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Romania envoy hopes cultural affinity boosts ties

by Mami Maruko

Staff Writer

Romanian Ambassador Radu Serban is a veteran diplomat with a mission to promote economic ties with Japan. But the envoy, 61, has another agenda — promoting cultural and educational exchanges, which ties into his personal love of Japanese literature, especially haiku.

Serban’s love of haiku and admiration for Japanese haiku poets, including the Edo Period legend Matsuo Basho, has culminated in him publishing a Romanian haiku book in his home country — on the themes of nature and religion — last July.

He takes pride in being a successor to Gheorghe Bagulescu — a Romanian military attache to Japan in the 1930s who later became ambassador and wrote a novel about the daimyo — and tries to study and understand Japanese literature as much as possible.

Bagulescu’s novel, “Yamato Damashii” (“Japanese Spirit”), was published in three volumes in 1937 and was then translated into English, French and Japanese. Serban said he would like more Japanese to know about the book and learn that there was a Romanian more than 70 years ago “who had a deep interest in Japanese history and culture.”

Serban stresses that Japanese literature, and in particular haiku, is gaining popularity in Romania.

A lot of Romanians write haiku in their mother tongue, because Romanian haiku works just the same as it does in Japanese, he explains.

“The same rules work for Romanian haiku — such as how it is written in five-seven-five syllables and having one idea or image,” he said.

Serban noted that interest in learning the Japanese language and culture is also on the rise in his country, where about 2,500 people study Japanese. Bucharest University, which started a Japanese language department in 1975, opened the Center for Japanese Studies in 2010.

Serban laments the fact that the Romanian language, on the contrary, is not widely learned here in Japan. “Not one university in Japan currently teaches the Romanian language. It is my ambition to stimulate authorities and universities in Japan — to try to start teaching Romanian at a university,” he said.

For a start, he said the embassy organized a Romanian language contest this year, which had Japanese contestants deliver a speech, recite a poem or perform a short play in Romanian.

Serban said he learned about different aspects of Japanese culture as he watched movies and TV as a youth in Romania in the 1970s. His favorites included Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” and the Japanese-language TV “anime” adaptation of the Swiss classic “Heidi.” James Clavell’s best-selling novel “Shogun” and its film version also gave him a chance to learn more about Japan, he said.

He said that in those days, Japanese culture was more easily accessible for people in Romania than those from other countries outside the communist bloc “probably because Japan was easier to be accepted by the communist rulers — being so far away and not having direct influence on the history of Romania.”

“We were very much linked to France by culture, but probably it was more difficult (for Romania) to have relations with France than with Japan, because communist rulers were afraid of Western cultural influence on the Romanian people,” he added.

Born in Ungheni, in central Romania, Serban holds a doctorate in European economic integration studies, and served in different positions in the Ministry of Economy and Commerce between 1975 and 1989.

He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2002.

The ambassador stressed that although promoting cultural and educational ties is one of his priorities, strengthening the economic ties between the two countries is still his most important mission here.

Although technological cooperation between the two countries already exists in industries such as steel, machinery and auto components, he said he hopes to see more Japanese business investment in Romania, especially in tourism, agriculture, hydro and wind power energy, and infrastructure.

Calling Romania an attractive tourist destination for Japanese, he said, “I want the Japanese to know more about our beautiful landscape and nature.”

With the help of economic aid from Japan, Serban said a subway line is being constructed between Bucharest’s city center and the capital’s international airport — and one of the stations is scheduled to be named Tokyo.

After living and working in Japan for nearly a year, Serban said he sees an interesting commonality between Romanians and Japanese — for example, a shared love for pop music.

He said this can be seen after Alexandra Stan, a 23-year-old Romanian singer-songwriter, won the Japan Gold Disc Award in January.

He also noted that both Japanese and Romanians share the same kind of values, even though the mainstay religious beliefs of people in the two countries are different. “Basic rules of life are the same — respect for human life, respect for nature, humbleness of humans, and encouragement and promotion of love for people on Earth,” he said.