160 years of bilateral relations between Switzerland and Japan
Bilateral relations between Switzerland and Japan span over 160 years. From the first years of contact in 1864 to the present day, the two nations have cultivated a fruitful bond rooted in shared values. Today, these values include democracy, respect for fundamental human rights and the rule of law, a spirit of innovation, care for the environment, precision, reliability, and many more! Explore the history of the bilateral relations between Switzerland and Japan, by scrolling through the key moments that have shaped this vibrant relationship.
1. Japan and Switzerland
From the late 18th century onward, military and trade interest for Japan spread across Europe. Swiss watchmakers had been particularly proactive in seeking overseas markets, with a primary focus on North America and East Asia. At the end of the 1850s, they exported watches to Japan via Dutch and later Chinese intermediaries. However, in order to develop this market, they founded a joint company, the Watchmaking Union. In 1859, together with textile entrepreneurs from St. Gallen, they appointed the German-born writer and diplomat Rudolf Lindau (1829-1910) on a semi-official mission. Unfavorable political conditions in Japan worked against the conclusion of the treaty with Switzerland, as the government in Edo had concluded international treaties with seven foreign states since 1854. An office was however set up in Yokohama in 1860 and managed by the Swiss watchmaker François Perregaux (1834-1877). When in 1861 the government signaled that negotiations on a trade treaty with Switzerland could be resumed, Aimé Humbert-Droz (1819-1900), a member of the Council of States and Executive Director of the Watchmaking Union, succeeded in organizing another mission on behalf of the Confederation, with himself acting as envoy. His objective was to reorganize the watch import office and to negotiate a treaty.
2. The Beginning:
1864 Treaty of Amity and Trade
In 1862, a delegation from the Swiss government, led by Humbert-Droz and including representatives of the watch and textile industries, undertook a diplomatic mission to Japan under the protection of the Netherlands. More precisely, Humbert-Droz arrived in Nagasaki on November 17, 1862, after a journey of 145 days, before continuing on to Yokohama, where he arrived on April 26, 1863. He stayed in the Benten district with the Dutch Consul General, Dirk de Graeff van Polsbroek (1833-1916). Despite ten months of unsuccessful attempts to meet with the Shogunate in Edo, Humbert-Droz was able to reach an agreement in the last days of his stay, with the help of the head of the Dutch representation in Japan.
On February 6, 1864, Humbert-Droz and Takemoto Kai-no-Kami, Foreign Minister of the Shogunate, signed the “Treaty of Amity and Trade, between the Federal Council of the Swiss Confederation and His Majesty the Tycoon” at the Dutch Embassy in Tokyo. This Treaty between Japan and Switzerland was the first international agreement signed between Japan and a landlocked country and the 8th overall. It granted the Swiss freedom of establishment and trade in open port cities, consular jurisdiction, and favorable import duties.
2.1 Aimé Humbert-Droz
Born on June 19, 1819, in Les Bulles, near La Chaux-de-Fonds, Aimé Humbert-Droz came from a family of watchmakers in northern Switzerland. After beginning his political career in 1848, he became President of the Watchmaking Union in 1857 (a joint-stock company founded by some fifty watchmakers from the Chaux-de-Fonds and Locle regions). Recognizing the urgent need for the Swiss watch industry to expand into Asian markets, in 1862 Humbert-Droz persuaded the Swiss Federal Council to authorize him to lead a delegation to Japan to negotiate a treaty. The “Treaty of Amity and Trade” was successfully signed on February 6, 1864. After his time in Japan, he became rector of the Academy of Neuchâtel (1866-1873) and a professor of literature from 1873 to 1893. He died on September 19, 1900.
2.2 “Le Japon Illustré”
by Aimé Humbert-Droz
Humbert-Droz took advantage of the slow pace of negotiations in Japan to put together a publication filled with illustrations. He gathered a large collection of 3,668 Japanese images and photos of various-kinds. After returning to Switzerland, he wrote texts for the weekly review “Le Tour du Monde” between 1866 and 1869 that were both nuanced and full of admiration for Japan. These texts were later compiled and published in two volumes by Hachette in 1870.
Titled “Le Japon illustré”, the work comprised 856 pages and 476 illustrations by Parisian artists based on Humbert's collection. It was the first publication of its kind, featuring a large number of realistic images inspired by original Japanese documents. The impact of the book was significant, leading to translations into Russian and English and sparking widespread interest in Japan. This, in turn, contributed to a growing curiosity about all things Japanese in Europe and increased tourism to the Far East. A first Japanese edition was published in 1969-1970.
Early Diplomatic Relations
In the revised agreement of 1896, Switzerland agreed to an increase in Japanese customs tariffs and waived consular jurisdiction, but in return was granted free access for its citizens. The Establishment and Trade Treaty of 1911 finally regulated all essential relations between the two countries.
Switzerland's interests were initially safeguarded de jure by the Dutch consul general and de facto by the Swiss consul in Yokohama. The Swiss legation in Tokyo was opened in 1906. Conversely, Japanese interests in Switzerland were represented by the Japanese diplomatic representative in Paris from 1879 and in Vienna from 1892. The establishment of the Japanese legation in Bern in 1916 and the opening of the Japanese Consulate in Geneva in 1933 marked pivotal moments in diplomatic relations. Further treaties were signed in 1924 on the judicial settlement of disputes in 1924 and in 1937 on mutual legal assistance in criminal matters.
3.1 Outstanding Woman in Action:
Her Majesty Empress Shôken (1849-1914)
Her Majesty Empress Shôken (1849-1914) was perceived as a dynamic and determined figure, playing a pivotal role in reforming the imperial court. She demonstrated a keen interest in women's education, actively supporting a teacher training college for women. Outside Japan, she showcased her global outlook by establishing the Empress Shôken Fund in 1912. This fund, amounting to 100,000 Japanese gold yen, was dedicated to supporting peacetime initiatives of the Red Cross — an international movement founded a few decades earlier in Geneva, Switzerland.
3.2 The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)
& The Japanese Red Cross Society (JRCS)
The concept of the Red Cross originated in 1859, when Swiss entrepreneur Henry Dunant (1828-1910) saw the devastations following the Battle of Solferino, Italy. Witnessing more than 6’000 deaths and 40,000 men dying or wounded without medical aid, Dunant, along with local residents, dedicated the following days to healing, feeding, and comforting numerous survivors. This impactful experience prompted Dunant, upon his return to Switzerland, to advocate for the establishment of national relief societies to aid war-wounded individuals and laid the groundwork for the future Geneva Conventions. In 1863, Dunant and five individuals from Geneva formed the International Committee for Relief to the Wounded, which later evolved into the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
The League of Red Cross Societies, now recognized as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), was founded in 1919 to coordinate the expanding network of national Red Cross Societies across Europe and globally, including the Japanese Red Cross Society (JRCS). Founded in 1877 by Count Sano Tsunetami as the “Philanthropic Society” to aid Satsuma Rebellion victims, the JRCS has evolved into one of the largest of the 191 National Red Cross Societies worldwide, boasting over 9.6 million individual members and 120,000 corporate members in 2023.
Empress Shôken strongly supported the JRCS from its beginning, providing a significant early impulse to the Red Cross movement in Japan. Administered by a joint committee of the ICRC and the IFRC, and generously supported by the Japanese government, the Japanese Red Cross Society, the Imperial Family, and the Meiji Shrine, her fund has grown exponentially from 100,000 Japanese gold yen in 1912 to nearly 3,000,000,000 JPY in 2023.
3.3 1927 Helvetia Hütte
Swiss History in Japanese Mountains
Situated 550 meters above sea level in Hokkaido, the Helvetia Hütte is a picturesque mountain cabin that narrates a unique tale of historical connection between Japan and Switzerland. In the early Showa period (1923-1932), Swiss professor Arnold Gubler and his wife Madeleine, skiing enthusiasts from Pfäffikon (Canton of Zurich), moved to Japan for a teaching position at the University of Sapporo. While battling homesickness, Hokkaido proved to be the ideal place for them to indulge in their hobby of skiing. The couple swiftly organized the region's first ski tours, catalyzing the rapid development of winter tourism in Sapporo.
In 1927, seeking comfort and practicality, Gubler decided to construct a wooden mountain hut, later named in his honor as “Helvetia Hütte”, with the help of Swiss architect Max Hinder (1887-1963) and Professor Haruo Yamasaki (1886-1961). The following year, the Soranuma hut was also built for His Imperial Highness Prince Chichibu (1902-1953). During the pioneering era of winter sports development in Japan, a series of mountain houses, influenced by Swiss chalets, were constructed with the support of His Imperial Highness Prince Chichibu, who had developed a passion for mountaineering in the Swiss Alps during his studies at Oxford. These huts became a hub for hikers, fostering camaraderie between Swiss and Japanese enthusiasts.
The Hokkaido University, which owns these mountain houses, and the Academic Alpine Club of Hokkaido have invested significant efforts in preserving this historical heritage. The 85th anniversary celebration of the Hütte in 2012 and the reopening of the Soranuma Hut in 2017 in presence of Her Imperial Highness Princess Akiko of Mikasa and of the Swiss Ambassador, Jean-François Paroz, marked a significant moment of cultural exchange, fostering lasting bonds between Switzerland and Hokkaido.
World War II and its aftermath
Switzerland provided its good offices to Japan in both world wars, acting as a representative for Germany in Tokyo during the First World War and during the Pacific War for 16 nations vis-a-vis Japan and for Japan in 19 countries. In the late 1930s, many foreign residents departed the Empire, while others, including members of the Swiss representation, chose to remain. Switzerland adhered to diplomatic conventions, appointing not an ambassador but a Minister (one rank below) to lead the Legation of Switzerland in Tokyo. The Legation was initially located in Koji-machi and later moved to Mita in 1942.
4.1 Camille Gorgé (1893-1978)
A Swiss Minister in Japan
On February 15, 1940, Camille Gorgé (1893-1978) assumed the role of Minister in Tokyo. Having harbored aspirations for this position since his initial stay in Japan as a legal advisor to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the 1920s, Gorgé regarded Japanese civilization as one of the world's most fascinating and refined. However, the reality of dealing with Imperial Japan in the 1940s, proved to be one of his most challenging assignments.
Despite the challenges posed by the outbreak of the Pacific War, Gorgé was asked by the Swiss government to stay in Japan to ensure the well-being of two hundred Swiss citizens who were unable to evacuate and were increasingly subject to potential arrests and harassments, as well as to maintain Switzerland’s presence with regard to the post-war period. Gorgé and his Legation played a crucial role in using Switzerland’s “Good Office” to mediate and act as a “protective power” between the Japanese Empire and the Allied Powers in areas of shared concerns. Gorgé routinely engaged with Japanese officials to coordinate the exchange of civilians, diplomats, and prisoners of war. He negotiated on behalf of the USA, Great Britain, and other Allied Nations, ensuring adherence to international conventions.
In mid-1944, as Allied bombings intensified, the Japanese Imperial Government evacuated foreigners from Tokyo to Karuizawa, a village in Nagano prefecture. Until the end of 1945, the large villa Miyama-so became the office of Gorgé and the Swiss Legation. Despite experiencing food shortages and being under military police surveillance, none of the Swiss evacuees were affected by air raids. In spite of limited food supply and other hardships, Karuizawa residents are said to have behaved cordially with the Legation and the Swiss community.
After the war, the Swiss Legation returned to Tokyo and Gorgé moved to Ankara for his next diplomatic post. Miyama-so was preserved as a historical site by the Karuizawa Town Administration in 2015.
4.2 Marcel Junod (1904-1961)
Swiss Doctor in Hiroshima
In the wake of the devastating atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, one man, Marcel Junod (1904 – 1961), emerged as a fundamental figure of the aftermath of the Hiroshima disaster, showcasing unwavering dedication to humanitarian aid. Born in Neuchâtel in 1904, Marcel Junod practiced medicine in his twenties before joining the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) at the age of 31. Over the next decade, Dr. Junod ventured into war-torn regions such as Ethiopia, Spain, Germany, and Poland, risking his life to safeguard vulnerable populations and prisoners of war.
In 1945, Junod's mission to oversee the treatment of prisoners of war in Japan took an unexpected turn when he became witness to the unprecedented devastation in Hiroshima. Shocked by the scale of destruction, he swiftly organized a relief mission, becoming the first foreign doctor to reach the city on September 8. Equipped with 15 tons of medical supplies and accompanied by an American investigation task force and two Japanese doctors, Junod visited the improvised hospitals scattered throughout the region, took charge of distributing essential supplies and jumped into action as a surgeon, saving numerous lives. This mission not only marked a turning point for local medical staff but also yielded crucial photographic evidence that was distributed worldwide by the ICRC.
Upon returning to Tokyo, Junod wrote “The Hiroshima Disaster”, later published by the ICRC in 1982. Despite a declining health in the 1950s, he continued his humanitarian work in Geneva, holding key ICRC positions until his passing on June 16, 1961. Marcel Junod's legacy is strongly felt in Hiroshima. A monument in his honor was inaugurated in the Hiroshima Peace Park on September 8, 1979, and an annual commemorative meeting is held on the anniversary of his death. Moreover, Studio Hibari's 2010 animation, “Junod”, celebrates his life and compassion amidst nuclear chaos.
The Era of High-Economic Growth
Following an interruption from 1945 to 1952, intergovernmental relations between Japan and Switzerland were reinstated on April 28, 1952, and have progressed seamlessly ever since. In 1955 the Embassy of Japan in Switzerland and in 1957 the Embassy of Switzerland in Japan opened. Other treaties concluded in these years were the Treaty on air traffic (1956) and the Treaty on avoidance of double taxation (1971), which further developed economic collaboration between Japan and Switzerland. From 1980 onwards, the liberalization of the Japanese economy led to an increase in Swiss companies in Japan.
Inauguration of Swissair flights to Japan
The establishment of direct airlines played an important role in the development of exchanges between Japan and Switzerland. In spring 1957, following a treaty between the two countries, Swissair inaugurated its flights to Japan. To mark the occasion, a large Swiss political and business delegation boarded the DC-6B, which flew from Zurich and Geneva to Tokyo in four days. Among the guests was Samuel Brawand (1898-2001), a socialist member of the Bern State Council, a member of the Swissair Board of Directors, and a mountain guide. He accompanied His Imperial Highness Prince Chichibu and other Japanese personalities to the top of the Alps in the 1920s. Thirty years later, he reunited with his former mountaineering companions and the widow of His Imperial Highness Prince Chichibu. It was around these Alpine exchanges that Japanese mass tourism to Switzerland developed after 1970.
5.2 1964 First Sister Cities Alliance:
Kutchan & St. Moritz
In 1927, His Imperial Highness Prince Chichibu visited Hokkaido to observe Japanese athletes preparing for the St. Moritz Olympics. During his trip, he skied on Mt. Niseko Annupuri and Mt. Chisenupuri, prompting journalists to dub the Kutchan area “The St. Moritz of the East”. This nickname stuck in the minds of Japanese mountain admirers, attracting tourists to Kutchan.
Inspired by this positive association, Kutchan’s Mayor, Seikichi Takahashi, visited St. Moritz during the Innsbruck Olympics in 1964. On February 1, he proposed a sister alliance between the two towns to commemorate the 100th anniversary of diplomatic relations. Mayor Sartomo enthusiastically accepted, and they signed an impromptu agreement on their handkerchiefs. Kutchan's official request reached St. Moritz on March 19, and on June 11 the Swiss town officially accepted, making them the first twinned Swiss and Japanese entities just in time for the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. Since the agreement was signed, student exchanges, delegation visits, and correspondences have thrived between St. Moritz and Kutchan. Notably, this first city partnership has paved the way for 24 additional urban collaborations, fostering a broader network of connections and shared initiatives.
The Heidi Anime
Heidi, the iconic character from Swiss author Johanna Spyri (1827-1901), has left an indelible mark on global culture, particularly through its Japanese anime adaptation. Originally conceived as a representation of a typical Swiss individual, Heidi is the moving story of a little orphaned Swiss girl who finds happiness in her Alpine paradise and touches those around her with her warm heart and cheerfulness. Spyri's best-selling novel not only captivated readers during her lifetime but also played a pivotal role in shaping Switzerland's image abroad.
The anime adaptation, titled “Heidi, Girl of the Alps”, was released in 1974, created by world famous animators Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, and Yoichi Kotabe. They visited Switzerland in 1973, and experienced its landscapes, culture, and tradition to ensure that the animated setting closely mirrored reality. In addition to locations such as Maienfeld like in the original story, they decided to also visit and see the heart of the alps, the Jungfrau Region. The success of this cartoon, broadcast on television in many European countries since the 1980s, has spread beyond Japan's borders. It is a popular embodiment of the cultural links between Switzerland and Japan.
Heidi's popularity in Japan extends beyond the anime dating back to the 1920s with the first of many translations. The character gained substantial traction post-World War II, in line with a growing fascination with idyllic, nature-centric narratives. In May 2023, the two Zurich archives of Heidi and Johanna Spyri were added to UNESCO's “Memory of the World” register. UNESCO has thus recognized the exceptional value of these historical records and paid international tribute to their 140-year history of success and impact.
6. 21st Century:
Innovation and Collaboration
In the 21st century, the ties between Japan and Switzerland have continued to flourish, marked by a series of agreements and high-ranking visits. The relationship has been characterized by shared principles and values, such as the rule of law and the peaceful resolution of disputes. Commerce remains at the core of their ties, with a shared aspiration for high quality and reliable services, and the Japanese market becoming recently the main driver for Swiss exports to Asia. In the domain of finance, both governments conduct regular consultations and work together to advance sustainable finance. Another cornerstone of their enduring partnership lies in education, research, and innovation. On the global stage, Japan and Switzerland continue to work closely together, for example in the United Nations, where both countries present joint positions in various subcommittees and are both non-permanent members of the UN Security Council in 2023 and 2024. They also cooperate in the World Trade Organization and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Since the beginning of the new millennium, pivotal agreements and ceremonial events cemented the diplomatic relations between Japan and Switzerland. In 2007, the Science and Technology Cooperation Agreement was signed, promoting joint efforts in research and innovation. This was followed in 2009 by the Free Trade and Economic Partnership Agreement, which strengthened the economic ties between the two countries and was the first of its kind with a European country. The implementation of the Social Security Agreement in 2012 underscored their commitment to the well-being of their citizens. In 2021, Japan and Switzerland signed a protocol amending the Double Taxation Agreement (DTA) on income tax. With over 70 agreements between universities, the two countries have also cultivated a robust network fostering academic exchange and cutting-edge research initiatives.
Various high-profile visits throughout the years further strengthened the relations between the two countries.
In 2014, the commemoration of the 150th diplomatic anniversary of Japan and Switzerland, marked by His Imperial Highness The Crown Prince's visit to Neuchâtel, symbolized the enduring friendship and trade legacy between the two countries. In 2015, Federal Councilor Didier Burkhalter held discussions with then-Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, focusing on cooperative security and partnership between the OSCE and Asian countries. In 2018, Federal President Alain Berset held bilateral talks with Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, where they addressed bilateral relations including economic policy and international issues.
In 2019, Prime Minister Shinzō Abe attended the World Economic Forum's (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, where he spoke about the growth potential of digitization and data, emphasizing the need for better cross-border data distribution. Later in the same year, President of the Confederation Ueli Maurer was received by Prime Minister Shinzō Abe in Japan, where they discussed regional topics as well as central challenges for the global financial and economic system.
During the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, President Guy Parmelin met with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. The following year, President Ignazio Cassis met with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi to discuss global security challenges, underscoring shared concerns about the international rule of law, cooperation in international organizations, and trade relations.
6.3 Recent Developments
More recently, the establishment of the Honorary Consulate of Switzerland in Fukuoka in 2022 and the inauguration of the Consulate of Switzerland in Osaka, Swissnex in Japan, in September 2023 marked other significant milestones. Positioned as a hub for collaboration between universities, research institutions and start-ups, Swissnex marks a new chapter in their joint pursuit of innovation. Accompanied by a scientific delegation, State Secretary Martina Hirayama, celebrated the opening of the new Consulate and highlighted the importance both countries place on collaborative scientific endeavors. A key moment during this visit was the signing of a Memorandum of Cooperation between State Secretary Martina Hirayama and Japan's Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology, Masahito Moriyama. This agreement, inked on the fringes of the STS Forum in Kyoto, aimed to bolster research ties across various domains like quantum science, AI, robotics, materials science, and space research. It builds upon the foundation laid by previous agreements, showcasing an unwavering commitment to advancing joint research and innovation efforts.
- Prepared in collaboration with Pierre-Yves Donzé, Professor at Osaka University