cow. The computer measures how much milk has been produced, and the cow gets rewarded with a special fodder in relation to that amount. This equipment is available, but you need the infrastructure behind it in case it doesn’t work. You need to be able to call a company that, within minutes, can come to fix your problem. Otherwise, you have 100 cows that need to be milked who will start complaining.

What’s happening on the level of cultural exchange?

We have a unique cultural programme with Kyushu for 2016–2017. The programme will finish in November when the reconstruction of Deshima — the trading post that the Dutch occupied for over 200 years in Nagasaki — is completed. This will be symbolised by the opening of a bridge.

We have close cooperation with Arita in Saga prefecture, where traditional Japanese porcelain is made. Demand for traditional porcelain has been slackening somewhat. So, one part of the programme was to sponsor 14 designers from the Netherlands and a few other European countries to work together with the craftsmen in Saga and design new porcelain. It has been a great success. The porcelain went to exhibitions in Milan, Amsterdam and Yokohama. And you can buy it; it’s in the shops. So, Saga is very happy.

We also have exhibitions. A Van Gogh and Gauguin exhibition has just finished in Ueno, and we will have quite a large Van Gogh exhibition again next year. Van Gogh is very popular in Japan — he’s someone the Japanese have an appreciation for. I think the tragic life of a very gifted painter — someone who only sold one painting in his whole life, and who committed suicide, but always believed in himself — is very appealing to the samurai spirit in Japan. You do your utmost; it doesn’t work, but you never give up. And in the end, you die tragically. It appeals to something very close to traditions, to something spiritual in this country. 

“we were the only ones allowed to trade with Japan for nearly 250 years”