Japan’s ambassador conquers Iraqi hearts and minds

Fumio Iwai. (Courtesy: en.abna24)
Updated 18 July 2018
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Japan’s ambassador conquers Iraqi hearts and minds

  • The ambassador is surprised other diplomats haven’t taken to social media to try to connect directly with host citizens
  • Iwai’s journey in the Arab world began 30 years ago, on his bosses’ orders

BAGHDAD: While foreign diplomats often struggle to win over ordinary Iraqis, Japan’s departing ambassador has stolen hearts — thanks to witty social media videos in classical Arabic and local dialects.
Fumio Iwai has been in post in Baghdad for less than three years, but his fan base reaches far beyond the heavily fortified walls of the diplomatic Green Zone.
Hundreds of thousands have been reeled in by his humble charm.
And never more so than when the bespectacled and wiry ambassador recorded a missive wearing an Iraq football jersey ahead of a potentially divisive World Cup qualifier.
The opponents? Japan.
Iraqi civil servant Haydar Al-Banna remembers this dispatch by Iwai — in June last year, since watched by over 730,000 people — fondly.
The ambassador said “I will be happy if our team (Japan) win, and I will be sad if the Iraqi team loses,” recalls 35-year-old Banna.
Moments like this have seen Iraqis claim the diplomat as their own, impressed by his deft navigation of a country still engulfed by chaos 15 years after the US-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.
“We say he is an Iraqi — he is like someone who has lived here for 50 years,” Banna says.

Iwai’s journey in the Arab world began 30 years ago, on his bosses’ orders. “The Japanese foreign ministry ordered me to learn Arabic,” the 67-year-old tells AFP.
The young diplomat spent two years in Egypt, living with a family and immersing himself in the language.
Iwai says Arabic is “one of the most difficult (tongues) in the world, because of the vast number of words and expressions.”
Three decades on, he claims he is still at “the start of the road” in his efforts to master the language.
But Iraqis beg to differ.
Mention Iwai’s name in Baghdad, and the response is invariably the same — “have you seen his latest video?“
In a country obsessed by smart phones and social media, the ambassador knows how to play to a modern gallery, while respecting traditions.
The videos are short — typically between one and two minutes — allowing him to grab and maintain the attention of social media users.
But he still manages to cram in a thundering “Salam Aleikum” and other Muslim formalities, before zeroing in on a chosen theme.
On Japan Day, Iwai recorded a video at Baghdad’s international fair, in traditional Iraqi dress, with a black and white Iraqi keffiyeh scarf slung across his shoulder.
“Look how beautiful I am! Today, I am a full-blooded Baghdadi!” he beamed in that dispatch.

The ambassador is surprised other diplomats haven’t taken to social media to try to connect directly with host citizens.
“Several ambassadors speak Arabic, but it is rare that they use it to speak to the people,” Iwai tells AFP.
The diplomat says he will miss certain things about Iraq, like “dolmas” — stuffed vegetables some dub Iraqi sushi.
But there is one thing Iwai will not miss.
“The main difficulty is the weather,” he says, lamenting summertime temperatures that often surpass 50 degrees Celsius (120 Fahrenheit).
“Each time I come back here I feel it’s getting hotter and hotter,” he adds.
“That might be related to concrete walls, less green land and air pollution.”
While Iwai is due to depart this month, his fans want him to become an Iraqi citizen.
And some netizens even eye him as a future Minister of Reconstruction.
But ever the diplomat, Iwai has politely avoided causing red faces, by pointing out that Japan does not permit dual citizenship.


42 weeks pregnant, New Zealand minister cycles to hospital

In this Sunday, Aug. 19, 2018, Instagram photo released by New Zealand’s Minister for Women Julie Anne Genter, Genter poses with her partner Peter Nunns in Auckland, New Zealand. (AP)
Updated 7 min 54 sec ago
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42 weeks pregnant, New Zealand minister cycles to hospital

  • Genter announced that she’d given birth Tuesday evening to a healthy boy weighing nearly 4.3 kilograms
  • Ardern is admired by many working women around the world

WELLINGTON, New Zealand: It was a beautiful morning, according to New Zealand’s minister for women, so after 42 weeks of pregnancy she decided to hop on her electric bicycle and ride to the hospital to give birth to her first child.
Julie Anne Genter this week posted a picture of herself outside the Auckland City Hospital holding her bike, saying she was ready to be induced and “finally have this baby.”
“This is it, wish us luck!” she wrote, adding that “My partner and I cycled because there wasn’t enough room in the car for the support crew ... but it also put me in the best possible mood!“
Genter announced that she’d given birth Tuesday evening to a healthy boy weighing nearly 4.3 kilograms (9.5 pounds).
“We waited a very long time for labor to start, but when it did it was short and sharp,” she wrote on Facebook.
She was congratulated on Twitter by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who gave birth to a daughter, Neve, two months ago.
“So pleased to hear of the safe arrival of the newest addition to the parliamentary play group,” Ardern wrote. “Hope you enjoy those very special first few days.”
Genter’s ride to the hospital made news around the world, and her Instagram photo was noticed by actress Kristen Bell, who wrote on Twitter “what a babe.”
Genter, 38, wrote that the ride with partner Peter Nunns was “mostly downhill” and joked that she “probably should have cycled more in the last few weeks,” in order to start her labor earlier.
Ardern, 38, was just the second elected world leader in modern times to give birth while holding office, after late Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto gave birth to daughter Bakhtawar in 1990.
Ardern is admired by many working women around the world. She and Genter gave birth at the same public hospital.
Genter was born in Minnesota and graduated from U.C. Berkeley before moving to New Zealand in 2006. A member of the liberal Green Party, Genter is also associate minister for transport and a strong advocate for cycling.
The Green Party tweeted that her ride to the hospital was “the most #onbrand thing ever.”
Genter said she wasn’t planning on cycling home from the hospital and instead would ride in an electric car with her mother and her baby, while other relatives would ride the bikes home.
“I cycled to the hospital for the joy of it!” she wrote on Facebook, adding that she “knew it may be last ride for a few weeks.”