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.