Switzerland, which is home to Davos, is celebrating the 150th anniversary of diplomatic relations with Japan. The Japan Times had an opportunity to interview Swiss Ambassador to Japan Urs Bucher on the bilateral relationship. He has been the ambassador in Tokyo since October 2010.
What’s the idea behind celebrating this special anniversary?
Switzerland’s image in Japan is very positive, but also often based on stereotypes such as beautiful landscapes, fine watches and delicious cheese. During this anniversary year, we have the ambition to contribute in completing the image of Switzerland in Japan with additional elements, including that Switzerland is a highly competitive and innovative country that is deeply committed to international cooperation. We also hope that the knowledge of Japan in Switzerland will be enhanced.
How did you plan the commemorative events for the 150 years of diplomatic relations between Switzerland and Japan?
We started in 2011 when we discussed the general concept with potential supporters and the Japanese authorities. A key moment was in 2012, when the Japanese government decided to fully support this anniversary as an official event. Together with our Japanese partners, we launched a logo competition to which we got great contributions; we received more than 200 applications from both countries.
How have you celebrated the commemorative year? What are your impressions of the events so far? Can you pick some highlights?
The overall impression is extremely positive. I am particularly delighted by the high level of attention that our anniversary projects get from the media and the public. There were more than 20,000 visitors at the “Swissdays” in Roppongi Hills for the launch of the anniversary year. We also filled the biggest concert halls in several locations. At the same time, small events across the country have contributed to deepen longstanding friendships. On the political front, the highlight is the fact that His Imperial Highness Crown Prince Naruhito and the President of the Swiss Confederation Didier Burkhalter are joint patrons of the jubilee year celebrations and that they visited each other. These events left unforgettable memories.
Looking back 150 years, what was the motivation for Switzerland, a distant landlocked country, to establish diplomatic relations with Japan, which was just emerging from its long period of isolation?
It was due to a clear economic interest from Switzerland, particularly from the watchmakers. There was a strong demand for highly sophisticated products in Japan.
Have the bilateral relations since the treaty of friendship and trade in 1864 been beneficial for Switzerland? How do you see the relations between the two countries?
The treaty has been highly beneficial and it serves as a basis for continually growing trade and deepening our friendship. A particularly dynamic period in our relations took place after the Second World War, when Japan became one of our most important economic partners. In addition, we have a high degree of like-mindedness in global issues and cooperate intensively through international organizations. Switzerland is the only country in Europe to enjoy a free trade agreement with Japan.
What are the major challenges within the bilateral relations?
We are in a fortunate position that no clouds are casting any shadows on our bilateral relations. Therefore, our task is to further promote our economic, cultural, scientific and political cooperation as there is an important potential for development. In the few cases where we have different standpoints, for example regarding the death penalty, our good relations allow us to have an open and frank dialogue.
Do you think the series of commemorative events organized this year could be of help in addressing the above-mentioned challenges?
Of course they can. Both countries never had such attention by the public and the media and our political contacts were also used to address critical issues.
What will be the major agenda within the bilateral relations from now?
We would like to further develop the existing network of treaties by modernizing them and further improve our exchanges. We also hope to encourage better knowledge of the possibilities offered by the existing agreements and maintain contacts at the highest level. I would be most happy if Prime Minister Shinzo Abe could visit Switzerland in the future. Also, we should further develop our cooperation between universities.
What do you see for the next 150 years of bilateral relations?
We not only have good relations, but also share common challenges such as demographic change. We can serve as models for each other in many regards and should seize many opportunities to cooperate.
Please allow me to give a personal comment regarding my experience in Japan. It’s a privilege to live in a country where people are incredibly respectful to each other. I hope that many Swiss people will visit and learn about Japan and bring back and share their experience with their fellow countrymen.