Name: Freddy Svane
Title: Ambassador of Denmark (since October 2015)
DoB: July 31, 1957
Hometown: Errindlev, Denmark
Years in Japan: 6
“The readiness is all,” utters the Danish title character in the last act of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”
Danish Ambassador Freddy Svane agrees with Hamlet. Svane’s motto: “Freddy is ready.”
“When I make speeches, when I talk with people, I always say, ‘Freddy is ready for business,'” Svane said in an interview with The Japan Times. “When I take out my business card, I say, ‘Please take (it), it’s a ticket to growth,'” he added, sounding more like a salesman than a diplomat.
“Danish diplomacy nowadays is very focused on what is called economic or commercial diplomacy,” he said.
“I believe in being an ambassador, especially if we represent a smaller country like Denmark. We are only 5.6 million people,” he said. “So you need to brand yourself.”
Svane, who after graduating from university joined the Danish foreign service in 1982, is no stranger to the business world, having worked in the private sector for A.P. Moller-Maersk starting in 2000.
“I was there for three years to get trained in global business,” he said. “There was an agreement between the foreign service and Maersk, which was and still is the biggest private company in Denmark and is still today the world’s largest (container) shipping company.”
He added: “I think I’ve turned into a businessman. I’m working like a businessman. I feel confident working with businesspeople.”
It helps that he has been in Japan before as an ambassador. After Maersk and a brief stint at The Trade Council, the foreign service’s economic diplomacy arm, Svane was posted to Japan from 2005 to 2008, “without knowing a single word of Japanese,” he said.
“That’s the Danish style,” Svane said. “We are not given any training. We are supposed to utilize our talents and networking capabilities.”
The lack of Japanese language skills hasn’t been a barrier for Svane.
“Japan is much more open toward the outside world than perhaps people think,” he said. “I don’t speak Japanese, but (today) I understand quite a lot of Japanese. I often travel alone. I don’t need an interpreter, and you can easily communicate with people.”
During his first tenure, Japan was going through a phase of having a new prime minister every year and the nation’s progress seemed to have stalled.
“When you are an ambassador you normally do a report once in a while to your government about the trends you see in the country where you are being posted. In 2008, my last report to Copenhagen was that ‘Japan belongs to the past and not the future,'” Svane said. “So it’s a little bit strange I came back to find out that my prediction at that time was not the final truth. Japan had bounced back.”
“When I go to stores almost all over Japan I see signs offering tax-free shopping. I didn’t see those 10 years ago. Symbolically, it shows Japan has opened up and the number of tourists is increasing constantly.”
Svane deems his return to Japan a second time one of his greatest achievements.
After leaving the first time, he became CEO of the Danish Agricultural Council from 2008 to 2010, before returning to the foreign service to head a special task force on a free trade agreement with Japan.
Following that assignment, he became the ambassador to India in September 2010.
“I specifically chose to go to India because I thought it was very important, and it’s still important if you want to explore a career in the private sector. You have to be out in Asia,” Svane said.
“After five years in India I was on my way back to the private sector when Japan came up,” he said. “I consulted my family. I have four children and three of them went to school here during our first tenure. In Denmark, we are very conscious about, and known for, our work-life balance. It was a family decision to go back. We were happy with that.”
Since 2015, Svane has been living in Japan with his wife. Their children, now in their 20s and 30s, occasionally visit.
While Svane achieved the feat of visiting all 47 prefectures in Japan with a business trip to Shimane in late November, he said the year will be known for the 150th anniversary celebrations of Denmark-Japan ties.
“The friendship treaty that was signed in January 1867 was in fact the first agreement between the two countries,” he said. “One thing which I’m quite proud of is the fact that we brought a replica of the original treaty back to Japan because Japan lost the copy they signed.”
He also achieved what he called a “diplomatic hat trick” for the 150th year, “which was to bring a member of the Imperial family to Denmark; bring the Japanese prime minister on his first bilateral visit to Denmark; and of course to reciprocate, bringing our Royal family to Japan.”
“In one year we had so many new visits that will leave the 150th anniversary sparkling like stars in the most clear night skies,” he said.
“It takes effort. It takes the network. It takes the contacts. But it also requires readiness.”
That’s the advice Svane gives to anyone in Japan from abroad.
“Be ready. Be ready like Freddy. Be curious. Don’t believe in others’ perceptions. Jump into Japan and Japan will embrace you. Japan is ready for you.”
Solid private and public sector experience
Freddy Svane took on the post of ambassador to Japan for the second time in 2015. He was previously the ambassador in Tokyo from 2005 to 2008.
In between his two assignments, he became the CEO for the Danish Agricultural Council, an industry association for Danish farmers and processing companies, from 2008 to 2010, the year he was the special ambassador working for a free trade agreement with Japan.
From 2010 to 2015, Svane was the ambassador to India where he was concurrently in charge of diplomatic relations with Bhutan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.
After graduating from the University of Copenhagen with a degree in history, Svane began his career in the foreign service in 1982. From 2000 to 2003, he worked in the private sector as a general manager at A.P. Moller-Maersk, before returning to the foreign service to work on economic diplomacy in The Trade Council.
The Big Questions is a Monday interview series showcasing prominent figures who have a strong connection to Japan.