1. Tokyo meets the world France
    Photo: Kisa ToyoshimaAmbassador of France to Japan Philippe Setton
  2. Tokyo meets the world France
    Photo: Kisa Toyoshima(L-R)Ambassador of France to Japan, Philippe Setton ; journalist Florent Dabadie

Tokyo meets the world: France

Ambassador Philippe Setton discusses life in Tokyo, his favourite museums in the city and what a more sustainable future might look like for both France and Japan

Written by
Ili Saarinen
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With the Olympics and Paralympics now behind us, many Tokyoites are hungry for the kind of fresh ideas and inspiration needed to plot a new direction for the capital in the years to come. With Tokyo meets the world, our ongoing series of interviews with ambassadors to Japan who call Tokyo home, we’ve sought to highlight a wide range of innovative views on city life, with a particular focus on sustainability initiatives that could help guide us into a greener, happier and more secure future.

For this edition of Tokyo meets the world, Florent Dabadie caught up with French ambassador Philippe Setton to discuss the plethora of sustainability challenges faced by both Japan and France, from green energy to urban planning, as well as how the legacy of Tokyo 2020 might influence the 2024 Paris Olympics and how the Paralympics can contribute to social change. Stationed in Tokyo since autumn 2020 and an avid explorer of the city, ambassador Setton also gave us a few choice museum recommendations and shared what pastries he likes to munch on to overcome the afternoon slump.

What’s your current impression of Japan, and how have your views changed since taking office?
Photo: Kisa Toyoshima

What’s your current impression of Japan, and how have your views changed since taking office?

I arrived in Japan without strong preconceived ideas or stereotypes. Before my arrival [in Tokyo] I had worked (as a French government representative) in European affairs for 26 years. My job had busy regional imperatives, so I didn’t have the chance to travel to Asia.

[Japan] is a complete discovery for me, even though I had some [preexisting] knowledge from Japanese literature and cinema. My son, who is studying animation drawing in Belgium, also gave me some good advice: about Miyazaki, Taniguchi and Ghost in the Shell! The day before my departure to Japan, to get in the mood, I watched Ozu’s masterpiece Tokyo Story. I can’t answer your question on how my views have changed after only ten months in office, but I already have the impression that this country has always had a desire to progress while doing its best not to lose its identity. In a way, Ozu’s vision probably remains very vivid to this day.

How do you find life in Tokyo, and what are some of your favorite places in the city?

I like to walk around on weekends, to purposely get lost in the small backstreets of this buzzing city, to leave a super dense crossing only to find myself in a little park adjacent to an ancient cemetery. This mix of old and new is fascinating, especially when you know that it exists in both landscapes and mentalities. 

Having arrived in the middle of the pandemic, it’s been difficult for me to leave Tokyo and may I say Minato-ku. Around the embassy [in Minami-Azabu] I have a particular affection for Kengo Kuma’s architecture of the Nezu Museum, a true haven of peace within the centre of the city. Even more, I’ve fallen in love with the Teien Museum in Shirokane. I do have a passion for the Art Deco era, which originated in France, but beyond that, I find that the curators have been doing a fantastic job to transcend [the museum’s] extraordinarily neoclassical décor with more contemporary exhibitions, and I haven’t missed one. I have a feeling that I’ll return many times to discover new faces of this iconic building.

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When you want a taste of home, where do you go to eat and/or shop?
Photo: Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum

When you want a taste of home, where do you go to eat and/or shop?

France has such an incredible and diversified contingent of restaurants and bakeries owned by French or Japanese chefs in Tokyo and throughout Japan, so it’s difficult for me to choose one. I’d turn the question around and say that my ‘Proustian madeleine’ (nostalgic and favourite treat, one that triggers memories) is the croissant or the pain au chocolat. Not necessarily for breakfast, as it reminds me more of the days of hard work at school rewarded in the late afternoon by those small viennoiseries.

Turning towards bigger issues, how do you Tokyo and Japan’s future? Which sustainability topics strike you as relevant?

There are many structural developments that I find very interesting to witness. A good example is the current debate around energy policy, as Japan has drafted a new carbon neutrality goal [‘zero carbon’ by 2050]. This is a topic of strategic importance for every country and for Japan in particular. It comes with many questions: What role will nuclear energy play? How can industries adapt to this new paradigm, in particular the automotive industry, which is facing the challenge of EVs (electric vehicles). The health crisis is also likely to have lasting consequences: the pandemic has, for instance, led a few major companies to think more about working from home and work-life balance.

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What role would you like to see Japan play in the international community?
journalist Florent Dabadie (Photo: Kisa Toyoshima)

What role would you like to see Japan play in the international community?

Japan is an island, naturally attached to its identity and long history. I guess islanders usually intend to protect their ecosystem. But Japan is also a country open to the world and a major international player, with significant resources to continue to provide international stability, even more so in this very challenging environment.

There’s growing interest for sustainable development in Japan, with special focus on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). What are some of the sustainability initiatives France is taking up?

The SDGs are objectives shared by both politicians in the public government sphere and by the private actors of the economy. Today, social inequalities at national and international levels are influencing our environment. Sustainable urbanisation will be one of the keywords of the Paris 2024 Olympics and beyond. 

In this respect, I took great interest in Governor Koike stressing the fact that Tokyo 2020’s heritage would be carefully monitored through the legacy the Paralympics will have on Japanese society and the city. We’re talking about a barrier-free public infrastructure that’s already world-leading, and from which Paris (and Paris 2024) has to learn. In return, [France] may have some experiences to share about the humanist heritage of the diversity goal the Olympics has with regard to all minorities and that aims for a balanced and fair society.

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Talking about the SDGs and social inequalities linked to environmental change, France has long been a leader in gender equality. You and your wife are a symbol of this French tradition, as she is a famous art specialist and has a brilliant career with top museums.
kintsugi(Photo by Motoki Tonn on Unsplash)

Talking about the SDGs and social inequalities linked to environmental change, France has long been a leader in gender equality. You and your wife are a symbol of this French tradition, as she is a famous art specialist and has a brilliant career with top museums.

My wife is a specialist of what we in France call ‘fire arts’: ceramics and glassmaking. She is often commissioned by important French institutions such as the Louvre or Guimet, a Parisian museum of oriental art, as well as our National Porcelain Manufactory in Sèvres. She receives assignments throughout the year but chose to live by my side in Japan for a while. As an expert in ceramics as well as in the art of conservation and restoration, she found in Japan an unfathomable land of discoveries. She has decided to learn Japanese lacquerware techniques, as well as the unique Japanese art of kintsugi, which is the use of powdered lacquer and gold to mend broken pottery. Interview by Florent Dabadie.

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