January 26, 2020

Path paved by languages, inspirational interactions

Roxane de Bilderling plays a role in furthering lively diplomatic exchanges


    Belgium’s new ambassador to Japan, Roxane de Bilderling, brings special linguistic insight to her post.

    A trained conference interpreter in English, Spanish and French, de Bilderling, who also speaks Dutch and a little bit of Swahili, has long been fascinated by languages and their function as conduits of culture. Now settled in Japan, de Bilderling is currently studying Japanese, observing how the language’s idiosyncrasies — particularly its wide array of honorifics — influence how people interact with each other.

    “Studying languages provides insight into a culture’s mentality,” de Bilderling said. “All the levels of politeness in Japanese reveal an impressive attention to detail, respect and kindness. Japanese requires one to express their respect for others through language. Understanding that the adults you meet have gone through this learning process reveals an extra cultural dimension.”

    De Bilderling’s path to becoming a diplomat was paved by her interest in languages. As an interpreter, de Bilderling took pride in her ability to simultaneously interpret between several languages. But as time went on, she began to feel alienated by her work. Instead of actively participating in dialogues, her job as an interpreter required her to reside in the background of conversations, often working in an isolated interpretation booth.

    “When you’re in the booth, the only thing you interact with is a microphone,” de Bilderling explained. “I studied languages because I really enjoy learning them. But as you work as an interpreter, you feel quite isolated. You’re not part of the communication that’s happening; you’re just in the middle and can’t give your opinion. I was frustrated by this and realized that I didn’t want to do interpretation for the rest of my life.”

    De Bilderling wanted to play an active role in diplomatic dialogues and thus entered Belgium’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a trainee in 2000. “At the time I knew little about what it meant to be a diplomat. But now, I feel I’ve found something that corresponds to what I want to do. I love my job,” she exuded.

    De Bilderling’s first diplomatic assignment took her to Africa, where she developed her career in various capacities across several countries, including Kenya, South Africa and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

    De Bilderling’s experiences in Africa remain with her wherever she goes. Visitors to her residence are greeted by a vibrant painting from a renowned Kenyan artist, gifted to her by the Kenyan government, as well as an over 150-centimeter-tall wooden giraffe that has accompanied her throughout her journeys. In Africa, de Bilderling interacted with people from all walks of life. She was especially affected by women and their perseverance to overcome adversity.

    “I’ve been to slums and isolated villages where people are having really hard times,” de Bilderling reflected. “But in the women I found inspiration, because they were doing a lot. They were always smiling despite the load on their shoulders. I met many inspiring women, and I believe these interactions made me stronger and more human.”

    Following approximately 12 years of diplomatic service in Africa, de Bilderling assumed her current position as Belgian ambassador to Japan in August. “The timing couldn’t be better, really. I arrived before the enthronement of the new Emperor, so I was present during the visit by the king and queen of the Belgians. Also, the Olympic games will take place next summer, so it’s a great time to be here,” she noted.

    De Bilderling had an inkling interest in Japan before arriving as ambassador. In her previous post as director of the Office of the Minister, she visited Tokyo, Hiroshima and Osaka, and left with deep impressions of the country. She was also encouraged to come to Japan by her predecessor, with whom she is good friends. “He told me, ‘You have to come to Tokyo. It’s very active and you will enjoy it.’” De Bilderling has since found Tokyo and its abundant activities a good match for her active lifestyle.

    Since her arrival, de Bilderling has noticed that diplomats in Japan tend to be treated more formally than in other countries, and she finds that this elevated status helps to open doors and gives support in the relationships between parties. “As diplomats, our biggest added value is our network,” she explained. “Compared to other countries, the function of an ambassador is still very much valued here. We can support an event, or arrange meetings between individuals or companies, allowing us to make a difference.”

    The relationships that de Bilderling facilitates as ambassador play an important role in Belgium-Japan relations, which are characterized by lively political, economic and cultural exchange. There are around 220 Japanese businesses — including household names like Toyota — operating in Belgium, and many companies view the country as an important strategic region due to the European Union Headquarters’ location in Brussels. Other exchanges between the countries include frequent collaboration between Belgian and Japanese universities and cultural events.

    De Bilderling’s goals during her tenure in Japan center on enhancing relationships across all domains. “I want to support any initiative that will help bring us to a higher level,” she said. “We should always try to push forward, try to do more.”

    Whether in her personal or professional life, de Bilderling tries to remember to be kind to others in everything she does. “It’s a simple concept, but in a lot of situations, if we just stop and ask ourselves whether we are being kind before we say something, we can avoid making a lot of mistakes. It’s not easy to do every day, but it’s something I strongly believe.”

    Human connections a key aspect in career

    Before assuming her current position as ambassador of the Kingdom of Belgium to Japan in August, Roxane de Bilderling worked in various diplomatic posts across Africa, including ambassador to Kenya from 2014 to 2017. She has four children, two of whom were born in Kenya.

    De Bilderling’s favorite aspect of her job is the human contact she has with others, something she felt was missing during her time as an interpreter.

    One of her inspirations is Nelson Mandela. “What I find extraordinary was his ability to overcome his own pain and suffering to serve his country and transform it into what it is today.”

    In her free time, de Bilderling likes to read and practice yoga. She also enjoys traveling. Her favorite destination in Japan so far is Nikko, where she can spend hours admiring the area’s lush nature reserves. “When you live here, it’s important to remember to reconnect with nature,” she said.

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