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Q & A with HE Teimuraz Lezhava, Ambassador of Georgia to Japan

By Ambassador Teimuraz Lezhava
March 03, 2023
You’ve had a very long history in Japan before becoming ambassador, can you tell us about your background and what led you to this position?
My family's connection to Japan began with my grandfather's generation. Considering that my daughters are now growing up in Japan, this marks the fourth generation of my family's involvement with Japan.

It all began with my grandfather, a biologist who wanted to send his son (who later became my father) to Japan to study because he wanted to give his son a high level of education, and because of the development of biology and medicine in Japan. In the 1980s, my grandfather met Dr. Kadotani, who ran an obstetrics and gynecology hospital in Hiroshima, at an international biology conference and asked him about my father's study abroad. At the time, during the Soviet era, communications were not as developed as they are today, and the path was not a smooth one.

Aerial view of Tbilisi Georgia
Georgia’s capital city of Tbilisi sits at the crossroads between Europe and Asia, and has been an important link in trade since the days of the Silk Road.

According to Dr. Kadotani, he had sent several letters to my grandfather, but the letters never arrived and he had lost touch with him for several years. Then one day, Dr. Kadotani was on a flight to an international academic conference, and his final destination happened to be Tbilisi, Georgia. When Dr. Kadotani realized this, he immediately wrote a letter to my grandfather, a professor at the University of Tbilisi, and asked a Japanese resident to give it to him. This led to the resumption of contact between my grandfather and Dr. Kadotani, and with his support, my father was able to study in Japan.

Our family first came to Japan more than 30 years ago, in 1992, the very year that diplomatic relations between Georgia and Japan were established.

I think the most important reason for my appointment as Ambassador was the fact that I am one of the most well-connected people to Japan from Georgia. In diplomacy, and especially in Japan, there are many countries that appoint ambassadors with strong ties to Japan and a good understanding of Japan's characteristics.

This year marks the 30th Anniversary of Diplomatic Relations between Japan and Georgia, beginning when Georgia gained independence. How have relations between the two nations developed? Have there been any events that stand out in your mind?
The relationship between our two countries has been supported by so many events. Among them, I believe that the exchange of people through culture has played a particularly important role. Although Georgia is a small country, we have been able to endure our difficult history and defend our independence because of our unique identity and culture.

Georgian culture has been introduced to Japan in various forms, and this has given a great impetus to friendship and exchange between the two countries. Georgian polyphony, folk dances, folk costumes, literature, cinema, art, and Georgian ballet have been a constant source of exchange between the two countries over the past 30 years. Sports exchanges such as rugby and judo were also very prominent. Among these, it is sumo that has been the most exciting and has made the Georgian name widely known in Japan. The successes of three wrestlers, from Kokkai, who became the first European sekitori, to Gagamaru, whose character was loved by all, and Tochinoshin, who rose to the second-highest rank of ozeki, had a particularly great impact on the relationship between the two countries.

On the political front, there have been very important developments as well. Japan has continued to provide invaluable economic support to Georgia. In addition, Georgia still faces unresolved diplomatic problems, such as the fact that 20% of its territory has been occupied by Russia since 2008. In this context, Japan has been an important partner in supporting Georgia's sovereignty and territorial integrity. Thanks to this background, we have developed a very fruitful relationship with each other in the international arena.

I can say here that both countries are important partners in a well-balanced relationship, both politically and in terms of human and cultural exchange. Expectations are high for further initiatives in the future.

In relation to Georgian-Japan relations, what do you believe are the most important issues facing the two countries?
Whether or not the axis of friendship that has been built between the two countries will remain unshaken and lead to greater trust in the face of various international challenges and issues to come. This will be the most important key. As is the case between friends and companies, the most important thing is to trust each other. That is why it is important to realize a higher level of cooperation in the relationship so far.

What about economic relations between the two countries, how can these be strengthened?
The importance of Georgia in economic terms has become even more pronounced in the recent years. Our country is a strategic point connecting Europe and Asia. In this context, topics such as economic security and stable energy supply are now being advocated internationally. In addition, environmentally friendly initiatives and the realization of a decarbonized society have also become very important.

Georgia gets 85% of its electricity from renewable sources. And now that capacity is about to expand even further. It has been said for a long time that Georgia is located in a geopolitically important place, and now there is a great increase in business connected through our territory. The Georgian government is focusing on two important initiatives.

The first is the development of infrastructure to make Georgia more connected to the neighboring countries of the region. The first is the development of infrastructure to better connect Georgia with its neighbors, most notably the undersea cable project connecting Georgia and Romania, and the Anaklia Port project, which will create a larger port on the Black Sea.

The port of Batumi in Georgia
Georgia’s port cities of Batumi and Poti are currently an important link in trade between Georgia and Japan. The development of Anaklia could greatly enlarge the role Georgia plays in global trade

The second is various work for a more stable energy supply. We are currently accelerating the development of more hydroelectric, solar, and wind power projects in the country. In addition, through Georgia, we are working to ensure more stable energy delivery through the Peaceful Neighborhood Policy, a policy for peace and stability in the region. We are committed to "Peaceful Connectivity" and "Stable Energy Supply" within the country.

Georgia plays an important role in our region as a flag bearer for peace. In our region, there can be no development without peace. Therefore, Georgia is doing its utmost to achieve peace and stability. It should also be added that Georgia was ranked 6th in the world in terms of ease of doing business by the IMF.

Considering the above, I believe that in order to move peacefully and stably in the coming era, we must combine our political and economic efforts and accelerate cooperation among our partner countries.

Considering the relationship between Georgia and Japan that I have described so far, I believe that the two countries share not only the same basic values, but also a firm sense of direction in the way the world is going to face the challenges of the future. In particular, I believe that Japan and Georgia have a high level of compatibility in terms of shared liberal democratic values in the Caucasus and Central Asia region.

Japan strives to conduct diplomacy with a bird's-eye view of the globe. It is also true that Japan strives to create a free and open international order in which all countries can operate under common rules. Georgia is located at a strategic point between Asia and Europe, and from the perspective of its open economic environment, I believe that Georgia is an essential partner for Japan to connect Europe and Asia and to realize the development of the international community. It is no exaggeration to say that it is an urgent task for our two countries to initiate strategic initiatives based on firm government-to-government discussions on various mutual interests.

In 2020, TEPCO decided to invest in a hydroelectric power project in Georgia, which we believe was an excellent decision in line with the times. Toyota Tsusho has been active in Georgia for many years and is expanding its business in the country. We are currently receiving interest from a number of other Japanese companies. I hope that more and more Japanese companies will establish a presence in Georgia in the future.

To this end, Japan and Georgia have a very good foundation, as an investment agreement has been signed, NEXI's trade insurance is in force in Georgia, and a memorandum of understanding for the JCM (Joint Crediting Mechanism) has been signed.

What is the impression of Japan in Georgia? Is there anything about Japan that is particularly popular?
Japan is a very popular country among Georgians. All Georgians feel a strong affinity for Japan. This is not only because of Japan's friendliness to Georgians, but also because of Japan's old traditions and history. In particular, Japan is known as the Land of the Rising Sun, and its unique culture is very attractive to Georgians.

Japan is also known among Georgians as a country that has successfully modernized while preserving its culture and traditions. So many people want to go to Japan because they imagine that when they come to Japan, they will see cutting-edge technology, but at the same time they will see a very attractive culture in the same old way.

When asked what they like most about Japan, it depends on the generation. Older generations are very fond of Japanese literature and movies. Many are fascinated by the world of haiku and tanka poetry, which are unique to Japan. For example, names like Akira Kurosawa, Takuboku Ishikawa, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, and Kobo Abe are familiar to all older Georgians. As for the youth, Japanese anime is very popular. When I talk to young Georgians, I am sometimes very surprised to hear names in front of anime names and characters that even I do not know. Also, Japanese cuisine is exotic to Georgians. Everyone wants to try real sushi. In addition to culture, people also feel trust in Japan in their daily lives through Japanese cars and appliances.

What would you like people in Japan to know about Georgia? Is there anything that you especially want to recommend to them?
In discussing Georgia, one must take into account the numerous cultures and the Georgians' outlook on life. All of them are essential and important to the way Georgia is formed today. There are many customs that are only done in certain regions. For example, lelo burti, the competition to bring a large, heavy ball back to one's village, is just one such custom. Rugby in Georgia is famous for its world competitiveness, and I believe that it has developed in this way because of this unique competition.

Of course, our 8,000-year-old wine culture is very famous and one of Georgia's most innovative. I am very pleased that Georgian wine is becoming more and more popular in Japan with each passing year. Along with wine, polyphony and folk dance are one of the most important cultural aspects of Georgia. Without them, Georgia is incomplete. I am very happy to announce that from November 2022 to February of this year, the famous Japanese opera Takarazuka will be performing a play about the history of Georgia. The stage will feature a high level of Georgian culture, including Georgian folk costumes, chorus, and dances, which many Japanese audiences will be able to witness.

Georgian cuisine is also becoming more popular in Japan than ever before. In particular, a dish from the Raja region of Georgia called Shkmeruli has been widely accepted because of its combination of garlic, dairy products, and chicken, and because it has a flavor that suits Japanese people. The dish was first introduced at the chain Matsuya Foods, and later became available at convenience stores, school lunches, and restaurants, and I believe that this has led to an increase in the number of people who are interested in Georgia.

Thus, overall, it can be said that the spread of Georgia culture has been successful in Japan in recent years. On the other hand, as I mentioned earlier, there are still many aspects of Georgian culture that are not well known in Japan. One of my tasks is to introduce more and more of them. Another of my tasks is to encourage more people to visit or live in Georgia, and to promote exchanges that will lead to mutual benefits for both Japan and Georgia through exposure to such culture.

Japan has strongly condemned the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. As a neighboring country to Russia, what is Georgia's view?
Georgia is a country that respects the rule of law and upholds its internationally determined sovereignty and territory. As such, we have consistently condemned Russia's aggression against Ukraine. Furthermore, Georgia has supported Ukraine by endorsing more than 400 international resolutions. It has also been one of the first countries to provide humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

In Japan, our embassies were among the first to show solidarity with Ukraine. On February 24, exactly one hour before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia began, Georgia called on the embassies of 13 countries to show solidarity with Ukraine by organizing an activity in a square in Tokyo. The reason why we were able to do this is because Georgia, like Ukraine, was invaded by Russia in 2008, and as a result, 20% of its territory is still occupied by Russian troops. Thankfully, Japan, like many other countries, has been a consistent voice in support of our sovereignty and territorial integrity. It is now self-evident that the international community needed to take the same level of firm action that it took when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008. The argument and view that the invasion of Ukraine was an extension of previous outrages and that there would not have been such an escalation had the appropriate response been taken is now largely widespread and popular.

For these reasons, we have consistently supported Ukraine and condemned Russia's attempts to change the status quo by force, based on our own experience and in compliance with international law.

In terms of Russia's neighbors, Georgia suffered aggression by Russia earlier than any other country, but has achieved double-digit economic growth, especially in the last two years, due to policies that emphasize national development and regional stability. This has been very well received internationally. We hope to achieve our diplomatic goals of EU membership and NATO membership as soon as possible, with greater recognition from the international community, and we are looking forward to the increased support of our international partners.

Japan has worked hard in recent years to expand its presence among Caucasus countries, how well has that gone in your view?
We appreciate Japan's approach to the Caucasus region. In particular, the stability of the Caucasus region is becoming more and more important, especially considering its significant impact on the surrounding neighborhood. Japan has established very good relations with all of the Caucasus countries, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia, and has called for peace. Japan has called for peace. In this regard, Georgia often serves as a mediator in various discussions between Armenia and Azerbaijan. This is especially true in recent years. In this sense, I believe that Georgia can share the same position with Japan.

This is evident in the fact that JICA's Caucasus headquarters and Toyota Caucasus headquarters are located in Georgia. In the past, we have held exhibitions and workshops in all three countries at the invitation of Japan. This is something that is not easy to do in the region, so I would very much appreciate Japan's role in this. Also, in 2018, we had the visit of then Foreign Minister Kono Taro to the three countries. I believe that there is much more potential for Japan's presence in the region in the future, so I would like to see Japan take the initiative. Georgia would like to support such a call by Japan.

How do you feel Georgia and Japan can deepen their mutual ties?
I believe that this interview confirms how solid the foundation or bond of friendship between our two countries is. I believe that the most important aspect of any endeavor is its foundation. Over the past 30 years, Georgia and Japan have built that foundation in a solid and universally recognized way. In the next 10, 20, and 30 years, we must be prepared to create various success stories one after another and make our bilateral relationship a model for many countries. To achieve this, we need to increase the density of communication.

What is most needed in bilateral relations today is a serious, country-to-country attitude that is willing to make concrete efforts without waiting. But that initiative is also about to begin. I hope that this can be fully confirmed during the visit to Japan by Georgia's Foreign Minister in December 2022.

Currently, there is a satisfactory level of communication between companies, between governments, and between people. However, a more comprehensive, all-encompassing strategic approach has not yet been established. There are very fruitful initiatives underway in all areas of political, economic, and cultural exchange. Therefore, it is imperative that we take our efforts to a higher level in order to further promote all of these initiatives. For this reason, we need action from the Japanese side, and we strongly hope that the Japanese Prime Minister will visit Georgia.

As Ambassador, what kind of relationship do you hope to build between Georgia and Japan in the future?
I believe that the two countries share not only universal values, but also very many fundamental values, such as respect for superiors, respect for human rights, and a national character that values tradition and culture. I believe that cooperation between countries has been determined by political orientation, which has been the trend since the end of World War II. However, I believe that we are now in an era in which we will be asked not only about that, but also about what we have been able to do for the sake of humanity. In this context, both countries have great potential for drawing out each other's potential.

We have already talked about the potential for political and economic initiatives, but if we add this fundamental base to that, I think it will be possible to work together over a very long span of time. With such a solid foundation, I believe that the ties between our two countries will probably be more solid than anything else, and will bring about great wealth for many generations to come. I think it would be most efficient if we can promote cooperation in a variety of areas based on a firm understanding of each country's roots and appreciation of each other's differences.

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