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  Finland Loves Japan, Abe "Loves" Trump

They say you learn by travelling. One week in Finland last month taught me new aspects even of my old home country. It's still peaceful, slow life there and people look content with their lives as they should in the world's happiest country. General wellbeing, the basis of that survey, was even more evident from what I remembered and international outlook had increased further. Not just plenty tourists (despite off-season), but non-Finnish passengers in suburban trains and buses and world class food and service in Helsinki restaurants (with world class prices).

A special delight was wide recognition of Japan and its culture starting with popularity of sushi, that has grown quite overwhelming. All kind of "sushi bars" seemed all over and every self-respecting supermarket has now its own sushi stand with staff preparing fresh produce through the day. News reports told of one specially popular Citymarket in a small town that has 15 staff and 3 machine lines from Japan preparing 3 tons per week using special soya sauce and sushi rice imported from Japan! According the report, average time the product stays on self is just 10 minutes - much better than in supermarkets here!

Wonder if FCCJ ex-President has anything to do with this surprising development? After all, he lives in that town with his Japanese family.

It's not only sushi. Manga, anime and cosplay remain popular for young people and a tradition of annual sakura party has been established in an East Helsinki park where more than 150 sakura trees has been planted by the Japanese community in Helsinki. True to Finnish tradition, a Sakura Queen is being elected there every year.

Also heard that Business Finland's Japan Day one week before was so popular for Finnish companies that many who wanted to be there could not be accomodated in the room.


Finland-Japan 100 year anniversary of diplomatic relation was widely celebrated the week I was there. The omikoshi parade on Esplanade organized by Finland-Japan Society and Finland-Japan Chamber of Commerce gathered big crowds and 100 years of cultural relations between the two countries - science, art, music, literature etc - were reviewed by experts in a seminar organized by Helsinki University. The beautiful omikoshi donated by Hamamatsu Finland Friendship Society will stay now in National Museum for display and we can expect that the "matsuri" event will be repeated every year.

Even my home town Lahti had a special "ukiyoe" exhibition organized by local art lovers. Suitably, the Japanese wood block works were exhibited in space dedicated to Finnish wood work and design in the old "akarenga" harbor area. The famed Sibelius Hall there, a Finnish design combining old glass factory's red brick walls with wood and glass, still looks good after 19 years and the small Kengo Kuma designed contribution - a wooden taxi stand cover - remains in front of the main entrance.


Yet, Finland would not be Finland if ice hockey was not the center of national media attention. The triumph of World Championship won by a Finnish team of local league journeymen against NHL professionals from Canada, Russia and Sweden was celebrated wildly and compared in sport history to American university team legendary win over Russia's military professionals more than 30 years ago. The ongoing new government negotiations and EU elections same day were totally blanked in the news to the chagrin of politicians. And you can just guess the embarassment of Finnish NHL stars, who decided rather take holiday after heavy US season that compete for their home country with little pay.


Upon return heard that the big Embassy reception for the 100 year anniversary here was a big success with the new Crown Prince - new Emperor's younger brother - attending with his wife and enjoying the party much longer time than expected. At end of this month the royal couple will be visiting Finland, a rather special selection for the first place to go in his new role. As it is, the new Emperor and his father also visited Finland when they were Crown Prince. I can't help but think that here, too, there is something special in Finland that attracts them - like it attracts many other Japanese - and we should be thankful for that.

The main news from Tokyo, of course, was President Trump's state visit organized by Prime Minister Abe, his loyal friend and supporter. Against all advance worries about the bull in porcelain shop, understand all went well and US president enjoyed tremendously meeting Emperor, playing golf and watching sumo where he could give out his special "Trump Trophy" to the winner. Judging by the engraved text, this was a one-time award and will not be given out in every bi-monthly tournament like so many from other countries.

Sometimes wonder if not the hardest part of winning the basho is for the exhausted champion standing up such long time to solemnly receive exotic trophies from a long line of local ambassadors. As well, admire Abe-san for his endurance to keep smiling and serving his buddy with platitudes to avoid any serious discussion. "Art of deal" was beaten by Abe's "Art of delay" and obfuscation as one writer put it.

Unfortunately hopes that what little was agreed will hold some time was dashed almost immediately by Trump's declaration of new tariffs against Mexico, a production center for US bound Japanese cars almost as big as the home country (1,2 million vs 1,5-1,7 million). If realized, this will cost Toyota and others as much as tariff threat against Japan that Abe-san labored to avoid.


Some foreign observers did not like the no-holds-barred hospitality provided by Abe-san - in their good English they named him "yokozuna sycophant". Most Japanese, I guess, would have called it "omotenashi", the art of hospitality. Once you invite a guest - that pays in earnest - you should look after him well, goes the thinking. Still remember from my business time how high level business guests from Finland were entertained much the same way by the Japanese hosts - great restaurants, golf, sumo etc - with only banquet with Emperor remaining beyond their reach. Follow with interest what Financial Times writers will call the even more glamorous spectacle that's going on for Trump in their own country at the writing moment.


What ever we think of Abe-san personally, can't help but admire his hard working schedule. After hosting Trump, he already has met leaders of Malaysia and Philippines, set himself up as go-between peace ambassador between USA and Iran and offered to meet Kim Jong-Un "without preconditions". He has also finalized preparations for the G-20 meeting in Osaka later this month: all world leaders will come for the top meeting - oh no, Trump again! - while numerous expert meetings have already started. Agriculture ministers met in Niigata last month - good choice for them with endless rice fields there! - while trade ministers will meet in Tsukuba and finance ministers in Fukuoka this weekend - the latter choice must be by the local boy Taro Aso! Following weekend it's environment ministers in my little country town Karuizawa - just heard that Finland's new Green minister will be there, too.

The agenda set up by the hosts include how to address digital economy, innovation, aging society, climate change and plastic polution as well as traditional promotion free trade - topical themes that touch all. With Trump present and famously often irritated when attention is not on him alone, the chairman must lead discussion carefully as US views on some of the subjects do not match well with those of others.

Whether any concrete progress is achieved is secondary matter for Abe-san: the main point is that all will go smooth and he will again receive positive media accolades that will pump up his image evven more ahead of the parliamentary election in July. Depending on that he might dissolve the powerful Lower House for snap election in addition to the legally scheduled Upper House election. The latest from Nagatacho is that the opposition parties have been able to unify their ranks into a common front that will make it hard for the two ruling parties maintain their 2/3 super majority in the Upper House. Let' s see what happens, as Trump loves to say.


Many of us were surprised that the initial estimate for GDP growth in January-March turned as good as 2,1% annual speed and analysts expect the revised figures due out next week will see some downgrading. We all know private consumption is feeble and exports are down because China slowdown - partly thanks to US tariffs and boycotts. That corporate investment was as much as 6% up, already 10th quarterly gain, sounds also unlikely to continue in such atmosphere. On other hand, profits at big companies rose another 10% from their already giddy heights backed up by another 3% sales gain, especially from machinery exports to USA. Many companies are also obliged to invest into increased automation in response to acute lack of workers.


There was a new turn in the Nissan saga - not Ghosn - with the unexpected move by Fiat-Chrysler (FCA) offering 50/50 merger with Renault. Instead of the young FCA chairman put in place by Agnelli family, the main owners, think the move can be traced to Renault chairman Senard, a hard-boiled business veteran and shrewd operator of totally different caliber than Ghosn, according to my French friends. They say he knows Agnellis well from his past at Michelin, they talk same language and the deal, as proposed, would put a lot of money to Agnelli pockets and reduce the risk owning big part of a US-Italian company that is struggling on both continents. (Remember that Chrysler part went bankrupt once already and was rescued by US tax payers .)

It's clear Senard has talked the French government, Renault's main owner into the deal on about same premise: add value and reduce risk. No better proof of that than the French trade minister's statement that he is inclined to back up the deal if only the head office of the new company would be in Paris and Monsieur Senard will be the chairman.

Obviously, the two willing partners' target to have Nissan and Mitsubishi included in the new alliance even if it is not said out loud yet. The market capitalization of FCA and Renault together is USD 33 billion, while Nissan alone stands at USD 28 billion. As well, FCA and Renault sell together 8 million cars - adding Nissan and Mitsubishi would increase that to 15 million. And Nissan is the key to the world's biggest car market China while Mitsubishi covers well the growing SEA markets. Renault and FCA have next to no position in these big markets.

(Just before this column came out learned that FCA has cancelled its merger offer as French government and union representatives in Renault board were not satisfied with FCA's promises that no jobs would be lost as well as concerned that Nissan would not fully co-operate with the new bigger set-up. Those Italians sure change mood quickly! Yet... don't think this is the end of the story.)


Writing this column on the 30th anniversary day of the massacre, we should not forget its memory. For those, who survived and continued to believe they were leading their country to new, right way to democracy, it must have been crushing to see how quickly Western countries forsake their cause. Sure, there was boycott and isolation, but it all ended in just 2-3 years with Japan, the closest neigbor and biggest investor, the first to give up. It's useless to debate whether it was pure business greed or childish Western belief that support for China's economic growth would automatically lead to political liberalization and democracy. The fact is that political freedom and civil rights in China have turned more limited year by year, even with increasing speed during the current government.

We all continue to do business there and, for many, results are good. It is correct as long as we recognize with what kind of state we are dealing with - just like Finland did with its lucrative trade with Soviet Union in the past.

As one survivor said from his refuge in USA: "We hope that Tiananmen would at least serve as a learning reminder for democratic countries to recognize the true face of the CCP."

Timo Varhama  
Tokyo, June 4, 2019  

Previous Columns

13 May 2019
"New Emperor, Two Buddies, State Visit and Sumo"

22 April 2019
"New era, new year and new money"

29 March 2019
"Japan's Best Kept Secret and Legacy of Heisei Time"

11 March 2019
"New Moomin Valley and Chic Starbucks Riverside - Architecture, Art and Economic Views"

28 February 2019
"Finland's onmarch continue, Japanese companies awash in cash but Prime Minister's headaches grow"

19 February 2019
"Europe attracts, Brexit bites - consumers rule Japan"

6 February 2019
"Celebrity Cheers Boost Sales, Olympic Fever Gets a "Dent" and Government Data Doubted"

28 January 2019
"Virus and snow in Japan - heavy turbulence outside"

16 January 2019
"New Year News Review"

19 December 2018
"Japan: The Only Safe Place From Global Turmoil?"

6 December 2018
"Political Theater at World Stage, Media Play in Nissan Case"

21 November 2018
"Different inroads into Japan: Finnish forest knowhow vs French corporate genius"

7 November 2018
"Moomin, Muji, Movies and Mobile Phone Fees"

29 October 2018
"Towards better world? Circular economy, collaboration with China"

15 October 2018
"Circular economy, fish market and construction boom"

2 October 2018
"Abe's "third reich": challenges abound"

17 September 2018
"From Osaka typhoon to Osaka fever - dark side and bright side of Japan"

6 September 2018
"Emperor: love, peace and reverence"

23 August 2018
"Summer heat, new scandals and export worries - but Tokyo is best"

8 August 2018
"Petty politicians, bungling bureaucrats and profitable business"

30 July 2018
"While we were on holiday"

17 June 2018
"From Singapore to soccer - wrapp up for summer"

11 June 2018
"Showdown in Singapore, commotion in Canada and cover-ups in Tokyo"

28 May 2018
"Morals and responsibility, blind loyalty and power harassment"

17 May 2018
"Big Business in record results again, but consumer are not convinced - North Korea spectacle continues under Kim direction"

26 April 2018
"Political spectacle approaches grand finale
- people's trust sinking ever lower"

17 April 2018
"Cruise missiles and cronyism, business boom, old people and sumo"

6 April 2018
"Mystery train and other unpredictable moves in geopolitics around Japan"

26 March 2018
"Trump Unchained and Abelympics – Can PM Make the Party?"

16 March 2018
"Anniversaries, updates, fallacies and deception"

5 March 2018

26 February 2018
"Korean Olympics: sports shine, politics stink"

14 February 2018
"Korea: Murky Politics and Big Business Behind the Sport Spectacle"

4 February 2018
"It's "smile time" in politics, Olympics, economics and business"

23 January 2018
"Moomin crisis, panda frenzy and Olympics turned into political farce"

12 January 2018
"Heisei 30 looks good: share prices soar, PM rides high "

About the Columnist

The columnist is a Japan veteran among Finnish business, our Chamber ex-president and today Member of the Board of Trustees.
After running a major Finnish industry company's Japan business for over 20 years, he is now Senior Associate in a strategic consulting company.

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