National

Tokyo silent as Catalonia moves toward independence from Spain

by Magdalena Osumi

Staff Writer

Tokyo on Monday called Sunday’s historic referendum in Catalonia an internal issue, leaving Japanese citizens and Spanish communities in Japan dependent on the Spanish government’s decision moving forward after Catalans voted to split from Spain.

Calling the issue an internal dispute between Catalans and the rest of Spain, a Foreign Ministry official told The Japan Times by phone that the government was not taking sides. He said, however, that visitors and residents of Catalonia should stay vigilant as the situation has yet to be resolved.

Catalonia leader Carles Puigdemont said the region had won the right to break away from Spain after 90 percent of voters taking part in a banned referendum voted for independence, defying a sometimes violent police crackdown and fierce opposition from Madrid.

His declaration appeared to set the restive region on course for a deeper split with the Spanish government, after Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy reiterated his government’s position that the vote was an illegal act, to which the state had reacted “with firmness and serenity.”

Any attempt to unilaterally declare independence is almost certain to be opposed not just by Madrid but also by a large section of the Catalan population, which is deeply split on the issue.

The regional government said 2.26 million people actually took part in Sunday’s referendum, or 42.3 percent of the electorate.

A jubilant Puigdemont said his people had “won the right to an independent state” and urged the European Union to stop looking “the other way.”

Puigdemont has said that in the event of a “yes” victory he would declare independence for Catalonia, which accounts for 19 percent of Spain’s economic output.

At least 92 people were confirmed injured out of a total of 844 who needed medical attention, Catalan authorities said.

David Marquez-Clemente, 46, who has lived in Japan for 15 years, lamented the response by the Spanish government following the poll and said that “the right thing” would have been for the Spanish and Catalan governments to have negotiated the terms of a mutually agreed referendum.

Marquez-Clemente, a member of Casal Catala Tokyo, a Catalan voluntary organization based in the capital that represents the Catalan community, sent his vote by email.

“Our primary concern right now is the violent response from the Spanish government in the days to come,” he said Monday. “The incidents yesterday showcase that they (the police) are not afraid to use violence against its citizens.”

But Japanese business operators and groups promoting the region’s culture believe the situation in Spain will soon return to normal.

So far, the chaos has had no direct impact on tourism.

“Given the time difference we haven’t received any inquiries (concerning the referendum and its outcome) so far but we haven’t detected any problems,” said Yuriko Kamiyama, a spokeswoman for major travel agency JTB Corp. “But if the government raises the alert, we might consider measures such as cancellations of travel arrangements” to ensure the safety of customers.

Trips to Catalonia are also popular with users of services provided by Jalpak Co., affiliated with airline giant Japan Airlines Co.

Jalpak spokesman Satoshi Nagao said that trips to Spain account for about 20 percent of travel packages sold to customers choosing Europe as their travel destination, and that 80 percent of visitors to Spain also visit Barcelona for at least one day.

No cancellations have yet been reported, Nagao added. He believes the company would not need to exercise any extraordinary security precautions under the current situation.

Any decision to halt or change some of their services would depend on further advisories from the Foreign Ministry, he said, adding that he hoped Spain, with its wealth of history and culture, will remain one of the firm’s most popular travel destinations.

Elsewhere, a member of Associacio Japonesa d’Amistat amb Catalunya, a Tokyo-based group focused on promoting the culture of Catalonia in Japan, believes the dispute won’t affect relations between Spain and Japan.

“The chaos resulted from clashes between independence supporters and the police and it was related to the referendum — thus was temporary. Everything should go back to normal today,” said the member, who requested her name be withheld.

“Regardless of whether (Catalonia) will or won’t split from Spain, it won’t affect the region’s culture. I don’t think Catalonia will change in any way,” she said.

The group, as well as the Japan-Spain Society, which is aimed at strengthening and promoting relations between Japan and all regions of Spain, refused to comment on the political aspects of the referendum.

Information from AFP-JIJI added