A Centenary of Diplomatic Relations Between Lithuania and Japan: An Overview of the Relations Between the Two Nations
About the author: Dr. Juozas Skirius is a historian, professor of the Faculty of Humanities at Vytautas Magnus University (VMU), scientific researcher at the Martynas Mažvydas National Library of Lithuania
Lithuania and Japan entered official interstate relations when Japan recognized the State of Lithuania de jure on December 20, 1922. It is, however, known that Japan, considering its interests and attitude towards Russia, recognized the State of Lithuania de facto as early as January 3, 1919. It was the second country after Sweden to recognize the new Lithuanian government – recognition which inspired confidence and courage for the Lithuanians in strengthening their statehood. The Lithuanians had access to some information about Japan before entering into diplomatic relations, just as the Japanese had some information about Lithuania. On September 6, 1991, Japan fully recognized the independence of the reinstated Lithuanian State, and both nations have since been gradually strengthening their cultural, political-economic, and scientific relations. Japan has favored Lithuania throughout the century.
The year 2022 is important for the history of modern Lithuanian diplomacy and at the same time for Lithuanian culture, because a hundred years ago, on February 16th, the new Lithuanian State was recognized de jure by major western powers – the USA, Great Britain, France, Italy, and Germany. At that time, independent Lithuania was also recognized by the Vatican, the head of the Catholic world. The list of countries to have recognized Lithuanian independence included the Far East country of Japan. Recognition came not only in the aftermath of Lithuania’s diplomatic efforts, but also of favorite circumstances internationally. Thus, after long four years of Lithuania’s diplomatic “fights,” in the second half of 1922, Lithuania, a small Eastern European country, finally became a full-fledged, internationally recognized political unit enjoying equal rights in the League of Nations. Our country, until the tragic year 1940, achieved impressive results in the fields of economy, culture, and education in an incredibly short time. The fact of the integration of the Lithuanian nation into the world nations undoubtedly had an impact on achieving so impressive results as well.
Relations Between the Two Nations in the Pre-war Period
Remembering the origins of the interstate relations between Lithuania and Japan, it is widely noted that on December 20, 1922, the Japanese government, together with the governments of Great Britain, France, and Italy, officially recognized the Lithuanian State de jure, laying the foundations for Japan and Lithuania to enter into diplomatic relations. The Japanese government was the first among Asian countries to recognize Lithuania as an independent country. It should also be noted that, according to the documents of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan recognized the Lithuanian State de facto as early as January 3, 1919. It was the second country after Sweden to grant such, very important, recognition for the nascent Lithuanian State. However, historians have not yet researched more into this fact, especially to specify if it was the recognition of the Lithuanian government or of the Lithuanian State de facto. And at the same time try to explain why the far-off Japanese government favored the Lithuanian State so strongly.
Based on Japan’s foreign policy of the time and its attitude towards Russia, which was ravaged by a brutal civil war, Japanese politicians were more concerned about the Russian State being weak and fragmented, as it claimed territories in the Far East. Such an approach was contrary to the USA policy, which advocated for a democratic “indivisible Russia,” which, according to the Americans, would include all non-Russian peoples, including the Lithuanians, who were part of Tsarist Russia. Individual documents from the archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Lithuania show that the Japanese government, through its representatives in various European countries and the USA, on meeting Lithuania’s envoys, inquired about the Lithuanian issue, which entered the sphere of Japan’s interests in Eastern European countries, especially Russia’s western border. It was important for Japan that the states in this region were strong, as possible allies in the future. Although the Lithuanian-Japanese relations were not characterized by intensity and closeness at that time, a certain favor of Japan towards the Lithuanians and the State of Lithuania can be felt. Understandably, this was due to Japan having no territorial claims in Europe and avoiding any obligations against the European states that were settling their disputable border issues after the First World War.
The Lithuanian government, considering Japan’s favorable attitude, tried to establish closer political-economic relations with Japan and, through Japan, put some pressure on the major Western powers, accelerating their decision to recognize the Lithuanian State de jure. At the end of 1921, the Lithuanian government even appointed its chargé d’affaires, Tomas Norus-Naruševičius, who resided in London, as the representative of Lithuanian affairs in Japan, because he knew the peculiarities of that country and had visited it in 1917. In his letter of December 6, 1921, with reference to Lithuania’s recognition de jure, Naruševičius appealed to the Japanese authorities through ambassador Gonsuke Hayashi, but his letter did not bring the desired result. Despite this, the representative of Lithuania (and later other representatives as well) tried to maintain contacts with the Embassy of Japan in London and made efforts to get the consent of the Japanese to present their credentials to the Emperor of Japan. Unfortunately, we have no information about the results of such efforts. Maybe, the Japanese archives will reveal it in the future. Despite a lack of such information, we do not notice any greater interest of Japanese politicians in Lithuania at that time.
Japan’s political role in international relations was prominent. The Japanese ambassador to France, together with the representatives of Great Britain, France and Italy, had joined an important political organization – The Conference of Ambassadors, which was set up by a resolution of the Supreme Council of the Antante and was active from 1919 to 1931 in Paris. The Conference of Ambassadors was an informal alternative for the League of Nations. The aim of the Conference of Ambassadors was to oversee the implementation of the Treaty of Versailles (signed on June 28, 1919), to resolve disputable issues, such as, e.g., the Klaipėda issue.
It should also be remembered that Japan supported Lithuania in its dispute over the Klaipėda Region in 1922–1923 and advocated for the transfer of this Region to Lithuania. This can clearly be seen in the speech of S. Sasaki, Japan’s representative in Estonia, delivered on October 18, 1922, in which he advocated that the Klaipėda Region be transferred to Lithuania (after recognizing it de jure) as soon as possible, because, as he put it, Lithuania without Klaipėda is “a small child without hands and legs.” On February 16, 1923, the Conference of Ambassadors recognized the Klaipėda Region sovereignty rights for Lithuania. Japan was one the signatories to the Klaipėda Convention, signed on May 8, 1924 in Paris. It is also interesting to note that when the representatives of Great Britain, France and Italy in Kaunas presented the Lithuanian government with an ultimatum note on February 2, 1926, in which it was accused of organizing the uprising in Klaipėda, Japan did not join them. Consequently, this can be seen as Japan’s aim to support Lithuania as though by placing a wedge between Germany and Russia. Japanese politicians rightly anticipated that Bolshevik Russia could only strengthen with the help of Germany, the most disadvantaged country after the war. And so it happened. Regardless of that, with the current circumstances after the First World War and fortunately for Lithuania, Japan’s political interests in a way coincided with its support for the Lithuanian State and its independence. It was a considerable gift for the small new state.
Shortly afterwards, Japan’s Representative Office was established in Riga to maintain diplomatic relations with Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, which operated there in 1919–1923. It changed its locations though: in 1923–1935 it operated in Berlin, and in 1935–1940 again in Riga. Whereas the Lithuanian diplomats residing in London, Paris, Washington, Riga, Berlin, even in Stockholm and Copenhagen were assigned to represent Lithuania’s interests in Japan, or rather to maintain contacts.
After Lithuania signed several agreements with Japan, a possibility arose for it to appoint its own representatives. Lithuania took advantage of that, and the establishment of the Honorary Consulate of Lithuania was approved in Tokyo on May 15, 1935, which was later approved by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan on August 13th of that same year. The position of the Honorary Consul of Lithuania in Japan was held until 1940 by a businessman, Masadzhi Yasaka, who headed the trade company Yasaka Shiodzhi Kaysha. This created more favorable conditions for the development of economic and cultural relations between Lithuania and Japan. One more Consulate of Lithuania operated in Harbin (China), through which Lithuania’s relations with Japan were also maintained.
Chiune Sugihara, Vice Consul of Japan, was the first Japanese diplomat. He resided in Kaunas in 1939–1940, and is best known to the general public. Based on his humanistic beliefs, with the help of the Lithuanian authorities, he saved the lives of Polish Jews who escaped from the persecution of the German Nazis by issuing them visas to Japan. Visas were also stamped on international-level documents provided to Jews by the Lithuanian authorities.
Another more interesting fact – at the invitation of Augustinas Voldemaras, the Prime Minister of Lithuania, Yasaka Sugimura, Deputy Secretary of the League of Nations visited Lithuania on June 22–26, 1929. He became more widely familiar with our country, met with President Antanas Smetona and the Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Prof. Augustinas Voldemaras. His visit to Lithuania when fervent discussions were taking place in the League of Nations to settle the Lithuanian-Polish conflict, also illustrated a certain favorable attitude of Japan towards our country. The Lithuanian press covered this extraordinary fact quite extensively and even emphasized the human openness of this Japanese diplomat: “His statement is characterized by undiplomatic clarity.” While giving his interview, Yasaka Sugimura said that for the Lithuanian nation and its young state, in order to achieve the appropriate level of culture, i.e., to be among the highly cultured states of the world, it would take a lot of work to overcome a lot of obstacles, to take care of internal order and external peace. At the same time, he emphasized the role of the League of Nations in regulating conflicts and establishing peace in the world. He made it clear that Lithuania had rightly chosen to become a member of the League of Nations. It seems that this gave the Lithuanians confidence in this organization.
Lithuania and Japan established direct economic relations only after signing an agreement on the abrogation of entry visas in 1929 and an agreement on trade and shipping in 1930. The latter agreement was signed at the initiative of Japan, but Japanese goods, due to the geographical conditions (a large distance) and competition from Western European countries, did not find a large market in Lithuania. According to the volume of Lithuania’s trade with foreign countries, Japan’s position was at the end of the first twenty or within the first thirty countries among Lithuania’s trading partners throughout the 1930s. In general, it was symbolic trade, focused rather on the more distant future. Japan began to export its goods to Lithuania as early as 1920, although in negligible amounts. The amounts of its annual volumes of goods ranged between a few hundred and a few thousand litas. Japan’s imports were the largest in 1929 – amounting to 377.6 thousand litas, which only made up 0.12 % of Lithuania’s total imports. Whereas Lithuanian goods, as shown by official statistics, found their way to Japan as late as 1933, and only for a tiny amount of 200 litas. From 1935 Lithuanian exports to Japan reached the following amounts: 18.6 thousand litas in 1935 (the largest amount), 10.1 thousand litas in 1936, 15.5 thousand litas in 1937, 4.2 thousand litas in 1938, etc. These were very small amounts indeed. Lithuanian exports to Japan included butter, scrap metal, honey, flax, and small quantities of other products (cheese, sugar, etc.). Japanese imports in Lithuania included cellulose, haberdashery, electrical goods, carpets. Japanese fountain-pens were popular in Lithuania as well. Lithuania’s trade balance with Japan was always negative. It should be noted that Lithuania had more profitable and closer markets for its goods in Europe; therefore, it was not interested in increasing Japanese imports or shipping its goods to Japan in larger quantities.
The tragic events for Lithuania and the Lithuanian nation in 1940 – the loss of statehood – led to the liquidation of legations and consulates of foreign states in Lithuania. One of the last representative offices to leave Kaunas was the Consulate of Japan, which operated until September 5, 1940. The political relations between Lithuania and Japan were broken for a long time.
Knowledge of Japan in Lithuania Until the Mid-twentieth Century
Information about Japan reached Lithuanian society as early as a few centuries ago. Romualdas Neimantas, a researcher of the history of cultural relations between Lithuania and Japan, wrote that the first to report about Japan was the Jesuit Andrius Rudamina in the 1620s–1630s. The first to visit Japan was the Lithuanian nobleman Juozapas Goškevičius of Vilnius Governorate. He was appointed the first consul of Russia in Japan and worked in this country in 1858–1865. He was also the first specialist in the Japanese language in Lithuania. He also knew Chinese, Manchurian, Korean and Mongolian, and published a Russian-Japanese dictionary. He is considered the pioneer of Japanese studies in Lithuania.
The first articles about Japan in the Lithuanian press are found in 1891 in the newspaper Žemaičių ir Lietuvos apžvalga, which was issued in Tilsit. The serialized article Japonijos muczelninkai, published in fifteen issues, deals with issues of Catholics in Japan in the seventeenth century. It also provides some information about earthquakes and the First Sino-Japanese War.
The war between Russia and Japan in 1904–1905 and Russia’s defeat significantly increased the interest of the Lithuanian intelligentsia in Japan. The war showed that even small nations could defeat large empires. The future chairman of the Social Democratic Party, a signatory to the Act of February 16 and the first chairman of the Supreme Committee for the Liberation of Lithuania (Lith. VLIK), and also the first Lithuanian, Steponas Kairys, disguised as Dėdė, in 1906 wrote and published three books in Lithuanian about Japan, its nature, people and major historical events, such as the abolition of serfdom and the promulgation of Japan’s Constitution. It was a peculiar tribute of the Lithuanians to the Japanese. These books about Japan, written in Lithuanian, are considered the first sowing of Japanese studies in Lithuania.
In August of 1916, two Lithuanian public figures – Martynas Yčas, a member of the Russian Duma, and Jonas Žilius-Žilinskas, a Lithuanian-American priest, visited Japan on their way to the USA. They visited Shimonoseki, Kyoto, Tokyo, and Nikko, and bordered a ship bound to America in the port of Yokohama. Yčas described his impressions in his book of memoirs which was published in 1935. He noted that the Japanese had long enjoyed the fruits of European civilization, “taking for themselves the best and the most perfect of all things.” Imitating the Europeans and trying to Europeanize their country, they maintain their traditions, practice ceremonies such as tea drinking, and preserve the relics of their past.
Japan was described in great detail by our famous traveler Matas Šalčius. In 1936, he published a series of his impressions Svečiuose pas keturiasdešimt tautų (book 6) of which is dedicated to the Far East and Japan. Šalčius drew attention to the industriousness of the Japanese, saying that “they are hardworking, diligent and persevering.” According to him, after the Meiji Revolution in 1868, “Japan took off like a charm”, because it was able to take many things over from other countries. Šalčius, it seems, was urging the Lithuanian reader to learn from the Japanese. The then media of the Republic of Lithuania introduced the public to the cultural life of Japan, its history, poetry and music, especially Japanese art and architecture. At that time, as many as 24 translations of Japanese literature came out, mostly in periodicals. In the field of cultural contacts, a few Japanese exhibitions were hosted in the M.K. Čiurlionis Gallery in Kaunas. Several books by foreign travelers about Japan, describing local life as seen through the eyes of Europeans, were also translated.
Several articles published in Japanese newspapers broadened Japan’s knowledge of Lithuania. Priest Albinas Margevičius, one of the first Lithuanians to live in Japan at that time, not only wrote about Japan for the Lithuanian press, but also promoted Lithuania in the Land of the Rising Sun. He even organized an exhibition of Lithuanian books and periodicals there. Japan was introduced to Lithuanian residents at that time not only in the Catholic press, but also in at least 25 other secular publications: Aidas, Darbininkas, Diena, Karys, Lietuvos žinios, Moteris, Sekmadienis, etc. Each of them wrote about this country one or more times.
Bilateral Relations in the Soviet Period
After the Second World War, the Lithuanian SSR and the defeated Japan built bilateral relations slowly. The contacts between these countries were highly restricted. Lithuanian cultural figures – authors and poets – did not forget Japan and were not indifferent to the Japanese tradition. S. Geda, K. Korsakas, J. Degutytė, J. Vaičiūnaitė, J. Mikelinskas, T.A. Rudokas and others touched on Japanese images and interpreted Japanese themes in their own way. Interest was growing not only in Lithuania in Japan, but also in Japan in Lithuania. The M.K. Čiurlionis Club based in Japan contributed a lot in introducing the Japanese to Lithuania. The first Japanese researcher of Lithuanian studies, Prof. Ikuo Murata, who translated into English The Seasons of K. Donelaitis, The Forest of Anykščiai of A. Baranauskas, Egle the Queen of Serpents and other Lithuanian fairy tales, is inextricably linked to this club as well. Thanks to his efforts, a group of Japanese became interested in Lithuania, its language and culture.
After the war, much was written about Japanese industry, which in the 1950s–60s experienced something of a boom, and was called “a Japanese miracle.” The researcher Romualdas Neimontas counted the articles on Japanese industry and science that were contributed to the Lithuanian press by Lithuanian scientists: A. Ališauskas (28), G. Bajoras (44), J. Grigas (176), R. Makuška (389), etc.
The Olympic Games of 1964 in Tokyo should also be noted, in which 16 athletes from Lithuania participated, representing the USSR national team. Sports journalists Aleksandras Icikavičius (who signed under the pseudonym Imantas Aleksaitis) and Mindaugas Barysas who worked there, contributed detailed series of articles to newspapers. Thus, in the Soviet period, Japan was no way an unheard country for the Lithuanians.
Lithuania of March 11th and Japan
Lithuanian-Japanese relations strengthened both quantitatively and qualitatively after Lithuania reinstated its independence and Japan again recognized Lithuania as an independent state on September 6, 1991. Japan was one of the countries to officially recognize Lithuania’s independence the earliest. The mutual interest that followed after that increasingly strengthened: visits of both Lithuanians to Japan and of Japanese to Lithuania became more frequent, various agreements were signed and different events were held. Many of these visits were top-level, including official visits of the Prime Ministers and Presidents of both countries and return visits. The culmination to all such visits was the visit of the Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko in Lithuania on May 26–27, 2007.
On February 11, 1997, the Embassy of Japan was opened in Lithuania, where chargés d’affaires worked. (It is true that before the opening of the Embassy, the Japanese Information Center had operated in Vilnius from 1995.) The first Japanese ambassador to reside in Vilnius was Miyoko Akashi, who was appointed in 2008 (until then Japanese ambassadors resided in Copenhagen). In 1999, the Lithuanian Embassy was established in Tokyo as well. The first permanent Lithuanian ambassador in Japan, Algirdas Kudzys worked in that country in 2002–2006. Currently, six Lithuanian honorary consulates operate in different cities of Japan.
After Lithuania declared independence and sought democracy and a free market economy, Japan helped our country develop by providing material help and through technical cooperation. A total of 13 projects, aimed at promoting and improving cultural and educational activities, were implemented in Lithuania in the 2000s. For example, support to the Lithuanian Academy of Music to supplement the variety of its musical instruments, to Vilnius University and Vytautas Magnus University – to renew the Japanese language teaching equipment, etc.
The relations between Japan and Lithuania are currently most noticeable in cultural events and exhibitions, which particularly attract the attention of Lithuanians. Japan’s exoticism and its old, rich, and unique traditional culture excite Lithuanian people. Sushi that they have come to like so much is also proof of the spread of Japanese culture in Lithuania. Many Lithuanians have been fond of traditional Japanese martial arts such as judo, karate, aikido, and kendo. Many Japanese martial arts schools have been established in Lithuania, in which people develop their mastery and constantly strengthen their mind.
It is good to note the strengthening of bilateral partnership in the field of economy. Exports of laser devices manufactured in Lithuania to Japan increase rapidly. Lithuanian technologies are used in Japan both in the academic and industrial sectors. Domestic appliances, plastic and rubber products, chemicals and other goods are imported from Japan. Although the trade volumes are not large – Japan’s place is within Lithuania’s first forty trade partners by size – Japan is important from a political and cultural point of view.
The number of tourists from Japan in Lithuania in the period 2008–2018 increased almost fourfold, to exceed 28 thousand. The number of Lithuanian tourists in Japan is lower – according to calculations, 4,303 tourists visited Japan in 2016. From 2020, incoming tourism was significantly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, decreasing by dozens of times. Tourism is a great way to disseminate information about another country and its inhabitants, and to get closer. Furthermore, there is a guaranteed income from the money left by tourists.
Japanese studies researchers in the Center of Oriental Studies at Vilnius University, Klaipėda University and Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas also significantly contribute to the promotion of Japan in Lithuania. In the past three decades, Japanese studies in Lithuania have been developed in various directions, starting with classical studies of Japanese culture, history, art, and philosophy, and ending with studies of its contemporary politics and economy. The works of Romualdas Neimontas, Dalia Švambarytė and others are exceptional in this respect. It should also be noted that the most productive writer in the 1990s about Japan, its life and culture was the expert in the Japanese language, translator, associate professor at Vytautas Magnus University, Aurelijus Zykas, who in 2022 was appointed the Lithuanian ambassador to Japan. He became Lithuania’s fifth ambassador to Japan. It is to be hoped that interstate and other relations between Lithuania and Japan will keep strengthening.
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 Žiugžda, Po diplomatijos skraiste, 118.
 Žostautaitė, Klaipėdos kraštas, 31–36.
 Ibid., 31.
 “Nuo diplomatinio pripažinimo.” Online.
 Jazavita, “Apie Kauną.“ Online; Strelcovas, Geri, blogi, 245–253.
 Procuta, “Antano Gurevičiaus sąrašų įvadas,” 23–25.
 Vilkelis, Lietuvos ir Lenkijos santykiai, 162–171.
 “Prie Sugimuros apsilankymo,” 1.
 Lietuvos statistikos metraštis 1938, 252; Lietuvos užsienio prekyba 1938, XII-XIII.
 Lietuvos užsienio prekyba 1933, XV.
 Lietuvos užsienio prekyba 1938, XII-XIII.
 Skirius, “Lietuvos Užsienio reikalų,” 410.
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 Kumpis, “Istoriniai, kultūriniai,” 4.
 Railienė, “Pirmosios žinios,” 93–102.
 Yčas, Atsiminimai, 216–220.
 Šalčius, Svečiuose pas 40 tautų, 234, 238.
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 Kumpis, “Istoriniai, kultūriniai,” 5.
 Neimantas, Nuo Nemuno iki Fudzijamos, 77–78.
 Ibid., 16.
 “Lietuvos ir Japonijos santykiai sovietmečiu.” Online.
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