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Real men wear Hello Kitty

By Marie-Danielle Smith      

New Japanese ambassador is an expert in sake, manga and cosplay.

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He pulled out his business card. Then he pulled out a small box. He opened it, revealing a stamp he then used to leave a perfect image of his face on the card.

“Japanese technology,” he said matter-of-factly, with a gentle smile.

Kenjiro Monji, Ottawa’s new ambassador from Japan, is no ordinary man.

After the dazzling card presentation, the next thing to notice about Mr. Monji, as he sat on an armchair in his office for an interview with Embassy Monday, was that he was wearing a necktie covered in tiny Hello Kitty icons.

It’s one of his approximately 400 neckties. He has world heritage-themed ties. He has bicycle ties—for the Tour de France, of course. “It’s a very cheap hobby,” said Mr. Monji.

Not to mention 70 or 80 pairs of cuff links.

He wore his favourites, a pair featuring small globes, to the interview. “Because I am a diplomat,” he said. He has cuff links featuring tiny champagne bottles too.

Mr. Monji said he hesitated a little about whether to wear the Hello Kitty tie or one of several featuring Japanese sake.

That’s because he’s one of only 54 Sake Samurai in the world.

It’s a title dearer to him than that of ambassador, he said. It’s given to individuals devoted to the promotion of sake abroad, a passion the career diplomat discovered in the late ‘80s and has brought to every posting.

“I gave many, many sake-tasting lectures in Brussels, London and Paris, and also in Tokyo to foreign diplomats and defence attachés,” said Mr. Monji. “It has a fairly wide variety. Not as much as wine. We have some different colours and maturities and flavours.”

On June 17 the embassy will hold a sake tasting with limited seat reservations. Mr. Monji hopes to import more sake into Canada, but the Liquor Control Board of Ontario "is rather strict."

The Japanese envoy has been in Canada for only three and a half weeks. But he has already hosted two delegations from Japan and met seven cabinet ministers, seven junior ministers and around 30 MPs, he said. He has attended many diplomatic events and finds Ottawa comfortable so far—“it looks like I’m living in a park.”

Last weekend, Mr. Monji said he enjoyed the Tulip Festival at Dow’s Lake with his wife, Etsuko, who moved to Ottawa with him. Their grown-up, married kids are in Japan.

He said he was sad to miss out on Ottawa ComicCon. He plans to talk to organizers and participate next year.

Mr. Monji said he’s a big supporter of Japanese manga, anime, J-pop idols and cosplayers (people who dress as characters from Japanese graphic novels and animated TV shows and movies).

In a stack of papers he brought to the interview, Mr. Monji pulled out several sheets featuring photos from previous diplomatic postings, even as another diplomat from the embassy captured photos of the ambassador being interviewed by Embassy.

In several of the photos the ambassador poses with groups of cosplayers or young pop idols. One photo features three fancily-clad, young, female cosplayers. When Mr. Monji was in charge of public diplomacy from 2008 to 2010 at Japan’s foreign affairs ministry, he said he nominated the three girls as “Kawaii ambassadors,” which translates as “cute ambassadors,” to engage in cultural exchanges.

Though Mr. Monji is well-versed in pop culture—he mentioned he likes to read manga such as Astro Boy and Phoenix—and, of course, in sake, he is also expert in economic and security issues, having had a formidable career so far in diplomacy.

Most recently, from 2013 until earlier this year, he was Japan’s delegate at UNESCO headquarters in Paris. He served as Japan’s ambassador to Qatar from 2010 to 2013—he pointed to a photo taken at the Japanese emperor’s birthday party, and another taken at Doha’s first cosplay fashion show—and to Iraq in 2007 and 2008.

Mr. Monji was also director-general for international fairs at Japan’s ministry of defence from 2004 to 2007.

“I really felt what you call soft power,” he said about his posting in Iraq. Japan is Iraq’s number-two donor and is trusted and accepted there, he said. “At this moment, security is very important,” he added, acknowledging Canada’s involvement in fighting ISIS.

“We share the same view, the necessity to fight against jihadists and terrorists and of course, Islamic State,” he said, using another name for ISIS. Information sharing and anti-terrorism policy co-ordination will be something Mr. Monji focuses on.

Other priorities for his posting in Canada include encouraging trade, especially in the energy and science-and-technology sectors. He said the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks are a priority. “We hope to achieve an agreement at the earliest possible moment, including Canada, of course,” he said.

According to Canada’s foreign affairs department, exports to Japan, mainly mineral fuels and oils, totalled almost $11 billion in 2013, while imports from Japan, mainly vehicles, vehicle parts, nuclear and electrical machinery, stood at almost $14 billion. Japanese foreign direct investment in Canada totalled $17.3 billion and Canadian foreign direct investment in Japan amounted to $4.7 billion.

Japan and Canada are negotiating a bilateral economic partnership agreement, have invested in a joint project focused on life sciences and are in 2+2 dialogues with their security and defence ministries, which include discussions on maritime security.

One of the most important things that Mr. Monji said he wants to focus on is proliferating cultural and academic exchanges between the two countries.

“Canada has a very good image in Japan, and so does Japan in Canada. At the same time, not many people know exactly, in detail, what Canada really is or what Japan really is,” he said.

There aren’t any Canadian reporters stationed in Japan, and Japanese reporters are usually based in Washington, DC or New York. “Unless there is something extremely bad or extremely good, we don’t see the news in newspapers or TV,” he said. That’s why people-to-people exchanges are important for mutual understanding.

Mr. Monji said his first contact with Canada came in 1970. He was 16 or 17 years old, participating in an American Field Service exchange to upstate New York.

“I already knew, for over 45 years, the very cold weather, -20 degrees, or snow day, or colouring of the maple trees,” he said. “So exchange is very important.”

The number of Japanese students in Canada is increasing, despite a general downward trend, he said. About 11,000 young Japanese people study here.

About 360 Canadian students are in Japan, and many more participate in the JET program every year, which in its history has seen 8,400 Canadians move to Japan for a year or more for work, usually to teach English. He said he understands about 23,000 people in Canada are currently learning Japanese.

Canadians are going to be learning more about sake, too, if Mr. Monji has any say.

Political appointments from Ottawa

Foreign Minister Rob Nicholson recently made two political appointments to the ranks of Canada’s ambassadors.

On May 5, the minister announced Élaine Ayotte would be replacing Jean-Pierre Blackburn at UNESCO in Paris. Mr. Blackburn is a former Harper government cabinet minister. 

Ms. Ayotte was a long-time journalist and host on radio and television for almost 20 years, for TQS, TVA and Radio-Canada in Quebec, before becoming a city councillor in Montreal from 2009 to 2013.

Her portfolio as a councillor included culture, heritage and design.

Meanwhile, David Alward is replacing Pat Binns as Canada’s consul general in Boston, the minister announced April 24. Mr. Binns, before taking up the Boston spot, was the Progressive Conservative premier of Prince Edward Island from 1996 to 2007. 

Mr. Alward was the Progressive Conservative premier of New Brunswick from 2010 to 2014, having first entered politics in 1999. Before that, he had worked for the Canada Revenue Agency and the then-Human Resource Development Canada.


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