Although Iceland is remote from Japan geographically, the Japanese people have a considerable interest and quite a positive impression of Iceland, according to Mitsuko Shino, Ambassador of Japan in Iceland. She says she is particularly pleased because the interest seems to be reciprocal.
Mitsuko Shino says that the northern lights, the Blue Lagoon, geothermal energy and gender equality are what come to mind when the Japanese people hear about Iceland. In addition, Iceland has a very good reputation as being safe and clean. The nature is also interesting. This, she says, is the main reason for the increased interest of Japanese tourists in visiting Iceland.
“I have been in Iceland for about eight months. Despite the limited experience I feel quite a strong interest from the Icelandic people for Japan. Usually European people’s world is more or less limited within the European Union. But for the Icelanders, I notice there exist a plesant curiosity about Japan which I feel less in the continental Europeans. That may be explained by our common geographical condition: Both countries are islands closer to a big continent. The Icelanders have a great and possibly unexpected interest in Japan. This can, for instance, be seen from the number of Icelandic students learning the Japanese language at the University of Iceland. I have learned that Japanese is the second most popular language at the university, second only to English. Traditionally, one might assume that French, Spanish or Russian would be in the second place. But in Iceland it is Japanese. That makes me very happy. So I think that it is safe to say that the Icelanders have a strong interest for Japan.”
Changes in the Arctic
Conditions in the northern hemisphere have been prominent in international discussion in recent years due to the melting of the ice, with the possible Arctic passage for ships between Asia and Europe and America. Shino says that Japanese scientists have acquired a considerable knowledge and experience of the Arctic regions, which they have been studying for more than 50 years.
“The Japanese contribution to these issues might be from the scientific and the academic side, and more or less about the change in the seawater and the sea animals. This is quite interesting, because we have seen the changes in the Antarctica, and similar could happen in the Arctic. We have, therefore, a sound and safe platform to contribute to the Arctic issue. What matters most for us are the environmental issues and the scientific research. There are precious animals and creatures in the Arctic. Furthermore, we know that it takes much longer to clean cold sea water once it is polluted than normal sea water. If the Arctic area is polluted, the damage will remain polluted for a long time. It is therefore very important to preserve the Arctic before it is negatively affected. That is our first interest regarding the changes that are taking place in the Arctic.
“Needless to say, we won’t deny our interest for the trade and commercial matters.” Touristic and business interests are also therein , when it comes to the changes in the Arctic, according to Shino. She says that the Japanese are very careful people by nature. They do not start things unless they feel sure. They may be slow starters, but it does not mean that they step back from what is happening in the world.
Sad Experience of Pollution
“There are reasons why we are environmentally sensitive. First, we have had very sad experience of pollution. In the 1950s, when the economy grew rapidly, we suffered from pollution. But we managed to overcome that trouble. We tried to clean up the water when it was damaged and we tried to develop technology which would not affect the nature. With this sad experience, we know how precious it is to preserve the beautiful nature. The second reason is similar to the experience of the Icelandic people. We know the power of nature. We know how dangerous it can be and how it can affect us. It will bring a natural catastrophe once the balance is lost. So, because of the power of nature, and because of our sad experience, we find environmental issues to be very important and we have to keep a very good eye.”
Shino says that Japan could utilise geothermal energy to a greater extent than has been done so far. Japan has been successful in terms of technology for the utilisation of geothermal energy. And the unexploited resource is vast and much greater than what currently is being utilized. Therefore, the Japanese have been observing the experience in Iceland.
“The Fukushima accident, that we suffered four years ago, changed our energy policy totally. Until then we had tried to develop nuclear power plants, to be independent from other energy resources such as fossil fuels. And the international situation is not always peaceful. We, of course, realise that the most certain way to guarantee energy is to produce it by yourself. Since we do not have any big energy resources we had to develop something else, and one of the answers was nuclear power. Before the Fukushima accident, about 25% of our electricity supplied by nuclear energy. But after 3.11 of 2011, all nuclear power plants were off-lined and they still remain so. Therefore, we have to find new energy resources. We are also not satisfied with increasing our dependence on fossil fuels because of the environmental concerns. We are, therefore, trying to find out how to develop renewable energy. The government is supporting and encouraging the individuals and the energy companies to develop the utilization of renewable energy resources.”
Among the renewable energy resources that have been utilised in Japan, both the solar and the wind power have certain difficulties, according to Shino. She says that solar energy and wind power are too much dependent on the weather, and you cannot count on the constant supply. Energy should be constantly supplied. Geothermal energy has, therefore, been examined.
“Our potential for geothermal energy is about three or four times that of Iceland. Japan is the third largest geothermal resource country in the world. But the problem is, different from Iceland, the very hot summer. In the summertime temperatures can go up to around 40 degrees Celsius. Thus we do not need any heating for a considerable time of the year. The geothermal energy for the housewarming can therefore solely be used for a limited time of the year. And during the rest of the year, we do not use the housewarming system. Instead, we have to cool down. Because of this there is a question of cost performance for the initial investment. To invest in geothermal energy for only three to four months of the year, we would have to find some other utilisation of the energy, and that is not a simple task.”
“Iceland is well known for being the sixth consecutive winner of the least gender gap country in the world. Japan is around one hundred on that list. We, therefore, have a lot to learn. But we are very much eager to change. And we are changing, but it takes time, which is all right. Rapid change might destroy the culture and the traditions. So, gradually, but steadily and surely, we are changing. Our prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is very keen on promoting women in society. When he started his economic plan, the Abenomics as it is called, he raised some pillars. One was innovation. With innovation we can grow. And for innovation the he believes we need the wisdom of women, who can add value from a different standpoint from men.”
In September of 2014 the World Assembly for Women (WAW), a two day symposium, was held in Tokyo, hosted by the government of Japan and three Japanese organisations. There, participants discussed how to promote womens’ active role in Japan and in the world. Iceland did not participate, but Shino says that she hopes Iceland will do so next time, in August this year. “There is every reason for Iceland to participate because of its good experience regarding gender equality.”
Shared Values and Experience
Shino says it is pleasing to witness the increased communication and relations between Iceland and Japan in the various fields in recent years. “We are, so to say, acknowledging each other. We are now, for instance, negotiating on a working holiday framework for young people, which allows them to earn pocket money while they are staying abroad during their holiday. The system has not started, but we would like to see a growing number of young people to enrich their experiences.
“But we could do more. Academics and scientists in Japan and Iceland could for instance cooperate more than they do now. Iceland has a certain experience of predicting natural disasters, evacuating people when disasters strike, and bringing people back to their normal lives. We share a similar experience in Japan. The experience of both nations can be useful for the world as a whole, as revealed in a recent international conference, the United Nations Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction, held in March in Japan. It is safe to say that we can be good teachers in this respect. Cooperation between Japanese and Icelandic academics and scientists is therefore an important issue for us all.”