“Germany and Japan are close partners that share similar values”

The value of unity

Ambassador of Germany to Japan Ina Lepel


November 2020 The Interview / Text by Andrew Howitt / Photos by Michael Holmes

For more than 30 years, Ambassador of Germany to Japan Ina Lepel has served her nation in the Federal Foreign Office. She has had postings in Thailand and Georgia, acted as political counsellor at Germany’s permanent mission to the United Nations in New York, and was ambassador to Pakistan from 2017 to 2019. She headed the Asia–Pacific Department at the Federal Foreign Office before taking up her post in Japan in May of last year.

What have the main areas of focus been for the embassy this year?
As with everybody else, the embassy’s work has been highly affected by the pandemic. For diplomats, exchanging views with people from the host country in a variety of areas — politics, economics, society, culture, science — is key to what we do, and 2020 has taught us how to do our jobs virtually and, in part, from home. At the embassy, we had to adapt our processes and carefully rethink the events we were used to having. This year, we are celebrating 30 years of German unity, and we did so by live-streaming a discussion between witnesses to the fall of the Berlin Wall. All in all, we reached a wider audience than we would have with a regular, in-person national-day party. Moreover, the embassy is preparing for the 160th anniversary of German–Japanese diplomatic relations in 2021. We have come up with creative solutions to the pandemic-imposed constraints.

How has the embassy been supporting German citizens here during the pandemic?
German citizens were affected right from the beginning of the corona crisis in Japan. Several of our citizens were among the passengers of the Diamond Princess cruise ship. We provided consular and moral support as best we could. As soon as the pandemic started to spread in Japan, we communicated with our citizens on all available channels. In addition to providing consular support to individuals and posting information on our website and social media, we have issued Landsleutebriefe [letters to our fellow citizens] with updates on the situation and detailed practical information. To date, we have issued 18 of these letters.

How would you describe the relationship between Germany and Japan?
German–Japanese relations have a long history, reaching back to the 19th century. Today, Germany and Japan are close partners that share similar values and ideas on democracy, the rule of law, and principles of governance. In the international arena, for both of our export-oriented countries, a rules-based world order is of the utmost importance. Therefore, we are cooperating closely to protect and improve multilateral institutions. What has been sadly missing since the start of the pandemic are people-to-people exchanges. In the past, we have had regular exchanges on a political level through many government and parliamentary visits, often on topics of mutual interest. It is important that we resume these exchanges as soon as possible, in order to bridge the geographical gap. Thanks to modern technology, it has been possible to keep a certain level of conversation going, but nothing can replace real human contact and the experience of getting to know one another’s political and social culture.

Could you tell me about the recent videoconference between Germany’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas and Japan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Toshimitsu Motegi?
They discussed joint measures to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as cooperation in multilateral forums. The ministers also spoke about their respective plans regarding the 160th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Germany and Japan. Very recently, the German government adopted policy guidelines for the Indo–Pacific. Therefore, Minister Maas and Minister Motegi engaged in a dialogue on the Indo-Pacific region and on strengthening regional formats for rules-based relations. As far as the economic aspects of these guidelines are concerned, we see several areas of common interest with Japan, including digitalisation, energy, and connectivity, to name the most important ones. Presently, we are reaching out to Japanese partners as well as the German business community here to identify concrete activities and projects.

Could you give a few examples of important collaborations taking place between Germany and Japan right now?
Cooperation on renewable energies is of particular importance to us. The Federal Minister of Economic Affairs and Energy, Mr Peter Altmaier, has just participated in METI’s LNG Producer–Consumer Conference 2020 with a digital message. His vice minister will participate in the upcoming Hydrogen Energy Ministerial Meeting 2020, which will also be important to us as Germany recently launched its National Hydrogen Strategy. In addition, there are several high-ranking online Japanese–German exchanges on cooperation in key technologies scheduled for this month.

Could you tell me about Germany’s cooperation and partnership with Japan in the international community?
We continue our close political cooperation with Japan in various multilateral formats, such as the G7, the G20, and the UN. Today we face the paradoxical situation where, on the one hand, multilateral institutions are being harshly criticised and, on the other, they are more needed than ever before as the number of global problems increase. The need for an internationally coordinated approach to tackling the Covid-19 crisis is a case in point. Other areas include disarmament, free trade, international law, and human rights.

What is the Alliance for Multilateralism, which was co-founded by Germany’s foreign minister last year?
The Alliance for Multilateralism aims to renew the global commitment to stabilise the rules-based international order, uphold its principles, and adapt it, where necessary. Multilateralism is a cornerstone of our foreign policy. We firmly believe that the challenges of our times can only be tackled jointly and by strengthening the rules-based international order. The Covid-19 pandemic is a wake-up call for the need for multilateralism. The fight against this global pandemic requires increased international cooperation and global solidarity. It is a reminder of how crucial multilateral institutions are to our collective health, prosperity, and security. •

“the challenges of our times can only be tackled jointly and by strengthening the rules-based international order”