Something valuable to say
Ambassador of Iceland to Japan Elín Flygenring
Text by Andrew Howitt / Photos by Kageaki Smith
Text by Andrew Howitt / Photos by Kageaki Smith
Could you tell me about the visit of Japan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Taro Kono to Iceland in October?
He came to Reykjavik for an event called the Arctic Circle Assembly, a non-governmental forum established and chaired by Mr Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, former president of Iceland. It’s held every year in Iceland, and about 2,000 people, from both governmental and non-governmental organisations, come together for four days of intensive sessions on Arctic issues. Last year, Mr Grímsson invited Mr Kono to be a keynote speaker, and it was the first visit of a Japanese foreign minister to Iceland. Mr Kono spoke about Arctic science and research, and the importance of Arctic issues for Asia.
He also had a meeting with Gudlaugur Thór Thórdarson, our foreign minister, where the Arctic was, of course, a very big topic. During these meetings, we always raise the possibility of a free trade agreement with Japan — something we have been pushing for since before the establishment of the embassy in 2001— as well as an air services agreement. They were both interested in strengthening bilateral relations.
How else is Iceland involved in Arctic issues?
Iceland took over the two-year chairmanship of the Arctic Council from Finland in May. The Arctic Council is an international organisation with eight member states — the five Nordic countries as well as Russia, Canada and the US.
It was a relatively small forum when it was established, but now there are also non-governmental organisations and many other countries taking part as observers, including Japan. Global warming, changing temperatures and the melting of the ice all have an effect on Japan, so having the Japanese government and the Japanese scientific community active in the work of the Arctic Council is important.
There are, of course, valuable resources in the Arctic, and it’s important that they are extracted in a way that respects nature. So, global collaboration in the area is crucial.
Although we are a small nation, we have a strong voice on this important topic and Iceland has something valuable to say, based on the best practices we have learned as an Arctic nation.
Iceland has topped the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 10 years in a row while, last year, Japan ranked 110th. How is Iceland supporting Japan as it strives to improve gender equality?
Since I arrived, I have been asked many times by organisations such as schools, communities and local governments to give talks about gender equality. I’ve found there’s a lot of interest in the issue. It’s not my role to say, “You should do this and that”, but I tell them what we have done, how far we have come, and that it took us a long time to get to where we are now. We have no magical solution, but there has to be an awareness in the political system, education system, society and businesses.
Icelandic women really pushed the issue in Iceland themselves. We had the world’s first democratically elected
female president, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, in 1980, and she became an important role model for women in Iceland. Strong role models are invaluable in moving this issue forward. Today, gender equality is one of the cornerstones of Iceland’s foreign policy. Iceland has, for example, implemented gender balancing programmes and gender budgeting at every level of government in Iceland — so gender issues have become ingrained in our political dialogue. Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir is a woman. Half of our government ministers are also women.
But we are still striving and working — Iceland is absolutely not a 100% equal society yet. No society is.
Have there been any recent Japanese investments in Iceland?
We have recently had two interesting investments in the Icelandic health and biotech sector. One is Fuji Pharma’s investment in the Icelandic biopharmaceutical company Alvotech. The companies have an exclusive agreement to develop and commercialise biosimilars in Japan.
And then there is the recent partnership between Icelandic sleep diagnostics company, Nox Medical, and the Japanese company Teijin. They are doing very interesting research into sleep disorders and how sleep affects us. This is quite a new area of business.
We are hoping there will be more investments like these because Iceland is really booming in the areas of health and biotech.
What are some examples of Icelandic exports to Japan?
Fisheries is the main pillar of our exports, and Japan is the largest and most important Asian market for importing Icelandic seafood products. I would like to underline our sustainable thinking in our fisheries sector: we have a world-class, sustainable fisheries management system. Japan is now renewing its policy in this regard, and we think we could give some good advice.
Also, Bioeffect is a very innovative biotechnical skincare company from Iceland and Japan is now the third-largest market in the world for its serums. And we are beginning to export various Icelandic liquors.
Another thing is our unique milk product, a kind of yoghurt, called skyr. It is very popular with health-conscious people and, especially, athletes. It’s non-fat and high in protein, made with a special culture. It is a unique product, originating in Iceland around 900 BC, the time of its settlement.
Skyr is currently available all over the world: in the Nordic countries, Germany, the UK and the US, and it will be coming to Japan next year, in collaboration with the Japanese firm Nippon Luna. And they will market it as an Icelandic product. This is a big thing for Iceland.
Icelanders always have it stocked in our fridges. I can’t wait until it comes. •