“You come to a place with its own culture, and you have to delve into that and appreciate it as it is.”

Appreciation and not comparison

Swedish Ambassador to Japan, Magnus Robach

Text by Andrew Howitt  /  Photo by Kageaki Smith

This year, Ambassador Magnus Robach celebrates 40 years with the Swedish foreign service. His career has taken him all over the world, with postings in places such as Paris, Brussels, Cairo and Brasilia. He sat down with Eurobiz Japan to speak about trade relations between Sweden and Japan, ways in which the two countries are working together, and something he learned from his father.


How have your previous postings prepared you for your role as ambassador to Japan?

About half of my career was in Stockholm, and I was involved with various aspects of forming policy. In the last few years before I moved to Brussels, I was with the EU on the European Union desk, and coordinated EU policies with the Swedish Prime Minister’s Office. So Europe is very much on my mind. In my work as an ambassador, I am always thinking of the European Union: how it’s projected, what its role is and what its contribution can be in various parts of the world.

How has your time here been different from your time in some of the other places where you’ve been stationed?

My father taught me something that has been very useful over the years. He said, “You should base your life on appreciation rather than comparison.” It’s quite good advice; very relevant for me as a diplomat. You come to a new place and your natural instinct is to say, “This is different,” and “This other place was better or worse”; but that’s not the optimal attitude. You come to a place with its own culture, and you have to delve into that and appreciate it as it is. So I don’t compare.

How do you measure success in your position?

It’s very easy: by numbers and results. We’ve just completed a campaign that we called The Treasures of the Forest, a two-week campaign dealing with all aspects of forests: forests as a resource in society, energy from forests, new materials from forests, building with wood, and caring for the forest. We’re in the middle of now considering how to evaluate this because it was a considerable effort, both of time and money. Certainly there will be numbers questions, but also qualitative questions; we will send out questionnaires asking for reactions from the various stakeholders that participated. Ten percent of Swedish exports to Japan are wood products or forestry products. We’re looking to have those numbers go up, and that’s not so easy. I think evaluations that we get through questionnaires are very useful.

What are your priorities this year?

The one obvious priority is to try to maintain the good momentum that we now have in our bilateral trade. Last year, there was an increase of 5%, which I think was quite a good outcome, given the weakness of the yen.

Another priority is to continue to work to strengthen our academic relations, building on an initiative we took last year: a Japan–Sweden University Presidents’ Summit, with some 30 universities represented — top universities on both sides. There was an amazing mobilisation: in student exchange, but even more, in scientific and research exchange. So now there is ongoing work, which I think is very significant. This is a very interesting project that we hope will yield some strengthening of, particularly, our research cooperation.

How is your office working to develop and improve trade relations with Japan?

In the last two or three years we’ve identified some obstacles. So far three or four of these issues have been cleared. In the forestry area there are some outstanding questions, such as the classification of different wood types. One very interesting upcoming issue is the standard for cross-laminated timber, or CLT. There is no internationally accepted standard for this new technology yet. And here we’re very keen to see that we have a common standard worldwide. This is just one example. With foodstuffs, we have the same problems as many other countries. We’re not a major producer of foodstuffs, but we do have some issues. One was cleared quite recently — and that is beef, for meatballs, for example.

What are some ways Sweden and Japan are cooperating more?

We are seeing tie-ups of different kinds that are extremely interesting. I was just reading about the recent tie-up that was announced in April between one of the leading car safety systems manufacturers, Autoliv, that created a joint venture with Nissin Kogyo on brake systems that are specifically designed for self-driving cars. I think that is a very good example, and there are many others. You also have ABB that made a 50–50 joint venture with Hitachi on high voltage direct current power grid transmission.

Can you give some examples of your accomplishments here as ambassador?

I think the collective accomplishments are the most satisfying ones. And the three examples that I would give are the University Presidents’ Summit, the Treasures of the Forest campaign, and the Nobel Dialogues. Those three were satisfying, but they are the results of real teamwork — not only within the embassy, but within the broader context.

The Nobel Dialogue is a result of cooperation primarily between the Nobel Foundation and Nobel Media — which is a fairly new entity actually — and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Sciences, with active contribution from our offices as well. That was a great success in 2015. It took place at the Tokyo International Forum with several thousand participants, and with a number of Nobel laureates talking about the future of genetics. There will be another edition in 2017. We’re building on an existing brand, we’re reinforcing it, and we can add many things to it. So it’s a brand we take good care of, and the Japanese like it as well.

You’ve been in Tokyo since 2014. What’s next for you?

Next is another number of wonderful years in Japan. One reason for staying is that we celebrate our 150 years of diplomatic relations in 2018. We have to work on this right now. We have some interesting projects coming up for 2018.

“If we can work together effectively on the basis of open markets, our economies will gain, our businesses will gain, and our consumers will gain”