Possessing an approachable demeanor and a radiant smile, the Swiss Ambassador to Japan Urs Bucher redefines the portrait of a diplomat. This accreditation comes largely from his transparent zeal to immerse himself in Japanese customs and culture.
From observing an otherworldly hymnal performance of Buddhist monks, sitting first row fully engaged in the classical stage art of Noh, to savoring Japan’s culinary delicacies, Ambassador Bucher’s unwaning enthusiasm was exhibited throughout our whirlwind tour of Kyoto back in March of this year.
From the 2011 Fukushima Nuclear Disaster to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, our interview somehow continued to make its way back to the topic of “diversity”—namely, the presence of cultural and ethnic diversity in both Europe and Japan. But with open optimism, Ambassador Bucher opens up about his past, present, and future with this country that has inevitably left its mark on his heart.
Prior to being stationed here, what was your personal connection to Japan?
Before coming to Japan, if I may say so myself, my career at the foreign ministry was very Eurocentric. I wanted to have another look at Europe, ideally in a completely different culture where Europe seen from that country was on the edge of the map. I had always been fascinated with Japan from what I’ve read, from movies, from the few people that I know, and I was easily convinced that this was the country I would most like to discover—and I am still most happy with this decision.
Did your perception of Japan change once you finally made the move?
When we first arrived, Tokyo appeared as a gargantuan city but over time you learn that this country is functioning in a different way, much different from its Asian neighbors. To say you are going to ”Asia” is a very generalized term. For me, coming to Japan is not coming to “Asia”—it’s something on its own. And that was a very interesting realization to have after years of living in this country.
Could you tell me an incident of culture shock you experienced in Japan?
I was totally surprised that access to nature may be denied in Japan. In Europe, you have a constitutional right to go at every moment, everywhere you want in nature. In Japan, you can only go where it’s permitted. For example, you cannot swim [at the beach] if it’s not swimming season. The fact that someone dares to tell people when they have the right to swim is a reflection of different attitudes that goes beyond the discussion of “to swim or not to swim.”
Another point is the incredible homogeneity of the country. In Europe, notably in Switzerland, you can see all imaginable skin colors as more than a quarter of the people living in Switzerland are non-Swiss. They have different attitudes, behaviors, and there exists incredible diversity, whereas, in Japan, it’s rather homogeneous.
Do you feel Japan has opened up to foreigners with its globalization imperative?
It’s funny, but Japanese think that every foreigner speaks English. The advantage of English is that it’s the international language. It’s the language that most people speak, even those in Asia, but it’s not enough. I speak five languages, but despite desperately trying to learn Japanese, it proved too difficult for me.
However, I cannot understand why in-flight magazines on domestic flights are only in Japanese—as if foreigners do not exist as tourists or clients. In Shinkansen trains, they now have a small English section in their railway magazine, but basically, it’s only Japanese. And the most striking thing in Haneda, Narita, and, of course, all other airports, as well as Tokyo Station, is you cannot buy one non-Japanese newspaper. It’s simply not possible.
That is something really different from any other country—I’ve been traveling all around the world—and it comes back to the topic of homogeneity. Obviously, there was never a need to communicate with other people.
Have you noticed any progress in diversifying Japan?
The Japanese government has made it a priority to convince people to open up and be more receptive to the needs of foreign guests. However, at receptions hosted at the Swiss Embassy for young people and professors, everybody tells me that it’s not improving, but rather getting worse.
Fewer students going abroad, fewer students learning foreign languages. There is this system where everybody, after finishing high school, goes to university, graduates, and starts their career in a company. Whereas I would never employ somebody at my Embassy who has spent their whole life in Switzerland, it is considered to be something positive in Japan. There is this Japanese ideology that you have “lost a year” versus having “won a year” gaining experience abroad.
Are there any similarities between Switzerland and Japan?
In the last 70 years, Japan and Switzerland have been successful and you can see some remarkable similarities. Both people do not show off and strive for harmonious human relations. Another similarity is certainly this tradition to be disciplined and hardworking, but looking at Japan, I recognize that we still have a lot to learn.
Switzerland would never be what it is today if we had been sitting on our beautiful mountain farms milking cows. We have always welcomed immigrants from all over the world and they brought with them new input. It’s quite surprising that a country the size of Kyushu—with 8 million inhabitants—boasts the world’s biggest nutrition producers, fragrance and pharmaceutical companies, and the highest number of Nobel prize winners and patents per head of population.
Switzerland ranks number one as the most innovative and competitive country, but in all due respect to mountain farmers, it’s not them who have contributed to this country’s success. It’s normally people who are immigrants who came with new ideas or open-minded people from Switzerland who traveled abroad and brought these ideas back.
Perhaps the Tokyo 2020 Olympics will prove to promote diversity on a nationwide platform.
I’m absolutely confident these will be the best Olympic games, but it’s totally exaggerated to think that this will impact the image of Japan on a global scale. Tourists come and go, and if their team has won, they are happy regardless if the taxi driver understood them or not.
Since the Second World War, Japan has been one of the biggest economic players. I would not care about the Olympics—I would care more about representatives of multinational Japanese companies who are unable to travel abroad without a translator. This is the real disaster! And this situation today will probably continue to go on after 2020. I’m happy the Tokyo Olympics will take place, but there are more burning issues that should probably be the motor for certain changes.
Putting aside your duties as an Ambassador, what do enjoy doing on your spare time?
I often ask my wife this question. After reflection, we both come to the conclusion that we would do exactly what we usually have planned on a typical work day. This means reading an interesting paper or writing some of them, meeting interesting people, or visiting museums as well as cultural and political events. Networking, bridge-building, giving lectures of all kinds are seemingly work-related activities that make life extremely enjoyable. I don’t set strict boundaries between private life and business.
Now on to another burning question: What’s your favorite Japanese food?
The Japanese make everything with the highest perfection. For me, the most enjoyable result of the Japanese art of cooking is when it comes to fusion. My best French, Italian, even Spanish food I ever had was in Japan. It’s notably miraculous when Japanese chefs combine it with Japanese intelligence. That is what I really love.
In the more traditional sense, I love kaiseki dinners—of course, if there is not too much fish. I like fish, but two or three per dinner is enough. And probably before I leave Japan, I will go to a teppanyaki with my wife and daughter. I know it’s also not authentically Japanese, but I love it!
How would you sum up your time living, learning, and working in Japan?
I would say it has been an incredible personal goal. I’ve learned lessons for life and will leave here for my post in Belgium with the best of memories!
Great piece! I appreciate Ambassador Bucher’s point about putting too much emphasis on the Tokyo Olympics being a source of change for Japan’s challenges with diversity. Without a concerted effort it will just come and go. However perhaps the olympics can still be a catalyst..
I would have liked to hear more about Ambassador Bucher’s thoughts on what could/should be done to push Japan’s diversity – to both send more people abroad and to accept more people from abroad. The Japanese government doesn’t appear particularly interested in the topic. Maybe the private sector is ready to drive diversity when they realize its necessity to compete in the world today?
Hi Timothy! Thank you for your thought provoking questions and yes, I agree with your comment of the Olympics acting as a “catalyst” for potential change. The Olympics are still viewed as a global platform to not only invite other athletes to the country hosting the games, but also a place to bring people together, overcome adversity, and putting the discussion of diversity at the forefront of these internationally watched games.
I don’t want to reinterpret the words of Ambassador Bucher, but he made a point during the interview that Swiss education places an importance on students traveling abroad, experiencing new cultures, and then returning to their home country with new ideas shared from leaving their comfort zone. It’s hard to pinpoint one factor as to why Japan lacks in diversity in compared to its other globalized neighbors, but as you mention, we can only anticipate that the Olympics serve as a catalyst for change–and a change to be more receptive to outside cultures and non-English speaking nations.