“the only thing that distinguishes me from a businessman is that I have a diplomatic passport”

The matchmaker

Danish Ambassador to Japan Freddy Svane

Text by Andrew Howitt  /  Photos by Kageaki Smith

As an ambassador for the happiest country in the world, Denmark, His Excellency Freddy Svane infuses all of his work with good humour and unflagging energy. He was posted to Brussels in the 1980s where he negotiated treaties, including those for the Economic and Monetary Union; he organised the first trade mission to Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein; he helped to modernise the Danish Agricultural Council; and he previously served as ambassador to Japan from 2005 to 2008, as well as to India, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives from 2010 to 2015. Now back at the Danish embassy in Tokyo, Ambassador Svane sat down with Eurobiz Japan to talk about how his life’s path was determined by the flip of a coin, the benefits of Denmark and Japan’s strategic partnership agreement, and the 150th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two nations that is being celebrated this year.

How did you get your start in the foreign services?

I have an identical twin brother in Denmark, and we always went to the same schools. After high school, we wanted to continue on to university, but we couldn’t agree on what area of study we should pursue: law or history. So, we flipped a coin. This led me to history, whereas my brother became a lawyer. My brother graduated with a Master’s in law, and I had a Master’s in history.

An opportunity came along for me to take a role in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, so I said OK; and my brother got hired on the same day at the Ministry of Justice. There were many instances when we were sitting in the same committee meeting — where I was representing the foreign services and he was representing the Ministry of Justice — and people couldn’t really figure out who was who.

In what ways have you observed that Japan has changed in the years since you were here last?

I have to admit that when I left in 2008, my last report to Denmark was called Japan is stuck in the past, without any future. I saw all the bad things in Japan at that time: the struggling economy, prime ministers changing constantly, a lack of stability, little interaction with the outside world. But it has changed. Japan has something to offer today that I didn’t foresee before.

Now there is political stability — and it is having a huge impact on society. They have a prime minister who has been in office since 2012. He is almost uncontested politically. I believe that a country guided by stability — in a very unruly, paradoxical, complex world — has something to offer.

This year marks 150 years of diplomatic relations between Denmark and Japan. How will the embassy and the Danish community here be celebrating?

First and foremost, we’ll celebrate with the Japanese. Japan and Denmark have had close, cordial ties for 150 years. It’s quite remarkable. We have a number of events planned: cultural and commercial, and also a visit by the royal family of Denmark at some point.

One cultural highlight will be an art exhibition at the National Museum for Western Art in Ueno, that opens this month, focusing on works by the Skagen painters. There’s a peninsula called Jutland above Germany, and at the tip of Jutland is Skagen. It has, for centuries, inspired painters. The Skagen painters represent the golden age of painting in Denmark.

The 150-year anniversary is celebrating the past, but we also have to look to the next 150 years. We have to take our good, strong collaborations into the future — that’s really important for me and the Danish companies out here. We have a lot to offer each other.

What are some of the results of the bilateral strategic partnership announced in 2014?

Our strategic partnership agreement, reached in 2014, foresaw stronger investment by Japanese companies, in Denmark, and that happened last year. For example, one Japanese company, Mitsubishi Rayon, formed a joint venture with the Danish company Fiberline Composites to develop innovative hi-tech solutions for wind turbine blades based on carbon fibre technology. Since wind turbines are getting bigger and bigger, the blades consequently are also getting bigger and bigger. To reduce the weight, you need to develop innovative solutions. You can also build sensors in the blades so they can better adapt to changing wind patterns. Denmark has a strong, cutting-edge wind technology industry. It’s known as a nation of wind energy — I think 44% of the electricity consumed last year came from wind.

As a strong exporter of agricultural produce, we are very happy that this agreement is helping Denmark to sell even more delicious pork to Japanese consumers. The Japanese like their tonkatsu, and we have the best pork in the world; you need Danish pork for it to have just the right kind of taste.

Could you tell me about the awards ceremony for author Haruki Murakami that you took part in earlier this year in Denmark?

Murakami is very popular in Denmark, and he was presented our prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Literature Award. Some of the top writers have received this prize, including Allende, Rowling and Rushdie. I went with him [Murakami]. He is a great guy — really down to earth. He’s a man who has renewed the tradition of fairy-tale telling. Every time you read one of his novels, you find a new layer. They’re really impressive.

In what ways is your office working to strengthen trade relationships between Denmark and Japan?

By being on the move constantly, and looking for opportunities. My heart is really in commercial diplomacy. I normally say, the only thing that distinguishes me from a businessman is that I have a diplomatic passport. I spend 99% of my time on commercial activities. I pay visits, almost every day, to Danish companies out here. We have some 80 companies in Japan, and I’m constantly on the move to learn about their businesses and strategies, what kinds of challenges they’re facing, and if we can help. Then I’m also visiting tons of Japanese companies to find out what they’re looking for technology-wise, how they are going to invest, what kinds of patents they have for investments. And then I interact with a lot of politicians, both Tokyo-based and also, increasingly, with regional communities. I’m kind of a professional matchmaker.

I have a strong collaboration with Niigata, for example. Last year, there was an election and the new governor won on an anti-nuclear agenda. In order to deliver on this, he and his supporters were looking for alternatives. The name Denmark popped up, so I went there and talked with them. My mission is really to make sure that, whenever somebody here in Japan is looking for solutions, the name Denmark will pop up. 

“The 150-year anniversary is celebrating the past, but we also have to look to the next 150 years”