“Italy is sure to become the second-largest exporter to Japan among European economies”

Taking more ground

Italian Ambassador to Japan Giorgio Starace


Text by Andrew Howitt  /  Photos by Benjamin Parks

After nearly a year in Japan, Ambassador Giorgio Starace has settled confidently into his role, enthusiastically supporting the efforts of Italian businesses here, working to strengthen political cooperation, and promoting Italian culture. He spoke with Eurobiz Japan about the remarkable increase in Italian exports to Japan, a collaboration in space, and how Italy and Japan are planning to work together to support Africa.

What have some recent areas of focus been for the embassy?

Japan has been hit with a real offensive of Italian business over the last year — through many of the initiatives that the embassy has promoted. One I can mention is the large participation of Italian companies at the recent FOODEX food fair in Japan. The number of Italian companies represented was the largest among foreign companies there; we had more than 170 companies this year in a pavilion that was the largest at FOODEX, covering more than 2,200 square metres.

On the sidelines of FOODEX, the Italian Embassy and the Italian Trade Agency organised a large B2B session between the Italian companies present and all the big protagonists of distribution in the Japanese market, such as the Aeon Group, Mitsubishi Shokuhin, Lawson, 7-Eleven and Costco. And for three hours, there was a big exchange and business meetings at the fair. We are already seeing concrete results from this effort. Contracts are starting to be signed by Japanese distributors and Italian companies. The big distributors are ready to take on more and more top-quality Italian products since Italian food is very much coming into fashion in the archipelago of Japan.

What is the current state of Italian food and beverage exports to Japan?

We have received the data on the first two months of the year 2018 for Japan, and we are extremely proud to see that, with regard to our overall exports, we had an increase of about 39% in January and February compared to the same period in 2017. In 2017, we had already had a 22% increase on 2016. If this trend continues, Italy is sure to become the second-largest exporter to Japan among European economies, after Germany. Something is going on in this market. We will probably arrive at €8 billion of Italian exports to Japan this year. Out of this €8 billion, food is still a minimal part, around 10%. This gives you an idea of the gigantic space that we have in front of us to fill.

Also, in 2019, the food industry will have among the largest benefits when the EPA [Japan–EU Economic Partnership Agreement] goes into force. Italian wines will have the 15% tariff dropped, which means a lot for top-value wines. You could buy a bottle of Brunello di Montalcino at a price that is not really more expensive than at a supermarket in Italy. It will be a revolution in the Japanese market.

How are exports from Italy’s automotive sector faring?

Things are going extremely well in the Japanese market. Last year was the year of Maserati. This iconic Italian company had the best performance worldwide in 2017, increasing sales in the Japanese market by 40%, which surprised even the management of Maserati. Ferrari is doing very well. FCA has grown by 7% in the Japanese market. Also, Lamborghini has kept Japan as its second-largest market worldwide for Lamborghini cars. Every time they launch a prototype, it sells out.

How have Italy and Japan been collaborating in science and technology?

We have strongly encouraged the work that is going on between a very important science and technology research centre in Italy, the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa, and Waseda University in Tokyo on humanoids and human-robot interaction.

We are also very much involved in everything concerning the cooperation of our space agencies. We recently had another visit here in Tokyo by Mr Roberto Battiston, who is the head of the Italian Space Agency. We have a very fertile collaboration with Japan’s JAXA [Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency]. This is a large collaboration, relating to the satellite industry, on meteorological and earthquake surveys to forecast the possibility of earthquakes. It is using a satellite system with very advanced technology developed in Italy and a number of innovative solutions that the Japanese have.

What are some new areas of economic and political collaboration?

What we would now very much like to work on is to encourage Italy and Japan to be proactive in establishing triangular partnerships in third markets. In terms of business, this means big Italian groups and Japanese groups working in infrastructure, in communications. In the railway industry, for example, we are encouraging the Hitachi Group to cooperate with Italian State Railways in participating in big tenders for high-speed trains in Asia, America and Africa.

We are also very focused on encouraging the efforts of Italian and Japanese cooperation policy on Africa. Italy is extremely present in Africa — we have the largest diplomatic network on the continent. Japan and Italy are among the largest contributors in exactly the same areas: the Horn of Africa and the Sahel region. That’s why we are conceiving joint strategies with Japan and supporting the “New Visions of Africa: Africa, Italy and Japan” Conference. The conference will be held at Sophia University on May 19th and is being organised by the Italian Community of Sant’Egidio, Sophia University and Rissho Kosei-kai. It is a very innovative initiative that will open up a discussion on what we can do for — and how we can work together with — Africa.

Can you tell me about Italian Design Day that was held in March?

Italian Design Day is an initiative of our Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation to promote the excellence and the distinctiveness of Italian design at the international level. This year was the second edition. Our Japanese friends recognise, like few others, that the essence of Italian design products is beauty, innovation and usefulness.

On the 1st of March, as part of Italian Design Day in Tokyo, Alessandro Terzariol, a well-known Italian industrial designer, held a lecture titled “Design is in the air” at the Italian Institute of Culture, Tokyo.

We had a very focused programme, showing the main design companies active in the customised fitting of environments, such as hotels and offices. In view of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, we want to make sure that top Italian design companies participate in enriching Tokyo’s many hotels, many of which will be renovated ahead of that important target. 

“Something is going on in [the Japanese] market”