It is my great honour to begin my new year’s congratulatory message to Bhutanese people with the story of Dasho Nishioka. The history of friendship between Japan and Bhutan began when Japanese agriculture expert, Dasho Keiji Nishioka, was dispatched to Bhutan in 1964. In the 28 years that Dasho Nishioka lived in Bhutan, he brought about major development and modernization in the agriculture sector and changed the lives of Bhutanese farmers.

Apart from his contribution to agriculture, he also built schools and health clinics in the region. He was not a mere agriculture expert. His heart was fixed on improving people’s lives. It is very heartwarming that he was truly accepted by the people of Bhutan, and was given the title of “Dasho” by His Majesty the Fourth King. I understand that he is the first and last foreigner thus far to be given such an honour.

Dasho Nishioka lived the rest of his entire life in Bhutan until 1992 when he passed away in Thimphu. At the beginning of the year 2022, which marks the 30th anniversary of his demise, I would like to renew my deep respect for Dasho Nishioka whose soul still lives in the hearts of the Bhutanese people.

The year 2022 also marks the 35th anniversary of the conclusion of the Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers (JOCV) Agreement between Japan and Bhutan in 1987. About 500 Japanese volunteers have been dispatched in total under the JOCV Agreement. These volunteers, with their strong will to contribute to the social development of Bhutan, have lived in Bhutan and shared their skills and expertise with Bhutanese people. They have made significant contributions towards the development of Bhutan in such fields as agriculture, rural development, and public service improvement. The spirit of Dasho Nishioka is firmly inherited by them. I am proud to state that the foundation of the friendly and solid relationship between Japan and Bhutan was laid out in part by the devotion of these experts.

The year 1987 also marked the start of interactions between the Japanese Imperial Family and the Bhutanese Royal Family. In that year, His Majesty the Emperor of Japan, then His Imperial Highness Prince Naruhito, visited Bhutan for the first time as a member of the Japanese Imperial Family. During his four-day stay in Bhutan, His Majesty strolled in the city, appreciated the pictures and bamboo crafts, and enjoyed tasting the local brew in a rural farmer’s house. And these are the words that His Majesty has said looking back on his visit to Bhutan: “I was inspired many times and feel as if I was in a dream world, surpassing time. It was very meaningful for me to interact with members of the Bhutanese Royal Family, who are of the same generation as me, including His Majesty the King.” Since then, Japan and Bhutan have been deepening our mutual understanding and friendship, strongly supported by the series of exchanges between the Japanese Imperial Family and the Bhutanese Royal Family.

The visit of His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and Her Majesty the Queen Jetsun Pema Wangchuck to Japan in 2011 was a prominent symbol of our friendship. On the occasion of the Address to the National Diet of Japan, standing in front of the Japanese people, who were then facing the unprecedented challenges caused by the Great East Japan Earthquakes, His Majesty stated: “No nation or people should ever have to experience such suffering. And yet, if there is one nation that can rise stronger and greater from such adversity – it is Japan and her People. Of this I am confident.” Many Japanese people, including myself, felt enormously encouraged by these words. Hearts of the Japanese people were filled with warmth when His Majesty hosted a memorial ceremony in Thimphu for the victims of the disaster. The Japanese people were touched by the kindness of the Bhutanese people who prayed for the victims for three days in temples all over Bhutan. We will never forget that we have true friends in the land of the Himalayas.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the demise of Dasho Nishioka and the 35th anniversary since the conclusion of the JOCV Agreement as well as the first visit of a member of the Japanese Imperial Family to Bhutan. What else better occasion will we have to renew and strengthen our friendship? We would like to celebrate this year as the “Japan-Bhutan Friendship Year” to further strengthen already-existing close bonds between our two nations.

Although the entire world continues to struggle against COVID-19, our joint efforts to promote our bilateral relations will never halt, including in the field of people-to-people exchanges. The fact that Bhutan sent its athletes to the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, despite the pandemic, gave us much encouragement. I proudly watched the Bhutanese flag fluttering in the National Stadium in Tokyo as if it represented a part of me.

It was my great pleasure that “JAPAN WEEK in Bhutan 2021” was held last October with the support of the Government of Bhutan. Many online events such as “Expressing Japanese Poetry: Waka, Confectionery, Song and Dance,” Origami workshop, Ikebana demonstration and Bon-odori workshop were organized. Also, on this occasion, a ceremony to inaugurate a Judo Dojo was held as the first-ever project under Japan’s grant assistance for a cultural grassroots project in Bhutan. I am sure that this Judo Dojo will contribute not only to the promotion of Judo in Bhutan, but also to expand cultural and sports exchanges between our two countries.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, many Bhutanese students might have cancelled their travel to Japan or are anxiously waiting for the next chance to travel. I understand that not only the students but also their teachers and parents are concerned with the situation. I hope that we can overcome the current challenge in the near future and that this year will become a year to realize your dream and to deepen Japan-Bhutan relations further.

Our economic and social development programs remain on track. These include the project for reconstruction of bridges on primary national highway No. 4, the scholarship program for young officials’ training, the provision of portable ultrasound scanners for hospitals in Bhutan, the project for making a digital topographic map, among others. I am confident that such cooperation will continue and be further materialized this year.

Japanese people who visit Bhutan immediately become fans of Bhutan. One of the reasons is that Bhutan is trying to develop its economy while preserving its culture, society and tradition. This touches our hearts. Japan and Bhutan are Asian countries that share common values with heart-to-heart ties. A friend in need is a friend indeed. Japan wishes to always be a friend and a partner of Bhutan and will continue to stand closely with the people of Bhutan.

I will make my utmost efforts to further deepen the mutual friendship between our two peoples. Let us further forge our ties of trust and friendship by following in the footsteps of Dasho Nishioka.

Contributed by  Satoshi Suzuki

Ambassador of Japan to the Kingdom of Bhutan