Japanese Ambassador to Vietnam Fukada Hiroshi, who is instrumental to elevating ties between Vietnam and Japan, has held the photos he had snapped of Hanoians dear to his heart for more than 20 years.
In 1994, a Japanese man roamed the Old Quarter, a major tourist draw in Hanoi, with a camera in hand, taking over a hundred photos of Hanoians living everyday life.
Nineteen years later, in 2013, the man returned to Vietnam as the Japanese ambassador.
Before starting his tenure in Vietnam, Fukada Hiroshi served as the ambassador to the West African country of Senegal.
“I initially thought the tenure shift was all about a switch from one hot country to another,” he revealed to Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper reporters at his home in Hanoi.
“However, after delving into the depth of your country’s culture, I felt hugely blessed and honored about my appointment in Vietnam,” he said.
Fukada Hiroshi (second left) poses with young barbers at the Old Quarter in Hanoi in 1994. By courtesy of Japanese Ambassador to Vietnam Fukada Hiroshi
The interview began with the demonstration of the profoundly moving bond between the two countries when the earthquake-tsunami calamity befell the East Asian country in March 2011, claiming 18,000 victims and destroying coastal cities.
As told by a staffer at the Japanese Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City, the tragedy struck without warning and Japan’s worst peacetime disaster left the consulate unprepared for a remembrance ceremony or platform for tribute payers to place bouquets or light candles.
Despite the lack of preparation, many Vietnamese queued up in front of the consulate for their turn to express their heart-felt condolences to the victims and their grieving families.
The staffer added that visitors also folded paper cranes as wishes for good luck and several elderly people donated all their savings to help victims survive the crisis.
Some sent in collages, dexterously crafted from cherry blossoms, in efforts to allay the affected people’s sufferings.
The consulate staff then hang a banner over the edifice’s entrance for a year, expressing the deep gratitude from the Japanese government and people to the Vietnamese for their support.
Photos capturing the banner are still preserved at the consulate.
When he took office, Ambassador Hiroshi was deeply moved by the story.
He told the Tuoi Tre reporters that though Japan incurred untold damage from the calamity, the nation was abiding in granting large sums in official development assistance (ODA) to Vietnam in an attempt to provide a push for the Southeast Asian country.
“This is reflective of the close-knit ties between our two countries, and proves that Vietnam and Japan share much more than just economic cooperation,” Hiroshi said.
The ambassador shared that he has felt the striking similarities regarding culture, ideology, and empathy between the two nations over the past several years.
“We are all patient and generous,” he added.
He recounted that back in the 1990s, when he worked at the Economic Cooperation Department under Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he met many representatives from major local private enterprises who wished to invest in Vietnam.
Surprisingly, several among them targeted Vietnam not only for its abundant, cheap labor force, but also for boosting the country’s economic growth.
“Though there remain gaps between the two countries’ economies, we complement each other well.”
“The visit made by General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam Nguyen Phu Trong in September 2015 will also help spur the two countries’ economic cooperation in the time to come,” the ambassador elaborated.
Quest for his characters
Few within the diplomatic circle in Hanoi are aware that Ambassador Hiroshi was one of the men dedicated to forging the Vietnamese-Japanese ties 20 years ago.
“Though Vietnam was destitute at the time, I could sense life brimming around the Old Quarter,” he stressed.
His well-kept photos portray a serene Hanoi with tile-roofed houses, eateries, and grocery stores selling their wares on the sidewalks during the early 1990s.
Some of the other highlights were a row of Japan-made Honda Cubs, valuable assets back then, and schoolgirls in white ‘ao dai’ (traditional Vietnamese long gown) leisurely cycling on the street.
A barber is seen trimming his client’s hair on a Hanoi sidewalk in a photo taken in 1994 by Fukada Hiroshi, with his own reflection seen in the mirror.
“I’ve always cherished these photos and earnestly wish I would bump into those I took snapshots of,” the ambassador confided.
He also divulged his two favorite photos taken in the Old Quarter.
“One captures a photo studio secluded in an alley, while the other portrays a little Hanoian girl with an angelic face,” he added.
As soon as he returned to Vietnam for his ambassadorship, he traced back to the photo studio alone as an average tourist, not as Japan’s highest-ranking diplomat in Vietnam.
The shop, however, has a new owner now, as the previous one had moved to a different place.
Regarding his second favorite photo, Ambassador Hiroshi recounted that while he was strolling, he bumped into an adorable little girl with an angelic face and glittery eyes.
He gifted the sweetie a box of chocolate and offered to snap her photo along with her willing family.
The ambassador yearned to see the girl again and hand her the photo to lay his vexing concerns to rest.
He shared he could still sense residents’ friendliness and their determination in contributing to the country’s growth now, 20 years on.
However, he mourned the loss of the sight of schoolgirls cycling in white ‘ao dai.’
As a photographer, he cherishes sights of family members gathering over meals, and people working or traveling on the street, bursting with energy.
The diplomat now reads books on Vietnam which are translated into Japanese, and continues to indulge in his street photo practice during his leisure time.