On 30 January, at a London event attended by more than 50 members of the UK–Japan community, Japanese Ambassador Yasumasa Nagamine awarded Professor Marie Conte-Helm one of Japan’s highest honours—the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette—in recognition of her dedication and significant contributions to the promotion of mutual understanding and cultural exchange between Japan and the United Kingdom.
Conte-Helm received the special honour at the Embassy of Japan in the UK, where she started her career in the 1970s working on educational outreach. She went on to teach at Sunderland and Northumbria universities, where she specialised in Japan–UK relations and the history of the bilateral relationship.
Publishing several books and papers on the advancement of Japan’s relations with the UK and Europe, her work shed light on how these ties came to flourish and prosper.
Conte-Helm took part in cultural exchange activities throughout her academic career, serving on various committees for Japan-related festivals, including the 1991 Japan Festival and Japan 2001. Her involvement in these activities provided numerous opportunities for new local employees of Japanese firms to learn more about Japanese culture, and for Japanese families to better interact with and integrate into the wider UK community.
As Director General of the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation, she immersed herself in further projects, including scholarship programmes that provided opportunities for the next generation of British leaders to learn the Japanese language.
Four decades after she began her career at the Embassy, Conte-Helm was appointed an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2011 in recognition of her service to UK–Japan educational and cultural relations. That same year, she was named executive director of the UK–Japan 21st Century Group, one of the foremost bodies dedicated to fostering the bilateral relationship. Her years of dedicated work and support have been highly praised by members of the group.
Conte-Helm told ACUMEN: “When I heard that I would receive this honour from the Japanese government, I was both surprised and gratified. My involvement with Japan grew out of my academic interest in the history and culture of the country. Japan–UK relations became important to me through experiencing so many successful exchanges and collaborations over the years, and seeing the benefits of working together”.
Asked how today‘s youth can carry the torch, she said, ”The next generation can strengthen the relationship in various ways, particularly through direct contact, visiting and studying in each other’s countries and undertaking language study, which opens the door to different cultures“.
In his speech, Ambassador Nagamine paid tribute to Conte-Helm’s contributions, saying, “Not only has she left her mark on today’s dynamic Japan–UK relationship, she has also touched many lives along the way”.
During her acceptance speech, Conte-Helm said it was a great honour to receive the commendation—in particular for something she has enjoyed doing for so many years. Thanking her husband and daughter for all their support—and everyone for joining in the evening and sharing this very special occasion—she said she was very grateful for having received the honour and looks forward to continuing her many connections with Japan.
In a toast, Sir David Warren KCMG, Chairman of the Japan Society in London and former British Ambassador to Japan (2008–12), said it was a great privilege to have had the opportunity to work with Conte-Helm and to be able to offer congratulations to her on this occasion.