“we need to unite and speak out against actions that undermine the free and open international order”

Overseeing Europe’s Kasumigaseki

Ambassador of Japan to the EU Yasushi Masaki


SEPTEMBER 2021 The Interview / Text by Andrew Howitt / Photos by Sean Hayes

Since 1984, Ambassador of Japan to the EU Yasushi Masaki has been serving his nation in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He has held many positions throughout his career, including roles at Japan’s embassies in France and Iran, and has worked in Tokyo in the fields of international law, as well as economic and security affairs. Most recently, he was assistant minister and director-general of the European Affairs Bureau (2017–2020). In October 2020, he was posted to the Mission of Japan to the European Union.

How is the Mission of Japan to the European Union working to promote Japan in the EU?

We are strengthening our contacts with the EU in every area and at every level. At the mission, I am responsible for experts and attachés representing 16 Japanese ministries and agencies — you might say it is a small Kasumigaseki. They explain Japan’s policies and positions in each field to their EU counterparts, and they encourage closer cooperation and a better understanding of Japan. We cooperate with the EU in areas where possible and, in those areas where we have different positions, we work to gain the understanding of the EU side. As the EU’s work evolves, the work of each of our attachés becomes wider and deeper. Another important mission of mine is to avoid internal inefficiency, because of the complexity of the bureaucratic system, and to enhance interaction among our experts.

Also, I always keep in mind that the EU is composed of member states, so we work to intensify our contacts with their representatives. Here in Brussels, we are in the capital of Europe, the best place for intellectual and cultural exchanges. We also have very active exchanges with EU citizens and think tanks. The dissemination of our work and messages through SNS, such as Twitter, is very important. We introduce the public not only to Japanese policies but also to Japanese culture, for example, through the presentation of Japanese food and recipes.

Could you give a few examples of important collaborations taking place between the EU and Japan?

Both Japan and the EU have set the goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. For many years, Japanese and European industries have contributed to global development with a wide range of cooperative endeavours and, recently, we have been promoting cooperation projects in line with environmental priorities.

One example is Mitsubishi Corporation’s announcement in July, that it would build a hydrogen supply network for Europe in collaboration with Chiyoda Corporation and others. They will ship hydrogen from the region where it is produced and deliver it to Europe through the Port of Rotterdam. Another example is Toyota Motor, which supplies fuel cell vehicles to Europe, and has introduced a fuel cell bus system in Portugal.

In order to achieve greater peace and stability in our world, we are working with the EU on various other regional issues in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa to promote cooperation and enhance connectivity. In September 2019, with this aim in mind, leaders of Japan and the EU signed the EU–Japan Strategic Partnership on Sustainable Connectivity and Quality Infrastructure. The Japan International Cooperation Agency has also agreed to work with the European Investment Bank and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in a number of areas, including strengthening and expanding collaboration in third countries. To that end, it will be necessary for the public and private sectors of Japan and the EU to work together even more closely.

With regard to cooperation in the digital field, it will be important to hold concrete discussions on data issues, such as Data Free Flow with Trust.

Could you tell me about some of the key issues discussed at the EU–Japan Summit you attended in May?

We shared opinions and exchanged views on our relations and cooperation in a wide range of fields, including regional issues, such as a free and open Indo–Pacific, as well as global issues, such as climate change and measures against Covid-19.

We share serious concerns about China’s behaviour in the East China Sea and South China Sea; the situation in Hong Kong; and the human rights situation in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Japanese and EU leaders also emphasised the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and agreed to promote a peaceful resolution to the cross-strait issue.

Concerning regional collaboration, the European Council announced a comprehensive EU Indo–Pacific strategy this month. Now that the EU is increasing its interest in the region, it will have greater awareness of the threats Japan faces. We will keep cooperating to realise a free and open Indo–Pacific, and I am confident that this will benefit both Japan and the EU. At the meeting, both sides agreed that we need to unite and speak out against actions that undermine the free and open international order.

In addition to discussing topics such as the steady implementation of the Japan–EU EPA, collaboration on WTO reform, and the strengthening of Japan–EU relations in the digital field, we announced the launch of the Japan–EU Green Alliance. This alliance clarifies the areas in which the EU and Japan can cooperate by leveraging our joint strengths, both internally and externally, towards the realisation of a green society.

By promoting cooperation in fields such as energy transition, innovation, and decarbonisation support for developing countries, Japan and the EU are accelerating efforts to address climate change and mitigate its environmental impacts in the EU, Japan, and throughout the international community.

“Japan and the EU are accelerating efforts to address climate change”

Why is a free and open IndoPacific so important to Japan?

In the Indo–Pacific region, various threats — such as a serious security environment, piracy, terrorism, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction — are becoming more apparent, and the need for cooperation is increasing. Japan promotes a free and open Indo–Pacific, which aims to reduce these threats, maintain the international order and the rule of law, and bring stability and prosperity. Our concerns about the Indo–Pacific are not only problems for Asia, but they may also pose serious problems for the EU, which benefits from freedom of navigation in the region.

Japan and the EU have already been cooperating in areas such as security, joint training, and connectivity. Some EU member states are involved, but it is of the utmost importance that the EU also take concrete collective action.

How has Japan benefitted from the Japan–EU EPA so far?

The Japan–EU EPA is bringing various benefits to both the EU and Japan. Not only has it reduced tariffs, but it has also simplified customs procedures and improved the predictability of both markets.

In 2019, before the Covid-19 outbreak, EU statistics show that trade in goods between the EU and Japan increased 5.8%. The EU’s exports to Japan of agricultural products — including pork, beef, cheese, and wine — increased 16%. According to Japanese statistics, exports of automobiles, textiles, and beef from Japan to the EU increased 17%, 20%, and 35%, respectively. Since 2020, the overall trade volume has shrunk due to the influence of the pandemic, but it seems that trade today is indeed being supported by the Japan–EU EPA.

On 1 February, the second anniversary of the Japan–EU EPA, 28 items were added to the geographical indications (GI) lists for both sides. We have succeeded in further expanding the scope of protection for a number of goods. Some examples of Japanese GIs include Hibagyu-beef (Hiroshima), Nango-Tomato (Fukushima), and Hokkaido Wine (Hokkaido), while examples of EU GIs include Cassis de Dijon (France) and Kasseri Cheese (Greece).

What are some changes Japan would like to see the EU make to further improve trade and investment from Japan?

After the accident at TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in 2011, 54 countries and regions introduced import control measures on Japanese food products. In response to this, the Japanese government has made efforts to ensure food safety in Japan by setting strict maximum radiation levels on food and feed. These levels are more stringent than the international standard. Our efforts have resulted in 40 countries and regions completely abolishing import controls. However, regulatory measures still remain in the EU, so Japan will to continue to communicate its position based on scientific evidence.

Also, the EU is highly regarded for leading the world’s rule-making in addressing environmental issues and the protection of basic values ​​and rights. Nevertheless, in working to achieve these objectives, it should be aware that each country it works with may have different approaches. It is important for the EU to sufficiently consider the circumstances of each country, the position of the industries directly affected by proposed changes, and the opinions of foreign companies based in Europe. From this point of view, we are currently paying close attention to various measures under the umbrella of Green Deal policies, such as the carbon border adjustment mechanism, which the EU is promoting.

Next year, the EU plans to introduce new regulations on veterinary medicines, which may affect foreign countries such as Japan. But Japan is a country that applies the same rigorous scientific grounds as the EU. Therefore, we would like to reach a mutually beneficial conclusion through constructive discussions with the EU.

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

The Japan–EU EPA and SPA are already strong foundations for current Japan–EU relations. Although we are geographically far apart, globalisation has shortened the physical distance. We have a history of exchanges dating back nearly 500 years, and we share the same basic values, ​​such as pacifism, freedom, human rights, and democracy. We should work together to encourage adherence to these values around the world.

The EU and Japan are also willing to take the lead in discussions on global issues such as climate change and the digital transition. We will continue to work together to help create rules that will benefit the international community.