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 AOYAMA VIEW

Finland independent with free word, good education
    - Japan and USA: Abe to Pearl, Son in Trump Tower
Happy 99th birthday, Finland! One more to go to full One Hundred. That milestone will see big festivities across the country and dominate our national promotion agenda even here in Japan. Guess we'll see plenty trade shows, art shows, concerts and other events to polish Finland's highly positive image here further. Heard that National Ballet will visit Tokyo with something called "Moomin Ballet". Yet behind the glory façade, things don't look that good back at home right now..

There are many reasons for increasing worries in Finland. Economy seem to be stuck on low gear, expected political reforms don't seem to go ahead, the acclaimed high level of wellbeing, healthcare and education is being challenged and the big wave of refugees from last year remain to be fully tackled. European unity is creaking in its seams and just outside our borders the increasingly confrontational Russia is threatening the regional security with intense internet propaganda and cold military hardware build-up. The current government, a coalition of three center-right parties that was supposed to bring fresh winds and business-like approach to solving old problems, has not met with expectations. It almost seems that its biggest achievement so far has been tying up the populist True Finns party into constructive co-operation with others - to take responsibility in action instead of mere inflammatory speech and protest – and thereby losing much of its early public support.

Elsewhere in Europe, in contrast, the populists keep gaining power: East Europe, UK, France, Germany, Italy, you name it. Two of the three last are scheduled to have parliamentary election next year that could see populism gain further. In USA, a totally unpredictable populist is about to take over the reins as all-powerful president of the world No.1 country, something that give goose bumps to all the rest of us who appreciate safe and secure world with steady economic progress and multinational co-operation.

With "post-truth" selected the Word of Year by Oxford Dictionary and reporters jailed, threatened and pressurized in many countries, even new U.S. President attacking them constantly, it is comforting to recall that Finland stood out again World No.1 in World Press Freedom ranking ahead of Sweden (8th), Germany (16th), UK (38th), USA (41st) and Japan (72nd), not to talk about Russia (148th) and China (176th). In fact, last week marked 250 years from the date Anders Chydenius, a Finnish priest elected to Swedish Parliament from his small town Gamlakarleby, pushed through his initiative to make free word – freedom of printing and publishing without advance approval to be exact – a basic right for every citizen. He was home from even more far away Sotkamo and Kuusamo, peripheries in North Eastern forests even today, yet became a prolific writer and spokesman for entrepreneurship and freedom and ended up giving his name to my old university building in Helsinki and his face on Finnish bank note. As it happened before the US Constitution with its lauded First Amendment was written, the 250th anniversary was noted even in the "Land of the Free", though Chydenius was credited there as a Swede, something we Finns feel is only technically correct. Despite our mutual history, we feel there is a difference - as evidenced, for instance, by this very ranking.

This week we got another much followed global ranking, namely the PISA 2016 for 15 year olds in comprehensive reading ability, science and math. Finland continued to score well with No.4 and No.5 positions in the two first mentioned categories, yet dropped off Top Ten in mathematics. An early global champion when the ranking started, Finland's scores have been going step by step down and this year's details show that while girls continue at world top two level over all, the results from boys and from schools outside South Finland were clearly lower cancelling out the old strong point that Finland's education was equal level to all. That women are more clever and develop faster than boys is well known in Japan, too, and some scholars in both countries are already proposing gender based quotas for university entrance to to protect boys. Funny they never thouht same about girls.

Shocked early by not being world top level any more, Japan has been improving its PISA standing steadily finishing this year No.2 in science, No.5 in math and No.8 in reading.
The top position in all categories was held by city state Singapore followed by Hong Kong and Taiwan. New names for me in Top Ten are Estonia and Canada while earlier high ranking South Korea gets this time just No.7 ranking in two categories. That is pretty tough to accept for the education obsessed society there. Good school scores and successful entrance to top university are so decisive for young people's future lives in Korea that it is said today's commotion against President Park started not from how much money or political influence her spiritual "sensei" gained from her power over president but from her using her friendship to pressure a university entrance for her daughter by-passing the rigorous test with the others. This is why it's the young people, who are the driving force in the mass protests that seem to succeed in driving Park out now.

In Japan, the parliament is also in commotion – about so small matter as the rough way LDP rammed through the casino law - oops "IR law"! - hardly an earth-shaking "reform", but an old initiative that was dusted up to show some "progress" is being done. The real big news is Prime Minister's announcement he will travel to Honolulu for one last meeting with the outgoing US president in his hometown and visit Pearl Harbor memorial with him "to pray for the dead" and vow wars should not happen again. Read that: not to "apologize" for any "sneak attack" and "infamy in history" as many American still call it. Neither did Obama apologize for US torching 100, 000 civilians at one big blow on his historical visit in Hiroshima in May.

Instead of picking up on exact words, we should look at the huge symbolical importance of the two visits. In more than 70 years from the war USA and Japan have developed a very close relationship in economy, security and social contact, countless books have been written and movies made of the war at both sides, yet the two big symbolic events marking its start and end, have remained untouchable for national leaders to join in hands together. After Obama's Hiroshima visit, it was only natural to expect Abe to visit Pearl Harbor, yet as always in politics, the final agreement was made only two weeks ago in Peru APEC meeting. Call it Abe's "counter present" and last gesture for the outgoing president before the new, still unknown area with Trump starts. Hopefully it will help to set the tone for the ride ahead. After all, Abe already declared after his Trump Tower talks: "I feel I will have a great relationship with such powerful leader".

A more concrete, short term hope is that the Hawaii trip will help to patch up the expected disappointment from Putin Japan visit a week before. It looks now clear that the wily Russian leader has played gullible Abe to promise big economic aid and co-operation while completely neglecting to deliver his part, the peace agreement and return of the islands. Big business conference with hundreds of company bosses from both sides has been set up in Tokyo the day after Putin calls in at Abe's home in Yamaguchi. If only he gets to Yamaguchi: the local airport is too small for his big plane and he hasn't got his own military helicopters here like Obama had for Hiroshima.

Big business is following trail set by Prime Minister also to USA. Like Abe, Softbank CEO Son called in at Trump Tower and promised USD 50 billion investment to USA that would create 50,000 jobs – if the new president to would reverse the Obama government's refusal to let him buy another US mobile carrier to add to his USD 20 billion purchase of Sprint. This was in expectations anyway as Trump has promised more "deregulation", yet Son's personal visit and headline numbers served well the PR minded billionaire, who happily took them to boast it was all his own achievement. Little was mentioned that the money will come from the USD 100 billion Saudi fund that Son is setting up with the Crown Prince there. The fund was meant to serve start-ups and developing countries, but hey, maybe your own mobile carrier and USA today fit into that frame!

Naturally, such money would serve companies here as well, even help them to pay higher wages as Prime Minister has been asking for years now, yet Japan's political leaders are not setting up blocks for companies to move their money and jobs where they want like China does and now even the new US government is about to do. Yet, alarmed by the Dentsu "karoshi" case, PM has vowed again to tighten up the work rules at least so much that people don't have to die for working long hours at low salaries in Japanese companies. Waiting for such changes, we can "enjoy" the Black Company Award 2016 list that names and shames the worst employers with most exploitative and illicit work conditions. Published on Dec 23, it's clear that Dentsu is the outright "winner" candidate, yet Sagawa Express, Kansai Electric Power and Japan Post are also expected to have top postings as they all had overwork death cases this year. Other nominees include national discount store chain Don Quijote, restaurant chain Sato, Disu Grande nursing care facility in Sendai and Ninnaji Temple in Kyoto. Past "champions" include izakaya chain Watami (2013), discount store chain Yamada Denki (2014) and conbini store chain Seven-Eleven (2015).

Wonder how much they have changed their practices after such public "honor". At least we know that Watami had to close a number of branches last year as they could not get enough workers to take its long hours and low salaries.

Soccer season is changing to ski'ing with J-League finals last week, FIFA World Club Championship start this week and first ski jump World Cup in Finnish Lapland two weeks ago. The FIFA competition moved back to its roots in Japan as Morocco failed to earn money and we'll see soon in Yokohama if anybody can beat the European champion Real Madrid. However, next year the competition will move to China where even more money is on offer. Call it "Ali Baba trumps Toyota".

Little Sara Takanashi already proved her overwhelming skill winning in Ruka, then again in second competition in Lillehammer, Norway. It was her 46th Cup win in just three years matching the number of legendary Matti Nykanen's Cup wins over his long career. Still just 20 year old, she has many years left to raise the score even if I doubt she will keep going as long as the phenomenal veteran Noriaki Kasai, who is still a top jumper at 44 years of age.

We'll follow with pleasure how they both will do this year.

Timo Varhama  
Tokyo December 9, 2016   


Previous Columns

4 December 2016
"Statistics, politics and plain bad management - difficulties to plough through it all "

24 November 2016
"TPP is dead – or is it? What comes next?"

14 November 2016
"US uproar shakes up the old world order, Korea in turmoil"

2 November 2016
"Showdown in U.S., Japan battles on"

25 October 2016
"Nobels, Narita and Niigata - Olympics and popularity politics"

26 September 2016
"In autumn downpours, Japan's wheels are slipping"

16 September 2016
"Moomins, Metsä, Mitsubishi and missiles - business, politics and sports"

6 September 2016
"Uunivited Guest Crashes the G20 Party"

31 August 2016
"It's not Super Mario, It's Super Abe! -- And Super Japan! "

8 August 2016
"Summer holidays, heat, rush and relax, while the world keeps turning"

12 July 2016
"Fog of uncertainties ahead: Japan, Britain, China and USA, each in their own way"

24 June 2016
"UK Splits, shakes EU, even Japan"

13 June 2016
"Rainy season: it's pouring on Prime Minister "

30 May 2016
"Obama is a Class Act, G7 Meeting Was for Japanese Audience "

8 May 2016
"With More Headaches at Home, Abe Takes Golden Week Europe Tour "

23 April 2016
"Dramatic Giant Quake, Business Slowdown, Election Mode in Politics"

7 April 2016
"Tokyo Great City, Japan hmmm...Colorful People "

22 March 2016
"Spring energy, child care and train travel "

11 March 2016
"Five Years from Japan "3-11" - Making Best Out of Gigantic Recovery Task "

28 February 2016
"A Dig Deeper into Politics: Ignorance, Camouflage, Chicanery "

15 February 2016
"Markets in turmoil, economy in decline, challenges grow for Abe"

5 February 2016
"Minister scandal distract, economy slow down, Kuroda rides for rescue "

28 January 2016
ABE: THE REALITY BEHIND ALL THAT TALK "

20 January 2016
"Bear Outlook for Monkey Year Grows, Taiwan Votes to Keep Distance from China, but Pop Group is More Important for Many "

12 January 2016
"NEW YEAR VIEWS - AND A LOOK BACK AT 2015"

17 December 2015
"Global Environment, Food Tax, National Stadium: Historical Decisions or Political Parading? "

8 December 2015
"Challenges in Paris Conference, Challenges Back Home in Japan "

27 November 2015
"Refugees, bombs, business and global warming - can we control them all? "

3 November 2015
"Japan, USA, UK or Germany - China Impacts Us All Today "

22 October 2015
"New Ministers, New Trade Deals, All Political Play"

7 October 2015
"Power games, ball games, trade deals and refugee misery"

25 September 2015
"Big Problems, Big Talk and Big Figures - Each in Their Own Way".

9 September 2015
"Challenges in Japan, Tougher in USA and Europe ".

1 September 2015
"Looking at Neighbors, Japan Seems Stable and Safe ".

19 August 2015
"End Summer, Ceremonies and Holidays Over, Back to Work for All".

6 August 2015
"Hot Weather, Hot Air in Politics - From War Anniversary to Whisky in Space".

23 July 2015
Greece, China, EU, Japan: looking for the lost reality

23 June 2015
World No.1 City? The Difficulty of Passing New Laws, the Easiness of Spending a Lot

16 June 2015
"Only in Japan?" - Somethings, Yes, But Others Are Same All Over

4 June 2015
Security and Finances: Pensions, Companies, Banks, Olympics, FIFA

21 May 2015
Economy Back on Track, Record Profits at Big Companies

11 May 2015
Spring Events: Odaiba Rock, Shibuya Sex, Capitol Hill, White Hall and Red Square

22 April 2015
Elections, Elections - Finland, Japan, Around the World

30 March 2015
Sakura: beautiful, but just for a short, fleeting moment

16 March 2015
Better late than never - Japan moves slowly

2 March 2015
Three struck out, three more in doubt - Abe's ministers under attack again

19 February 2015
Spring, Sibelius, Chocolate, Budget and Big, Bad Putin

5 February 2015
Reform Work Starts - Energy, Farming and Food on Wish List

26 January 2015
Terror strikes, plenty work, sad memories wait

15 January 2015
Watching AKB, Eating Mochi, Spending JPY 96 Trillion - Japan Off to Better 2015 After So-So 2014



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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