Column  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2010.09.16

Pink Panthers and Montenegro

Recently, one of the "Pink Panther" gang of international thieves who had robbed a jewelry store in Ginza and then fled overseas in 2007 was arrested and then transferred to Japan. He is from Montenegro.

The Balkans are very far from Japan. Other countries are even farther away in distance but, for the Japanese, the psychological distance to the Balkans is even greater than its geographical distance because there is little trade between the two. Montenegro is a remote area of the Balkans and we hardly ever hear any news about it. It is unfortunate that the rare news about this country was about a robbery and that this impression will last until the next news we hear about the country at some time in the future. During my tenure as ambassador to the former Yugoslavia, I visited Montenegro several times and it is my wish that the Japanese learn more about the country.

The Balkans were invaded by the Ottoman Empire in the 14th century, except for the northern region, which bordered the Hungarian Empire. Because of the Ottoman occupation, which lasted 500 years, the Balkans were strongly influenced by Turkey. Even today, when you travel local areas, you can hear music you'd hear in Turkey.

Even the Ottomans could not occupy Montenegro, however. A small country with a population of 600,000, it lies in a mountainous region and its people fought bravely, even the fierce Ottoman soldiers retreated in the face of a counteroffensive by the Montenegrins. It is said that the Montenegrins were more violent than the Ottoman soldiers.

When one tries to think of world famous Montenegrins, one struggles to come up with a name. This is because Montenegro has such a small population and talented Montenegrins leave the country. In fact, there are many Montenegrins who are successful in the Serbian capital of Belgrade. During my tenure there, the rector of the University of Belgrade, the best university in the Balkans, was a woman from Montenegro.

Serbia is located to the east of the mountainous region of Montenegro and the Serbians and the Montenegrins speak the same language. Even though some insist that they are different ethnic groups, it is doubtful whether that is really the case. Their differences in relations with the Ottomans are historical, and not ethnic. Some Serbians, in fact, do say that they were originally Montenegrins. How to identify and differentiate ethnic groups in the Balkans is actually daunting. For those interested in ethnic issues, I recommend a visit to the Balkans.

If one includes Serbs, some are known in Japan. One of the most famous is Dragan Stojkovic, the manager for the Nagoya Grampus of the Japan Professional Football League. There are also several tennis players with high world rankings. Besides athletes, Nikola Tesla, famous for inventing alternating current, was a Serb. He was actually born in Croatia, to make the matter a little more complicated, but his museum is in Belgrade and he is a pride of Serbia. He left the country for the United States, where he achieved success in his historic research but, because of his rivalry with Thomas Edison, the inventor of direct current, and because of his genius and unsociability, his life ended up being miserable.

Both the Montenegrins and the Serbs are good at languages and many speak German, French and English fluently. There are even some who have taught English in Japan. Some may think that it is shameless for Japanese to have the Slavs teach them English but, for Japanese, the Montenegrins and the Serbs look no different than Western Europeans, and they do speak foreign languages rather fluently.

Language skills are just one example, but Montenegrins and Serbs are very talented at living outside their own countries with just a little study and preparation. I have marveled at their ability to be so cosmopolitan.

Going back to Montenegro as a nation, it is a fact that it has scant relations with Japan but it has had friendly relations, as well as bellicose ones, in the past. An example of the former is at the coronation of Russian Tsar Alexander III in 1882, when Prince Arisugawa Taruhito presented Prince Nikola I of Montenegro (later King) Grand Cordon of the Supreme Order of the Chrysanthemum, the highest honor. An example of the latter is when a Montenegrin corps fought against the Japanese in the Japanese-Russo War.

I have no idea when there will be other news about Montenegro. Montenegrins are very talented and you never know in what form they will present themselves to us.