People | The Big Questions

New Zealand Ambassador Stephen Payton’s take on the future of relations

A commitment to learning and growing with Japan

by Louise George Kittaka

Contributing Writer

Name: Stephen Payton
Title: Ambassador of New Zealand
URL: http://www.mfat.govt.nz/japan
DoB: Feb. 4, 1959
Hometown: Christchurch, New Zealand
Years in Japan: 10


With the Rugby World Cup coming this autumn and the All Blacks being the reigning world champions, New Zealand is currently enjoying a particularly high profile in Japan. Ambassador Stephen Payton is looking forward to building on this momentum.

Thanks to the national rugby team, Payton hopes to introduce aspects of New Zealand that go beyond the popular images of rugby and sheep.

Payton’s personal relationship with Japan dates back to the early days of his career when he arrived in 1985 with his wife and fellow diplomat Janet Lowe. The young couple studied at a language school in Yokohama for two years before working as second secretaries at the New Zealand Embassy in Tokyo for a further three years.

Subsequently, his language skills have proven to be a valuable asset throughout his career.

His second Japan posting was to the Kansai region upon his appointment as consul general of New Zealand’s Osaka Consulate, which has since closed.

“This was the end of 1994 and then the Kobe earthquake hit in January 1995. We had two small daughters and we were only a kilometer away from the main fault line. Fortunately, our building survived and I was able to confirm the safety of New Zealanders in the area. It was frightening at the time, but then it was impressive to watch how the city recovered,” he said.

Payton arrived for his third and current stint in Japan in 2016, once again joined by his wife, who has been able to take a leave of absence. He says they are grateful for the support of a system that has let them maintain their careers while raising a family.

Speaking of combining family and career, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has put New Zealand firmly in the global spotlight. Following her daughter’s birth in June 2018, the telegenic leader became the second elected head of government to have a baby while in office; the first being Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto in 1990.

“New Zealand celebrated 125 years of women’s suffrage in 2018, and the fact that we have a young female prime minister shows we’re a place where women can get ahead. Forty percent of our members of Parliament are women,” Payton said. “Of course, our position isn’t perfect — we are not yet at 50 percent and we have a ways to go in terms of women’s representation on boards of directors — but we have a record to be proud of.”

Japan continues to grapple with the issue of increasing women’s status in the corporate world, but Payton cautions that it isn’t simply a case of emulating New Zealand.

“I hope New Zealand can inspire other countries, including Japan. However, Japan needs to find its own way forward in bringing women into more leadership roles,” he said.

On the flip side, Payton says New Zealand is watching closely to see how Japan handles an aging society.

“The challenges that Japan is facing in this respect are the same ones that other nations will eventually face. Right now in New Zealand we still have a high level of immigration and reasonably large families, but the time will come,” he said.

Payton went on to ponder how Japan uses technology to deal with such challenges, particularly in how it adapts to society so that the elderly remain integrated and how it develops a circular economy for materials to be recycled; he finds Japan as an interesting model to learn about such issues.

Payton also appreciates the way Japanese traditions are maintained, as this is an issue his country is also working on. “Something that really impresses me is how Japan preserves its culture while having an up-to-date society. It manages to maintain both elements,” he said. “In New Zealand, we are putting a lot of effort into how we can take our traditional Maori culture and make that relevant, while also including culture from Europe, the U.S.A, Asia, etc.”

Looking ahead, Payton sees ample opportunities for the Japan-New Zealand relationship to evolve in new directions. The recent signing of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a free-trade agreement among 11 Asian-Pacific countries, is a welcome move. He sees the agreement to be of great importance, as the countries did not have a bilateral free trade relationship prior to the CPTPP and it will create a lot of opportunities.

Japan and New Zealand have also recently signed an agreement to commit to the success of the Pacific Climate Change Centre, which is slated to open in the island nation of Samoa later this year. The purpose of the center is to provide training and facilitate research on issues pertaining to climate change in the region.

According to the ambassador, New Zealand offers great potential in terms of exporting renewable energy, such as hydrogen, as well as in the technology field. While this may come as a surprise to some, the small but sophisticated population and excellent infrastructure makes New Zealand an ideal test bed for the rest of the world. The country has been the base for conducting small satellite launches, using its own technology and run by a local company, although they are now owned by a company from the U.S.

“We are keen to update Japanese understanding of New Zealand, and clearly, the Rugby World Cup is a big opportunity for us and our relationship with Japan,” Payton said. “And if the Japanese team doesn’t quite go all the way in the tournament, then I hope Japan will support our team.” he added with a grin.


Globe-trotting career full of diverse stops

Stephen Payton holds both a master’s in political studies (First Class Honors) from Auckland University and a master’s in public administration from Harvard University. Early in his career, he was part of the New Zealand Delegation to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, before coming to Tokyo in 1984 for the first of three assignments in Japan. In between, he worked in diverse locations such as Fiji, Belgium and Taipei. Prior to his current role as ambassador to Japan, he represented New Zealand on special short-term assignments in Rome, Warsaw, London and Brussels. An avid reader, Payton also enjoys walking, hiking and exploring Japan. One of his favorite places is Nikko, which has a special relationship with his homeland. Since 1964, one of the two sacred white horses at Nikko Toshogu Shrine has come from New Zealand.

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