“we had quite similar patterns of development”

Celebrating two cultures

Italian Ambassador to Japan Domenico Giorgi

Text by Andrew Howitt  /  Photos by Michael Holmes

An avid reader of history and a collector of antique books, Italian Ambassador to Japan Domenico Giorgi has spent his career in the foreign service in places such as Beijing, Geneva and Brussels. He also served in Kabul from 2001 to 2004 as Ambassador to Afghanistan, shortly after the fall of the Taliban; a time when the international community was trying to start solving the enormous problems of institutional and economic restructuring facing the country. Ambassador Giorgi’s current posting to Japan could be described as considerably less dangerous, albeit extremely rewarding. This year, he has helped to prepare for the many high-level visits from Italy as Japan acted as host to the G7 nations for ministerial meetings and the summit in Ise-Shima. Also in 2016, Italy is marking its celebration of 150 years of diplomatic relations with Japan. The ambassador spoke to Eurobiz Japan about some of the events that were held, the ways the two nations are cooperating, and the growing interest of Italians in Japan and Japanese culture.

What was your impression of the 150th anniversary event in Roppongi in May?

Italian residents in Japan are small in number, between 4500 and 5000, mainly concentrated in Tokyo. The idea was to use this event as a way to have the Italian community come together. It was also a way to show Japan typical contemporary Italian culture — a big pop star, Zucchero, was there, among other artists.

There have been a lot of Italian cultural events this year, particularly art exhibitions. Was this related to the anniversary?

There is a significant demand for Italian culture in Japan, and the engine behind those events are the Japanese media.

This year we had 10 big exhibitions, including Botticelli, Caravaggio, Leonardo, and the Venetian painters of the Renaissance. The Caravaggio exhibition was the biggest ever organised outside Italy. Altogether, one and a half million visitors went to those exhibitions.

Your career started in 1980 at the Directorate General for Cultural Relations. Do you believe that had an effect on you?

It was important in helping me to perceive how culture can be used as, what we call today, soft power; how it can be important in international life. And the fact that the Director General I served became an eminent historian and journalist, it was, professionally, a good experience.

You gave a speech in May at Keio University’s economic conference, The Economics of Italy and Japan: Historical Developments and Future Policies for Stability and Growth, commemorating the anniversary. Can you summarise what you spoke about?

I’m not an economist — and there were eminent economists present on that occasion — so I took a historic point of view, to develop a kind of parallelism between Italy and Japan, but also by looking at the differences. I started from the moment we established relations in the early Meiji period as new nation states — Italy had just been unified, and Japan had just re-established the emperor and had been opened to the rest of the world.

The first parallels were industrialisation, and building national administrations. Then I traced parallels through the alliance in the First World War, the Depression and what happened between the two wars, and then reconstruction and the economic boom. There are important differences between the two countries, but as “late-comers” to the global economic competition between nation states, we had quite similar patterns of development.

Today, we are both facing the issues of public debt and an ageing population, which is a significant structural and economic problem for both countries where there is a need to reform retirement schemes.

What are some specific examples of how Japan and Italy are cooperating?

One example is robotics. The scientific and technological cooperation on robotics between the two countries is very strong and very advanced. There is a partnership between Waseda University and Pisa University on robotics. And there are some very important applications in areas such as health, mobility, and assistance to the elderly. So it’s not only scientifically important. I believe Japan is very good at engineering the movement of robots, and Italy is very advanced in their humanisation.

Another example has to do with start-ups. A few months ago, the embassy organised a meeting of young start-ups, and around 10 Italian company representatives came to Tokyo. Their products are in fields such as health machinery, transportation connected to energy production, and 3D printing ranging from the production of cultural goods to the printing of shoes. They were able to meet with interested Japanese start-ups and Japanese investors — people involved in innovation. There was interest in developing all of the projects further. Some signed contracts. It’s quite a good example of new patterns of cooperation that aren’t part of big industries or the traditional exchanges.

How do you think Italy views Japan?

I believe there is a new and growing interest in Japan, which is shown by the data of Italian tourism to this country. Last year, the number of people who came tripled. And this trend is continuing. I believe Italians have become the largest group of European tourists here.

Why do you think that has happened?

I have noticed that the leading force is Italian women. Japan is seen as a country with a large amount of beauty, with healthy habits — such as the food — and with a strong sense of personal care — onsen and spas, and, of course, the culture. If you put all of these together, it’s very attractive to Italian women.

There are also the sons of those Italian women, because of the large influence, over the last 20 years, of Japanese anime and manga. I could mention Nintendo’s Super Mario Brothers; there is an Italian connection there. The most important anime movie director in Japan is Hayao Miyazaki, and many of Miyazaki’s stories are strongly connected to Italy. Italian airplane pilots appear as the main character in certain Miyazaki stories. We also have a very large manga festival in Italy, in Lucca, which I believe is the biggest of its kind in Europe.

What have you learned through your time in the foreign service?

I have served in different countries and dealt with many different issues — that is one of the main advantages of my job. There is the need to change and to adapt to new situations, which is very challenging, but I am constantly interested in what I am doing and experiencing. So the foreign service is a good school to attain some interesting life experiences, while at the same time serving your country.

You have been serving in Japan since 2012. What is next for you?

Well, I am close to the end of my time in Japan. Let’s see when.

After we go back to Italy, maybe I will follow my wife — who is also a diplomat — in her career. What kind of change could be better?