For this year’s Japanese Speech Contest in Brussels, I had the pleasure to prepare and hold a speech in honor of Belgium and Japan’s 150th year of mutual friendship. Despite some hickups and an incredibly high level amongst the other candidates (meeting all these excellent Japanese learners was both an extremely humbling experience as well as a perfect motivation booster for the coming years) I was awarded 3rd prize. This blog contains my speech’s English translation.
Hello everyone! I’m Stevie, a Belgian student at the university of Leuven and currently third year student in the faculty of Japan Studies. Lately, through my studies and the realization of 150 years of amity between our two nations, I’ve gained an increased interest in our mutual history; a long shared history dating from before Belgium was even officially recognized an independent country. That’s why, through this presentation, I would like to focus on two historical anecdotes in history that show not just a friendship between our countries’ governments, but a friendship between our people as well.
It is my belief that the empathy shared between our people stems from similar historical developments. Just as Belgium found its independency while cornered between the great nations of France and Germany, Japan rose as an independent world power despite the large Chinese and Russian empires on one side, and the Western industrial powers on the other. Thus, during the Meiji Period and the subsequent Iwakura Mission, Belgium was occasionally reported as a potential model nation with its people possessing a high spirit of self-reliance and independence, just as the Japanese people have.
Following this logic, during the first world war, Belgium was reported on a daily base in Japanese media as a brave, strong-spirited country that fell victim to the conquering German empire, while Belgian King Albert continued resistance from a small village near the French border. Eventually, the Tokyo and Osaka Asahi Newspaper launched both a campaign to collect funds for Belgium and planned the presentation of a Japanese sword to the Belgian king on the occasion of his birthday and as a means to encourage the brave resistance of the Belgian people.
Sugimura Kotaro, a journalist of the Asahi Newspaper, was sent to deliver the sword and travelled through Great Britain in late 1914. Here, he witnessed a great number of Belgian refugees and reported of their situation to his home country’s newspaper. After a difficult route he finally managed to reach the Belgian government in Exile and was allowed an opportunity to meet with the king. He presented the king a message of dedication from Asahi Shimbun’s president as well as hand him the Japanese sword, a sword said to have been used by Oda Nobunaga himself; the daimyo known to attempt to unify Japan at the end of the Warring States period. It goes without saying that this symbolic act was very well received in Belgian- and international press, and gave a good impression of the Japanese people in the eyes of Belgians.
It could be argued then that when disaster struck upon Japan in 1923 with the devastating Great Kanto Earthquake, Belgium reacted without hesitation to set up its own relief help and fundraisers to support a Japan, a friendly nation in dire need. The royal family co-operated with a newly found committee (“the Belgian National Committee for Aid to Japanese Disaster Victims”) to oversee a large-scale relief effort. Locally, war-veterans and churches worked together to set up Japan-Day events across the country, including in my own hometown of Antwerp. Belgian artists also made a unique contribution by creating new, or collecting and donating existing, art pieces and exhibiting them first in Brussels, and later on in Japan. All proceeds of sales and entrance fees went to the relief effort. Over 35 thousand visitors in Japan alone came to appreciate the exhibition, and amongst the art-purchasers were the empress and crown prince, buying over 30 pieces in total.
Of course, many countries participated in fundraisers for Japan, but Belgium’s effort was so strong they were preceded only by the large nations of the United States and the United Kingdom – surely a sign of our people’s mutual compassion and friendship, and hopefully a path we’re able to continue through the future, together.
With that, I would like to end my presentation. I hope you have enjoyed it and thanks for your attention.
- Japan & Belgium: An Itinerary of Mutual Inspiration, ed. W.F. Vande Walle, pp. 187-213. Tielt: Lannoo, 2016.
- Japan & Belgium: Four Centuries of Exchange. Brussels: Commissioners-General of the Belgian Government at the Universal Exposition of Aichi 2005, Japan.