1. General Image about Belgium
What do Japanese usually know about Belgium? Approximately a twelfth of Japan in terms of population and land, a general image on Belgium among ordinary Japanese is something like Manneken Pis, chocolates, waffles, beer and mussels. They may also think of diamond trade in Antwerp, a fairy tale “A Dog of Flanders” (it is known to most Japanese but few local Belgians as it was a sad story written by a British writer in late 19th century), Tintin, or Salvatore Adamo (who was popular in Japan in the 1960s and 1970s for his legendary hit, such as “Tombe la Neige” and “Sans Toi Mamie.” Before moving to Brussels in August 2010, the author also had almost the same limited knowledge of Belgium. Another interesting story about Belgium is when you drive a car from neighboring countries such as Germany and France and once you cross the border into Belgium, you can easily notice that highway lights are installed in such short intervals. Belgian Foreign Ministry in its brochure introduces humorously that there are only two artificial constructions on earth that can be seen from outer space: the Great Wall of China and the lights of the Belgian highway system!
2. Belgium’s Status in Historic Perspective
If we look at Belgium further from historic and political perspectives, it has always been situated at the heart of West European civilization since Medieval Age, playing important roles in the Kingdom of the Franks, dispatch of the Crusade, textile industry or Northern Renaissance. Now EU and NATO headquarters are here, thus it has become a center of European integration. Mr. Herman Van Rompuy, the first president of the European Council was the former Belgian prime minister. At the beginning, major EU member states regarded him as a man of a small country, a mild and harmless politician whom they could manipulate, but since being appointed, he has performed well and enjoyed a high reputation as a considerate and competent leader. The member states unanimously elected Van Rompuy for a second term of two and a half years, from June 1, 2012 to November 30, 2014. He is also a highbrow who loves “Haiku.” Thus Belgium has created political leaders who administrate EU. At the same time, however, frictions exist between Flanders in the north (Dutch language area) and Wallonia in the south (French language area). In fact, the border between the two regions historically dates back to the border between Latin and Germanic areas during the period of Roman Empire. The relation between Flanders and Wallonia, which constitute Belgian Federal, could be described as a couple who have already lost a bond of affection to each other, but because of a tug-of-love for children, i.e., Brussels as well as the difficulty of the division of loan, i.e., national debt, cannot divorce. Belgium has six governments, including federal, regional and community governments, and there was no full-fledged federal government for 541 days until December, 2011 since general elections in June 2010. Surprisingly, however, even during such a period, the caretaker government implemented budget and made a politically significant decision to dispatch six F-16 air fighters and a minesweeper under NATO mission in Libya. Belgium has headquarters of EU, which is trying a great experiment to change a framework of traditional international relations where sovereign states have played a main actor since the Peace of Westphalia in the 17th century, but on the other hand, the small country with a twelfth of the size of Japan faces the possibility of national division. It is indeed an interesting country. Belgium could be one of the best places to see the past and future of Europe as well as the entire world.
3. Japan-Belgium Relations in Modern History
Belgium was a very important counterpart in Japan’s diplomatic history after the Meiji era. Both states have enjoyed almost one hundred and fifty years of diplomatic relations since they signed the Treaty of Amity, Commerce and Navigation in 1866. Belgium and Japan opened their legation each other in 1870 and 1873. The legations were upgraded to embassies in 1921 when Crown Prince Hirohito (later became Showa Emperor) made his first overseas trip and visited Belgium. Japan had opened only less than ten embassies overseas at that time. It clearly explains that both states recognized the other as a “first class country.” Famous Japanese diplomats that we are very familiar in diplomatic history worked in Brussels or Antwerp (there was a consulate in Antwerp before World War II in addition to the embassy in Brussels). They include Kinmochi Saionji, Shuzo Aoki, Kijuro Shidehara, Hitoshi Ashida, Hachiro Arita, Saburo Kurusu and Takezo Shimoda, who later became prime minister, foreign minister, vice-foreign minister or ambassador to the U.S.
Both imperial and royal families are very close. In addition to Crown Prince Hirohito’s visit to Belgium in 1921, he made a first overseas visit as emperor in 1971 and chose Belgium as a first visiting country in Europe. At that time, Showa emperor had a dramatic encounter with a Belgian old lady with whom he had enjoyed dancing fifty years before. She was a young girl of Belgian prime minister. Baudouin I, King of the Belgians attended a funeral ceremony of Showa emperor in 1989 as well as the inauguration ceremony of current emperor Akihito in Tokyo 1990. Emperor Akihito attended the funeral of King Baudouin I and also made an official visit to Belgium in 1993. It is extraordinary that Japanese emperor visits the same country twice in the same year. Japanese Crown Prince Hironomiya and Belgian Prince Philippe were born in the same year 1960, maintaining intimate relations. Prince Philippe and Princess Mathilde visited Japan in June 2012, accompanied by almost three hundred business, academic and government leaders to promote mutual economic and research cooperation.
It is interesting to discover surprising links between Japan and Belgium in modern history. “Kaitai Shinsho” or the most popular medical book on anatomy in Japan in the 18th century in Edo period, was a translation by a Japanese scholar Genpaku Sugita in 1774 from Tafel Anatomie by Johan Adam Kulmus. In fact, Kulmus borrowed most of illustrations in the book from the work by Filips Verheyen, professor at Catholic University of Leuven in the 17th century. Belgium was the ninth country in Western states with which Japan established diplomatic relations after the U.S., U.K., Russia, the Netherlands, France, Portugal, Prussia and Switzerland. The Iwakura Mission was dispatched to North America and Europe, including Belgium in early Meiji Era to learn Western civilizations. The mission was strongly impressed by Belgium that they visited in 1873 as it had enjoyed economic prosperity and social stability though it was small and only forty years after independence. Mr. Kunitake Kume, a member of the mission showed a strong interest in Belgian state administration as a model of Japan that was just forced to open its door to Western powers, writing that though Belgium was only the size of Kyushu (a southern island of Japan), it was independent and self-reliant, competing with great countries and that its success entirely owed to Belgian people’s hard work and strong unity. Though Japan finally decided to follow a Prussian model, the Bank of Japan was established in 1881 after Ministry of Finance had dispatched staff to Belgian Central Bank for training. Hitotsubashi University (former Tokyo High Commercial College), a prestigious university on social sciences in Tokyo, was created in 1885 on the model of a commercial school in Antwerp. A Belgian professor made a great contribution to the development of the university at its early stage.
Belgium was Japan’s third largest trade partner in Europe before World War I. During the war, Japan, as a member of the Allied Nations, was sympathetic to Belgian victims of German aggression who fought bravely. A large amount of donations were collected for them in Japan. The Asahi, a prestigious Japanese journal, sent a representative to Belgium to encourage Belgian people in 1915. He directly presented a Japanese sword made by a very famous craftsman to King Albert I. When Crown Prince Hirohito visited Belgium in 1921, as the first ever overseas visit by the Japanese imperial family, he visited cities such as Ypres and Leuven that were seriously damaged during the war, which he deeply deplored. An emblem has been installed on the library wall of the Catholic University of Leuven to commemorate Crown Prince Hirohito’s visit at that time. On the other hand, when a great earthquake hit Tokyo area in 1923 that killed more than a hundred thousand citizens, Belgium established a domestic rescue committee immediately to support Japan and donated more than 2.6 million Belgian francs (approximately 3.3 million Euros of current value) to Japan. This was the highest amount only after the U.S. and Britain.
4. Centennial Anniversary of World War I
As is well known, World War I was directly triggered by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, or successor of Franz Joseph I, Emperor of Austria-Hungary at Sarajevo, Bosnia by a Serbian nationalist on June 28, 1914. This led to the split of complicated Europe into two groups and war broke out in July. They estimated optimistically that the war would end in short time, however, it was proved to be entirely wrong, and cruel battles continued for more than four years until Germany agreed on an armistice on November 11, 1918 and Versailles peace treaty was signed on June 28, the following year. This was an unprecedented total war that human being has ever experienced. New weapons such as poison gas, tanks, and airplanes were used for the first time. The total death toll, including civilians reached twenty million. However, the post-war Versailles system that was revengeful to Germany never created a peaceful and stable Europe. It rather brought about abortive flowers of Nazism, thus the world later experienced another devastating world war.
Centennial anniversary of World War I is approaching. Japan joined a bloc of the Allied Nations partly because of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance that had been continued since 1902, and attacked German Eastern Fleet, occupied their naval base in Qingdao, Shandong Province in China and Jiaozhou Bay as well as Southern Pacific islands that had been colonized by Germany. Furthermore, responding to the request by the Allied Nations, imperial navy dispatched eighteen military ships, including cruisers and destroyers in the Mediterranean Sea to convoy ships transporting to home countries from their colonies. In their mission, about eighty soldiers and officers were killed.
A series of commemorative events are going to be planned and implemented in various places in Europe in the coming years. From the viewpoint of Japan, centennial anniversary events may not be an occasion where we should celebrate or play up our contributions, but there is something that we need to watch closely and carefully: China’s public relations.
5. China and World War I
China also declared war and joined the Allied Nations. Western powers made inroads into China since Opium War in 1840-42, which revealed that a great China could not survive long with its traditional system. Qing Dynasty was finally overthrown at Xinhai Revolution in 1911. In the following year, China’s last imperial dynasty collapsed and Republic of China was founded. It was only several years after new China was created when it decided to join the war. Why did China go to war when it had not yet consolidated the basis of the state? How did China fight in the war? In fact, China did not fight a war in a usual sense of the word. China joined the Allied Nations by supplying as many as 140,000 labor forces to Europe. This history was not well known not only in Europe but also in China itself. However, some scholars have recently tried to discover this hidden history.
For example, Xu Guoqi, professor of history at University of Hong Kong published a book of three hundred and forty pages in 2011 titled: “Strangers on the Western Front: Chinese Workers in the Great War.” Based on contracts with British and French governments, starting from 1916, respectively 95,000 and 44,000 (total about 140,000) Chinese workers were dispatched to Europe, mainly to France and Belgium in order to supplement the lack of labor forces over there after local young men had been recruited. At the beginning, Chinese government established a private organization to recruit workers to avoid criticism by Germany that China would violate neutrality obligations, but the situation changed when China officially declared a war against Germany in September 1917. Most of the workers were illiterate farmers from Shandong Province. The main aim to join the Allied Nations was to ensure China’s right of voice in the process of post-war new international order formation. In other words, China wanted to recover its sovereign right over Shandong which was taken by Japan from Germany. China had been forced to accept Japan’s so-called Twenty-One Demands, including the acceptance of Japan’s interest in Shandong in 1915. When China entered the war, they were not strong enough to fight with military power, therefore, Chinese government decided to provide abundant labor forces.
They engaged in various kinds of work, such as repairing roads and railways, digging trenches and foundations, working at powder factories, arsenals, and paper factories, and loading and unloading trains and boats. Based on contracts, they were not supposed to be sent on the front, but were forced to work in dangerous places near the front, thus twenty thousand workers were sacrificed. After the war, about 3,000 workers, including 1,850 skillful workers remained mainly in France, and some of them married local French women. Laborers were treated differently by the French and British governments. British treated them as prisoners, and French handled them comparatively in a humane and fair way.
This history was little known not only in Europe but also in China, and few materials are left. There are several reasons that this fact was kept a low profile. First, China maintained neutral at early stage, therefore it did not want Germany to know China’s cooperation with France and Britain through supply of workers. Second, China did not prefer creating alert and skepticism among Japan and western powers about its intention. Third, handling Chinese workers was a military operation for France and Britain, thus they needed to keep it secret. Fourth, it was not necessarily honorable for both European countries to get a support from China. Fifth, a general image of Chinese workers for France and Britain was negative because of cultural frictions, sanitary problems, their noisy life style, security, infections as well as racial discrimination.
That was the outline described in Professor Xu’s book. However, in spite of initial intention of Chinese government, Versailles peace conference disappointed China that did not sign the peace treaty because it admitted Japan’s interest in Shandong. This dissatisfaction and anger among Chinese led to May Fourth Movement in Beijing in 1919. It is interesting to know the history that the head of Chinese delegation to the peace conference, Lu Zhengxiang is related to Belgium. He was appointed the first foreign minister of Republic of China in 1912 and signed Japan’s Twenty-One Demands in 1915. He had been posted in St. Petersburg, Russia by Qing Dynasty Government where he fell in love with a daughter of Belgian military attaché and later got married. After the war, he resigned his official post and moved to Belgium for a catholic life. He died in Bruges in 1949.
According to memoirs of Mamoru Shigemitsu, a Japanese diplomat, he was working for Japanese Embassy in Britain at the beginning and the embassy approached British government to persuade them to oppose China’s entry into the war because it would complicate the China issue regarding recovery of foreign interests and the Allied Nations would be preoccupied with the issue while they needed to fight the war. But as the war continued, the Allied Nations changed their position and rather encouraged China to participate in the war. There is a short reference in his memoirs regarding Chinese workers that France planned to utilize unlimited Chinese human resources thus invited many coolies to France for works behind the front. Mr. Shigemitsu was instructed to be transferred from the Embassy in Berlin to Japanese Legation in Brussels, but German army had already invaded Belgium and Belgian government had evacuated to Antwerp from Brussels. As Antwerp was also destroyed by air raid, he finally gave up his mission and was instead posted in London.
As Belgium is one of the major countries where cruel battles took place at World War I and II, there are lot of monuments and cemeteries in various places, including cemeteries of British Commonwealth. The cemetery at Poperinge in the West Flanders, Flemish Region is one of them, where Chinese workers are also buried. The author visited it in July 2011 and discovered about 35 stone tombs with Chinese letters graved at the edge of a vast area of the cemetery. Most of them came from Shandong Province, a few from Zhili Province. There were also tombs with no name. Chinese ambassador also visited the cemetery.
Recently, the history of Chinese workers has sometimes become a topic and relevant exhibitions have taken place. When the author visited a war museum in the center of Ypres in 2011, there were three different kinds of books on the history of Chinese labor forces during World War I written respectively in French, Dutch and Chinese at its museum bookshop. There were no books on Japan’s participation into World War I at the same shop. Now as China rises, European interest often focuses on China whether positively or negatively. Under the situation, it would function as a good example for creating a favorable image of China in terms of public relations because it is a nice occasion to remind Europeans of the history that Chinese workers bled for them.
As was described, Japan, as a member of the Allied Nations, made contributions to their safety ship navigation through the dispatch of imperial navy’s ships to the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea to protect their convoys from attacks of German U-boats. Japanese people were sympathetic with and glad to provide donations and rescue goods to Belgian people who bravely resisted German aggression. Just after the war, Crown Prince Hirohito specially visited Ypres and Leuven and was greatly shocked to see serious damages of the towns which he deeply deplored and expressed his deepest condolences to. However, such a history is not remembered now, and even well-informed persons do not recognize clearly that Japan was a member of the Allied Nations. It is even the case that Japan’s contribution could be overshadowed by Chinese workers’ contribution that China is starting to emphasize.
Of course, the author does not intend to deny the significance of historians’ efforts to dig out the fact of Chinese workers’ contribution at war from hidden history and to place it appropriately in China’s modern history as well as her relations with Europe. Furthermore, the outcome of World War I also follows unhappy history between Japan and China, including the treatment of Shandong interests and May Fourth Movement. Therefore, it is necessary for Japanese to bear in mind a sensitive characteristic of the issue that needs to be treated prudently. On the other hand, however, as a series of events are expected to take place in various places in Europe, including Belgium to commemorate centennial anniversary from 2014 to 2018, Japan, though it might not be a case that we should celebrate anniversary or emphasize Japan’s contribution, needs to watch carefully if the anniversary is utilized for political purpose or propaganda.
6. Current Japan-Belgium and China-Belgium Relations
If we look into current Japan-Belgium relations, Belgium is ranked in the twenty-first place for Japan’s trade partner (fourth in Europe after Germany (eighth), Netherland (ninth), and France (twentieth)), and Japan is the ninth largest trade partner for Belgium. Belgium ranked fourth among European states in terms of Japan’s cumulative investment as of 2009 (65.2 billion Euros in the Netherlands, 29.4 billion Euros in Britain, 13.5 billion Euros in France and 12.6 billion in Belgium). This is a high number considering the size of Belgium. According to the survey conducted by the Japanese Embassy in Belgium, as of October 2011, 265 Japanese companies such as Toyota which has European headquarters here, Honda, Daikin Europe, Kaneka Group, Sony, Panasonic, AGC Glass Europe, and AW Europe are operating and 5,335 Japanese nationals live in Belgium. According to the survey by the Ministry of Justice of Japan, as of 2009, there are 685 Belgians living in Japan.
Now China’s economic presence in Europe has become more and more visible, and Japan’s status is relatively declining. Belgium is not an exception. China-Belgium trade volume has already surpassed Japan-Belgium one. According to Eurostat and Belgostat, in 2010, Belgium-Japan total trade amounted to 6.153 billion Euros (Belgian export: 1.423 billion Euros, Belgian import: 4.730 billion Euros), while Belgium-China trade volume in the same year reached 10.089 billion Euros (Belgian export: 4.279 billion Euros, Belgian import 5.810 billion Euros). The latter is already 1.6 times as much as the former. Though intra-EU trade accounts for more than 70% of Belgian exports and imports, China has become the largest exporter in Asia for Belgium, and the trade growth rate is double digit recently.
Japanese enterprises are still ahead of Chinese counterparts in areas of investment and the degree of rooting in local communities, but even in these areas, China is catching up with Japan very rapidly and vigorously. If cumulative investment of Japan and China as of 2010 is compared, the former accounts for 10.038 billion Euros, while the latter is 0.979 billion Euros, which means that there is still a gap of more than ten times. But the figure is quite different if we see the float rather than stock in 2010. China’s investment in Belgium in the year was 0.825 billion Euros, and Japan’s was 0.328 billion Euros. According to the statistics released by Chinese Ministry of Commerce in January 2012, China’s direct investment in Europe in 2011 amounted to 4.61 billion Euros, or 57.3% increase compared with the previous year (4.278 billion Euros or 94.1% increase in case of investment to EU). Chinese companies’ advancement in European market is accelerating, and China’s economic presence here has become more and more important to Europe that suffers from Euro crisis and debt problems. Belgium is not exceptional. According to news report, Geely automaker has acquired a Volvo factory in Ghent. Shanghai International Port Group has acquired a part of terminal in Zeebrugge. In telecommunications, Huawei has established a R&D center in Louvain-la-Neuve and a sales shop in Brussels, which created 150 employments. A giant home electric appliance manufacturer, Haier opens a new office and show room here. Lenovo has sold personal computers in retail shops downtown and an office in the suburb of Brussels. Delvaux, the most prestigious local leather goods brand has been acquired by a Hong Kong investor to expand a market in Asia. In order to financially support Chinese enterprises, Bank of China and ICBC (Industrial and Commercial Bank of China) opened a branch in the end of 2010.
Belgian side welcomes China’s investment. For example, Wallonia Foreign Trade & Investment Agency has a special office where a Chinese is employed to serve for Chinese business people. Prince Philippe visited China in October 2011, accompanied by 400 economic leaders to encourage China’s investment in Belgium as well as Belgian companies’ business activities in China. As a result of the mission, they say that hundreds of Chinese enterprises are interested in investing in Belgium. In tourism, Chinese tourists in Belgium seem to be overwhelming Japanese ones.
The gap between the number of Japanese and Chinese students in Belgium is decisive. Out of 6,000 foreign students in the Catholic University of Leuven, there are 500 Chinese, which is by far the largest among non-EU students. There is no reliable number of Japanese, but perhaps less than 10. Bruges is home to the prestigious university, College of Europe where future Eurocrats are created. As of March, 2012, three Chinese studied there, while no Japanese was enrolled.
In the period of imperialism, Belgium was involved in railway construction and establishment of Tianjin concession in China. Jin-Han railway that extends from north to south in Chinese continent between Beijing and Hankou (total length of 1,214 km) was completed by the supervision of Jean Jadot, a Belgian engineer in 1905 and owned by French-Belgian consortium, The Société d’études de Chemins de Fer in China. Belgium established a concession in Tianjin in 1902, and introduced a street tram there. However, Belgium was the first state to renounce its concession and return it to China in 1929. One of the reasons was that Belgium had decided to focus its resources of the colonial administration in the Belgian Congo. As a result, different from other European and Japanese powers that were criticized for their colonization or quasi-colonization of a part of China, Belgium was luckily not deeply involved and maintained a comparatively clean hand in China. There are, however, several famous Belgians who have close link with China such as Lu Zhengxiang, who was described above, Han Suyin who was born from a Chinese engineer father and Belgian mother, and wrote novels like “A Many-Splendored Thing,” which later became a Hollywood drama-romance movie and Philippe Paquet, a journalist who wrote a thick book on Madame Chiang Kai-shek.
7. Future Outlook
The author recently heard encouraging news about Japan’s popularity here. According to Mr. Dimitri Vanoverbeke, professor of Japanese studies at the Catholic University of Leuven, the number of students enrolled in Japanese studies was around 30-40 every year in the end of the 1990s, but the number has increased by 20% annually since 2002. The number of students of Chinese studies also increased as China emerged and reached 120 in 2001 in comparison with 70 of Japanese studies in the same year. However, the number rather declined probably because of concerns on China’s alienness, including its practice of human rights, rule of law, democracy or individual liberty. In 2011, freshmen of Japanese studies reached 118, while those of Chinese studies were 70. Professor Vanoverbeke analyzed that students’ interest in Japan was deep rooted because they genuinely like Japanese culture represented by “Cool Japan,” therefore, it would not be directly affected by a short-term ups and downs of Japan’s world status, while many of those specializing in Chinese studies chose them on the assumption that their choice would be helpful to their future career as China is a trend.
Recently, like in Paris, Japan Expo was held in Brussels with a large number of audiences, especially the youth though its size was smaller. They enjoy Japanese manga and animé, cosplay, Japanese chess, “go” and computer games, Japanese pop music, Japanese food like sushi and onigiri (rice ball), sake, and character goods such as Hello Kitty. They find a sophistication and discipline in tea ceremony, flower arrangement, and martial arts. In fact, many Belgians were impressed with Japanese disciplined manner and calm attitude shown when the great earthquake and tsunami hit Japan on March 11, 2012.
Japan shares basic values with Belgium such as human rights, democracy, liberty and rule of law. It is important for Japan to differentiate itself from China in Belgium, in other words, to compete with China not in quantity but in quality, and to demonstrate Japan’s originality and uniqueness that China cannot easily substitute for, by concentrating and utilizing Japan’s total powers, including soft power and smart power. This is a great question facing Japan now if it prefers keeping itself relevant to Europe.
Kazuyuki Katayama is now Minister and Deputy Chief of Mission of the Embassy of Japan to Belgium.
The views expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of the Japanese government, but only represent his personal position.