“There’s a lot of demand for information, for the Icelandic viewpoint.”

Representing a small nation’s unparalleled expertise

Icelandic Ambassador to Japan Hannes Heimisson

Text by Andrew Howitt  /  Photos by Kageaki Smith

In 1986, shortly after Presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev held their historic meeting in Reykjavik, Ambassador Hannes Heimisson joined the Icelandic foreign service. He has worked in Paris, Stockholm, and in the Icelandic government as director of the culture and media department. During the past 11 years, he has twice served as ambassador to Finland — also overseeing Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, and the Ukraine — then as Consul General in New York. Since 2013, Ambassador Heimisson has been Iceland’s ambassador to Japan, and is also responsible for five South-East Asian countries: Indonesia, the Philippines, Brunei Darussalam, Papua New Guinea and East Timor.


How are Iceland and Japan cooperating?

One way is through UN University programmes. The headquarters of the UN University is in Tokyo and they have 13 campuses located in different countries. They are largely funded by Japan, but designed for students from developing countries. Four of their programmes are in Iceland: the UNU Fisheries Training Programme, the UNU Geothermal Training Programme, the UNU Gender Equality Programme, and the UNU Land Restoration Programme. We host these particular programmes — and the teachers in those schools are Icelanders — because we are regarded as experts in those four sectors. Students come in from many different countries, and then they return home and, hopefully, enrich their own countries with what they have learned.

Is Iceland passing on any of its experience in these four areas to Japan?

Iceland and Japan are among the five countries in the world with the highest geothermal potential. Indonesia is number one. But Iceland is probably among the most advanced countries in utilising this resource. And this didn’t happen overnight — we threw coal away and started using our geothermal resource about 90 years ago. Today, 97% of all houses in Iceland are heated using hot geothermal water. We may be small in number, but our footprint in this particular sector are quite large.

The Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation (JOGMEC) is Japan’s energy authority and part of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. JOGMEC has developed ties with the Icelandic energy authority, creating an exchange of scientists, technicians and geologists. Since I came here three years ago, we have been seeing quite an active exchange; more and more practical cooperation. It’s part of my job here to promote that.

How does Iceland depend on Japan?

Almost all of the turbines that we use in Iceland in our geothermal power plants are made in Japan by companies such as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Toshiba, and Fuji Electric. The oldest turbine that is still being used in Iceland is now 45 years old. It’s in a geothermal plant in northern Iceland, and it’s creating energy every day. It reflects the quality of Japanese craftsmanship and their engineering skills.

In the area of fisheries, we have bought some 10 to 15 trawlers from Japanese shipyards in Hokkaido. We also have been exporting some specialised equipment to Japan used in the fisheries sector, like nets and other marine equipment. We’ve been learning a lot from each other.

How would you describe ties between Iceland and Japan?

We established diplomatic relations 60 years ago, in December 1956. It was at the time when Japan was rebuilding after the Second World War, and when Iceland was opening up as a newly independent country — we became independent in 1944. We have had relatively strong political ties traditionally, but I would say that over the past five or six years we have seen a certain deepening of those political ties.

I believe that the strength of our political ties are reflected by mutual visits, and since I came here in 2013, we have had four ministerial visits. We had a historic visit in March when the foreign affairs committee of the Icelandic parliament came to Japan in an official capacity for the first time. The agenda was quite comprehensive. They were able to meet different parliamentary committees, heads of Icelandic and Japanese companies, entrepreneurs; and to visit universities.

Why was a gender equality seminar included as part of your 60th anniversary events?

This particular subject, the gender issue, is something that has been a priority for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and is an issue of political importance at the moment. The Japanese nation is looking at other countries with favourable statistics. The gender issue is something that we have been prioritising for the past 30 years, and we have made a lot of progress. In 1980, we elected the first female president, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir. She was a single mum with a child — quite radical at that time.

For those reasons, we hosted this conference, and it was very successful. There were experts speaking on the gender issue, and it was well-attended. We were simply looking at the development of this issue in Iceland, our progress so far, and also the mistakes we have made. We were also trying to identify the history behind the progress — the political debate, the main reasons for progress at a certain time.

What are some of the challenges that you face being located in Japan, but also being responsible for Icelanders in the five other countries you serve as ambassador?

It can be a challenge, but in the Icelandic foreign service, we have a network of honorary consulates. If an Icelander has an accident, or needs attention in Indonesia or the Philippines, for example, then our honorary consulates are well-connected and provide a good service.

Iceland is one of the five Nordic countries, and we collaborate closely with the others. If an Icelandic citizen runs into a difficulty in a country where Iceland doesn’t have any embassy or any diplomatic representation, then they are taken care of by another Nordic country. And we are thankful for that cooperation.

This Nordic context is important for us for at the embassy in Tokyo. I meet with the other Nordic ambassadors here on a regular basis and we exchange practical information about different subjects. The Nordic countries have had this close cooperation for decades. It’s deep-rooted.

What do you find most rewarding about your role as ambassador?

It’s a privilege to be able to serve your country. There’s a lot of demand for information, for the Icelandic viewpoint. We are proud of our achievements, and we know that the Japanese are genuinely interested in the different sectors we are involved in. I’m proud that people want to work with us and seek information and partnership.

As a small embassy, we are linked to all issues and try to serve everybody’s interests. We have many functions, wear many hats. While serving your country, there is never a dull moment. 

“…in the past five or six years we have seen a certain deepening of those political ties”