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Global Japan
JUN 18, 2014

Japan and Belgium: The importance of small nations

By Saskia Rock
The Atomium in Brussels, built for World Expo ’58, depicts a single unit of iron and houses expo halls and a restaurant in the topmost sphere. The Atomium is 102 meters tall; each sphere is 18 meters in diameter. The unmistakable symbol of Brussels and Belgium, it is the most visited tourist attraction in Brussels today. ( Andrey Yamkovoy /

Saskia Rock examines the similarities between Japan and Belgium and their shared secrets to global success.

Earlier this month, on June 4th and 5th, Brussels, the capital of my native Belgium, hosted its first EU G7 summit in history. Another first, after having the first ever President of the European Union, Belgian Herman Van Rompuy, elected in 2009 and re-elected for a second term in 2012. Despite being a small country, Belgium has nevertheless been at the heart of European power and history for a long time. My second home, Japan, was also present at the G7 summit, together with the leaders of the United States, Germany, France, Canada, Italy the United Kingdom and the European Union. Brussels is also the seat of NATO, and many international companies have their European head office there.

Compared to Japan, Belgium as a country has a rather short history as it only gained its independence in 1830. However, the land it occupies has a long and rich history of trade and commerce, and was also known as “the battlefield of Europe” due to all the wars that were fought on it. Before gaining independence, the territory that became Belgium was consecutively conquered by France, Spain, Austria, The Netherlands and Germany. How different from Japan, with its 1000 years of history as one independent nation. Island country vs. the heart of Western Europe, homogenous people vs. a hodgepodge of European bloodlines, one language vs. three national languages … we seem so different. Still, we do have some things in common, and these common strengths will help us navigate this changing world successfully.

One: being a small country surrounded by some of the most powerful nations on this earth. Japan has China and Russia amongst its neighbors, Belgium has the UK, Germany and France. Belgians have learned to be excellent negotiators during many centuries of dealing with different cultures and have produced some excellent politicians. This, combined with its central location, has certainly helped it gain and keep a central position in Europe’s government. Japanese have a natural humbleness and wish to preserve harmony by seeking consensus. And, although its economical prowess is not what it once was, Japan is still at the heart of global power. Both our small countries can use their natural competencies to play an important role as bridge-builders between the big nations of this world.

Two: having no natural resource inspires nations to inventiveness and attention to detail. Before Belgium was created, my native Flanders region was famous for the creation of textiles. Many museums in Europe display ‘Flemish tapestry’, sometimes wall-wide decorative pieces of art that have survived the centuries. The tapestry industry is no longer so vibrant, but Belgium still boasts world renowned fashion and textile designers. Remarkably perhaps, despite having no diamond resources ourselves, the city of Antwerp has some of the best diamond cutters in the world. Japan has of course a long history of extremely detailed craftsmanship in so many different areas, and has been able to create very successful business models based on this expertise. Attention to detail is so important in a global community whose citizens demand perfect product quality and optimal customer service. Both our countries have a great history of excellence in these fields and face a successful future in management, services and the production and worldwide shipping of superior quality goods..

Three: the love of the arts and especially the dedication to the art of drawing and the creation of comic strips for children and adults alike. Everybody now knows about Japanese manga and anime, but did you know that some of the most famous comic strips are made in Belgium? The adventures of TinTin, the Smurfs, Lucky Luke, Blake and Mortimer, The adventures of Nero, Thorgal..I grew up reading all those and many more. The world of anime and manga and all things illustrated is slowly taking over the globe, and for both Japan and Belgium it is certainly a talent and an industry we can exploit fully. In fact, one of the next articles in this series will be all about the strange and wonderful world of manga and anime trade fairs in Belgium.

Japan and Belgium, very different but similar after all, can confidently look ahead and stand their ground in the global arena.