“There’s definitely a much stronger interest in Japan now than a few years ago”

Turning good feelings into good business

Pekka Laitinen, commercial counsellor at the Embassy of Finland


Text by Andrew Howitt  /  Photos by Kageaki Smith

For the past year, Pekka Laitinen has served as commercial counsellor at the Embassy of Finland. He first came to Japan in 1987 as a representative of a Finnish bank and has lived here for a total of 20 years. His career in banking has also taken him to the Netherlands and Russia. As a former chairman of the board of the Finnish Chamber of Commerce in Japan, Laitinen was involved in promoting both trade and investment opportunities in Finland — and now this is his full-time job.

Can you tell me about the Trade Section at the Embassy of Finland?

Finland is viewed very favourably, and it has a strong country brand in Japan. Our mission is to make sure this leads to business transactions, not just good feelings.

We do everything here: advise companies on internationalisation, promote tourism and investment, offer funding services and innovation support, as well as provide the usual export advice, especially for small and medium-sized enterprises [SMEs]. There’s definitely a much stronger interest in Japan now than a few years ago.

We also organise a lot of seminars, events and exhibitions. For example, we recently held an event highlighting Finland from a digital healthcare point of view, showing that our digital healthcare offerings are a good fit for Japanese companies.

What is the current state of trade between Finland and Japan?

Trade between our countries is increasing. There was a total of €1.3 billion in trade last year. It’s no surprise that wood, in its various forms — sawn wood, lumber, paper, cardboard — was the largest piece of the pie at 37.5%. A lot of the wood we export to Japan is used for construction, especially in houses.

Foodstuffs is currently only 1.1%, but the EU–Japan Economic Partnership Agreement could increase this threefold. It wouldn’t make this a huge piece of the pie, but it could amount to an additional €50 million in exports annually from Finland. There’s a lot of potential for food from the Arctic, such as Arctic berries — not only for consumers, but as raw material for various industries, starting with cosmetics.

What are some Finnish products that are popular in Japan, and why do you think they have succeeded here?

We have some SMEs that are very successful in Japan. One Finnish company called VividWorks, for example, has created a product with a new retail service function: 3D visualisation. They are now the market leader in Japan in this segment.

But Moomin is number one. Japan is the biggest market for Moomin goods, bigger than Finland. It just clicked here — in an optimal way. It’s not that we promoted Moomin, but the Japanese found it. The animations were done here because the Japanese were interested in doing them. There’s something in the philosophy behind the books that resonates here, as it does in Finland.

Some Finnish design firms are also very visible here: Marimekko and Iittala. We have high hopes for Metsä, which will give us a permanent facility to promote our design products.

What is Metsä?

It’s a park in Hanno, Saitama Prefecture, that’s divided into two parts. Metsä is the area around Lake Miyazawa, with shops and restaurants. It will be open to everyone. There will also be boats, and workshops where you can do woodworking and even learn to make canoes. It opens on 9 November. Then, in March, the Moominvalley Theme Park will open. You’ll have Moominhouse. There’ll be a big museum, which tells the life of the artist, Tove Jansson, and an AR/VR experience that will allow you to be part of the story. There’ll also be a theatre, and a pancake restaurant where you can try Moominmamma’s pancakes.

Most of the Finnish brands will be in Metsä in one way or another, either with their own stores or as part of a bigger collection. An interesting company called TRE will be opening a shop. It distributes the work of between 200 and 300 Finnish designers, often very small companies. It will be an excellent channel for small Finnish design companies to test the waters in Japan.

What is Slush, and how is it helping to promote Finland?

It’s a startup and tech event that began in Finland less than 10 years ago, with 60 people, as a game developers’ meeting. Now 20,000 people attend every year. They’ve started side events around the world and Tokyo was one of the first of these.

Slush organisers don’t emphasise too much that it’s from Finland, but obviously it creates a lot of goodwill for us. We get a lot of investors and companies looking for new technologies and partners because of it. It’s an excellent way to show what we can do, and it’s a key tool for getting SMEs into the Japanese market.

One of the challenges of the job I’m doing is that we need to have an impact — not just have small campaigns here and there showing some Finnish cups and saucers in one place and then in another — but have a real effect on society and the economy, on both sides. Slush is one very important part of that. 

“we need to … have a real impact on society and the economy”