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Soft power augments Indonesian Ambassador Arifin Tasrif’s steadfast goals

Importance of friendship transcends march of time

by Jane Kitagawa

Contributing Writer

Name: Arifin Tasrif
Title: Ambassador of Indonesia (since March 2017)
URL: kbritokyo.jp
DOB: June 19, 1953
Hometown: Jakarta
Years in Japan: 2


A former high-flying chemical engineer working in fertilizer development and management, it’s no surprise that Indonesia’s Ambassador to Japan Arifin Tasrif, was once working all across the Indonesian archipelago in Borneo, Sumatra and Java. Of no less importance, especially given his current role, is the nearly two years he spent in Japan over 30 years ago in Yokohama.

“I moved (with my family) and worked here in 1986,” the ambassador said in an interview with The Japan Times. At that time working as a chemical engineer in the fertilization industry, Tasrif was assigned by his former boss in East Borneo to help execute a project between Indonesia and Japan, the Kaltim III fertilizer plant. Getting the plant up and running remains one of the highlights of his career, but the intercountry transfer was just the beginning of Tasrif’s Indonesia-Japan journey.

“I later traveled back and forth between the two countries, mediating between Japanese trading companies and potential partners in Indonesia,” Tasrif continued. In his role as president director of PT Pupuk Indonesia Holding Co., he recalled overseeing the transfer of assets from Kaltim Pasifik Amoniak, a joint venture between Mitsui & Co., Ltd. and Toyota Tsusho Corp., to a Pupuk Indonesia subsidiary company as per its build, operate and transfer contract with the state-owned fertilizer producer.

“I made many friends here in Japan,” said Tasrif. However, relationships weren’t always smooth. “We argued a lot when we were working together during the (1986) project.”

Tasrif shared that inviting his now mostly retired colleagues to a gathering at the ambassador’s residence not long after his appointment was a great chance to reminisce and renew friendships. “Many of them were surprised (to see me back here in this capacity). Me too!” Tasrif said with a laugh.

Gracious and soft-spoken, the ambassador conceded that 2018 looks to be an especially busy year as Japan and Indonesia are celebrating 60 years of official diplomatic ties. Not only does this anniversary provide a timely moment to reflect on past achievements, he said, but also the opportunity to look ahead and analyze how the relationship can be improved and strengthened.

For Tasrif, the so-called soft power of friendship and cooperation arising from such bilateral agreements certainly resonates because of his personal history. He is, however, seeking to build on developments made in areas such as politics, investment, tourism and security.

“One of my roles as ambassador is to invite further participation and investment from the Japanese business community in Indonesia,” Tasrif said. Despite Japan currently ranking as the second-largest major investor in the country and one of its main trading partners, the ambassador said there is room for growth and expansion of bilateral agreements. Two of these include the Strategic Partnership for Peaceful and Prosperous Future signed in 2006 and the Indonesia-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement signed in 2007.

Tourism is another sector where Tasrif sees much potential, noting that while Indonesia is a diverse country rich in tradition and natural beauty, with a dynamic food culture and cuisine, most visitors, including Japanese tourists, primarily focus on Bali.

“Each province (and group) in Indonesia has its own unique, original culture; we have to introduce and promote this (more),” he noted. “Indonesians also share many similarities with Japanese people, especially the Javanese, who stress respect for their elders, politeness … .

“There are at least another 10 potential tourism areas we would like to introduce in particular to Japanese visitors,” Tasrif said, citing the Indonesian Ministry of Tourism’s efforts to promote new priority destinations throughout the islands that run the breadth of the country. Among them are Morotai in North Maluku province, Tanjung Lesung in the province of West Java and Tanjung Kelayang Beach in the Bangka Belitung Islands province and Lake Toba in the province of North Sumatra.

In this regard, Tasrif believes Indonesia can learn much from Japan regarding how to boost tourism to outlying areas. “One thing that has really surprised me is the growth in numbers of Indonesian tourists to Japan,” he said, adding that figures “increased drastically — almost 30 percent year-on-year between 2016 and 2017.”

Discussing where Indonesians like to travel in Japan, snow is a deciding factor, he explained. “Mount Fuji, Sapporo, Nagano, and Yuzawa. … Heritage sites such as Shirakawa-go are increasingly popular; during the winter you’ll find many Indonesians staying there. In fact, I want to go to Shirakawa-go for a couple of nights myself,” he said with a laugh.

An ease on tourism visa restrictions and low-cost carrier flights also played a role in attracting more Indonesians to this country, he observed. As Japanese food such as sushi, as well as animation and the country’s safety and cleanliness appeal to Indonesians, Tasrif commends efforts made concerning halal food options, as Indonesia is home to the largest Muslim population in the world. “This effort not only attracts more Indonesians, but also other Muslim visitors,” he added.

Thinking back to his original time in Yokohama, the ambassador stresses the importance of making friends when moving to a new country. Some things have changed since 1986 — “Google Maps makes it easy to get anywhere,” and others less so — “prices have pretty much remained the same,” but having friends and a network you can rely on for support, he noted, is necessary and should always be a constant.


Making the leap from business to diplomacy

An Indonesian professional with a background in chemical engineering, Ambassador of Indonesia to Japan Arifin Tasrif graduated from the Bandung Institute of Technology with a degree in the same field in 1977. He later served as PT Rekayasa Industri’s director of business for six years before taking on the role of president director PT Petrokimia Gresik from 2001 to 2010. Following this, he was appointed president director of Indonesia’s state-owned raw materials and fertilizer manufacturer-distributor PT Pupuk Indonesia Holding Co. In 2011, he received an Honorary Fellowship Award from AFEO, or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Federation of Engineering Organization, for his professional contributions as an engineer in Indonesia and the ASEAN region. Tasrif was officially appointed as ambassador of the Republic of Indonesia to Japan by Indonesian President Joko Widodo on March 13, 2017. The ambassador is married and has three children. One of his favorite pastimes is walking around the backstreets of Tokyo.

The Big Questions is a Monday interview series showcasing prominent figures who have a strong connection to Japan.