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Ambassador Koji Haneda: I will miss the people, the food, the beauty of the Philippines

By Jose E.B. Antonio Published Nov 13, 2020 4:00 pm

The outgoing ambassador of Japan to the Philippines shares his legacy of building stronger ties between our countries, his beautiful hometown that’s worth a visit after this pandemic, and the Filipino athlete he is rooting for at the Tokyo Olympics

Japan’s Ambassador to the Philippines Koji Haneda and his wife, Madame Ihoko Haneda, are one of the most charming couples in the local diplomatic circle.

First assigned as a diplomat to the Philippines in the 1980s, the “balikbayan” Ambassador nurtured strong ties with our country and amassed deep knowledge and understanding of Philippine culture. The Hanedas integrated well and quickly to Manila’s circles while also showcasing the beauty of Japanese traditions.

With his enabling abilities, Ambassador Haneda has brought the Philippines-Japan relations to a higher level of friendship and, as President Duterte called it back in 2017, “The golden age of strategic partnership.” Under his watch, Japan rolled out significant development assistance for the Philippine government’s Metro Manila Subway project, became one of the first responders to the Marawi rehabilitation, and most recently granted a 50-billion yen bilateral loan (approximately P24 billion), or the COVID-19 Crisis Response Emergency Support Loan, with almost no interest to the Philippine government.

Being recalled from his three-year productive posting here, Ambassador Haneda is indeed leaving a legacy of accomplishments to further enhance the relationship between both of our countries, as well as friends and colleagues who will miss him and Madame Ihoko dearly. I am sharing excerpts from our conversation here during my last visit to his residence before his return to Japan this November.

JOSE E.B. ANTONIO: Your posting in the Philippines saw the Japan-PH partnership through the Heisei Era (under Emperor Akihito) and the Reiwa Era (from 2019 under Emperor Naruhito). How did the friendship and partnership between the two nations prosper through these eras under your watch?

AMBASSADOR KOJI HANEDA: The Japan-Philippine relations have been always very good in the recent times. So, under my time — three years — I'm glad that I can further strengthen our already good relationship. And especially since Japan has become so popular among the Filipino people as a destination to visit over the recent years.

I think I was able to contribute to the infrastructure development and especially the restarting of the Metro Manila Subway as well as the Commuter Railway (which will be completed before the end of this administration). We were the first to give assistance to the Marawi rehabilitation. Mindanao is on top of our agenda so the government of Japan has consistently assisted the economic development as well as its peace and security. I think even on that score we have been able to contribute.

Even during the pandemic, we were the first to extend large-scale assistance and we were the largest donor during the pandemic (quarantines), granting not only loans but also medical aid, equipment, facilities and so on. I think I've been lucky to be of help to the development and also the response to this pandemic.

And I thank you for that, on behalf of our country our countrymen.

After we eased the visa restrictions seven years ago, the number of Filipinos visiting Japan increased by seven times to more than 600,000 people. Unfortunately, since the pandemic we haven't seen the tourists (return) yet but I hope that in the near future we will be in a situation where we will resume travel gradually. Hopefully, by the time when the Tokyo Olympics will be held in July next year, more people can visit Japan.

You know, Hilda and I are one of your avid tourists in Japan because we love the food, Hilda loves the shopping, and I like the photography in Japan. So, for my next trip there I will focus on Fukuoka. It’s a very historic place.

Okay, very good. Fukuoka is in Kyushu, the southernmost island. I happen to be from Kyushu. I recommend to include the visit to my hometown, which is very beautiful.

What is the name of your hometown?

Kagoshima. In Kagoshima there is a very beautiful bay with a very active volcano, like Taal. In January when the Taal volcano erupted, for me it’s something I’d gotten used to.

There is one hotel in Kagoshima on top of the hill overlooking the bay and you can see the volcano. There is an outdoor onsen, a hot spa. This is one of the best three outdoor onsen (places) in Japan. Stay there in the hotel and in the early morning you dip in the onsen and see the sunrise. It's very beautiful.

I’ll do my photography there!

So, combine your visit to my hometown with Fukuoka, of course. Kagoshima is only a couple of hours by bullet train from Fukuoka. From Tokyo to Fukuoka it will take you seven hours. But you know, Philippine Airlines has a direct flight to Fukuoka so you can visit it straight from Manila by PAL.

Thank you for that tip. My trips usually combine visits to historical sites, dining spots, and scenes for my photography.

I can give you some travel tips. So, this is for when travelers are accepted in Japan again. This is the photo of the hotel on top of the hill (proceeds to show photos from his phone). There was an Imperial Navy base here so, before the Pearl Harbor attack, the navy practiced here because this (place) had a similar configuration to Pearl Harbor.

Wow, I cannot wait to travel.

This is why I think what's most important is the grassroots — you know, people-to-people exchanges. On that score, in the seven years, (Filipino arrivals to Japan have increased) seven times, people now travel to Japan, and also from Japan, the number of tourists is increasing so I think these people-to-people grassroots exchanges are very important to strengthen the relationship.

The number of tourists could have gone higher, especially with the Olympics, which was postponed.

But next year, we will have the Olympics. I checked the records and you have a very good, promising athlete, the gymnast Carlos Yulo who is now in Japan training under a Japanese coach. Last year or a year or so ago, he won a tournament and had beaten the Japanese, Chinese, and the Europeans. He's very promising. The Japanese TV company NHK came up with a one-hour documentary of Carlos’ days in Tokyo. It's very moving but unfortunately this is only in Japanese and there's no English or Tagalog translation. Carlos is an introvert, a very quiet person, so his Japanese coach asked him to keep a diary in Japanese. Because he is training in Japan, he's also studying Japanese. So, keeping a diary has become a way of communicating between Carlos and his coach.

When you were appointed as Japan’s Ambassador the Philippines, what agenda did you set that would define your posting?

I started my diplomatic career in Manila. I'm very glad, you know, to be back as ambassador to the Philippines and serve here. So, I know the people, their kindness, friendship and the hospitality. I think my biggest aim during my post as ambassador was to further strengthen our bilateral relations in every field and I think I was able to contribute to a certain degree, but it's a tall order. It's a never-ending story. What's important is to continue to contribute to the work.

When I'm in the Philippines, my job is to promote Japan but when I'm back in Japan, my job is to promote the Philippines. The latter part will continue and I'll do this even if I am no longer an ambassador, but as a kind of an honorary ambassador.

Is there anything more you wish you could have accomplished given more time?

One thing that I want to see is for more young female Japanese tourists to visit the Philippines, and that would trigger more visitors from Japan. That would be something which I would like to do, because if young female tourists go then the male tourists and the older generation will follow.

You’ve been to the Philippines since the early ‘80s. How much of the Filipino language have you learned to speak by now?

Unfortunately, on that score I’ve been very lazy because Filipinos speak English. (Laughs) When I make a speech, I use some Tagalog words but I should have studied more. You also have so many dialects, you have Visayan language, too.

Are there new or interesting things you have still discovered about the Philippines and the Filipinos during your posting?

You are abundant in beautiful nature, because you have for yourself 7,000 islands and the beaches and mountains are so beautiful. One will never be able to visit all those good places because there are so many. Each place has its unique beauty. I’ve been to Baguio, Palawan, Marawi, and Mindanao. I was the first ambassador to enter the Marawi ground zero.

What are your favorites in one word — favorite Filipino dish, favorite Filipino festival, favorite Filipino quality?

Sinigang and lechon are my favorite foods. For the Filipino qualities these are friendliness, openness and hospitality. For the festival, I remember Masskara Festival in Bacolod.

What will you miss most about the Philippines?

I will miss the people, the food, and the beauty of the country. I will miss everything.