“Nobody speaks any language perfectly,” said Mr. Domingo L. Siason, the Philippine ambassador to Japan. But his Japanese was near perfect. The graduate of the Tokyo University of Education presented us with an incisive analysis and keen observations on the Japanese economy, society and history, sprinkled with witty comments.

Q:          First of all, how long have you been here in Japan?

A:           This time?  This time, it’s from Sept. 5, 2001 It is January now, so... one year and five months.

Q:          How many times have you visited Japan?

A:           First, as a student, from 1959 to ‘64.  Then, from ‘64 to ’68, working in the embassy.  And then, as the ambassador to Japan, from January ‘93 to April 30, ‘95.  This is the second time I’m here as ambassador.

Q:          So, Japan is a sort of second mother country to you?

A:           Japan is like a second home to me.  My wife’s home is in Tokyo.  We met when we were students.  We got married in 1964.

Q:          Could you tell us what impressions you have of Japan?

A:           I have gone through three phases of Japan’s changing outlook of life.

The first phase was when I was here as a student in ‘59.  It was Japan coming out from the war.  And Japan was a poor country.  The salary of an entry-level government worker was about \13,000 a month.

              But it was a different Japan.  The students, who were with me, were very serious and hard-working.  And also, Japanese society as a whole was working hard to rebuild the country.  And we were looked after very well, especially the students from Southeast Asia because of World War II.  I remember, for example, a Japanese women’s association organizing picnic for us.

The cut-off point came in 1964.  The Olympics ejected Japan into the industrialized world.

              Then, you have the 1990s, the Bubble.  This was the very confident Japan, in fact, the Japanese verging on arrogance, saying, “Oh, the price of the whole of New York City is equivalent to the Imperial Palace.”  And, “In Asia, we are running the economy that is the best in the world.  So, don’t talk to us, you Westerners.  We have Asian values.”

              And now everyone is so pessimistic.  I said to a Japanese, hey, you are not really that bad, you know, why have you lost your faith?  He said, 10 years of deflation and everything is going down.

              Yet, if you look at the young Japanese, they don’t seem to mind.  They don’t care.  They are spending a lot of money, especially the young girls.  And, according to my friends, they don’t seem to be as eager to study as the older generation.

              So, it’s a different Japan, lacking confidence and trying to search for its future - a future vision for Japan’s role in East Asia, for example.  You can see this, going to any luncheon with business executives or seeing politicians.

              But I would say, why worry?  Your national economy is four times that of China.  You are the biggest producer of cars.  When it comes to laser technology and other high-tech fields, Japan is far more advanced than many other countries.  So, you should perhaps just consider concentrating on the areas where you have this comparative advantage.

              I hope Japan will escape this downward spiral, so people can get more confidence.

Q:          How about your impressions of the Japanese people?

A:           One thing is certain.  Japanese society is becoming more open than it used to be.  Not fast enough, though.  If you look at the number of refugees being accepted here, it is unbelievable.

              Also, I think, with respect to the rights of women, a lot of things could be done to improve the situation.

              Japan is becoming more international, and more Japanese speak English.  And you have seen a lot more foreigners in this country.  And finally, I think you are very near the 100,000 foreign students a year, a target that was established 10 years ago.  For a country with a population of 120 million, this is very, very slow.

Q:          May I ask what do you think the charms of the Philippines are?  I think there are a lot.

A:           Generally, the Philippine people are very friendly.  It’s a very open society.  And I guess, despite the modernization, we still have a lot of beautiful islands, beautiful beaches, where you can swim and you see...do you know parrotfish?  It’s like the colors of parrots.  You can put your hand in the water and probably pat one in Palawan.

              It’s a country with an Asian face, but culturally very influenced by Western culture.  They say our history is 300 years in a Spanish monastery and 50 years in Hollywood, because the Americans have stayed about 50 years and we were under Spain for more than 200 years.  Plus, we have the Islamic part of the Philippines.  About 5 to 6 percent of our population are Muslims.

Q:          Before I came here, I checked the geographical features of your country; I never knew that your country, an archipelago, has 7,000 islands.

A:           Maybe during high tides, less than that.

Q:          Japan is an archipelago as well, and we have a keen interest in the greenhouse effect.  I think your country has the same interest.  What is your view?

A:           Well, of course, we are worried about global warming.  First of all, because of its impact on the environment of marine life, but also because some of our islands may probably sink.  You know, Manila is about sea level.  So if the sea level goes up by, say, 15 centimeters (6 inches), there’s an impact on us.

              But essentially, it is the industrialized countries that have a higher use of energy per capita.  So, unless they try to change their lifestyle, or source of energy, global warming will continue.

Q:          Recently, I read an article that says the Philippines is interested in providing nursing care services to the elderly in Japan.  Could you please explain the plan for us?

A:          Well, we looked at your demography.  We looked at ours.  You have a very fast-aging population.  In 20 years, you will have one 65-year-old and two younger people supporting him or her through working.  Now, statistically, the situation is unattainable.  Tottemo Muri-desuyo.

              We, the Philippines, have a young population and we have a good tradition in the field of care-giving.  We have a lot of nurses in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and some other countries in Europe.

              So we thought that if Japan needs caregivers, we would be very happy to provide them.  Right now, it seems there is very strong resistance from nursing associations.  But if you look at the hospitals in Japan, many of them are closing because they have doctors but they have no nurses.

              So, I am quite optimistic.  The Japanese are very practical people.  When the problem becomes really intolerable or unbearable, then, they will probably ask for caregivers.


Reflections on this Interview

His Excellency Siason has lived in Japan for over 10 years in total, and is familiar with the Japanese people and society. His depth of knowledge and understanding of Japan’s current economic difficulties, as well as his optimism for the future, impressed me immensely.
He has a keen interest for the Philippines to provide nurses to take part in care services to the elderly in Japan, pointing out that the ongoing aging process in Japan would be one of the most difficult issues to solve. He is also a very good Japanese speaker and joked with saying in Japanese that “I am sometimes mistaken for a Filipino.”

I believe His Excellency will continue to play an active part in improving and developing the relationship between the Philippines and Japan.        

(Interviewer: Keitaro Oshima)