“it is incredibly valuable for members of our parliaments to come together … to strengthen the relationship between our countries”

Closer than ever before

Nobuteru Ishihara, chair of the Japan–EU Parliamentary League of Friendship


OCTOBER 2021 The Interview / Text by Andrew Howitt / Photos by Benjamin Parks

First elected to Japan’s House of Representatives in 1990, Nobuteru Ishihara has served his country as a member of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) for more than three decades. In addition to acting as secretary general of the LDP from 2010 to 2012, he has held a number of prominent positions in the government, including as minister of land, infrastructure, transport, and tourism in Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s second cabinet (2003–2005); minister of the environment in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s second cabinet (2012–2014); and minister in charge of economic revitalisation, total reform of social security and tax, and administrative reform in Abe’s reshuffled third cabinet (2016–2017). Currently, Ishihara is the chair of the Research Commission on Housing and Land Policy and the vice chair of the Research Commission on the Tax System. He has been the chair of the Japan–EU Parliamentary League of Friendship since 2016.

What is the Japan–EU Parliamentary League of Friendship?

It’s a group with a long history. In 1977, members of the European Parliament put forward a proposal to hold regular meetings with members of the Japanese Diet. Roy Jenkins, who was president of the European Community (EC) at the time, made an official visit to Japan to communicate this to Shigeru Hori, then-speaker of the House of Representatives. They agreed to have the first exchange the following year.

A group of 10 Japanese Diet members met with representatives from the European Parliament to hold what then was called the Japan–EC Inter-Parliamentarian Meeting. It has been called the Japan–EU Inter-Parliamentarian Meeting, since the Maastricht Treaty came into force in 1993, establishing the EU.

The Japan–EU Parliamentary League of Friendship is a bipartisan group of members of the Diet that was formed in 1978. Its role is to organise and run these conferences and also to maintain their continuity over the long term. It is, even today, the only house-to-house parliamentary association we have in Japan.

When these conferences began, they were primarily to discuss trade friction and the trade imbalance. However, in more recent years, they have become opportunities to exchange ideas on a wide range of topics, including politics, economics, trade, international cooperation, security, the environment, and collaboration in the fields of science and technology. We are focused on achieving win–win solutions. To date, there have been 39 of these official meetings.

Even though geographically Japan and the EU are far apart, it is incredibly valuable for members of our parliaments to come together, hold discussions, and continue to strengthen the relationship between our countries. As a result of years of these annual meetings and discussions between members of parliament, we have built a strong political relationship based on trust.

Could you tell me what was discussed at the most recent Japan–EU Inter-Parliamentarian Meeting?

On the suggestion of Christel Schaldemose, chair of the European Parliament’s Delegation for Relations with Japan — the EU counterpart to the Japan–EU Parliamentary League of Friendship — we decided to hold the Japan–EU Inter-Parliamentarian Meeting online for the first time on 10 June. We had fruitful discussions on a number of topics, the biggest of which were the coronavirus pandemic and climate change.

On the Japan side, we reported on issues such as the Diet’s preparations to ratify Convention 105 of the International Labour Organization, which concerns the abolition of forced labour, as well as our preparations for the Olympics and Paralympics.

I believe this meeting brought Japan–EU relations to a new level and helped to further mutual understanding. We also agreed that when we held the next conference, it would take place in Japan.

What are some key ways that Japan and the EU are cooperating today?

Japan and the EU share the same basic values — freedom, democracy, the rule of law, human rights. We are global partners that are taking leadership roles in confronting problems the world is facing and helping to bring peace and prosperity to the international community.

For example, in the area of climate and the environment, both Japan and the EU aim to become carbon neutral by 2050, and it’s important to work together and learn from one another to achieve this goal. To this end, in May, Japan and the EU formed the Green Alliance.

With regard to the Covid-19 pandemic, we are both supporting the distribution of vaccines in developing countries through the COVAX Facility.

Also, as authoritarian regimes are becoming stronger, awareness of the situation in the Indo–Pacific region is growing in Europe. In April, the EU announced it was creating a strategy for the Indo–Pacific, the details of which were released in September. Also last month, a British aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, made a port call in Japan. Ships from France have come, and a ship from Germany will also come. We welcome Europe’s involvement, and we believe it is very important for us to work together in a new kind of collaboration to ensure a free and open Indo–Pacific.

As we collaborate more with countries that share similar values, it will bring us closer together. To solve global problems, we need to build strong connections with other countries — including China and the US.

How do you hope to see trade and investment improve between the EU and Japan?

With regard to trade and investment, the Japan–EU Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) and the Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) have brought us closer together than ever before. Consumers in Japan now have greater access to goods from the EU — including high-quality cheese and wine. With the EPA as a foundation, we want to continue to strengthen economic relations with the EU, champion free trade, and oppose protectionist measures.

Also, both the EU and Japan are focusing on digital policies. It is important to further develop the environment for investment in business, so we are working to advance the digital transformation and the free flow of data. We hope to cooperate with the EU in areas such as data free flow with trust, a safe and open 5G network, as well as future networks beyond 5G.

This year, we are marking 10 years since the Great East Japan Earthquake. We are grateful to the EU member states for the warm support we received immediately following the disaster. However, while many countries have lifted import measures on Japanese food in the years since the disaster — and even as Japan is committed to ensuring the safety of its food products — the EU still has a negative perception of our food and has kept certain measures in place. We truly hope that the EU will begin to look at this issue from a scientific perspective, realise that our food exports are the same as those from anywhere else, and soon lift these measures.

“To solve global problems, we need to build strong connections with other countries”

In your role as chairperson of the Research Commission on Housing and Land Policy, what are your priorities with regard to housing and land in Japan?

Compared with countries such as China, the US, the UK, France, and Germany, real estate prices are lower in Japan. If the price of land was always rising, that would be a problem, but it’s good when it goes up gradually, since that raises property values and it’s also beneficial for the economy.

There need to be some checks on this growth, though, to support those who are buying a house for the first time. If wages were increasing, it wouldn’t be an issue, but first-time buyers are having to take on big mortgages and go into debt to buy a house. Maintaining a degree of balance in the property market is an area where Japan is really trying to be careful.

Another point is that fewer children are being born in Japan and the number of elderly people is skyrocketing. I live in Suginami Ward, in the western part of Tokyo, and in the past 10 years, the number of people aged 100 or older has gone up by more than 150 people, so now there are more than 400. And that’s just in my ward. What other country has as many centenarians as we do in Japan?

If elderly people lose their mobility, I personally don’t think they’re able to live happy and fulfilling lives. So, we need to carefully consider what’s best for people as they get older, and help to prevent injury and disease.

It’s one of my responsibilities to consider our options for the evolution of the city. To ensure that citizens, as they age, can live long and healthy lives, Japan shouldn’t aspire to the megacity anymore. Instead, we need to favour compact cities. In European cities — places such as Saltzburg, for example — have a square in the town centre where people come together. These places are easily accessible for everyone and promote a sense of community. I think our cities in Japan should be more like that.

What are your long-term hopes for Japan–EU relations?

Starting with agreements such as the EPA and SPA, there is already a great deal of collaboration between Japan and the EU. And we are continuing to strengthen our cooperation on global issues, including climate change, a free and open Indo–Pacific, terrorism, and cybercrime. Japan and the EU also need to work together to combat new threats that are challenging democratic systems, such as those posed by the spread of disinformation. Together, we have an important role in working to maintain and strengthen the rules-based international order.

There has never been a more important time for the EU and Japan to promote the basic values we share, such as freedom, democracy, and the rule of law. And we believe that the leadership of Japan and the EU on the global stage will become even stronger.