Name: Elin Flygenring
Title: Ambassador of Iceland (since January 2018)
DOB: May 12, 1957
Hometown: Hafnarfjordur, Iceland
Years in Japan: Less than a year
With a population of just 336,000, on the surface the Nordic nation of Iceland may not seem to have much in common with Japan, which has 380 times as many people. However, Iceland’s new Ambassador Elin Flygenring sees many parallels between the people and cultures.
Japan is Flygenring’s first posting outside Europe. When she spoke with The Japan Times at Iceland’s embassy, she had been in the position for just a month. She said that while it has been a whirlwind of activity so far, she already feels at home here.
“I had previously made several visits for the Aichi Expo in 2005, as we had a Nordic pavilion. From the start, I found there were certain connections between Iceland and Japan,” she recalled. “Both are island countries with a love of nature (and) fish. We have similar political and social values in terms of democracy and public security, too.”
Another commonality is geothermal energy, and Iceland has made great progress in the production and use of this power source that is both environmentally friendly and sustainable. Flygenring spoke with pride of this aspect of life in her homeland, noting that almost all homes are heated with geothermal energy.
With increasing awareness of the need to utilize renewable sources of energy, Flygenring suggested this is one area in which Iceland could share its technical expertise in the future.
While on the topic, she also noted that both nations have an affinity for hot baths. When asked if she had visited a Japanese onsen (hot spring) yet, she shook her head and laughed. “I simply haven’t had time, but this is definitely something I want to experience soon.”
Flygenring is impressed with Japan’s care for keeping surroundings pristine and orderly, and the systematic way garbage is collected and recycled. However, one aspect of life that she has found hard to swallow is the amount of packaging. “I know this is part of the culture, that things should look nice and clean, but I think the use of plastic could be reduced.”
At the time of the interview, Flygenring’s husband was back in Iceland but was slated to join her in Tokyo shortly. She commented that she realized that many Japanese would still find it surprising that a professional man like her husband, a medical doctor, would put his own career on hold to follow his spouse.
“This isn’t the first time,” she said. He has always been of great support while we were moving around for my career and raising our two daughters.”
In fact, Iceland leads the world in terms of gender equality; quality day care and generous parental leave have helped ensure that around 80 percent of women are in the workforce. Moreover, a progressive new law requires that employers with more than 25 staff must provide certification to prove they are giving equal pay for work of equal value. Firms have until January 2022 to comply or face fines.
“Since the law has just been passed, we have yet to see how things will go. Even though we have councils and laws, there has still been a pay gap, so this new law is the next step,” Flygenring said.
Flygenring was the secretary-general of Iceland’s Council for Gender Equality from 1982 to 1986, and described the great progress she has witnessed since then. The issues she mentioned have parallels with Japan today as it grapples with how to build a more equal society.
“Things did not change overnight for Iceland — it was a series of many steps and factors. We needed people to fill jobs in the fishing industry and women were willing to work. This led to changes in the school system so mothers could work more easily,” Flygenring explained. “The final step was participation in politics, and now 40 percent of politicians are female.”
She pointed out the need to “change the mentality of both men and women” to achieve lasting progress. She welcomes dialogue with Japanese women in business and public life to share experiences, and said she was impressed with Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike’s vision for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics when they met recently.
Although it is early in her term, Flygenring is looking forward to strengthening the relationship between Japan and Iceland on various levels, including trade. While Iceland’s fish are well-known in Japan, she noted that the country’s lamb is also attracting attention. “What makes our lamb special is that the animals are free-range in summer and feed on wild, natural vegetation. This gives the meat a distinctive and unique taste.”
She also hopes to raise Iceland’s cultural profile during her term. Music-lovers are in for a treat in November, when the Iceland Symphony Orchestra will be performing a series of concerts with Vladimir Ashkenazy, world-renowned pianist and conductor. Popular Japanese pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii will be joining them.
On a personal level, Flygenring has a deep appreciation for the country’s aesthetic and is fascinated by how Japan juxtaposes traditional culture and cutting-edge trends. She feels fortunate that her posting coincides with what she calls “an interesting time” for Japan. “I will be the last Iceland ambassador to serve under the current Emperor, before his retirement (scheduled for next April). Then, of course, there is the excitement of the Tokyo Olympics ahead.”
In the meantime, she will be heading back to visit Iceland in the early summer for some homegrown excitement — the birth of her first grandchild.
First Asian posting for diplomatic veteran
Born in Hafnarfjordur, a port city to the south of Iceland’s capital of Reykjavik, Elin Flygenring has represented her country in various capacities during her career. Her previous international postings include Strasbourg, Berlin and Stockholm. Prior to coming to Japan, her last overseas position was in Helsinki as Iceland’s ambassador to Finland from 2009 to 2013. Her area of responsibilities extended to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Ukraine, along with the Holy See. She has also held an array of governmental positions domestically, with the most recent lasting from 2013 to 2016 in the Nordic Department of Iceland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Flygenring has a master’s in comparative law and a graduate diploma in legal studies from Stockholm University, along with a law degree from the University of Iceland. She counts reading, music and opera among her interests.
The Big Questions is a Monday interview series showcasing prominent figures who have a strong connection to Japan.