As economic and cultural ties deepen, reciprocity between Japan and the Balkans continues to grow.
By Lily Lynch for Southeast European Times in Belgrade -- 06/09/12
Serbians rally in support for the victims and survivors of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, at Belgrade's Republic Square on April 10th 2011. [Reuters]
This month marks the 130th anniversary of the initiation of Serbian-Japanese diplomatic relations. While the countries have enjoyed a friendly relationship for most of that time, during the past several years they have continued to grow closer, both economically and culturally. Japan's influence extends beyond Serbia and throughout the Balkan region.
According to the most recent figures, Japan is one of Serbia's largest donor countries, allocating some 200 million euros in grants since the year 2000. In the last decade, Japanese gifts to Serbia have included 93 yellow buses, which can be seen on the streets of Belgrade bearing the words "from the Japanese people," a fleet of modern ambulances, breast cancer screening equipment and financial contributions to the University of Belgrade's Faculty of Philology for the department of Japanese Language and Literature.
The Japanese government has also encouraged students and researchers from the Balkans to study in Japan through its ministry of education, culture, sports, science and technology scholarship programme.
"We've had several students from Serbia and Montenegro studying in Japan every year for the last decade," Yuichiro Omori, cultural attaché for the Japanese Embassy in Belgrade told SETimes.
While Japan's generous support to Serbia has been quite visible, Serbia has been able to demonstrate its own support to the people of Japan through a number of citizens' actions in the aftermath of last year's Tohoku earthquake, which killed more than 15,000 people.
Moved to launch his own fundraising campaign for Japan following the disaster, Belgrade online-marketing professional Nebojsa Radovic enlisted several well-known designers to create a series of T-shirts with prints of various statements of solidarity with Japan. He called the initiative "Arigato."
A percentage of the proceeds from each sale were donated to the Japanese Red Cross, helping to make Serbia the sixth biggest donor following the earthquake and tsunami.
"I felt the need to help Japan in any way possible, as it was one of my favorite countries from childhood, and I have huge admiration for their culture," Radovic told SETimes. "It turned out that I was not alone in that feeling, and that there are many people who would like to show their gratitude to all the help Japan has provided to Serbia.
"We needed some kind of initiative that was going to unite us all, which is exactly how Arigato came to life," he said.
In the meantime, Japan has continued to expand its activities in the region.
The Japan International Co-operation Agency, which implements official development assistance for the Japanese government, moved its regional office from Vienna to Belgrade in 2006. Since then, it has also implemented programmes in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Macedonia and Montenegro.
According to programme officer Yamasaki Vukelic Hisashi, the agency's three priorities are environmental protection, private sector strengthening and peace-building.
"The Japanese Foreign Ministry prioritises environmental issues as a main topic, as this concerns all countries in the region regardless of borders," Vukelic Hisashi told SETimes. "In Serbia, we work with refugees through psychosocial workshops in refugee camps. We offer confidence-building workshops to children who still live in these collective centres."
People in Serbia and the region have demonstrated their respect and gratitude towards Japan for these efforts.
In 2010, former Japanese ambassador to Serbia, Tadashi Nagai, was given Belgrade's most prestigious award when he was made an "honourary citizen" of the city.
Meanwhile, the Consul General of the Republic of Macedonia to Japan, Kiyoshi Mizuno, was awarded the Macedonian Order of Merits "for his outstanding contribution and selfless efforts aimed at the promotion of the relations and friendship between the two countries."
Upon assuming his new post as Japanese ambassador to BiH, Hideo Yamazaki highlighted the connection between the two countries when he said: "Looking at the plight of BiH, we feel as if it were our own affair." He also commended the country for making significant strides during the last decade.
According to Omori, the Balkan fascination with Japan is reciprocated by the Japanese.
"Japanese people are very fond of the Balkans. Its many cultures and religions are very attractive to us," he said.