150 Years Bilateral Relations Switzerland – Japan. What is next?

On 6 February 1864 bilateral relations between Switzerland and Japan were established with the signing of the first trade and friendship agreement between the Swiss Confederation and the Taikun, i.e. the (fourteenth and last but one) Shogun, Tokugawa Iemochi (1846 – 1866). For the Japanese people of that era the date corresponded to the 29th day of the twelfth moon of the third Bunkyu year. For this reason Japan and Switzerland currently prepare the celebration of the first 150 years of bilateral relations in the year 2014.

What might have been the reasons which induced Switzerland, a country at the center of Europe, a land-locked country without a marine force or colonies, to establish economic and diplomatic relations with Japan, a country considered isolationist and which lies 9’674 km to the east of Bern?

Switzerland and Japan share various common features: a rugged, mountainous territory of which only a small part may be used for agriculture, few natural resources and a hardworking population. Although compared to Japan Switzerland is hardly exposed to earthquakes, both countries are used to hard, sometimes cruel forces of nature demanding respect.

At the end of the last civil war, the Sonderbund War, in the second half of the XIX century Switzerland adopted a new constitution (1848) and entered a new era, an era of industrial revolution and strong economic growth. The Swiss watch industry in particular was looking for new markets.

At the end of the Edo-period (1603 – 1868) Japan was in turmoil. The Shogunate was torn between an Imperial Court reluctant to an opening of the country and innovative forces which wanted to replace the Shogunate with an imperial government on one side, and increasing demands by foreign powers for an opening of the country on the other side. Following the arrival of Commodore Perry and his fleet in the Uraga-Bay in the year 1853 and the first treaty of friendship and trade with the USA in the year 1858 the Shogunate government signed similar treaties with the Netherlands, Russia, England and France.

Industrial circles in Switzerland were well informed about these developments and as early as in 1859 asked the Federal Government to send a mission to Japan. The mission of Rudolf Lindau (1829 – 1910), however, returned from Japan with just the promise that Japan would deal with Switzerland as a priority as soon as it was ready to negotiate further treaties.

At the end of 1862 the Federal Council nominated Aimé Humbert (1819 – 1900) as plenipotentiary minister and charged him with negotiating an agreement with Japan. Almost one year after his arrival in the year 1863 and thanks to the support by the Dutch minister, Dirk Graeff van Poslbroek, Aimé Humbert succeeded in concluding an agreement on 6 February 1864.

Initially the treaty resulted in numerous, fruitful economic activities by Switzerland which exported arms, watches and precision instruments to Japan and imported valuable silk threads to Switzerland. Trading companies such as Favre-Brandt, Sieber-Hegner, Liebermann-Wälchli successfully settled in Yokohama, later in Osaka-Kobe.

In 1868, when the Shogunate came to an end in order to make room for the new Imperial regime of the Meiji-Era (1868 – 1912), Japan experienced a period of civil war which ended with the transfer of the capital from Kyoto to Edo and its renaming into Tokyo.

Under the new imperial regime Japan launched fundamental reforms combined with a westernization of society. Although this period is often called the “Meiji-Restoration”, it in fact represented a “revolution” of Japanese society. The measures of the government in order to abolish the feudal system, implement the separation of Buddhism and Shinto etc. had an impact on Switzerland as well. The bell of the Honsen-ji Temple of Shinagawa illustrates this. The bell was removed and exported to Switzerland. In 1930 the city of Geneva having acquired the bell returned it to the Temple which resulted in close ties of friendship between Geneva and Shinagawa. These ties were formalized in 1991. This is one of the many privileged relations which bind our two countries today.

While Swiss products found their way to Japan as early as during the Edo-period thanks to the Dutch East India Company, Swiss producers such as Nestlé, Ciba (today Novartis) established themselves in Japan at the beginning of the 20th century only.

The first Japanese to come to Switzerland were most likely the members of the delegation led by Tokugawa Akitake (1853 – 1919) in the year 1867. Later they were students like Oyama Iwao, the future Marshall, who studied in Geneva from 1870 to 1874. This tradition continues today with a scholarship exchange program on the post-graduate level. The first official delegation of the new imperial regime, the well-known mission of Iwakura Tomomi (1825 – 1883) visited Switzerland in June 1870 on the occasion of a round-the-world-tour. During its stay it showed an interest in permanent neutrality and the Red Cross being established as well as in the Swiss militia system among others.

From the end of the 19th to the 20th century Japan developed on the international stage and even though the Second World War erupted, the relationship between Switzerland and Japan was never suspended. Switzerland’s neutrality allowed it to represent the interests of the Allied in the archipelago during the Second World War.

In August 1945, Dr. Marcel Junod (1904 – 1961) and the representatives of the ICRC visited Hiroshima soon after its bombardment and with their engagement signaled the beginning of a new era in the bilateral relationship.

Swiss investments and the introduction of new Swiss technologies promoted the reconstruction of Japan. With the step-by-step integration of the markets bilateral trade relations between the two countries developed between complementarity and hard competition, in particular in the watch sector.

The special situation of Switzerland at the heart of Europe and yet not member of the European Union encourages various Japanese companies to establish their European headquarters in Switzerland. Japan and Switzerland, both significantly dependent on exports, share the same values as to free trade and the same concerns regarding agriculture and sufficient food supply.

The new free trade agreement between the two countries which entered into force in 2009 testifies this community of interests. In addition, over the past decades scientific and technological exchange between the two countries intensified.

Early on the beauty of the alpine landscape of Switzerland has attracted Japanese tourists to the extent that safety instructions in mountain trains are often written in Japanese characters.

As the destruction of the wooden bridge in Lucerne by fire in 1993 has moved the Japanese to participate generously in its reconstruction, thus did the sad disaster of 11 March 2011 in the North East of Japan trigger a movement of solidarity in Switzerland which has further strengthened the ties between the two peoples.

A celebration such as the one on the occasion of the 150 years of bilateral relations is an opportunity to think about the past and to make a projection into the future. Which role could Switzerland and Japan play in order to contribute to the peace and prosperity of our planet based upon this reflection?

Philippe A. F. Neeser