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From the Olympics to yogurt: Loukas Karatsolis on Greek’s next steps in Japan

Greece’s outbound ambassador passes torch

by Louise George Kittaka

Contributing Writer

Name: Loukas Karatsolis
Title: Ambassador of Greece (since Feb. 2015)
URL: www.mfa.gr/missionsabroad/en/japan-en
DOB: May 6, 1962
Hometown: Athens
Years in Japan: 3


Loukas Karatsolis, the outgoing Greek ambassador, met with The Japan Times at the embassy in April to share upcoming developments. He predicted a busy time ahead, with Japan and Greece celebrating 120 years of diplomatic ties in 2019. Moreover, as Greece is the birthplace of the Olympics, the 2020 Tokyo Games holds special significance for Japan’s Greek community.

“To start with, we’ll be having an exhibition of Olympic torches from all the host cities that have held torch relays over the years. These have come from a private collector in Greece and it will be the first time they’ve been presented overseas,” he said. Currently, plans are for the exhibition to run from this July to October, starting off in Shinjuku.

Recognizing the deep connection between the ancient and modern games, each Olympic torch relay departs from Olympia in Greece. The International Olympic Committee and Tokyo organizers recently announced that “Hope Lights Our Way” will be the motto of the 2020 torch relay.

Karatsolis noted that the embassy hopes to partner with the Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC) to highlight the stories of former Japanese champions. “For example, we can pair stories of the Japanese medalists from the Sydney Olympics with the torch from those games. We want to raise awareness of Japan’s Olympians from the past, particularly among the younger generation, while also drawing on the connection to the first Olympic torch and applying this traditional symbolism to the modern games,” he explained.

“Media tends to focus on the athletics, which of course is amazing, but I believe there is a need for a fuller testimony. One fundamental idea of the old Olympics was no fighting during the games and I think we saw this element at play during the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games in Korea — a flowering of a certain climate,” he said. “We would like the athletes to talk about how their lives changed through the Olympics, to capture this essence and its importance. (It’s) not easy, but we hope to do this by partnering with the JOC.”

Appreciating and honoring the significance of human relations has been a theme that has guided Karatsolis throughout his career. “I think I got this from my parents, that you need to try to learn from others. It is not so much the destination as it is the people,” he said, noting that he feels very fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet and interact with many people and to hear about their perspectives during his time in Japan.

“The approach to life here is quite similar to that of Greece — for example, in family relationships and certain social matters. Another thing that has been striking to me was the approach to nature in Japan, such as the connection with the sea and the importance of this in daily life,” he said. Similarly, both nations have a long history of mythology and festivals related to the seasons.

Karatsolis pointed out a shared love of good food and fresh ingredients in both Japanese and Greek cultures, and is gratified to see growing interest here in his homeland’s products, such as olive oil and yogurt.

This spring, Japanese food manufacturer Meiji rolled out a new product line under the name “The Greek Yogurt,” with a preview at a Tokyo event to mark Greek Independence Day in March. Karatsolis said he was looking forward to future growth with this branding of one of Greece’s most famous foods.

Another area where the Greek embassy is building significant ties with Japan is the tourism sector, which he said is gaining momentum. While acknowledging that most people want to see the ancient treasure of Athens and the sun-soaked Greek islands, he urges prospective visitors to think outside the box by visiting other areas and traveling during the off-peak season.

“This was one of my priorities and I think it has been working well with our promotional activities in the tourist industry,” he said. “Please consider coming outside the European summer holiday, which is when the majority of tourists visit Greece. If you come to the Greek islands in spring, you’ll see greenery and flowers everywhere. We would also like to encourage our Japanese friends to see the northern part of Greece, which has a similar climate to Japan, with rivers, lakes and even snow in winter.”

Other avenues for growth include the promotion of food-based tourism, such as visits to wineries and olive oil producers. Through such opportunities, Karatsolis believes that tourists can experience the heart of his country, getting to know the culture and customs.

While travel as a tourist certainly broadens the mind, he sees great benefits for Japanese society in general if more young people were encouraged to live abroad for an extended period of time.

“Sometimes in Japan, there is a gap between (the) perception and understanding of international culture, and it is easier for younger people to be flexible and learn new things,” he said. “By experiencing another culture in-depth and observing social conditions — such as by doing a gap year abroad, for example — I think they would gain better insights into international culture.”

Through his dealings at events with young Japanese, he believes they often hesitate to speak up out of deference to those who are older or in higher positions. “Interaction is important — ask questions, challenge and share your opinions,” he advised.

Karatsolis is pragmatic about the relatively fluid nature of his field. “There are things you cannot foresee — one of the charms of a diplomatic career,” he said with a smile. “However, my goal for the rest of my time in Japan is to put together a well-supported program of activities in terms of culture, the economy and tourism, promoting Greece and building on our relationship with Japan. There is still much to be done.”

This final comment proved prophetic, as Karatsolis left Japan for Greece on May 19 when his term came to an end. He leaves a legacy of dynamic and exciting programs for his successor. His next assignment is unknown.


Career honors human relations across globe

Hailing from the Greek capital of Athens, Loukas Karatsolis majored in political science and law at the University of Athens before embarking on his diplomatic career. He served as an attache at the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs and went on to represent Greece in several European nations, including at The Hague in the Netherlands. In 2013, he took on the title of director of the minister’s diplomatic cabinet, and then assumed directorship of the department concerned with Asia and Oceania. He was subsequently dispatched to Tokyo in his first ambassadorial position in 2015. Karatsolis speaks four languages and enjoys playing tennis when time permits.

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