[From February Issue 2015]
Ambassador of the Republic of Azerbaijan
“Before I came to Japan, I imagined that since it’s a developed country, all the windows would open and shut electronically. But conditions in the rooms of the lodging house I rented as an international student were surprisingly different from what I had imagined: they were very small, the toilet was shared, and we had to go to the public bath to take a bath,” says Ambassador Gursel ISMAYILZADA in perfect Japanese.
The Ambassador started working at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1993, but went to Japan in October of 1996, as a graduate student. “After graduating from Baku University in my home country, I received a scholarship from Japan and studied Japanese at Tsukuba University for six months. After that I went on to receive a master’s degree and doctorate at Sophia University. In January of 2005 I returned home, but wanting to give something back to the country that had facilitated my studies, I returned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and in September of that year I started working as a diplomat at the newly-established Embassy of the Republic of Azerbaijan in Japan.
Located on the west coast of the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. “My country opened an embassy in Japan in 2005. After getting involved with the establishment of the embassy, I first worked as counsellor and then became an ambassador. The fact I could speak Japanese was a huge advantage in my career as a diplomat.”
When the ambassador was a student, there was no Japanese program at Baku University. “After I decided to study abroad in Japan I found some textbooks – which were mostly in Russian and English – and spent a few months studying Japanese on my own. The Azerbaijani language has more vowels than Japanese, and the word order is similar, so learning to speak Japanese wasn’t too difficult. But learning to read and write hiragana and katakana along with the many kanji, was quite a struggle,” he recalls.
He quickly became accustomed to the food and customs of Japan. “Japanese food is healthy and simple. Kaiseki (a traditional multi-course meal) is exquisite. My favorite dishes are yakitori and shabushabu,” he says with a smile. “I also quickly got accustomed how to use the Japanese public bath. I am the type of person who wants to experience everything and was able to adapt,” he adds.
“Before coming to Japan, I thought the Japanese were very serious and diligent, living like monks in a monastery. But once I got there, I saw all the comedy and rakugo (traditional comic storytelling) on TV. Although students took their studies very seriously on campus, at night they would go out drinking, even with the professors. Then they were right back in class the following day with the same serious faces again, which was amazing,” he laughs.
“By living in Japan, I’ve deepened my knowledge of Japanese culture,” he says. “For instance, I learned the difference between giri (obligation) and gimu (duty) from reading Ruth BENEDICT’s ‘The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.’ But after coming here and interacting with Japanese people, there came a point at which I realized what ‘obligation’ truly meant. I gained a deeper understanding of what was going on in ‘Black Rain’ – a movie set in Japan – when I watched it again after returning to Japan.”
“The best quality of the Japanese is the way they work together. I want to learn more about this from them,” says the ambassador. “When the Tohoku disaster occurred, I heard the news in my home country and it greatly saddened me, but at the same time I knew that Japan would quickly get back on its feet again. In fact, at Sendai Airport, which had been damaged by the tsunami, partial service was restored within just one month after the disaster. The teamwork of Japanese people is truly astonishing.”
“On top of that, Japanese people are gourmets. I think that in Tokyo, you can eat better Italian food than in Italy and better French cuisine than in France. Tokyo has more Michelin stars than anywhere else. Japan’s other attractions include its unique cultural traditions such as kabuki,” the ambassador says.
“The people of Japan and Azerbaijan are alike in both friendliness and hospitality. My country is just about the size of Hokkaido. You can get around the whole country in a short amount of time, so please come visit it. I recommend trying dolma, which is mutton wrapped in grape leaves with yogurt dressing. The cheese and kebabs are also delicious, and each locality has its own unique pilaf.”
Azerbaijan is a country rich in high grade petroleum and natural gas. “Because the petroleum is close to the surface, there are places where fires burn continuously. I think that’s probably why the fire-worshipping Zoroaster religion originated here, and it’s said that even the name of the country derives from fire. My country is at the crossroads of the East and the West. Boasting numerous historical buildings, part of the capital, Baku, has been designated a World Heritage site.
“My country gained its independence in 1918 for two years, becoming the first democratic republic in the Islamic world. During that time, women were given the right to vote. Then, Azerbaijan became a part of the Soviet Union in 1920, and religion was prohibited. The majority of citizens are Muslim, but Azerbaijan is a secular country,” the ambassador states.
“The people of Azerbaijan are very pro-Japanese,” says the ambassador. “During the Soviet Era, ISHIKAWA Takuboku’s haiku about the suffering caused by poverty were often read for propaganda purposes. This fostered pro-Japanese sentiment amongst the people. In today’s market economy, they admire Japan as a country that has achieved high economic growth, and Japanese-made cosmetics are a huge hit with women. Anime is popular among the youth,” says the ambassador.
“Japanese martial arts are very popular. There are many people practicing judo and karate, and in the Beijing Olympics an Azerbaijani won a gold medal in judo. The Sumo Federation has a presence in Azerbaijan, with wrestlers competing in international sumo tournaments. Eventually there will be Azerbaijani sumo wrestlers in Japanese professional sumo. If that happens, I would love to give them their sumo names,” the Ambassador says expectantly.
“Lastly, I’d like tell non-Japanese readers studying Japanese that you made the right decision. Japanese is a language worth learning,” says the ambassador. “Interacting with Japanese people is the best way to improve your Japanese. It’s difficult to learn the difference between ageru (give) and morau (receive/be given) from a textbook, but you can grasp it through actual conversation with Japanese people. Please do come to Japan and converse with Japanese people as much as you can,” says the ambassador.
- Embassy of the Republic of Azerbaijan
- Courtesy of Happo-en
Text: SAZAKI Ryo