A brief survey of Swiss culture in Japan

by Pauline Milani

Pauline Milani est historienne. Après une thèse sur la politique culturelle de la Suisse à l'étranger, elle travaille maintenant sur les artistes femmes du XIXème siècle. Elle enseigne à l'Université de Fribourg et à UniDistance.


In Japan book fairs enjoy high regard. During the 1950s and 60s, Swiss publishers participated in some such events. At first neither Pro Helvetia nor the Swiss diplomats supported these efforts.

With his appointment to ambassador in Tokyo in 1957, Max Troendle became a driving force behind the establishment of cultural relations between the Empire of the Sun and Switzerland. A lawyer, above all experienced in commercial diplomacy, he wanted to rely on books to promote Switzerland in Japan.  While regretting the Swiss Booksellers and Publishers Association’s lack of interest in book fairs,  he welcomed Pro Helvetia’s participation in several events since the end of the 1950es all the more. In November 1958, the foundation donated an important collection of children’s books, which were presented at an international book air, organised by the Japanese ministries of education and health. Persistent as he was, the ambassador successfully put Swiss editors in touch with their Japanese counterparts and a Swiss exhibition was organised, which took place in 1960.

In 1961, the Swiss Booksellers and Publishers Association finally organised a book air, subsidised by Pro Helvetia. It was a sizeable exhibition. Its main part consisted of 1’000 volumes, covering the arts, sciences and literature. Photographs corresponding to the books were on show, as well as an entire exhibition of graphic art, displaying flyers, maps and “Glimpses of Switzerland”.

Consisting of 75 panels, “Glimpses of Switzerland” was a mobile exhibition, designed by Pro Helvetia to be dispatched to the four corners of the world. It presented Switzerland in terms of its natural, economic, social, and cultural qualities. Each panel displayed three or four photographs, accompanied by short descriptions of Swiss habits and customs. Shown for the first time 1958 in the United States, the exhibition could easily be sent elsewhere, as it was to Japan in 1961.

In his opening speech, the new Swiss ambassador, Jean de Rham, highlighted his country’s traditional values. Switzerland as the homeland of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and of the Red Cross, its armed neutrality, every conceivable stereotype was trotted out to present Switzerland as a rich and complex country, proud of its roots – and of its publishing companies, whose diversity also symbolised the innovative and dynamic national economy.

The exhibition was a success and toured eight big cities. The Swiss embassy contributed by distributing the catalogue “Introduction to Switzerland”, published in English and Japanese. 

The ambassador would have liked to take advantage of this success. Yet it was all in vain. He failed to convince Bern to appoint a cultural attaché and to allocate specific funding for the development of cultural relations between Japan and Switzerland.

Nevertheless, contacts between the two countries intensified. To wit: the “Orchestre de la Suisse romande’s” tour  in 1968 and Pro Helvetia’s regular donations of books to the Tokyo Library of Switzerland.  In 1969, Swiss poster art had pride of place with an exhibition, opening in Tokyo on April 2, in the presence of 400 representatives of  Japan’s cultural and diplomatic circles.

Max Troendle, after leaving the embassy 1960, remained important for the Japanese - Swiss cultural relations. In 1970, he resurfaced as the general commissioner of the World Fair in Osaka.


Sources :

AFS: e2003(a), 1971/44, v.146, 0.342

Jean de Rham, « Les relations culturelles nippo-suisses depuis 1945 », in Patrick Ziltener (éd.) Manuel des relations nippo-suisses, Zurich, Chronos, 2010, volume 2, p. 671-675.


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