Santa Claus, Moomin, contemporary design and saunas may be the things that come to mind when Japanese think of Finland. What may be less widely known is that the two countries have been strengthening cultural and educational ties in recent years.
More and more Finns are traveling to and studying in Japan, and vice versa. According to the Japan Association of Travel Agents, Finland ranked top in 2011 among all Nordic destinations that Japanese travel to. Finnish design products, such as Iittala glassware, Arabia ceramics and Marimekko textiles, are also popular.
“In fact, Finland and Japan are basically very different, but I think a lot of Japanese people like Finland, mainly because of the similar mindset the two countries share,” says Finnish Ambassador to Japan Jari Gustafsson.
“We both like silence. I don’t want to say that the Finn in general are quiet and want to stay in the forest alone. However, I feel that many Japanese value that kind of mindset,” he said in a recent interview, adding this may be the reason why in “Moomin,” the character Snufkin is one of the most popular among Japanese who follow the stories about the family of trolls.
“Snufkin likes silence and lives in a tent alone,” he said. “I think a lot of Japanese would like to do that — if they have the chance. That’s one of the reasons why they want to come to Finland.”
Finland is the closest country in Europe to fly to from Japan, with direct flights from Narita to Helsinki taking less than 10 hours. In addition to Finnair, Japan Airlines plans to open a new direct route from Tokyo to Helsinki next year.
Gustafsson said that the embassy wants to use as many digital tools as possible to promote the country — especially with an emphasis on Facebook and Twitter. Using the unique Finnish character “Fin-tan” to promote its country through Twitter, the Finnish Embassy’s account ranks top among all the embassies in Tokyo in terms of number of followers, he said.
Gustafsson arrived in Japan with his family in 2009. He is married with four children and currently lives in Tokyo with his wife and two children – a daughter and a son.
When they first arrived, his children attended the local Japanese kindergarten, the ambassador said.”I wanted them to get to know the Japanese culture,” he said, adding that the children now attend an international school but are fluent Japanese speakers.
The envoy stressed that academic cooperation between the two countries is now “in a very dynamic phase.” The University of Oulu opened a new office in Yokohama in February — with a focus on medical wireless networks and disaster prevention — and Hokkaido University opened a new office in Helsinki for research and student exchange with Europe in June. These academic exchanges are “very important for young people in both countries,” he said.
Gustafsson also said that learning Japanese and Japanology is very popular in Finland — more so than learning Chinese — and that more Finnish have been coming to Japan to study Japanese in recent years. The Finnish Embassy would like to “promote further academic exchanges between the two countries,” he said.
Japanese literature is “getting more and more popular” in Finland, he said, especially modern literature by authors such as Haruki Murakami. “One in five young Finnish has a personal connection to Japanese culture — by way of manga or music or literature or sports,” he said.
Japanese classics were popular even when he was a schoolboy, and the ambassador remembers reading Junichiro Tanizaki’s “The Makioka Sisters” in Finnish at school. One of the commonalities between Japanese and Finnish, the envoy said, is that they both “like to read newspapers and books.”
Born in the city of Porvoo, in southern Finland, Gustafsson left his home town to attend Helsinki University and majored in political science. After enjoying academic freedom for about seven years, he joined the Ministry of Trade and Industry in 1987.
He worked at several overseas missions such as at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in London, and was posted to Tokyo in 2009.
The ambassador said that how things are organized in Japan and Finland are “completely the opposite.” This is what makes it “interesting and exciting” to experience here in Japan, he said.
“Everyday, you learn something new, because the society and the culture, way of living, ethical and moral codes and the philosophies are different,” he said. But it is not as difficult as one may think for a Finn to get along with a Japanese, because “both nationalities like silence,” the ambassador said.
During his free time, Gustafsson — whose passions are sports and outdoor activities — enjoys riding around Tokyo on his motorcycle, and in the wintertime enjoys holidays with his family at ski resorts in Gunma and Nagano prefectures or in Hokkaido.