To celebrate the launch of ISRAERU webmagazine, H.E. Ms. Yaffa Ben-Ari, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the State of Israel to Japan, shares her thoughts about the relationship between Israel and Japan, and challenges of COVID-19, stories about her career and private life.
―――The world is now getting used to the ‘New Normal’, and yet there is so much pressure on corporations and countries to stop this from turning into the next recession, what are some of the challenges you’ve experienced because of the COVID-19 situation? How has it affected diplomacy work and in particular the relationship between Japan and Israel?
Ms. Ben-Ari: Let me divide that into different phases and levels. I believe we have a personal challenge as well as national challenge, even as a society, as a global society we have a challenge. The recession is not the only damage. Diplomacy is basically connections and relationships so you have to be accessible to people.
I think the crisis we are in today is an opportunity. My philosophy in life is that every crisis is an opportunity to create something better out of it. I believe that this “new normal” has definitely a health hazard because we do not know what to expect. We are facing anxiety because of uncertainty that leads to other damages beside our health. The major challenge I think is more human and social, even more than the health challenge. And above that there is the economic challenge.
The economic damage has a much heavier burden on the people. It has to do about being a productive and functional human being. The situation also changed our ability to move, the ability to have contacts and develop relations. Countries now discovered how dependent they are it the process of production. If a country manufactures a product but needs a particular part from another country it became a problem. Many economies are now facing a huge challenge of how to deal with poverty, how to deal with unemployment and how to deal with the recession. Many bankruptcies, and all of this economic crisis is creating a social crisis and you can see it in America these days. It creates dramatic political reaction to the pandemic that creates a dangerous political and economic situation.
We are all going through mainly an external transformation. On the practical exercise of diplomacy and the relationship between Japan and Israel, taking this crisis as an opportunity – we should deal with this new challanges together. Our aim is to find ways to enhance economic collaboration. As a matter of fact we are discovering now new content by using the formula of webinar discussions. Meetings are done through Zoom and we have E-learning and cyber space. It’s a win-win situation when you find the right subject and reach each other for the benefit of Japan and Israel economies. I see this transitional period as something that will lead us to a better reality of the relations between our countries.
―――You’ve had a distinguished career in the diplomatic arena, having held several top positions in Europe, West Africa and the United States. Can you tell us about your experiences and your progression to your current role here in Japan? What have been some of the biggest differences between being a diplomat in Europe (countries you have experience with like Serbia and Macedonia), West Africa (Liberia) and the US (San Francisco) compared to Asia?
Ms. Ben-Ari: It’s all about completely different areas, different cultures, different challenges, different lifestyle and quality of life. Above all, differences in times and periods. I have experienced working in different eras. Not only because of a different region. I worked in 4 different continents – Africa, North America, East Europe and Asia. The difference between the continents is one, another is a different period of time.
I was in Africa in the beginning of the 80’s, and then moved to North America. We didn’t have computers or mobiles at that time. Looking back it looks like the “Middle Ages”. I had to get around without a phone or Google maps – you had to ask for directions. I remember the great innovative automotive machine I manage to get into our consulate in SF saving time of the worker who was sending in the mail information about Israel. The pile of papers was put in one side of the machine and it would fold one by one, put it in an envelope and placed a sticker with the address. Until then it was done by hand. Now it is all done digitally!
Indeed, I’ve been through different generations of practice before arriving to my position in Japan. The major outstanding change between the different positions is the difference in the technological development of our age. The 90’s and 2000’s are entirely different. Even when I look back at my work in China 10 years ago it was a different time compered to today.
But, no matter where you are, people are people! You need to be attentive and reachable, no matter in which country or culture you are. Diplomatic relations in the first place is about people to people relationship. I’m almost 3 years in Japan and just beginning to understand the cultural differences between us. Being experienced in different cultures, I believe I’m more open and capable of adjusting in a new country and with a very unique culture such as Japan.”
―――In your opinion, what are the biggest differences and similarities between Israel and Japan? And since you have experienced working with South Korea and China as well, what makes them so interesting in your eyes?
Ms. Ben-Ari: First of all, wherever I am for me it’s the most important place. Because my assignment is to prompt the relationship between Israel and the host country, and I have to be committed to it. I’m privileged and very proud to be the highest diplomat of Israel in Japan. In the last 5 years, even before I arrived, we have achieved a great development in the relationship between our two countries.
You have to remember that our relationship is the oldest one Israel has in Asia, in the modern period. Diplomatic relation between Israel and Japan started from 1952. Two weeks after the American occupation was over. Since then we have known ups and downs. The current change in the relationship is based on the leadership of the two prime ministers and their mutual visits. The Israeli government adopted in 2015 a very unique resolution to promote the economic relations between the two countries. For me the decision to come here in 2017 was to be in the right place and the right time to further develop Japan and Israel relationship. I think both countries share a lot in common. Israelis are attracted to Japan out of respect and admiration. Israel is a very small country with a population of 9 million people. In comparison, Israel’s population is less than the entirety of Tokyo.
Japanese are very modest and respectful. I wish we were as good as Japanese are. We have a lot to learn from you. But both of us have ancient traditions with many similarities. We share common values, like the significance of the family, respect for the customs and importance of education. At the same time we have really great differences. Israelis are very assertive and vibrant. Japanese are careful and patient, they take their time. The process of decision making in Japan is completely different from the one in Israel where the process may be too short. Israelis take more risks while Japanese don’t like to take risks. I think these are the main differences between Israel and Japan.
―――Diplomatic relations between Japan and Israel appear to be at a high point, with many media outlets talking about the trade relations between the two countries. What are some of the things you feel particularly proud of in regards to Japan/Israel relations since becoming the ambassador? How has the relationship between the two countries developed in recent years and what projects and initiatives stand out in your mind?
Ms. Ben-Ari: I already started talking about that, it’s about the economic relations. The economic ties are much more impressive when we consider technology forces, and in the sense of growth of Japanese investment in Israeli innovations. In 2014 the investment of Japan in Israel stood around 200 Million US $. At the end of last year, we had already surpassed 7 Billion US $. This is a unique development that I feel very proud of, both in numbers and qualitative of the deals. An example is Mitsubishi Tanabe Pharma purchasing in 2017 NeuroDerm – an innovative pharmaceutical Israeli company. Japan’s direct and indirect investment in Israel’s start-up eco-system has made Japan to one of the leading foreign investor in Israel. It is exciting that Japan find Israel as an asset for their economy. Likewise for Israel it’s exciting not only to make an exit, but rather to collaborate with diverse partners because it provides stimulating challenges to develop its technology. A unique collaboration is being made between Israeli innovations and the Automobile industry. Israeli developers made major contribution of AI, sensors and cameras to this industry. Mobileye is one example. Another field where Israel has world leadership is Cyber Security. Japan is keen to invest in cyber security projects. The Israeli Cyber security experience is a “boutique” experience. But collaborating with Japan challenges which are on a bigger scale helps upgrading Israel’s capability. Israel has signed 2 agreements on Cyber Security with the Government of Japan and we were even invited as a guest to take part in the 2019 G20 Ministerial Meeting on Trade and Digital Economy.
I believe that Japan and Israel has complementing economies due to many similarities. Both countries are developed and have highly educated and smart people. The combination of the two systems can create not only benefits to the two economies but also to other countries of the world.
In the last few years I witnessed a growing number of collaborations in many cultural fields. For example, we had ‘Jerusalem Design Week’ partnering with Design Art Tokyo 2019. We find mutual talents and creative ideas in the cultural field. We have much collaboration in research and developments in the medical field and the technological fields as well. Last but not least is of course tourism. I’m proud of the fact that we managed to achieve an historic decision to open a direct line between Tel-Aviv and Tokyo. I do hope that the current events due to the COVID-19 pandemic will not postpone this important development for more than a year.
―――What were the reactions you have had about being a woman ambassador in Japan? What is your opinion about feminism in Japan and do you have a woman who inspired your beliefs?
Ms. Ben-Ari: Every woman has a woman who inspired her, for me it’s my mother. We are who we are because of our parents and the mother definitely has the upper hand on education. My mom raised 5 children. She was a holocaust survivor and did not have the opportunity to have a career. Her role in life was to teach us to be independent. All my sisters are having their own careers and are self-supporting.
Definitely I’m a feminist in my spirit even though I have never been promoted for being a woman. Throughout my life I aimed to be a successful diplomat, regardless of my gender. I have never received any favors because I’m a woman, and I think you should be judged by the quality of your work, your service and your character and not by your gender. Many countries have this problem of having a big gap between women and men, still exists in Israel and Japan. I think Japan and Israel are facing a necessary change to bridge the gap between status of men and women. First and foremost it is up to us. We should be able to develop our careers without interference. Indeed, choosing a right partner who will support us is crucial.
I am very impressed with several Japanese women. I can name two in very high positions like Governor Ms. Yuriko Koike, she has a charm and leadership qualities. Another one is Ms. Hayashi, Mayor of Yokohama, who had a very impressive career. In both countries, both Japan and Israel, we have ladies who managed to make it and served as role models. Today we see more and more women like that but it’s not enough. It all begins at home, how you arrange your life with your partner and how you deal with the division of labour at home. This is a basic condition. Even when you have children, and I fully recommend women around the world to have children, because there is no bigger happiness in your life than having a child. I’m so very fortunate to have a remarkable daughter and an amazing grandchild.
――― El Al Airlines was about to begin operating a direct line between Japan and Israel. Why do you think it took so long to happen and how successful do you believe it could be?
Ms. Ben-Ari: We were just on verge of fulfilling the dream that many ambassadors before me fantasized about – opening a direct line between Tokyo and Tel Aviv. Before, there was no demand so no company wanted to do that. Why did it take so much time? It parallels the level of the relations, and because the interest was not even. More Israelis have shown interest in Japan than Japanese people have in Israel. In recent years tourism movement from Israel to Japan started to grow tremendously. The numbers reached over 45,000 Israeli tourists a year to Japan. The minimum number to a profitable line should be around 80,000 a year, so with additional 27,000 Japanese tourists a year we came pretty close. Unfortunately the pandemic damaged it at the moment.
The economic crisis following the Covid-19 has shattered many business plans and new developments. This pandemic disaster will be with us for at least a year. But despite this I believe new initiatives will come and we will create new opportunities. The more we prompt business between Israel and Japan, the more Japanese business people will be coming to Israel. More Israelis, who have been discovering Japan in growing numbers, will want to travel here again in the future. I hope that when El Al Airlines will get out of its functional problems they will reconsider taking the challenge.
―――Can you tell us about an interesting or unique experience that happened to you during your time in Japan? Also, what is your favorite Japanese food and where do you like to travel in Japan?
Ms. Ben-Ari: That’s the easiest question. The most exciting moment that I had was the moment when I submitted my credentials to the former emperor, emperor Akihito. I felt like I’m touching history and I was enchanted. I shook hands with the Emperor of Japan and it was a fantastic unforgettable moment. Later on I was also privileged to, together with my husband, to meet the emperor and the empress. Both of them were so impressive and I felt very privileged to have the opportunity to have a talk. This was the most unique experience I had in Japan.
I had some other special moments; one of them was of course the Concert we had celebrating 70 years of Israel’s Independence. Bringing our famous diva Rita to Japan was another dream of mine, I believed she was really suitable to touch the hearts of Japanese people. I remember it was a great success to get her together with the Tokyo symphony orchestra and Atsushi Exile. This joint cultural venture was exactly what I wanted to achieve, it went so well, the hall was full and the crowd was captivated! This event represents the potential of what we can do together even though we sing in different languages.
As for a favorite food in Japan, Japan offers you a variety and different styles of food. Every Israeli likes to eat sushi and I like Japanese style sushi. I mean, fish on top of the rice and not rolled inside. I also like soba, a hot one with vegetables and pumpkin.
About traveling, I still have not covered all the 47 prefectures but I’m getting close. I explored the islands of Kyushu, Shikoku and some parts of Honshu Island. I enjoy Onsens(hot spas) very much, visiting temples and generally traveling thru nature. The most interesting are the historical places.”