Name: Hans Carl von Werthern
Title: German Ambassador (since March,
DoB: Aug. 4, 1953
Years in Japan: 4
In the early days of his diplomatic career, when Hans Carl von Werthern realized it was his fault that a key German Cabinet minister was absent from a delegation greeting China’s prime minister, he feared the mistake would cost him his future.
“I thought, ‘my career hasn’t even started and now it’s over,’ ” the veteran diplomat who has served as Ambassador to Japan since 2014 said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.
But to his surprise, his then-boss’ words were comforting and generous, he recalled. It was that experience, he said, that helped him realize the important role mistakes play in providing individuals with chances to learn and grow.
Von Werthern, whose diplomatic career began in 1984, says he has drawn a number of lessons from mentors in his youth, in particular his father, who served in Nazi Germany’s military during World War II.
“He knew what was going on in the German concentration camps and what the Germans did in European countries … and he talked very openly to me when I was a child about that,” he said, stressing his father’s pacifist stance after the war.
He recalled the shock he felt upon hearing his father’s affirmative response when, at the age of 10, von Werthern asked his father if he had killed anyone during the war.
“We have to pass on what happened in order to make sure that it won’t happen again,” he said.
Wartime allies Germany and Japan have long been in the spotlight over how they dealt with their defeat after the war and how they addressed atrocities committed during the conflict.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, during her visit to Israel in 2008, said her country was “filled with shame” over the Holocaust and offered an apology to victims of the crimes “carried out in the name of Germany.”
The Japanese government, meanwhile, has long been criticized for denying legal responsibility over similar crimes.
In 2015, 70 years after the war’s end, von Werthern spoke about the differences between Japan and Germany in dealing with their pasts.
“It’s not always easy to make clear that we are not here to give advice or teach a lesson,” but to use the past experiences for discussion on what lessons we can draw, he said in the interview.
Von Werthern visited Japan for the first time as a member of a diplomatic delegation in 1985. In 2004 and 2005 he oversaw a project aimed at strengthening relations between Germany and Japan. He was also appointed to oversee relations between Germany and the East Asian region while serving in Vietnam and China.
Throughout his career, he said, he has encountered many similarities as well as “striking differences” between Germany and Japan.
He pointed to opposing views on how best to address demographic challenges and sensitive human rights issues, but noted that such differences should serve as an opportunity to share knowledge and “learn from each other.”
“The Japanese have as few children as we do [but are graying faster], so Japan has problems that we will face in about 20 years,” he said. “In Germany, we are convinced that immigration is one of the means to mitigate the effects of the demographic change,” while Japan prioritizes technological developments and other solutions to the problem.
He also referred to capital punishment, a practice abolished by Germany and other EU countries that continues in Japan.
“We think it’s not justified and we want to enter into dialogue,” he said, hopeful any such discussions would bear fruit.
Von Werthern, who also works as a mediator in the German Foreign Office, believes that communication and business strategies in Asia require more time to establish reliable connections, and more formulaic expressions of courtesy than in Europe.
“One thing I learned on all three Asian postings is that you have to learn not to be impatient,” he said, stressing that the Asian courtesy works to the interlocutors’ benefit and “makes things much more agreeable for both sides.”
The ambassador hopes to share his experiences with fellow Germans and Japanese, and especially encourage youth to take up opportunities that give them broader, more international experiences.
“We have a rising wave of populism in the world … [and] I think it is especially in the responsibility of young people to really strongly work against that, not to believe anyone who seemingly has easy answers to complicated questions,” he said.
Von Werthern developed a keen interest in Japan in his early youth and inherited a passion for photography from his father, who after the war worked in the German photography industry and often traveled to Japan.
Last year, he was awarded one of the top prizes at an annual photo competition for diplomats stationed in Tokyo.
Von Werthern’s passion for photography even extends to family traditions. After every posting, he compiles a selection of photographs into an album to share memories with his three daughters. Fascinated by the cultural diversity, he has already visited nearly all of Japan’s 47 prefectures, he said.
He also shares photographs and observations of the country via a blog written in both German and Japanese, in hopes of introducing readers to local landscapes and customs.
“For me, that’s a very good means to come to terms with my surroundings,” he said of his attempts at capturing memories through the lens of a camera. “There’s such a great variety [of facets in Japan’s culture] that I’m very happy to be discovering.”
Wide range of diplomatic experience
Born in 1952 in Budesheim, Germany, von Werthern was schooled in his home country and the United States. In 1984, he earned a doctorate in economics from Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz where he also taught while completing his doctorate.
He also has a master’s degree in international relations from King’s College London, one of the world’s top research universities. He joined Germany’s foreign ministry in 1984 and has since served in Vietnam, in Belgium as a NATO representative, as well as in Paraguay and China.
He also worked with Germany’s Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy in the 1980s and was appointed European Policy Adviser to the Liberal Democratic Party in the German Parliament in the 2000s. Von Werthern also headed Germany in Japan 2005/2006, a government-run task force aimed at strengthening bilateral ties, and served as the German foreign ministry’s East Asia Director from 2005 until 2007. He assumed his current posting in March 2014.
The Big Questions is a Monday interview series showcasing prominent figures who have a strong connection to Japan.