“Japan won their first two Olympic medals in Belgium in 1920”

Flying the flag in Japan

Brent Van Tassel, head of economic affairs at the Belgian Embassy in Japan


Text by Andrew Howitt  /  Photos by Ben Beech

After working as a lawyer at an international law firm in Brussels from 2002 to 2012, Brent Van Tassel joined Belgium’s foreign service. His first posting was to Burundi, a former colony, as consul of Belgium. Since 2016, he has been serving as first secretary and head of economic affairs at the Embassy of Belgium in Japan.

Can you tell me about the work of the Economic Affairs Department?

There’s a very broad scope. We follow the economic, financial, agricultural and commercial fields in Japan, as well as everything concerning science and technology, and report on basically anything of interest to headquarters in Belgium, Belgian companies and other stakeholders. We work closely with the three regional trade offices — representing Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels — to help companies gain market access in new areas and give support to those already active in the market.

On top of that, we work together to attract Japanese investments to Belgium.

How are you helping to promote Belgian businesses?

The image of Belgium is truly excellent in Japan and that’s a huge advantage for our economic diplomacy. More than 40% of Belgium’s exports to Japan are chemicals and pharmaceutical products, but it’s the classic products — the chocolate, beer and waffles — that really open doors. Having this positive image makes it easier to promote other products and bring new companies into the Japanese market.

A useful economic tool to assist Belgian businesses in promoting their products here is a patronage logo we created, which makes use of the national flag. Companies can apply to use it if their products are Belgian or use Belgian ingredients, and the logo seems to have had a positive effect on sales figures. It also clearly gives greater visibility to Belgian products. For us, it’s quite satisfying to go to a convenience store and see all the Belgian flags — on chocolates, waffles, beer, ice cream and frozen vegetables, for instance.

Are you seeing more Belgian firms breaking into the Japanese market?

Definitely. The market is clearly becoming more attractive to Belgian companies. Since I arrived, we’re seeing more companies coming that are active in the life sciences and biotechnology sector, in particular. It’s an area where we are recognised for our expertise at an international level, and it is attracting specific interest from the Japanese market because of its ageing population. We can see that there’s a lot of interest from Japanese companies in working together through joint ventures with Belgian biotech firms. On a global level, Belgian biotech is really booming.


What are some Belgian products that are successful here?

Of course, Valentine’s Day and White Day in Japan wouldn’t be the same without the Belgian chocolate — Japan is one of the most important markets for Belgian chocolate companies. The luxury market is very important for us, as well. Antwerp is the world’s biggest diamond cutting hub; 84% of the world’s mined diamonds are cut in Antwerp. The tradition, the craftsmanship and the 575-year history of Antwerp’s cut diamonds are highly valued by Japanese customers.

Also, other luxury sectors, such as Belgian handbags, are doing very well here. It’s quite satisfying to work in Japan where so many Belgian brands are successful.

What is the Invest in Belgium seminar?

After a first successful seminar in Tokyo, we organised a second Invest in Belgium Seminar in Osaka — taking into account its importance as an economic hub — together with the regional trade offices.  The seminar was officially opened by Didier Reynders, deputy prime minister and the minister of foreign affairs, who also met captains of industry from the Kansai region, where many important Japanese investors in Belgium have their headquarters.

At the investment seminar, he gave a brief talk to show the attractiveness of Belgium for firms’ European headquarters. He spoke about how Belgium is a top global logistical hub. Last year, the World Bank ranked Belgium the third most logistically friendly country in the world, reflecting the complex, multi-modal integration of our roads, rails, airports, rivers and harbours.

An international tax expert from Belgium’s Ministry of Finance also attended the event and explained in detail the recently ratified corporate tax reform. This will lower the nominal corporate taxation base from 34% to 29% this year, and to 25% in 2020. This makes Belgium more competitive than ever before.

What’s something the Economic Affairs Department is planning?

In light of the upcoming Olympic and Paralympic Games, sports diplomacy is becoming increasingly important. Belgium had an incredible year in sports last year. We came in third in the World Cup and we’re still first in the FIFA rankings right now. But, on top of that, we also won the world championship of field hockey and the world title in golf. So, there’s a momentum ahead of the Games next year and we expect to become even more active in this area. Certainly, more official and economic delegations will organise missions to Japan in the very near future.

We also have a symbolic link with the Games in 2020 — it’s exactly 100 years after Antwerp hosted them in 1920. Japan won their first two Olympic medals in Belgium in 1920, in singles and doubles tennis. We plan to organise a few events around this symbolic link, further highlighting the great image of Belgium here. 

“The image of Belgium is truly excellent in Japan”