1. Tokyo meets the world
    Photo: Kisa Toyoshima Ambassador of Mexico to Japan Melba Pría
  2. Tokyo meets the worls
    Photo: Kisa Toyoshima (L-R) Ambassdaor of Mexico to Japan Melba Pría; Senior consultant at Original Inc, Masashi Takahashi

Tokyo meets the World: Mexico

Ambassador Melba Pría talks Japan-Mexico ties, Tokyo tacos, and how important it is to make women’s empowerment a national priority

Written by
Ili Saarinen
Advertising

Only about a decade ago, finding decent tacos and some tequila or mezcal to go with them in Tokyo could be a bona fide challenge. Those dark days are fortunately far behind us, as the capital’s Mexican food scene has over the past few years blossomed like the sakura at the height of spring. Both Mexican and Japanese chefs across the city now turn out innovative tacos, tostadas, tamales and other treats, while a handful of Tokyo taquerias have even attracted the attention of a major food documentary series – as we recently learned during a stimulating conversation with Mexican ambassador Melba Pría.

For this latest installment of our ongoing series of interviews with Tokyo-based ambassadors, Pría sat down with Masashi Takahashi, senior consultant at Original Inc (publisher of Time Out Tokyo) and a former diplomat with extensive experience of sustainability issues. Besides tacos, their discussion touched on everything from the history of Japan-Mexico relations to spiritual similarities between the two countries, plus why the ambassador has made empowering women a major part of her agenda.

You have been stationed in Japan for two years now. What’s your current impression of the country, and how has it changed since taking office?
Photo: Kisa Toyoshima

You have been stationed in Japan for two years now. What’s your current impression of the country, and how has it changed since taking office?

I first visited Japan in the 1980s, and things have of course changed tremendously since then – as have I. Japan is fascinating: ancient and traditional, but also new and surprising. I love so many things about Japan, but you also get a different perspective once you live in the country. The nuances and the happiness of the place make themselves very obvious.

What are some of your favourite places in Tokyo?

I love the outdoors and am an avid museum-goer, and Tokyo has both. I’m lucky because there’s nature right by our embassy, the Imperial Palace and Akasaka Palace are both nearby, and you can walk, run, take your bike… The other day I biked to the Arakawa, and at the end of the day I had gone for 75 kilometres, without ever leaving Tokyo! As for museums, the Japanese capacity to create beauty is so high, and there’s beauty everywhere you look. Even the small museums are amazing, then you have the big museums and shows, and many incredible artists. For someone who likes the outdoors and museums, Tokyo is perfect.

Advertising
How about recommendations for Mexican food in the city?
Photo: Kisa Toyoshima

How about recommendations for Mexican food in the city?

Well, we’ve created a cookbook and have a YouTube channel for preparing Mexican cuisine in Japan. The cookbook is called ‘From Mexican Cuisine to the Japanese Table’ – it’s in Japanese and can be downloaded for free. Most of the recipes are also on YouTube, so you can try making your own Mexican food. You can get all the ingredients in the cookbook in Japan, and we’ve included a list of places where to buy the ingredients and how to substitute some with Japanese ingredients. 

As for restaurants, there are some 150 Mexican restaurants in Tokyo, some of which were featured in the Netflix series 'Taco Chronicles'. The other day, I had very good tacos in Tokyo Station. There are many good Mexican restaurants here, with both Mexican and Japanese chefs.

What is the Japan-Mexico relationship like?

We have a very rich and varied relationship. Unofficially, our relations go back more than 400 years, though both Japan and Mexico were different countries then. We have had official relations in their current form for about 130 years, but regardless of how you count, one vital thing has been the understanding that we can only become better if we treat each other with respect, as equal partners.

Mexico was the first country to sign an equal treaty with Japan back in the 19th century, as well as the first to sign an integrated free trade agreement with Japan. We believe in the same things: in the rule of law as one of the basic principles of international relations, and in non-conflict. 

Trade and commerce are important too. As ambassador, part of my work is to make Japanese businesses successful in Mexico, because that creates jobs in Mexico, which in turn creates wellbeing in Mexico. The same is true when Mexican businesspeople come to Japan. My work is to make the arrangements necessary to help these businesspeople be successful in their dealings with Japan. This virtuous capacity to create wealth for both sides is something we have been dedicated to for decades. The major Japanese trading companies have been doing business with Mexico since the 1950s. Nissan came in the 1960s, opening its first plant in Mexico, and Mexico still hosts the biggest Nissan plant outside of Japan.

Advertising
Mexico is a popular destination for Japanese tourists too, right?
Photo: Spencer Watson/Unsplash

Mexico is a popular destination for Japanese tourists too, right?

For many years, Mexico used to get huge numbers of Japanese tourists who travelled in large groups, stepping out of their buses and taking so many pictures [laughs]. We still get plenty of Japanese tourism, but the tourists have changed. They are not necessarily group travellers, and often great adventurers. 

I hope more young Japanese travellers would come to Mexico. It’s been quite a surprise for me to see that many young Japanese don’t travel, not even to nearby countries – they like staying at home. We should all encourage Japanese young people to be more adventurous, more daring. Travelling opens up new views on the world and makes you realise what’s good at home, too.

Japan and Mexico also seem to have much in common in the spiritual sense. The Obon and Día de Muertos traditions are similar, aren’t they?

Yes. Mexican people are very animist, and the old Mexican religions were similar to Shinto, with deities of the moon, the stars, rain, thunder, of this and that – because we had a very close relationship with the land. We believed in the seasons, that water was vital for our crops to grow. These are millennia-old things, the relationship with nature and our regard for it, and also our fear of it.

The Día de Muertos is festive. We decorate our houses to receive the dead, as we believe that they want to come home and hear the year’s news. We set the tables with everything our ancestors liked and have a meal, and we go to the graveyards and bring music, because on that day the realms of the living and the dead come together. It’s never creepy or sad, and nobody is coming to haunt you [laughs]. Our ‘Obon’ is a very festive time.

Another link to Japan in terms of nature is that our most important center for earthquake and tsunami studies was essentially donated by Japan after the Mexico City earthquake of 1985. The center was funded by donations from the Japanese people and the government, and many of our current earthquake and tsunami specialists studied in Japan. This relationship goes beyond solidarity, since we are both Pacific countries; [the ocean’s] waves bathe both our shores, and any tsunami threatens us both.

Advertising
There’s growing interest in sustainable development in Japan, with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) getting a lot of attention. What are your thoughts on this issue?
Photo: Jezael Melgoza/Unsplash

There’s growing interest in sustainable development in Japan, with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) getting a lot of attention. What are your thoughts on this issue?

Mexico and Japan are both very committed to the SDGs, and there are many things we can do together with regard to issues such as climate change and fighting poverty. One thing high on my agenda is the issue of women. Mexico is a very traditional country, just like Japan, but we have done a couple of things right for women. Yes, Mexican women still suffer from family violence and many other issues that are real for women around the world, but women’s representation and the capacity to be whatever you want to be is more obvious in Mexico than it is in Japan. 

In terms of representation of women in politics, this June’s election in Mexico produced 49 percent female members of the Lower House. Before the election, that number was 48, so it’s a virtual parity. But that parity was only reached over the past 20 years, when men and women from all political parties got together and said ‘This is what we want to do, this is what we want for our country.’

Working with whatever you want to do and motherhood should never be mutually exclusive. If you want to be a mother and not have a paid job – women always work, the difference is whether they get paid or not – that’s very good, and I’m very happy for those women who decide to be full-time mothers. But not if they don’t have any other option, and have to work an underpaid part-time job just to get by. 

We invest time, money and love to make our girls proud, powerful and self-sustained, but then when it comes to being a professional, you have to choose between having a family or having a job. Why? That shouldn’t happen in a country like Japan. Through mentoring and other initiatives, I’m doing my part so that young Japanese women can see that there are role models out there, that you can be anything you want to be. Interview by Masashi Takahashi, coordination by Hiroko M. Ohiwa

Recommended
    You may also like
      Advertising