“it’s not just the economic actors and the private sector, but … governments are also involved in a closer dialogue”

Moving to a new level

Swedish Ambassador to Japan Magnus Robach


Text by Andrew Howitt  /  Photos by Kageaki Smith

On 11 November 1868, Japan and Sweden signed a Treaty of Friendship, Navigation and Commerce, just two and a half weeks after the official start of the Meiji period. This year marks 150 years of formal diplomatic relations between the two countries. Swedish Ambassador to Japan Magnus Robach sat down with Eurobiz Japan to speak about what’s planned for this special anniversary year, Sweden’s involvement in creating safety standards for a new generation of robots, and the visit of Her Royal Highness Crown Princess Victoria to Japan last year.

What are the embassy’s goals for 2018?

The main goal for this year is to use the 150th anniversary of diplomatic ties between Sweden and Japan to bring our relations to a new level — especially our economic relations. But there is dialogue in many areas, and we will be nurturing existing dialogues and cooperation, and also giving incentives for new initiatives.

How will Sweden and Japan celebrate?

There will be celebrations in Japan and in Sweden. Here in Japan, we’re planning four major conferences, four or five major exhibitions, a music month and a number of high-level official visits. In the second half of the year, there will be quite a lot of focus on design and lifestyle.

From an economic point of view, the main event will be the Sweden–Japan Business Summit in April. We’re doing this in cooperation with Keizai Doyukai [the Japan Association of Corporate Executives]. The theme is reinventing business in a competitive world. Our ambition is to bring together the established international firms —the Ericssons, the Toyotas, the Volvos — with the disruptors and startups to discuss how they can interact, how they can encourage each other. It will be intellectually dynamic, but in the end, we hope that people will find business partners.

Prime Minister [Shinzo] Abe visited Sweden in early July of last year. The 150-year anniversary was mentioned as an important event, and there will probably be a number of agreements signed during this anniversary year. So, it’s not just the economic actors and the private sector, but at the political level, governments are also involved in a closer dialogue. We have a dialogue in the area of security and defence, for example, where we also hope for additional impetus during 2018.

What are some new areas of bilateral cooperation?

One major industrial event worth mentioning is the launch of the Northvolt project. It’s a huge project to manufacture batteries at a mega-factory located in Northern Sweden. Its aim is to provide the European market with state-of-the-art battery technology. One primarily thinks of the automotive industry, but it’s by no means limited to that. The reason this is particularly interesting here is that Japan is a technology leader in battery manufacturing. However, manufacturing batteries in Japan is very expensive — they have technology, but they may not necessarily have all the conditions for becoming a mega-manufacturer. Northvolt has been designed in partnership between Japanese technology providers and other stakeholders, such as investors and government itself. This is a very promising project in view of Sweden–Japan relations.

ABB recently entered into an alliance with Kawasaki on robotics. There’s a new generation of robots called collaborative robots. I went to a robotics fair in early December where they were on show. It’s quite fascinating. A funny example: when filling bento boxes, you have harder objects and softer objects. Now, nobody can match the speed and precision of a robot putting the harder objects in the bento, but for the softer ones — whether it’s sushi or whatever — it’s a very difficult thing. Humans are needed to put those in, which means that the robot and the human will literally sit across the table from each other filling in this box. The robot might be intelligent in some ways, but the problem is, it can also be quite dangerous. So, what Kawasaki and ABB have agreed is to work on a security standard for collaborative robots. They are competitors, but they have formed an alliance to move the business forward in this strategic area. It’s another original and interesting example of collaboration.

You spoke at the Japan Press Club in December with four other Nordic ambassadors. What did you speak about?

I talked about migration, and I described it as a stress test for Swedish society and for long-term benefits. My message was fundamentally that Sweden has greatly benefited from migration over the years.

Since the Second World War, there have been different waves of migration. During the Balkan wars, we peaked at around 60,000 asylum seekers in 1995, whereas in 2015 we had 182,000 asylum seekers from a different part of the world. The focus is now very much on integration, so that we can reap the positive effects, in the medium and longer term, of those who have come to our country. People will continue to want to become part of our society if we have the proper policies in place on training, schooling, access to the labour market. But we may need to make some changes to our welfare model to make this possible; and this is, of course, why there is such discussion.

Could you tell me about the visit of Her Royal Highness Crown Princess Victoria to Japan last year?

This is a story that started in the autumn of 2016 when Her Highness participated in an event in the Maldives, initiated by the Stockholm Resilience Centre. They had managed to invite nine or 10 representatives of some of the largest seafood companies in the world. The top two seafood companies in the world are Japanese: Maruha Nichiro and Nihon Suisan. There were also Thai, South Korean and a number of Norwegian companies represented. Her Highness’s participation made an impression on all the senior participants of these companies. Together, they made 10 commitments on sustainable fishing and care of the oceans. And they are working now on how to translate these into actions and strategies.

When she came to Japan, we had an event here at the embassy where an additional member from the Japanese seafood company Kyokuyo Suisan signed up for this initiative — which is called SeaBOS [Seafood Business for Ocean Stewardship]. Her Highness also visited one of the first tuna preparation plants to have been certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, somewhere near Sendai. And she went to AEON, which has a very ambitious plan to gradually introduce more certified fish and seafood products in their stores.

Why has Princess Victoria taken up this particular cause?

She was invited by the secretary general of the UN to be ambassador for the organisation’s sustainable development goals. She grew up next to the sea, so she chose the two that were closest to her heart: one was healthy oceans and the other was clean water. She’s been very committed to this role. 

“Her Highness’ participation made an impression”