“When Japanese companies consider investing in research and development in Europe, they think very highly of Belgium”

Growing ambitions

Ambassador of Belgium to
Japan Roxane de Bilderling


FEBRUARY 2020 The Interview / Text by Toby Waters / Photos by Benjamin Parks

After working as an interpreter, Roxane de Bilderling began a career in diplomacy in 2000, working first in Brussels and then as first secretary at the Embassy of Belgium in Nairobi, where she was also deputy permanent representative to the UN Environment Programme and the UN Human Settlement Programme. This was followed by a series of embassy postings around Africa, including as first secretary in Pretoria, counsellor in Kinshasa, and a return to Nairobi as ambassador. Before taking up her post as ambassador to Japan last August, de Bilderling was a director in the office of the deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs in Brussels.

Can you tell me about your time as ambassador to Kenya?

One personal priority was to support and promote women, especially young women, and to give them hope for the future. I had the great privilege to know some people who had started a school for bright, disadvantaged girls, and I took some female colleagues with me to give a talk to the 300 high school students there. They were very curious to hear about our work, and I got positive feedback from the school about how good it was for them to have exchanges with women in positions of authority. It’s the girls themselves who have accomplished something by working so hard for their future, but I’ve always enjoyed using my position to make a difference.

The embassy also participated in an international jazz festival, and each year we brought groups of musicians from Belgium to be part of it. There were all sorts of other events connected to the festival, and every year we became more ambitious. One year, for example, we brought a chocolatier to hold chocolate workshops on the festival grounds. The beauty of this festival was that all proceeds went to a music school in the slums. It was a wonderful and very inspiring cause.



How are Belgium–Japan relations at present?

Excellent. We celebrated the 150th anniversary of diplomatic relations three years ago with a state visit by Their Majesties the King and the Queen of the Belgians, and we had a year of events to celebrate those relations. His Majesty the Emperor and His Majesty the King have known each other for many years. They already met several times as crown princes. Therefore, the King felt it was very important to attend the enthronement ceremony for the Emperor in October. The fact that the Imperial and Royal families get along very well makes the ties between our countries that much closer.

We also have some sistership agreements between several cities in Belgium and Japan. For example, the one between Durbuy — known as the world’s smallest city — and Hanyu in Saitama Prefecture. In Durbuy, there is a small company that makes fashionable hats, while in Hanyu there’s a company that makes high-quality denim, so they have a partnership to make denim hats. These agreements are nice because they’re really all about people-to-people cooperation.

What is the state of trade between Belgium and Japan?

The EPA has been in force for almost a year, and the biggest impact so far has been on food and drink exports to Japan. There are still some sectors in which we would like to see more of our regional products reach Japan, but there are sometimes phytosanitary rules that Japan pays especially close attention to, so we’re still working to provide more access to more products.

There are 226 Japanese companies invested in Belgium and 83 Belgian businesses invested in Japan. In Belgium, one area where we are particularly successful is research and development. We’ve used tax incentives and created the right ecosystem to transform innovations into business solutions. In December, the company IMEC, which came out of the University of Leuven, held an innovation seminar in Tokyo on nanotechnology that attracted 500 participants. When Japanese companies consider investing in research and development in Europe, they think very highly of Belgium.

In December, we held an Invest in Belgium event in Nagoya, and the keynote speaker was a senior tax official from the Belgian Ministry of Finance, Marc De Mil, who explained the taxation system in Belgium to potential investors. We also had representatives from the three regions — Brussels, Flanders and Wallonia — to discuss their strengths. For example, one of them spoke about the centrality of Belgium, which means that when you invest in Belgium, you’re investing in the heart of the EU’s single market.

How are you promoting Belgium in Japan?

There is a whole range of activities and campaigns that we use to promote the image of Belgium in Japan. For example, we invited some bloggers, influencers and journalists from Japan to come and do a tour in Belgium. Before going, they all told us that the one image in their head about the country was the Belgian waffle, but their trip allowed them to discover many other aspects of Belgium. We always have to find the right balance between the use of these stereotypes — waffles, chocolate and beer — and the need to show that Belgium is so much more than that.

Of course, we will be present at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games in the summer, with an important delegation of athletes and very high-level personalities from Belgium. Belgium is doing quite well in a few sports at the moment, and we hope to win some medals. We’ll have the Belgium House in front of the embassy where we’ll hold promotional events. I recently went to Mito in Ibaraki Prefecture — where the Belgian Olympians and Paralympians will be training — to visit the authorities, see the stadium and speak about Belgium in schools. The children told me they were looking forward to welcoming the Belgian teams.

On the embassy’s social media account, we’ve been posting pictures of Smurf-san in various places around Japan. The former minister of foreign affairs, Didier Reynders, ordered small Smurf toys for all ambassadors to have on their desks for guests to see this image of Belgium, and several of our colleagues started taking pictures of their Smurfs in different places. This sort of campaign is very successful because it’s more playful than just a photo of me somewhere, while it also communicates the key message that we are working on promoting the relationship between Belgium and Japan. 

“The fact that the Imperial and Royal families get along very well makes the ties between our countries that much closer”