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Top>Opinion>Why Belgium is Strong


Hisashi Suzuki

Hisashi Suzuki [profile]

Why Belgium is Strong

Hisashi Suzuki
Professor, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: Cybernetics

Read in Japanese

Overseas research in Belgium

Living in a World Heritage Site. Being higher in latitude than Japan, the sun still shines bright at 9 o’clock in the evening. I even wonder whether it is really part of this world.

I am pleased to say that, in my mid-fifties, I am engaged in overseas research for the first time in my life. And I do not mean to make you envious but, believe it or not, I am actually living in a World Heritage Site[1] in Belgium. Everything (my research, for the most part) is enjoyable. It is good to be alive.

Recently, I have noticed something for which I feel I must apologize to all Belgians. All I knew about their country was chocolate, waffles, beer, the Mannelen Pis statue, Nello and Patrasche[2], and football. I ask them to forgive the shallow knowledge of this typical Japanese who had never even visited Belgium before.

An outline of Belgium

Blend of water and greenery at the university campus, where Kasteel van Arenberg is located. (You can find numerous photos of Kasteel van Arenberg itself online.)

I feel the need to tell everyone in Japan about the real Belgium (or, to be more precise, the Kingdom of Belgium.)

Firstly, you should know that Belgium, which has an area approximately the size of Kyushu, is made up of a Dutch-speaking community in nearly all of its northern half (nearly all of the Flemish Region), a French-speaking community in nearly all of its southern half (nearly all of the Walloon Region), and a German-speaking community in a small eastern area (part of the Walloon Region), while in the Brussels-Capital Region, located within the Flemish Region, both French and Dutch are spoken. If you still can’t understand what I have written, it may be quicker for you to Google it.

Secondly, Belgium has a food self-sufficiency ratio of more than 70%. And everything here tastes really good. It is just like the food I used to eat in my childhood. The reason must be that free-range livestock is raised and vegetables are grown with organic fertilizer in the suburbs of Brussels.

Third, I am indebted to the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (officially abbreviated as KU Leuven) located in the town of Leuven, about 30 kilometers from Brussels. For those of you unfamiliar with this university, it would be quicker for you to look it up online rather than listen to me. When you do, you will find that it is a world-renowned university that is consistently placed in the top 100 of the Times Higher Education rankings. Covered in flagstones and lined with medieval buildings, central Leuven is home to the famous and elaborately decorated Leuven Town Hall and St. Peter’s Church as well as a scattering of elegant facilities belonging to the university, all enclosed within an orbital motorway about two kilometers across. Look southward and outside the loop road, Kasteel van Arenberg is dramatically revealed just like Harry Potter’s schoolhouse (a somewhat trite analogy, I know, but it will convey an accurate mental picture for Japanese readers), around which the campus with its blend of water and greenery extends.

People fluent in multiple languages

Event held in the square in front of the Town Hall. Many cultures and languages are evident all around.

Which brings me to the main subject, at last, which is that the people of Leuven can, believe it or not, speak “normally” in not only Dutch but also French, German and English! [3] Moreover, men and women seem to have an almost psychic ability to be able to recognize from other people’s appearance what language they speak, in about 80% of cases. As evidence of this, café employees nearly always address their tourist customers for the first time in the right language just by looking at their faces.

I used to think that Leuven’s multilingual nature was the result of it being a university town, but apparently this is not the case. As a foreign researcher, I had no intention of going around sightseeing just because I had come to such an attractive place, but I did not want to be thought of as uncultured either, so on weekends, when rail fares were half price, I headed off to do some tentative research in the western port town of Oostende[4], the eastern town of Liege near the borders with the Netherlands and Germany, and to the ubiquitous tourist destinations, for Japanese, of Antwerp, Ghent, and the nearby town of Diest with its fairy tale atmosphere. But wherever I went, the local people seemed adept at handling multiple languages.

Even if schools in Japan taught Japanese, English and several other languages at the same time, would they really cultivate such multilingual “global human resources”? I doubt things would go so well. Belgians master multiple languages because they are brought up from birth in an environment where they need to.

The ability to create diversity

People gathered together and holding discussions over beer in the cafes, brasseries, bistros and restaurants lining Oude Markt square (a substantial number of whom seem to be connected to the University.)

I briefly muttered in conversation once that Japanese were no good at languages. But a local person told me, “What are you worried about? When I visited Japan, I found it attractive that so many kind people tried to help me somehow, even in their broken English. If all Japanese were fluent in English, many people wouldn’t want to go to the mysterious country that is Japan.”

That was it! I felt I had gained a glimpse into why the Belgians, who have mastered the creation of diversity[5], are so strong.

  1. ^The ancient cloister of Groot Begijnhof, used as a residence for university students and staff.
  2. ^From A Dog of Flanders. As you may know, it is not popular within the region, but defiant Japanese tourists keep coming to take its photo and will want to buy chocolate along the way. Local people ask, “Why do Japanese buy chocolate so desperately? They probably have the same thing in Japan,” and when I tell them the price in Japan they are suitably surprised.
  3. ^Whoever said that Belgians were lazy? They do not dislike work, they think carefully and then work efficiently. Evidence for this is Belgium’s higher rate of GDP to work hours compared to Japan.
  4. ^My personal preference is for North Sea crab and shrimp rather than North Sea mussels and eel.
  5. ^The ability to create diversity , one of the competencies of Chuo University, is composed of (1) identity, (2) harmonization, and (3) synergy. It means to establish and secure oneself and one’s own organization before harmonizing with another person or organization and, from the synergic result of utilizing one another’s differences, produce some new value (a win-win situation making good use of the world’s harmonious development and differences).
Hisashi Suzuki
Professor, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: Cybernetics
Professor Suzuki was born in Miyagi Prefecture. He graduated from the Department of Biophysical Engineering, School of Engineering Science, Osaka University in 1983. He earned his Master’s Degree in Biophysical Engineering in 1985 followed by his PhD in Mechanical Engineering in 1988, both from the Graduate School of Engineering Science, Osaka University. He worked as Assistant in the School of Engineering Science, Osaka University, Assistant and Lecturer on the Faculty of Engineering, the University of Tokyo, Assistant Professor at the School of Computer Science and Systems Engineering, Kyushu Institute of Technology, and Assistant Professor on the Faculty of Science and Engineering, Chuo University before taking up his current position in 1999. His current research fields are cybernetics, artificial intelligence (AI), and robotics. Professor Suzuki's major works include Basic Knowledge Information Processing: Multiple-Value Processing Using C [Chishiki Joho Shori—C ni yoru Tachi Ronri Shori] (Baifukan, 1999).