“Music and culture alone aren’t enough, but they help in promoting other topics”

Presenting and representing a nation

Austrian Ambassador to Japan Dr Hubert Heiss

Text by Andrew Howitt  /  Photos by Benjamin Parks

For most of his career, Austrian Ambassador to Japan Dr Hubert Heiss has had Europe on his mind. He was assistant to the chief negotiator when Austria was discussing terms for its entry into the European Union, acted as permanent representative of Austria to the EU in Brussels, and, for 12 years, dealt with European policy from within the Austrian government. For some time, Ambassador Heiss has wanted to see the world from a different perspective, so when he was given the opportunity to serve Austria as its ambassador to Japan, he eagerly accepted. The Ambassador spoke with Eurobiz Japan about the need for a direct flight between Vienna and Tokyo, how being an ambassador differs from his previous multilateral roles, and the reception of Austria’s music in Japan.


Could you give me a brief overview of your career?

For the past 25 years, I have been busy with European questions. I was in Brussels for almost the whole decade of the 1990s which, from an Austrian perspective, was a very important period. There was this kind of rapprochement with European institutions and European communities at that time. We became a member of the EU in 1995, and we had the first Austrian presidency of the European Council in 1998. I was the chairman of the EU enlargement group in Brussels in 1998. That’s when we started membership negotiations with the countries that would join in 2004.

I went back to Vienna, and between 2000 and 2007 I was seconded to the Federal Chancellery, the prime minister’s office, where I was in charge of European affairs. From 2007 to 2011, I was ambassador to France and to Monaco. After that, I went back to Vienna for five and a half years. I was in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as director general for Europe and global economic governance, and thus once again in charge of European questions.

How was being ambassador to France and Monaco after years of dealing with European issues?

It was my first official posting as ambassador, and also my first bilateral assignment. There’s a huge difference between a multilateral and a bilateral post. With a multilateral post, you depend on others. The chairman of a committee sets the agenda and you have to be there. Then you have to organise the follow-up. It’s a continuous process; there are continuous negotiations. You negotiate with other member states, with the European Commission; but you also negotiate with people in the capital, and you have to strike the right balance.

A bilateral post is about presentation and representation. You present and represent your country. You present a specific case to an economic operator, or a corporation, or to someone in home affairs. And you’re much more the master of your own agenda and timetable.

What are some of your office’s goals for 2017?

Austrian Airlines has discontinued its direct flight between Vienna and Tokyo, which, of course, is inconvenient — not for me only, but also for many others. We have around 260,000 Japanese tourists who go to Austria every year, and 20,000 Austrians who come to Japan every year. I’m going to be in Vienna in February; I’ll try to make a case to the CEO of Austrian Airlines, and ask if he would revisit the question of taking up this route again. There are a lot of potential opportunities over the next few years, particularly in view of the Tokyo Summer Olympic Games in 2020.

In 2019, we will celebrate 150 years of diplomatic relations with Japan. And this will be a good opportunity just to be present in the public space, both in Japan and in Austria. And particularly in the cultural area, we will have some special programmes and events to present. We will be getting ready for this over the coming two years.

Can you share some details about the Science Agora 2016 event you recently attended in Tokyo?

This is an initiative of the European Commission, who organise the event worldwide. On this particular occasion in Tokyo, one of the participants was Ars Electronica, founded in the late ’70s in Linz in Austria. The basic idea behind it is to present the interconnection between technology and the arts — and they have very interesting projects. For example, they do a kind of fireworks show without fire. They use drones that act like powerful lights. These little machines, flying through the air like a flock of birds, are programmed to be in certain positions and flash their lights at a particular moment. It’s amazing.

I’d like to convince the director in charge to do a performance on the occasion of our 150th anniversary celebrations, perhaps together with a classical performance by the Vienna State Opera.


How does Austria view Japan from a business and investment perspective?

I recently read the new Mori Memorial Foundation’s study, the Global Power City Index 2016, where Tokyo ranked as the third most economically powerful city in the world, after London and New York. And Tokyo is aspiring to become even more of a global financial centre. So, it is very appealing to Austrian businesses.

Japan is Austria’s third-largest overseas market. Obviously, geography matters, so 75% of our economic exchange is within Europe. But outside Europe, it’s the US, China, and Japan. It’s significant for the Austrian economy. And Japanese — for good reason — have a reputation for being trustworthy, reliable and steady.

You wrote on the embassy’s webpage that “music and culture are the backbone of the relations between Austria and Japan”. Could you tell me about the two countries’ cultural exchanges?

Music and culture alone aren’t enough, but they help in promoting other topics. It’s a very good starting point — an advantage we have as Austrians. World-renowned ensembles, such as the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and the Vienna Boys’ Choir, come to Japan every year. We also had the Vienna State Opera here recently. They usually come every four years. For the Philharmonic and the Vienna State Opera, in particular, Japan is the most important market outside Austria.

I had a chat with the director of the State Opera, Dominique Meyer. He knows about audiences, how they behave. The way they react tells you a lot about the basic knowledge they have about the composers or the historic background of the particular piece being performed. Meyer said that Japanese audiences are very knowledgeable, one of the most well-educated.

Do you think Austria would benefit from the signing of an EU–Japan free trade agreement?

It certainly would. And particularly in these circumstances now, I think it will be a really good way to show to the world that free trade agreements — which are actually beneficial to all sides — are still possible.

The fact that the Trans-Pacific Partnership passed in Japanese parliament at a time when it was clear that it would never come into existence was a political statement, particularly by the prime minister; that Japan is a reliable partner and still a champion of free trade. I think this is important; and that the European side should make such statements as well. 

“For the past 25 years, I have been busy with European questions.”