“The possibilities of using the forests are literally endless”

Touting transformation through tech and trees

Finnish Ambassador to Japan Jukka Siukosaari

Text by Andrew Howitt  /  Photos by Michael Holmes

Finland joined the European Union, together with Austria and Sweden, on Sunday, January 1st, 1995, and the day after, on Monday at 9:00, Jukka Siukosaari reported for his first day at Finland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Consequently, his career has been coloured by his country’s membership in the EU, working in areas such as EU integration, and foreign and security policy. However, his work has not been entirely about Europe. He was posted to South Africa from 2000 to 2002; he spent the past four years as Ambassador to Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay; and he has been in Tokyo since September. Ambassador Siukosaari spoke to Eurobiz Japan about Finland’s growing emphasis on its bio-economy, how it has become a world leader in innovation, and the country’s 100th anniversary of independence.

Could you tell me a little about your time in Argentina?

It was a fascinating period because it was a time when Argentina opened up to the world again. When I went there in 2012, it had the reputation of being one of the most protectionist countries in the world. They were very big on import substitution and supporting their own industry — basically trying to create a system where they wouldn’t have to import anything, but where they could export freely; a rare combination in the world. But they had elections a year before I left, and a new government came into power who overturned that trade policy completely. The fruit of that policy change is only becoming visible now, and trade between Finland and Argentina is now growing rapidly. But, unfortunately, I’m not there to witness it.

What is a key area for Finland in your trade relations with Japan?

I think bio-economy is really key for us. The wealth of Finland was built with the forestry industry more than 100 years ago, and now we are returning to our roots. But instead of making only paper and pulp and timber, we are now looking into innovative uses of the wood fibre, and really fascinating applications are coming up. With nanotechnology, you can use a tree’s cellulose in ways nobody dreamed of before.

One use is clothing made of wood, viscose. Wood fibre is a very good material for producing clothing; and, unlike cotton, it doesn’t require a lot of water. With the present level of research that is going on, I think wood fibre may be competitive with cotton in ten years. If that happens, Finland — which probably has the biggest resource of pine and spruce forests in the world — will be well-positioned.

You can make really interesting combined materials from the cellulose, as well. In Finland, there’s a company called UPM that has produced a prototype of a car made of cellulose. Instead of metal for the chassis, they have used cellulose-based material — it’s basically a wooden car.

Additionally, I understand that cellulose can be used as a breeding ground for stem cells. Stem cells are normally cultivated on a flat surface, but when you use cellulose, you can use a three-dimensional surface — the cellulose fibres allow researchers to create more stem cells, and that increases productivity. The possibilities of using the forests are literally endless.


What else is Finland contributing to the Japanese market?

We are especially interested in passing on our snow-how. That’s an umbrella term we use that includes everything from energy efficiency in buildings, good insulation, windows, and even clearing the runways at airports after a snowstorm. We have lots of expertise, understanding and technology for dealing with the snow and the cold, so that’s why we’re looking at regions in Japan, such as Hokkaido, to see whether there are any business opportunities there.

This year is a special year for Finland. What has been planned?

It’s the 100th anniversary of our independence. The whole year is a celebration. There is a long list of events, but let me just highlight a few. Sibelius, our national composer, is probably more well-known in this country than any other country outside Finland. We will have several concerts featuring his music, including performances by the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra who will be visiting in May.

Also, the Finnish National Ballet has produced a Moomin ballet — where the Moomins actually dance — that will be coming to Tokyo and Osaka in April.

There are over 20 friendship societies in Japan, and one of those here in Tokyo has just published the first full-scale Finnish–Japanese dictionary with 40,000 words. It’s something that will be useful for students of Japanese in Finland and vice versa.

How did Finland gain independence?

We were part of the Kingdom of Sweden for several centuries, and it was a state comprised of two nations: the Finns and the Swedes. But then, as a result of the Napoleonic wars, Sweden had to concede us to Russia in 1809. We spent over a century as an autonomous grand duchy of the Russian Empire. During that time, a strong nationalistic movement started in Finland. When the First World War broke out, and the Russian Revolution took place, Finns saw the opportunity to become independent. We declared independence from Russia in 1917, and were supported by the other great powers at that time, notably Germany, but also Sweden, Britain, the United States, and Japan.

Finland ranked fifth in the 2017 Bloomberg Innovation Index — two places ahead of Japan. How have Finnish companies been able to achieve this?

After the fall of the Soviet Union, about 25% of our foreign trade disappeared overnight. We lost an important customer for a couple of years, which was really a tremendous external shock to our economy. And then, combined with the currency crisis, we had the banking crisis in the early 1990s, which meant that we had to make some serious decisions about the direction of the country.

The response of the government at that time was to invest heavily in education and innovation. Our education system has yielded good results. According to OECD studies, we are still at the top in Europe. In innovation, we created an alliance of government, universities, research institutions and companies; and we are trying to bring innovators together with those who are financing R&D. This is showing in our startup culture in Finland. For example, we have developed an event called Slush, which is the biggest gathering of startups, entrepreneurs and investors in Northern Europe. We hold the event in Tokyo as well, every spring.

We are also seeing a boom in popularity of people wanting to become entrepreneurs. That is a tremendous mindset change, and I think that the government policies have helped in that. They have created this belief that success as an entrepreneur is not only for the Silicon Valley, but that you can really have that in Finland as well. 

“The whole year is a celebration”