“what is important for Germany is important for Japan as well”

At the pinnacle of a rewarding career

German Ambassador to Japan Dr Hans Carl von Werthern

Text by Andrew Howitt  /  Photos by Michael Holmes

German Ambassador to Japan Dr Hans Carl von Werthern has had a fruitful and rewarding 32-year career with posts to countries such as Paraguay, Belgium, Vietnam, the United Kingdom and China. He is someone who has placed a high value on lifelong learning, earning a PhD in economics, and later taking a mid-career sabbatical for a Master’s in international relations from King’s College, London. Today, he is studying Japanese. Since March 2014, the native of Frankfurt has been serving as Ambassador to Japan. He spoke to Eurobiz Japan about the 2016 G7 Summit, the Brexit vote, and how his office is working to strengthen trade relations between Germany and Japan.

What has your office been working on this year?

We are seeing that Japan’s interest in Germany is constantly on the rise. The contacts in civil society — the many university partnerships, the town twinships, the Japanese-German associations — are as important as the contacts on the political level, and we are trying to strengthen both. We are encouraging more Japanese to find out about Germany — to visit Germany, to work, to travel, to study — and vice versa. This part of our work is as important as the things that happen in the limelight.

Our main task this year has been the G7 process — the Summit and all the many ministerial meetings. Quite a number of our ministers added bilateral meetings with Japanese counterparts after attending the G7 meetings. It has been very rewarding for us, but also quite hard work.

What were Chancellor Angela Merkel’s priorities when she was here for the G7 Summit?

The Japanese presidency of the G7 followed on from the German presidency, and Japan has in many respects continued what Germany had started; what is important for Germany is important for Japan as well. It’s the big issues — global growth, health, climate change, the fight against terrorism, the refugee question and maritime security, which were very high on the agenda in Germany. The final statement of the G7 Summit leaders was — among other things — very clear on maritime security, with a view to the South China Sea. Chancellor Merkel was very satisfied with the summit.

As someone who has served in China, what do you think of recent developments with regard to the disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea?

Germany does not take sides in territorial issues. But we are very much in favour of an international order that is rules-based. There are always disagreements, but they should — and I think they can — be resolved by diplomatic means. Japan and China are currently working on this issue together.

Germany and France were arch-enemies over the centuries, and are now partners that are as close as is imaginable between sovereign states. Judging from that experience, I would say if such a development was possible between Germany and France, I don’t see why it shouldn’t be possible anywhere else in the world.

Could you tell me a little about your posting to China?

Well, what struck my wife most about China was that every morning after you left the house, you found something surprising: people walking backwards or playing the saxophone or shouting up into trees. And that, in a way, is true for politics as well.

I was Deputy Ambassador when I served in Beijing. Living in China and trying to find out what was going on behind closed doors — trying to encourage those parts of the Communist Party who were in favour of change — was both extremely interesting and quite challenging.

I was there between 2007 and 2010; during that period there were the Olympic Games, there was the big earthquake in Sichuan, the unrest in Tibet. There was a lot going on, and it was fascinating.

In what ways is your office working to improve trade relations between Germany and Japan?

We are active in highlighting the advantages of the Japanese market for German companies, and vice versa. We work closely with the German Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

The embassy, and the residence in a specific way, are meeting places for Germans and Japanese: politicians, entrepreneurs, cultural representatives. We have started a programme in the residence called Residence Executive Briefings where we invite a number of relevant people to hear a talk by two or three experts about a specific topic, for example, financial services or start-ups. For the business sector, it is quite helpful if they can meet their counterparts in the German residence in a relaxed atmosphere, talk about what they want to talk about, and get business relations going.

How do you see Germany benefitting from the signing of an EU-Japan FTA?

German politics, in principle, supports the idea of free trade. In German society, there is a certain reticence, and there are many protests against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership currently being negotiated between the EU and the US. However, I think a free trade agreement between Japan and the European Union would create a lot of jobs and would facilitate trade. German industry sees the main advantage in diminishing market entry barriers, including non-tariff barriers. Germany is very interested in getting standards and regulations onto an equal footing. So I do hope that the negotiations can be brought to a good end.

How do you predict that Brexit might affect Britain’s long-term relationship with Germany and the rest of Europe?

It’s very hard to predict. I was personally disappointed — I’m married to a British woman and have three binational daughters who are, incidentally, all working and studying in the UK.

I would say it was a shock, but it is not a catastrophe. The EU will survive it, certainly. And the UK will survive it. But it’s not a good development. The immediate economic consequences have already become clear. For Japan, it was tangible. The rise of the yen makes Japanese exports more difficult because they are getting more expensive.

In the long run, I’m convinced that on both sides — on the EU side and the British side — people will try to make sure that the damage is as small as possible. But it all will depend on the negotiations between the EU and the UK. The EU has always come out of crises stronger than it has entered them. I hope that will be the case this time as well.

How would you describe your time living and working in Japan?

Having worked in the personnel department in Berlin for so long, I know that, sometimes, the people who are sent to their dream posts are bitterly disappointed because they often have expectations which can never be fulfilled. This is not the case for me. Being Ambassador to Japan is certainly the pinnacle of my career.