Japanese feel affinity with not-too-distant Finland: ambassador

by Julian Ryall

Finland and Japan may be at opposite ends of the scale when it comes to the size of their populations, but the links between the two countries are very close, according to Finnish Ambassador Eero Salovaara.

“There are only 5.2 million of us Finns, but there are 4.5 million mobile phones and 2 million saunas in our country,” he said. “That shows we’re quite a small country that is highly industrialized and very high-tech — but we haven’t forgotten our traditions.”

In an interview with The Japan Times, Salovaara emphasized the importance of foreign trade to Finland, with Japan the key trading partner in Asia and only ranking behind European Union nations and the United States in terms of overall trade.

Almost half of Finland’s trade is based on wood products, ranging from paper pulp to traditional-style log houses, which have a “very good market here in Japan,” Salovaara said. Other major areas of Finnish expertise include information technology, components and machinery.

Finland marked its Independence Day on Saturday, but it was decided there would be no official reception because the date fell on a weekend.

Finland and Japan will mark the 85th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations next year, with the government in Helsinki recognizing the importance of the bilateral relationship shortly after Finland won its independence in 1917. Within two years, the first envoy had been dispatched to Tokyo.

Finnair, the national airline, has recently introduced three direct flights from Osaka to Helsinki, complementing the two flights direct from Narita airport. With a flight time of just nine hours, Finland is the closest part of Europe to Japan, which comes as a surprise to many, Salovaara noted.

And while the direct flights have helped businesspeople in both countries increase trade, they have also opened up the wide open spaces of Finland to tourists from Japan.

“When you come to Finland, it is nature that welcomes you,” Salovaara said. “Whether it is winter or summer, nature is all around you. What is also appealing to many people is also that we are so few and Helsinki is really just a small town. The rest of the country is forests and lakes.”

Many Japanese are attracted to Lapland in the far north during winter, seeking to track down Santa Claus, while others go to see the aurora borealis, he added.

“We are welcoming more and more Japanese tourists to Finland each year, with Japanese at No. 10 in the list of foreign visitors,” Salovaara said. “And Japanese tourists are the best in the world because only the best is good enough for them. They always use the first-class facilities.”

Japanese tourists spent 136,000 nights in Finland last year, with Swedes and Germans the most frequent visitors.

The embassy has also been running the “Feel Finland” campaign in recent months, aiming to raise the general level of awareness of the country. Events have included visits by symphony orchestras, which performed works by one of Finland’s most famous sons, Jean Sibelius, as well as design expositions and seminars examining scientific and social matters.

“One has to remember that while Japan and Finland are approximately the same size in terms of area, we have just 5.2 million people, while Japan has 127 million,” he said. “We are heavily dependent on trade and we try to learn and take the best bits from everywhere.

“Japan has a huge domestic market,” he said. “We, on the other hand, have to look to overseas markets, which is why we are in favor of free trade and advocate better access to markets.

“We are in some ways ‘cornered’ in the north, but we don’t feel isolated because we see and follow other cultures.”

But there are other, less tangible, assets that Finland is happy to export, he said.

A recent NHK TV education program examined the Finnish education system and emphasized the high level of literacy — a national trait that Salovaara attributes to the fact that the nation loves to read, because, in years gone by, a Finn who was illiterate could not marry.

In addition, both countries are facing problems associated with the graying of their societies, prompting officials and researchers in Sendai to work with Finnish experts in the field of welfare facilities.

A Finnish-style retirement home is being built in Sendai that combines the best elements of Japanese and Finnish knowhow, Salovaara said. The aim, he added, is to make the 200-bed facility a model for future care when it is completed next year.