March 14, 2014 6:39 pm

Romanian ambassador: from life under Ceausescu to sushi in Tokyo

‘There is a very strong work culture in Japan – it is a real virtue here. They are workaholics and perfectionists’
Radu Serban at the Shoun-Ji Buddhist temple in Tokyo©Eric Rechsteiner

Radu Serban at the Shoun-Ji Buddhist temple in Tokyo

The idea that Radu Serban might one day be Romania’s ambassador to Japan would have seemed improbable when he was a student and Nicolae Ceausescu was in power.

Barred from travelling to any western country, Serban, now 62, took his first job at Romania’s Foreign Trade Enterprise in 1975 after graduating from the Academy of Economic Studies in Bucharest. “I came from a family of [Orthodox] priests. My grandfather was a priest and his brother was the first bishop of Romania in the US and so they [the regime] didn’t trust me,” says Serban.

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A keen student, he set his mind to learning good Russian from a young age, which gave him an early advantage. “I had a very severe teacher of Russian and I was afraid of him, so I started to seriously learn the Russian language because my father was a teacher also in secondary school and I also wanted to tell him that I was good at everything, including Russian. And that was a big step towards future diplomacy because I entered into international relations of course using Russian.”

Serban’s first business trip abroad was to Pyongyang in North Korea in 1977. “Relations between Romania and North Korea were very strong. Ceausescu wanted to copy the North Korean model, which is more or less why I was there.”

He found the trip a strange and disturbing experience. The first thing he saw driving into the city from the airport was a gigantic crane removing snow from the top of an enormous statue of then leader Kim Il Sung. And although Serban’s group were kept at a distance from everyday North Koreans and largely confined to their hotel, the reality of life under the regime was still apparent. “It was very poor. People had a hard life. They were afraid of European faces on the street. When they saw us they would hide away. Their life was really tough – there were no cars on the streets, or it was very rare.”

The Japanese people have a saying: fall down seven times, and stand up eight. That really is their characteristic

As a fluent Russian speaker, he got a job at the ministry of foreign trade and part of his brief was building relations with the Soviet Union. He was used as an interpreter in some of the tougher stand-offs between Bucharest and Moscow, ranging from a dispute over the invasion of Afghanistan to Ceausescu’s decision to use Canadian technology in a Romanian nuclear power plant because Soviet technology was not earthquake proof.

As an interpreter, Serban sometimes found himself at the raw end of negotiations if talks broke down. “I tended to find if my supervisor made a mistake, they’d blame it on the interpreter – me,” he says, with a chuckle.

Serban’s facility for language stands him in good stead in Tokyo today where, he says, “it is quite difficult to communicate with people if you don’t speak any Japanese”. He and his wife, Maria, arrived in Tokyo just a year on from the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan’s northeast in 2011. He says he was moved by the strength the Japanese people show in adversity. “They were even able to find new opportunities for going ahead with life. The Japanese people have a saying: fall down seven times, and stand up eight. That really is their characteristic.”

Serban and his wife have themselves endured some testing personal circumstances. A year after he was posted to Poland in 1984 as the economic secretary at the embassy, Ceausescu introduced a new rule that diplomats could not take their children with them on foreign postings, for fear this would later lead them to defect or stay in that country. For three difficult years they had to be separated from their young son, while he stayed with Serban’s parents in Transylvania. “We were only allowed to see him once a year on vacation,” Serban recalls, although he successfully managed on one occasion to smuggle him into Poland, much to the horror of his supervisors.

When Ceausescu was overthrown in 1989, the veil was lifted on how many of his fellow diplomats were informing on him. “Even in North Korea I had someone [from Bucharest] following me. I found this culture of informing on each other very tough . . . after the revolution we could finally take control of our own destiny.”

Serban took a new job in the ministry of foreign affairs, and travelled throughout Africa and the Middle East. He eventually ended up being part of the delegation that negotiated Romania’s accession to the EU.

When I came to Japan I had to choose something to experience their traditions and culture, and since I couldn’t choose sumo, I chose haiku

The Romanian embassy in Tokyo is located in Nishi Azabu, one of the most affluent parts of the city and not far from the Imperial Palace. “Every time of year is wonderful here – the sakura [cherry blossom] season is beautiful, but so is the autumn with all the changing colours,” he says. As well as admiring the country’s natural beauty, Serban also appreciates Japanese architecture. “I was impressed by the way they are building. I visited the Skytree – the tallest communications structure in the world,” he says of the recently built skyscraper. He says it is Japan’s ability to build in a modern way, and yet preserve culture and traditions that appeals to him. “There is a very strong work culture here – it is a real virtue here. They are workaholics and they are perfectionists. Everything they want to do has to be perfect.”

One of Serban’s main aims while in Tokyo is to convince the Romanian government to rebuild the embassy. “I have some offers here from a Japanese company – they are very active on this market – they offered to build us a new building if we offer them half of the land or half of the new building: not selling – just renting to them for 50 years. Many other embassies have done the same thing.”

He has also embraced the country’s culture by writing haiku, a Japanese form of short poems. “When I came to Japan I had to choose something to experience their traditions and culture, and since I couldn’t choose sumo – I decided I was not fit for that – I chose haiku . . . I’ve already published two books of haiku in Romanian since I’ve been in Japan,” he says.

There have been some frustrations, however. “One of the things I find most difficult is that they never say no, so you never know what they are thinking. If they disagree, they simply say ‘yes, but . . .’ It’s very misleading.”

Serban says Tokyo is seen among diplomats as one of the best postings in the world – the people are hospitable and extremely polite, and then there is Japanese cuisine. “I love sushi – everything about it, as well as using chopsticks.”

Added to this, he says, “you can wander the streets at 3am and it is safe”. There are also great places to visit nearby, such as Mount Takao and the three wise monkeys at the Toshogu shrine in Nikko. “People say once you have been a diplomat here you don’t want to go anywhere else.”

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Buying guide

Pros

● Clean and secure

● Great hospitality (omotenashi) and good food such as sushi

● Beautiful gardens and landscape

Cons

● It is hard to communicate as many Japanese people don’t speak English

● Hot, humid summers

● Japanese people find it very difficult to say no, so it is hard to know what an interlocutor is thinking.

What you can buy for . . .

£100,000 A studio apartment in the Shinagawa area

£1m A low-raised vintage apartment in Ebisu, a trendy part of Shibuyaku

£2m A high-end apartment in Minato-ku next to Hamarikyu Garden

Serena Tarling is a commissioning editor on House & Home

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