My Japanology / Falling in love with Shinkansen’s 30-second delay

Miho Ikeya/The Yomiuri Shimbun

Danish Ambassador Freddy Svane speaks during an interview on March 2.

The Japan News Known for its equitable wealth distribution, advanced welfare system and ambitious environmental policies, Denmark has often been called the happiest country in the world. Its society is, however, no exception to the wave of populism sweeping across Europe. Marking the 150th anniversary of diplomatic ties with Japan this year, Danish Ambassador Freddy Svane, who is in his second assignment as ambassador to Japan, talked in an interview about the significance of the bilateral relationship in an increasingly volatile world.

Q: How have you come to know Japan in your life?

Svane: I’m a typical career diplomat. So I’ll not say I had any kind of specific knowledge about Japan, but it’s like when you meet a girl and you fall in love — I fell in love with Japan. So did my family. When you come to Japan for the first time as a foreigner, you are so overwhelmed with the efficiency here. My wife, our kids and I moved out here in August 2005.

I still recall my first trip with Shinkansen high-speed trains. I went to the platform of a station. I still recall sitting in the train when it was delayed half a minute or so. Then an announcement said that they were very, very sorry. In Denmark, nobody cares about trains being delayed if it’s 10 or 15 minutes.

Q: How have you nurtured your ties with Japan as ambassador?

A: I attended a yabusame horseback archery event last October at Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture. As the master of the ceremony, I did the prayer for the archers, wearing the whole gear. It was a little bit tough as the weather was quite warm and a little humid.

After we came back to Japan in August 2015, we went to see Kamakura again. We were invited to a reception by the shrine. The chief priest asked me if I would like to be at the yabusame. Then we started preparing for that.

You need to be part of the network. Especially here in Japan, it’s a give and take in the sense that I cannot go to a minister two or three times and just ask questions.

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  • Miho Ikeya/The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Danish Ambassador Freddy Svane talks about the bilateral ties with Japan at the Danish Embassy in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo.

Denmark is a small country. But we’re also smart. I’m competing with all the other ambassadors. Some of them are representing very big and strategically important countries for Japan, so they have a lot of natural access. But those of us who are representing smaller countries have to fight a little bit harder.

I brand myself as “Freddy is ready.” Every time I take out my business card, I normally would say, “This is a ticket to growth.”

My role is to be a matchmaker. Whenever decision makers such as businessmen, politicians and bureaucrats look for inspiration or new ways of doing things, then my role has always been and will always be to secure that there’s a small pop-up window.

For instance, how do we have smart cities? How do we secure an energy mix to use wind or biomass? My role is always to go with my staff in the embassy to ensure that those who are making decisions know about Denmark. It is not that we are preaching, but we are trying to be a source of inspiration.

I am often asked why Denmark is a happy country. I try to explain that we have this work-life balance. Now we have Premium Fridays in Japan. We think it’s the right attitude. You might work for long hours but the work efficiency is perhaps not as strong as it is in Denmark.

Japan has stability, optimism

Q: This is your second stint as ambassador to Japan. How could such a thing happen?

A: I left Japan as ambassador in 2008 and went to the Danish Agricultural Council, which is a business association for farmers, like Japan Agricultural Co-operatives, or JAs. My very strong view is that each and every bureaucrat, wherever it makes sense, should have at least some experience from the private sector.

When your posting is coming to an end, you have to opt for priorities. Japan was my priority. You have a fantastic word in Japanese called furusato. Japan has become a kind of furusato for me and my family.

There are two things that have caught my eye in my second tenure. This time I see so many tax-free shopping signs in all the stores. Ten years ago, I saw the word tax-free in few places. It signifies that Japan has opened up.

The second thing that struck me is that you see solar parks everywhere. You have earthquakes, typhoons and mudslides, but you’re also extremely good at living with nature.

When I wrote my last report during my last tenure, the headline was that Japan was more of the past. I did not have much optimism at that time. I saw a society changing prime minister constantly. I saw all the negative effects of aging population, shrinking population, no growth or negative growth.

Now you have political stability and optimism. Your big companies are in the process of transformation, moving away from hardware to more sophisticated software.

I sense a strong potential in smaller companies. I was recently in Wakayama and there’s a small company doing wooden house construction. It’s like the Lego system where everything is done in an automated way. They are importing almost all the wood that they use for the production from North America or Scandinavia.

“Why don’t you export?” I said to them. With the kind of technology and knowledge they have built up, they could easily start exporting.

Last week I gave a speech at JA. I picked up a Japanese Camembert cheese and said, “Why are you not accepting a free and open market competition? The number of people in Japan will shrink. Why are you protecting a small industry that will only cater for fewer?”

The content of salt in the Japanese Camembert is less than that from many other parts of the world. I said, “I would like to buy your Camembert in Denmark, but I would also like you to buy Danish Camembert.”

Q: What particular aspects in 150 years of bilateral ties attract you personally?

A: When we started preparing for the 150th anniversary, we singled out three key words. Two of them were decided beforehand and the third one I brought in. We have the two original key words describing the interaction between Japan and Denmark over so many years: “tradition” and “innovation.” I added “gateway.”

“Tradition” means that design-wise, culturally and in many levels, we are talking the same language. Danish furniture design is very famous here, but to a large extent was inspired by Japanese thinking and culture. We have a huge exhibition going on in Denmark, called the “Japanomania,” which explains how the European and Scandinavian culture was impacted by Japanese thinking, paintings and ceramics.

Both Japan and Denmark are not good at just accepting what was done. If a chair is famous chair, should we then stop doing new designs? No, we are trying to find new ways of “innovation.”

But “gateway” is much more important. It was a Danish company which built Japan’s first telegraphic connection with mainland Asia in the early 1870s. In February 1957, Denmark became a gateway for many Japanese as Scandinavian Airlines opened a route from Copenhagen to Tokyo. It was the first transpolar flight over the North Pole. It cut back the travel time by many hours.

I have followed very closely the debate here in Japan about the My Number social security and taxation common identification system. In Denmark, we introduced the equivalent of My Number back in 1967.

Nobody in Denmark questions this Danish My Number. Authorities have all the details about me, my kids and my parents. It’s natural part of our life, and gives us a lot of advantages. We trust our authorities. In Japan, I don’t think there is such trust.

Another area where we see a strong interest is energy. Denmark is known for renewable energy. In 2015, 44 percent of the total electricity consumed was generated from wind. The figure for 2016, though we still waiting for the actual figures, will be even higher.

Here in the embassy, we have three robots including Pepper and OriHime. Every time we have delegations coming in, we have this Pepper [to greet them].

A Danish specialty, creativity is perhaps one of the strongest drivers for growth in the future. I don’t think toymaker Lego [blocks] could have been invented in any other country than in Denmark. We are a small country with 5.6 million inhabitants, but our farmers are producing 300 percent more food than we can consume in Denmark.

Brexit will have consequences

Q: Does the threat of protectionism make Japan even more strategically important for Europe?

A: Yes, I sincerely believe so. I like one-liners, so I developed the following one-liner to describe what has happened: We started with distortion; we passed disruption; and some will say we are facing destruction. If we don’t change, we might end up in this destruction.

But, if you look into it, you can also identify and get new opportunities. If you start reflecting, use your values and abilities and DNA, then you might end up at a different place which will give you better opportunities.

The British vote in favor of leaving the EU took a lot of people by surprise. Our government has declared that we will stay with the EU. We believe in the EU. It is not that the EU is perfect, but we think that the EU is the proper answer to the challenges that we are facing.

We have to respect the British vote. They want to leave and then they have to negotiate the terms and conditions under which they can leave. In Denmark, there’s a strong view that if you decide to leave the community then you have to pay some price for it. It will have consequences.

Q: Why did the Danish parliament pass a law last year to seize assets from asylum seekers?

A: We had the huge influx of people from North Africa and Afghanistan. It impacted the local community. In their views, it got a little bit out of control.

If you don’t have a system in place that can handle all these big challenges, you will strengthen immigration control, and need to use border control and so forth. That’s happening everywhere. I don’t see it as a specific Danish specialty.

There is Danish thinking that, if you can afford, if you have some means, then you also have to contribute to the community. I think that’s the whole thinking.

If I look into how many immigrants, asylum seekers Japan accepts, I mean, it’s nothing.

Our government is much focused on creating better opportunities to avoid all these thousands of people [having to] immigrate. It’s better to secure that they can have a job and a better living in their neighborhood. I sense that’s also the Japanese attitude, because Japan is spending a lot of money supporting all kinds of activities through international organizations.

Globalization not a bad thing

Q: Can liberal democracy stand to embrace people with ideas which are not necessarily congruous with liberalism?

A: Last December, all the five Nordic countries’ ambassadors were invited by the Japan National Press Club. In the Q&A, we were asked some questions about populism. I said, “I don’t think it’s the role of an ambassador to say that a certain party in his or her own country are populists, because what does that mean?”

You have people who have been left out and not been listened to. Should you then tell these are good ones or bad ones? I don’t think so.

What does populism mean? In my view, a democracy should be so broad that it can also adapt in the sense that it will listen to a group of people who at some point in time feels left out. A lot of people and many politicians took for granted that the group of people were with them.

Globalization is one of the big animals here. The Danish government is holding the presidency of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. In June, when we have the ministerial meeting, we will for the first time put globalization on the agenda of the OECD, and also try to interactively engage with the population. We will try to explain why globalization is not a bad thing and why free trade is a win-win.

This interview was conducted by Japan News Assistant Editor Michinobu Yanagisawa.

After entering Denmark’s Foreign Service in 1982, Ambassador Freddy Svane served its missions in Brussels and Paris. In 2005, he began his first stint as ambassador to Japan. Having left Japan in 2008, he began to work as CEO of the Danish Agricultural Council. He was ambassador to India, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives from 2010 to 2015. Svane returned to Japan in 2015 to begin his second ambassadorial tenure. He graduated from the University of Copenhagen in 1982. He is 59.

(From March 27, 2017, issue)

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