Turkey’s envoy to Japan to focus on energy and tourism
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‘The terror attack on the Atatürk airport [in 2016] and the failed coup attempt has had a negative impact on Japan’s perception on security [in Turkey],’ says Ambassador Murat Mercan.
An attack on the Atatürk International Airport in Istanbul and a coup attempt in 2016 led to a sharp drop in the arrival of Japanese tourists, but Japan’s investment interest remains unchanged, according to Turkey’s new envoy to Tokyo.
Keeping Japanese investment interest high as well as reviving tourism will be key priorities for Ambassador Murat Mercan, who also said works on the construction of Turkey’s second nuclear power plant project will also be on the top of his agenda.
What will be your main priorities in Japan?
One of the most important dimensions of our relations is economic. Japan has undertaken and continues to undertake important roles in big infrastructure projects in Turkey. They built the first and second bridges over the Bosphorus Strait for instance. Recently, they have also been involved in the Marmaray [underwater tunnel] project. There are other new projects, like highways, that Japan is interested in. The promotion of these projects will be one of my missions. Within this framework, the [construction of the second] nuclear project [along the Black Sea coast of Sinop] will also be high on my agenda.
Turkey’s exports to Japan are low, they are at around $600-700 million, but around $200-250 million of that consists of tuna fish exports. So there is a serious imbalance in trade. Obviously, we have certain problems in that field, the distance between the two countries being one. Also, there are differences between Japanese and European business cultures, Turkish exporters’ productions are rather closer to the European culture. Trying to increase Turkish exports will be one of my aims. For that, we have to have a better understanding of the Japanese consumer and look at how Turkey can cater to their needs.
Has there been a lack of appetite in investments lately?
Japan has had investment interests in Turkey since the 1980’s. I do not see a loss in their interest toward Turkey. But we need to perceive Japanese investors within two categories: Big companies like Mitsubishi and Honda - multibillion-dollar companies that know Turkey and have investments here, and medium-sized Japanese companies, which are almost nonexistent in Turkey. We need to attract the interest of smaller and medium-sized companies. That was the case with the Germans; first came the big companies, and then medium and small-sized companies followed their path.
How is the approach of the Japanese government? Has its interest been affected by the turbulences in Turkey, like the coup attempt in 2016?
I have met the ambassador and nearly all of the Japanese companies operating in Turkey. I am trying to do my homework; in fact I have even taken Japanese lessons. First of all, Japan’s prejudice against Turkey is very low, way below of Europe’s.
But the terror attack on the Atatürk airport [in 2016] and the failed coup attempt has had a negative impact on Japan’s perception on security. Japan gives priority to security anywhere in the world. So there is a security perception problem.
But I think the Japanese culture of doing business in Turkey has not changed. I do not know if a potential Japanese investment was suspended or postponed due to security concerns. But what I can say is that all the Japanese businesspeople I have met here see Turkey as their home.
Turkey’s relations with Europe are seen as an important reference point for Japan. Do you think Japan is affected by the strains in Turkey’s relations with the West?
If you were to ask me where Japan is looking at in the world, my answer would be the United States. They are careful not to fall in contradiction with the U.S.’s international politics. I think Japan’s economic motivations are being kept distant from political factors and that’s because they have had investments since the 1980’s in Turkey; and they are happy about those investments. I think they are not affected much by the debates in Europe or United States.
But the Japanese are known to be very meticulous in their investment decisions. Don’t you think the uncertainties in the economy will make your job more difficult in promoting Turkey?
Nothing will make my work difficult. I have had many talks with Japanese representatives here and none has talked about such political or economic issues. Of course, there are certain demands on issues like tax exemption, but these are issues on a micro level. On a macro level, I don’t think Japan is affected by the general situation of the Turkish economy or the current situation in relations with the West. There are two very important projects on the agenda: The Turkish Japanese University and the nuclear power plant project. I have not felt a decline in interest over neither of these projects due to the recent developments.
Let’s talk about the cultural dimension.
I think Japanese tourists are the kind that Turkey should focus on, because in contrast to tourists from the West, who prefer the sun and sea, Japanese tourists prefer visiting cultural and historic places. That enables places other than the Mediterranean or Aegean regions to benefit from tourism. The number of tourists reached 180,000 in 2014, but after the attack on Atatürk airport, it dropped to 15,200. One of my missions will be to revive tourism. Some 30 million Japanese travel abroad. Our share is very low even though we have an advantage, which is that Japanese people have a positive approach toward Turks. The attack on the airport along with the images that emerged after the coup attempt have had an impact, which will obviously take time to alleviate. As an academic, the establishment of the Turkish Japanese University is one of my top priorities. Japan is very advanced in technology and science. They have very good universities. Turkey would benefit significantly from such a university. Important progress has been reached so far, and I am looking forward to contribute to its realization.
How about the nuclear deal?
The political will on both sides is there. The intergovernmental deal has passed in parliament. The next phase is for the Turkish, Japanese and French companies to take concrete steps to set up the company. The process of getting the blueprints continues. I expect some progress to be made by spring. There could be some fine tunings or revisions on the financial dimension and so on, so I think I will spend an important amount of time on this issue.
I assume you favor nuclear energy?
I have no doubt about it whatsoever. A lot of Western countries are using nuclear energy. I have always been in favor of nuclear energy. Firstly, because nuclear energy is a technical knowhow; you will lag behind in your scientific development if you do not develop nuclear energy. If there is nuclear science, it is out of question for us not to use it. Japan lies on fault lines, yet it is one of the biggest consumers of nuclear energy. I would give up on nuclear energy if my need on hydrocarbons drops and I find an uninterrupted energy source. Right now, this is practically not possible.
WHO IS MURAT MERCAN?
Hasan Murat Mercan was born in 1959 in the eastern province of Ağrı.
He graduated from Boğaziçi University’s industrial engineering department, and later received his doctorate degrees from Florida University in the United States.
He lectured at Cleveland University and the management department of Bilkent University in Ankara.
He became one of the founders of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
He was elected to parliament from the western province of Eskişehir in the Nov. 3, 2002 general elections. He served as the head of the Turkish delegation at the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Elections. He was again elected in the 2007 general elections. He served as the head of the parliament’s foreign affairs commission.
Mercan served as the Deputy Energy Minister between February 2012 and September 2014. He is currently Turkey’s Ambassador to Japan.