Thirteenth century reports from Venetian merchant Marco Polo about an island named «Zipango» must surely have reached Switzerland. However, it was only in the late 16th century that Japan and Switzerland began informal exchanges when a Jesuit from Lucerne, Renward Cysat, published the first European book about Japan. Based on actual observations and accounts of Jesuit missionaries, it included the first woodcut map of Japan known in the German-speaking area. The first Swiss citizen to set foot on Japanese soil was Captain Elie Ripon from Fribourg in the early years of the Edo period. Traveling in the service of the Dutch East India Company, he made landfall in Nagasaki in 1623 and later reported his observations to European audiences. In 1805, the Zürich born astronomer and physicist Johann Kaspar Horner visited Japan as part of a Russian scientific and diplomatic mission to circumnavigate the globe. While the hope to open trade links with Japan was not fulfilled at that time, Horner did initiate scientific exchange with the first demonstration of a Western hot air balloon made of Japanese washi paper in front of thirty local officials in Umegasaki.It is not until the final years of the Edo period and the forced opening of Japan to foreign trade that closer ties between Japan and Switzerland were established. Aimé Humbert-Droz, a native of Neuchâtel, was mandated in April 1861 by the Swiss Federal Council to conduct an official delegation to Japan with the intention to seize this opportunity to open new markets for the Swiss watch industry and the textile manufacturers in Eastern Switzerland. A proponent of liberalism, Humbert served as president of the Watchmakers Association and was a member of the Swiss Council of States. He ultimately played an instrumental role in concluding the Treaty of Friendship and Commerce between Switzerland and Japan. Humbert landed in Yokohama harbor on April 27, 1863, on the Dutch warship Medusa. From his arrival onward, he tirelessly pursued negotiations with the Japanese authorities. Finally, on February 6, 1864, representatives from the Tokugawa shogunate and Humbert's delegation signed the Treaty of Friendship and Commerce―the eighth such treaty signed by Japan with a foreign country. As a consequence, Swiss trading houses in Yokohama were among the leading exporters of Japanese silk in the 19th century and in return, Switzerland exported fabrics and watches in significant quantities. The trade of Swiss watches to Japan flourished: To a large extent, the Swiss controlled the Japanese watch market until the beginning of the 20th century.
During his ten months of extensive travels across Japan, Humbert closely examined the country's history, geography, religion, social institutions, political system and customs. Then, being an able and passionate writer and editor, he published «Le Japon Illustré» (Japan Pictorial) upon his return home. The book included illustrations he had bought at Japanese bookstores as well as sketches by artists who had accompanied him on his journey.
The Swiss government opened its first permanent representative office, The Swiss Legation, in Tokyo in 1906. In the 1930s, bilateral trade decreased and almost collapsed completely. During World War II, Switzerland, as a neutral state, was asked to represent the interests of Japan in the United States, Australia and South Africa. The Swiss Legation also represented the interests of about 20 countries in Japan, including the United States and the United Kingdom. In those times of conflict, the spotlight was also cast on the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), founded in Geneva by Jean Henri Dunant in 1863 to alleviate the suffering of injured combatants and to facilitate transnational humanitarian aid activities. Marcel Junod, a Swiss doctor who was deployed in Japan as an ICRC delegate, rescued countless victims of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima by demanding vast quantities of medical supplies from the Allied occupation forces; he later went on to call for the worldwide abolition of nuclear weapons. After the doctor's death in Switzerland, a monument was erected in Hiroshima's Peace Park in his honor.
After Japan regained its independence in 1952, trade developed quickly, as did exchanges in the fields of science and culture. The establishment of regular flights following an agreement on air traffic in 1956 brought the two countries closer. Swissair began service between Zurich and Tokyo's Haneda Airport in 1957. Soon Swiss exports regained significance, followed by rapid growth.
Today, Switzerland and Japan enjoy close ties in many different fields. Economic relations remain an important pillar of exchange between the two countries. What started mainly with the trade of watches, machinery and textiles paved the way to extensive and fruitful exchanges in a variety of goods. This was further strengthened by a number of bilateral agreements. The most significant of these treaties is the Free Trade and Economic Partnership Agreement which was signed and entered into force in 2009. Switzerland is the first European country to have signed such an extensive treaty with Japan. Today, Switzerland exports mainly pharmaceuticals, watches, medical devices and chemicals to Japan. From Japan, the main exports to Switzerland are vehicles, precious metals, pharmaceuticals and machinery. The total volume of trade between the two countries reached CHF 11.2 billion (JPY 1,200 billion) in 2012, which makes Japan the fourth most important trading partner of Switzerland.
Cooperation in science and technology is another area of significant importance. Japan is not only one of the seven non-EU priority countries for Switzerland to enhance cooperation in the field of education, research and innovation, but also the most important research partner in Asia. A bilateral agreement on Cooperation in Science and Technology between the Swiss Federal Council and the Government of Japan was signed on July 10, 2007. Under the agreement, joint committee meetings between the two governments and related institutions are held periodically to exchange information and ensure smooth and efficient collaboration. Furthermore, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zürich), acting as a Leading House, and the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) have made joint calls for collaborative research projects and researcher exchanges with the Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST) and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS). On a non-governmental level, there are more than sixty agreements between top research institutions and universities of the two countries, not to mention the countless industrial partnerships. In the science and technology field, the 150th anniversary will begin with a nanotech symposium led by ETH Zurich and the National Institute of Materials Science (NIMS) in Japan and a joint symposium on fostering innovation organized by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) and the Committee for Technology and Innovation (CTI) in Switzerland.
Culture is another area in which Switzerland and Japan are constantly engaged in lively exchange. Some of the most prominent Swiss architects have left a mark in Japan. Worth mentioning are Herzog & de Meuron's commercial facility in Omotesando, Mario Botta's Watari Museum of Contemporary Art in Shibuya and Le Corbusier's National Museum of Western Art in Ueno. This is also true for Japanese architects in Switzerland. The École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) Rolex Learning Center designed by SANAA, the Tokyo architectural firm of Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, is one of the recent developments that has been much admired. In the domain of literature, the Swiss-born novelist David Zoppetti, who writes in Japanese, reached wide audiences with his novel «Ichigensan» (The Newcomer), which also won him the 20th Subaru Prize for Literature and the 50th Japan Essayist Club Award. In the field of music, one of Europe's most prestigious jazz events, the Montreux Jazz Festival founded by the late director Claude Nobs, has found a second home in Kawasaki. The renowned Lucerne Festival has gained many followers amongst Japanese classical music lovers. The close connections between the Lucerne Festival and Japan led to the creation of the Lucerne Festival Ark Nova, which opened in Matsushima in a uniquely designed mobile, inflatable concert hall.
The close friendship between Japan and Switzerland was further deepened in 2011 by the outpouring of solidarity following the March 11 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. The Swiss government sent a rescue team to the disaster zone and numerous private donors sent funds for reconstruction projects. The Swiss Red Cross, Caritas and others similar charitable organizations received donations of over 30 million CHF, which led to the rebuilding of a destroyed hospital in Onagawa City (Miyagi Prefecture) and several nursing homes.
Switzerland has captured the attention of the Japanese public in many ways. With its four official languages, it exemplifies a multicultural country for some. For others, it is Switzerland's direct democracy, in which citizens have a direct say in policy initiatives, which stands out the most. To many Japanese, the Swiss Alps is the most iconic image associated with Switzerland, due to the popularity of the animation series Heidi, Girl of the Alps, directed by Isao Takahata, with artistic contributions from Hayao Miyazaki. Johanna Spyri, the Swiss author of the novel on which the series is based, spent her childhood years in the mountainous Graubünden region. The magnificent natural environment in which her character, Heidi, grew up has remained largely unchanged to this day. Heidi helped shape the positive image that Switzerland enjoys amongst many Japanese today.
In 2014, Japan and Switzerland will write a new chapter in their history of friendly relations as they celebrate the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Friendship and Commerce. A full program of exceptional events is scheduled to take place in both countries, including performances by world-renowned Swiss and Japanese musicians and large-scale retrospective exhibitions of Swiss art masters. By harnessing the power of their unique cultural and historical treasures, Switzerland and Japan continue to create a bright future together. We hope that as you celebrate this momentous year with us, you'll find your own little piece of Switzerland in Japan.