Table Speech

JapÓn – What I Learned from the Japan-Spain Symposium

September 9, 2020

Mr. Shin’ichi Yokoyama
Honorary Advisor of Sumitomo Mutual Life Insurance Company

 In 2008, I was appointed Chairman of the Committee on Europe of the Japan Business Federation which gave me opportunities to become acquainted with prominent political and business figures in Europe. Tapping into this personal network, I was requested by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to co-chair the Japan-Spain Symposium in 2010. This bilateral conference was initiated by the State Visit by Emperor and Empress to Spain in 1994 and I succeeded Mr. Taro Nakayama, former Foreign Minister, as the 2nd Chair and participated in the 13th Symposium held in the northern Spanish city of Pamplona.

 Upon my return, I started to make extensive preparations for the 14th Symposium to be held in Japan and chose Sendai and Ishinomaki among other candidate cities to host the event. Just then, both cities were hit by the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami on March 11th, 2011, and suffered devastating damages. I had a pessimistic view to cancel the Symposium but my fellow co-chair Mr. Josep Piqué, former Spanish Foreign Minister, gave us a tremendous encouragement when he insisted to visit Japan and support the disaster-stricken areas in the most challenging times. We managed to hold the Symposium in Sendai later that year and the participants visited Ishinomaki still covered with massive heaps of rubble. I can clearly recall the heartfelt condolences and wishes for reconstruction offered by Mr. Piqué in his tearful closing remarks.

 Now, let me move on to the main topic of my speech. In 2012, the 15th Symposium was held in Seville located in southern Spain. Prior to the conference, we were invited to a suburban town Coria del Rio to meet the residents who use the surname Japón (meaning Japan in Spanish) and are said to be descendants of the first Japanese official envoy dispatched by the head of Sendai Domain Masamune Date in 1613. It is believed that the feudal lord Date wished to build trade relations with foreign countries and to revive the economy damaged by the massive earthquake that struck the area in 1611, exactly 400 years before the Great East Japan Earthquake. Historical documents recount that 5,000 lives were lost in Date Domain alone by the deadly tsunami. The envoy led by Tsunenage Hasekura was well- received in Spain and was granted an audience with King Philip III. The members were baptized, but back in Japan the Tokugawa Government issued the Ban on Christianity. The envoy returned home in despair, but a few of them decided to settle down in Coria del Rio. It is said that they were warmly received and respected for their diligence and chose to use the surname Japón with pride. We were impressed to see the statue of Tsunenaga Hasekura in traditional samurai attire, standing with solemn dignity. There were also shop signs in Japanese throughout the town, adding some Japanese taste to the charming neighborhoods. I resigned as Chair of Japan-Spain Symposium in 2018 but it was my pleasure to share the story about the Japanese descendants, Japón, who represent the long 400-year history of friendship between the two countries.