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British ambassador laments his two ‘lost decades’

by Mami Maruko

Staff Writer

Tim Hitchens, the new British ambassador to Japan, has observed with his own eyes the country’s economic transition since he first visited here as a teenager back in the 1970s.

But even as Japan stumbled through economic turbulence — from the oil crisis of the 1970s to the economic bubble of the late 1980s and, most recently, its “lost decades” — Hitchens believes the character of the Japanese people today is “exactly the same as it ever was.”

“On the surface, there are many changes. I think the Japanese in 1989 were very, very confident. Japan at the moment is a little less confident. Also, the language has evolved. There are words now like ‘keitai denwa’ (cellphone) and ‘chikyu ondanka’ (global warming) that didn’t exist in the late 1980s,” he said.

“But my personal feeling is it feels as much home now as it felt 36 years ago,” he stressed.

Hitchens, 50, says he still keeps in touch with Japanese friends he made in his teens, and that this friendship has been handed over to their children’s generation.

He first arrived in Japan in 1977 when he was 14 years old. His father was posted to the British Embassy in Tokyo as a naval attache, and the young Hitchens — who was then attending boarding school in England — came and visited his parents in Tokyo every holiday.

It was right after Japan faced a severe economic challenge in the mid-1970s — after the oil crisis in 1973 — and when the country was experiencing the first postwar decline in industrial production and severe inflation.

Hitchens returned to Japan in 1980 — after graduating from high school but before entering Cambridge University — and stayed for six months, traveling all over the country “as an enthusiastic 18-year-old.”

He has since returned to Japan twice — first as a second secretary at the British Embassy in the late 1980s, and the second time as ambassador since 2012.

Japan “has given me my life in some ways,” Hitches says. “If I think why am I now here as ambassador, it comes from that moment 36 years ago when I arrived and was completely transfixed by the place, by the people, the culture, and views on life. So I think I owe a lot myself, personally, to the country,” he said.

In addition to the political and economic ties the two countries have developed over the last 400 years — since 1613, when the first British ship arrived in Hirado, Nagasaki Prefecture, Hitchens says Japan and Britain should strengthen exchanges among the younger generations.

“We need to make sure that we, as an embassy, reach out not just to senior decision makers, but to people in their 20s and 30s (who are responsible for) the future of this country,” he said.

He said he personally tries to do it “in a small way” through his Twitter feed, but he says he tells the younger staff at the embassy to build connections with young Japanese people, by talking to them in person and offering them information about technology and research — particularly in the fields of renewable energy and climate change that the British government is trying to tackle right now.

He urged Japan to remain ambitious on the efforts to deal with climate change.

“It’s particularly important to talk about the climate change agenda in the middle of an economic recession, because it’s very easy to say, ‘We can’t afford to do anything on climate change because the economy is in a difficult situation,’ but it’s the other way around,” Hitchens said. “Unless you are creative on climate change and new technologies, you will never really pull out of a long-term deflation.”

In Britain, London Mayor Boris Johnson has decided that all the black cabs in the city should be replaced by electric vehicles by 2020 so that they will cut carbon dioxide emissions, he said, adding that some of the vehicles will be supplied by Nissan Motor Co.

Touching upon things he likes about Japan, he said he particularly likes Japanese aesthetics, which he feels mirror his own. “Japanese aesthetics are simple, clear, and classic,” he said.

He said that when he went to present his credentials to Emperor Akihito after arriving last December, he was impressed by the calm, simple and sober environment the Imperial Palace’s setting was in, and found it “much more impressive than palaces in Europe” which tend to be “extremely grandiose and designed to impress by the amount of gold and decoration.”

Despite a busy schedule, Hitchens says he likes to cycle or walk around different parts of Tokyo during his free time.

He is fluent in both spoken and written Japanese. When he was posted to the British Embassy in 1985, he spent his first year at a facility run by the British Embassy in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, where diplomats were sent to undergo intensive language training. While there, they were ordered not to use any English at all.

As a member of the economic team and an interpreter, Hitchens served as second secretary at the embassy until 1989. Nearly 25 years on, his ability to read Japanese books, magazines and newspapers has not been lost.

The first book he read all in Japanese was Shusaku Endo’s “Chinmoku” (Silence), and he said he was so impressed by it that he wrote a letter to Endo. “Endo-san sent a postcard back,” he said, adding that it’s one of the most precious pieces of correspondence he has ever received.

After a period of “two lost decades,” he came back to Japan in 2012 — this time as ambassador.

“Some people say Japan had a lost two decades. I also had a lost two decades where I haven’t had connections with Japan. But I had plenty of Japanese friends who came to and fro. That’s why I’m all the more pleased to come back (to Japan) and meet people again,” he said.