News photo
Hugh Richardson, ambassador of the European Commission to Japan, stands in front of the EU flag at Europe House in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo.

“I didn’t want to be – an ambassador. I wanted to be the ambassador to Japan,” said Richardson, European Commission envoy, in a recent interview with The Japan Times. “I’m busy trying to understand Japan again, trying to understand what’s changed, and what’s the same. Very exciting.”

The 59-year-old Briton first arrived in Japan as a trade official with the EU’s predecessor in 1984, then served as deputy head of the Tokyo delegation between 1986 and 1988. The commission serves as the civil service of the European Union, implementing its policies. Fascinated by Japan’s people and culture, Richardson soon resolved to become a specialist on the country.

Before assuming his current post, Richardson served as deputy director general of the Europe Aid Cooperation Office. His career has focused on two main areas — providing assistance to developing countries and conducting research in science and technology.

One of his personal objectives, Richardson said, is to develop deeper cooperation between Japan and the EU in these two areas.

His long hiatus from Japan has allowed him to see things that longtime residents may have missed. For example, Tokyo is much less polluted and there are fewer traffic jams than 20 years ago, the ambassador said.

The buildings seem to have grown taller as well, probably thanks to looser restrictions on urban development, the ambassador said.

Richardson also believes the Japanese themselves have changed. In the 1980s, many people were sure Japan was No. 1, but now they seem more anxious and less confident because of the harsh changes of the past two decades — the implosion of the economic bubble in the early 1990s, the rise of China and the increased threat of terrorism.

“(Japan) has changed a lot, more than perhaps I would have expected,” Richardson said.

The role of the EC office in Tokyo has also changed with the times, he said.

In the 1980s, EC officials in Tokyo dealt almost exclusively with trade and economic issues, Richardson said, but now their work has become “more interesting and positive” and involves dealing with political issues, organizing cultural events and promoting people-to-people exchanges.

Of course trade still figures highly on the EC agenda. European beef remains shut out of the Japanese market because of worries over mad cow and foot-and-mouth disease.

“I certainly consider Japanese concerns with food safety entirely legitimate. We are equally concerned with food safety,” he said, adding that he won’t criticize Japan over the beef issue. “At the same time, our scientists believe the European beef is at least as safe as American beef.”

Richardson has returned to Japan at an important time politically, given that Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe is set to be elected prime minister on Sept. 26 by the Diet. He met Abe in July at the Prime Minister’s Official Residence when he accompanied Gunter Verheugen, vice president of the European Commission, on a visit.

“I think (Abe) is quite charismatic. He is a very good communicator,” Richardson said.

Richardson called his long fascination with Japan “a love affair.”

While he was here in the 1980s, he often went to the countryside with his children. Being foreigners, they attracted a lot of attention, and local people would often chat with him and his family, Richardson recalled.

One of his most memorable experiences was climbing Mount Fuji in May 1988.

Together with nine Japanese friends, he reached the very top of the mountain after a nearly eight-hour hike.

Four, including Richardson, skied down from the top while the others waited halfway down the mountain, just in case.

The weather was perfect, Richardson said, with a cloudless sky and the Kanto Plain visible all the way to Tokyo.

The ambassador will surely be hoping for sunny days ahead in his new post.

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