[From Novemberber Issue 2014]
Wife of the Belgian Ambassador to Japan
My husband came to Japan on the 16th of March, 2011, five days after the East Japan earthquake, because he felt that it was then that it would provide moral support to the Belgian community in Japan. For practical reasons I came to Japan one month later, in April. It was terrible to come at that time and see what had happened. I had never experienced an earthquake and there were still aftershocks, but I got used to it gradually.
Language is the only problem for me in daily life in Japan. The transportation system is very organized. Once you have your PASMO (IC card), a plan of the metro and know all the lines, it’s no problem. In the stations, there’s always somebody who can help you. They speak a little bit of English and know enough to explain to you which train to take. Shopping is not a problem. In the supermarket, sometimes, the lack of English is sometimes a little difficult. But many times, Japanese people understand what we are asking.
Regarding Japanese people, a lot of people might think that Japanese people are very reserved. It’s true, but they are also very open. I can talk to my Japanese friends about anything. It’s not like they are holding things back, so for me, this is an aspect I haven’t experienced.
Then there’s the civic sense of Japanese people. In Japan, there is a huge respect for everything: for people, society, rules, and for things in general. They show respect for other people by not throwing litter on the floor, thus keeping the environment clean. This is something we’ve lost in Europe.
I would say that one thing Japan could learn from us is how to have a more relaxed atmosphere in schools: the schools children go to here are too strict. In Europe, it’s a little bit more relaxed.
I certainly think that the security in Japan is wonderful. In the West, in some parts of our major cities, there is a growing feeling of insecurity. Here, I feel there is 100% security. I think this comes from having a respectful attitude to others.
In Belgium people are very nice. They like to go out, they enjoy life, and they’re hospitable. I think we’re generous. We don’t open our doors right away, but once we know people, we’re very open. As we speak two or three languages, this facilitates communication with other cultures.
The center of our cities have beautiful terraces and museums. When you think of the Flemish artists, some of the best artists in the world come to mind. We excel at modern art and modern dance.
We are a very creative country. We have good architects and beautiful modern design. So for a small country with 11 and a half million inhabitants, we really have a lot to offer. Also, in certain respects, we have two cultures: part Flemish and part French. These two cultures make the country richer.
Home to the EU, NATO and numerous embassies, Brussels is an international city. You can hear a wonderful mix of languages in Brussels, Swedish, Spanish, Italian, as well as French and Dutch. This creates an international atmosphere. It has a very international cultural life because there are plays in Dutch, English, and French. All movies are shown as soon as they’re released. Food is one of the Belgium’s top attractions.
The housing is very beautiful. You can live in a wonderful villa just outside of Brussels and commute every day. It’s a small country so we can go to Germany, France, and Holland. Paris is just one hour, 20 minutes by train. People can travel all over. One problem in Belgium is the traffic. A lot of trucks pass through the country in transit.
We have a lot of nice little cities. Of course Bruges, which is like walking through a museum. I think a lot of Japanese people don’t know Ghent; a city not far from Bruges and Brussels. This university city, where I studied, is very lively. It has canals, beautiful houses and paintings.
Antwerp is beautiful with its cathedrals, and the house of Rubens. Antwerp has a different mindset from other cities; because it has always been an important port, people are a bit more cosmopolitan and open.
The south of Belgium is the French speaking part. Namur is a beautiful little city. It is hilly and very green. The food is great; you can eat game in small restaurants in season. It’s nice to do sports and hunting there.
The coastline and the sea are beautiful. It’s a grey sea with white beaches. There, you can cycle. A lot of apartments have been constructed along the coastline. I think all Belgians are especially fond of the coast, because it’s where many people spend their summer holidays.
In the end, I realize how much I love Japan when I talk about it. I take lessons in ikebana and sumi-e. I like flower arranging myself, so I enjoy going to the flower shop and making my own arrangements for the house. I hope Japanese people appreciate what a wonderful country they have.
Photos courtesy of Tourist Office for Flanders & Brussels, Belgium