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Moomin crisis, panda frenzy and Olympics turned into political farce

Forget Korean crisis, Syrian war, US budget feud and all terrorists – it looked almost like a political crisis between Japan and Finland last week! Not to talk about end of Finnish-Japanese business. Super difficult question in Japanese student examination to identify which country Moomin comes from – which many could not answer - briefly listed hashtag #IhateMoomin to the top of the Japan Twitter list. Thanks to good explanation from Embassy's Culture Attachee on front page of newspapers, the crisis was overcome quickly. Hopefully, no career hopes for future scientists, doctors and engineers were destroyed by this impossibly unanswerable brain twister. The construction work at the upcoming Moomin Park in Hanno can now continue without violent anti-Finland demonstrations.

Naturally, it was also a good lesson for us Finns that Moomin are not that well known among young people in Japan as they are with those old enough to have seen the tv-series in 70's and 80's. Call it a concrete study in refined customer segmentation. Always important to analyze your potential customers to target the right ones.

Clearly, this potential disruption in diplomatic relations wasn't noticed at all in Finland, where media has been in frenzy about two pandas arriving from China and, somewhat less, about the approaching president election next Sunday. True, there's nothing much to get overexcited about the latter: the popular incumbent Sauli Niinistö is guaranteed to be re-elected for another six years with his 70% support rate. The only question is whether the other candidates all put together can reach to 50% of the vote to deny Niinistö's election straight off in the first round.

Mr. Niinistö turns 70 this year, so he belongs to the Old Guard among today's national leaders, not much behind Donald Trump. In comparison, Putin, Abe and Xi are in their 60's, Merkel and May in their 50's and Macron just 39. Yet, don't think anybody in Finland is worried about president's capability of understanding complexities of the world, attention to details, patience to listen and skills to formulate well thought-out decisions. In fact, Niinistö's mature age suits well the Finnish idea of president being kind of father figure, who leaves running of daily politics to Prime Minister and his government and contemplates only matters of national interests with longer time aspect. Niinistö also mingles smoothly with "normal" people in all kinds of public events and enhances a youthful image by active sports like rollerskating and ice hockey – even fathering a baby with his much younger (second) wife. Baby is due next month and President has indicated he will take time-off for father leave like everybody else in Finland.

Foreign politics and national security belong to President's table and on these Niinistö has been thankfully active and tenacous – for instance meeting last year all four top world leaders: Trump, Putin, Xi and Abe. Pretty good for a small country leader, I think, even more so that 3 out of the 4 came to see him in Finland. In voting for Niinisto, Finnish voters clearly say they can trust he will continue to do well another 6 years.

In comparison to Niinistö, there's even fewer world leaders that Abe-san hasn't met on his constant foreign travels or hosted visiting Tokyo. Last week he added 6 new countries into his long list: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia. No Silk Road terminals or big infrastructure projects with public money like from China were promised, just re-enforced friendship and closer co-operation in science, technology, IC and cybersecurity with each and every. The private companies in the business delegation are expected to carry on further talks.

Abe-san also did his best salesman act for the business opportunities here that the new EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement will provide to Europeans once it has been ratified by all 27 member countries. Seems all 6 host countries were sold on this and will push for ratification without any amendments. Brussels should consider paying Abe-san a personal commission for his hard work on the Commission's behalf.

Pity our travelling salesman with such busy schedule missed to meet the Nobel Peace Prize winner ICAN leader Beatrice Fihn on her visit here. Or was the "clash of schedules" deliberate? Hate to think that way after Abe's continued sermons of Japan's non-nuclear policy, even postering in big peace spectacle with Obama in Hiroshima last year. Yes, Japan did vote against the ICAN initiative in the UN, but so did many other countries including Finland who all found it too unrealistic to fit into today's world. But you could still meet the Nobel awarded movement's leader when she comes to Tokyo, I think. Unless you're afraid the new occupant in the White House would not like it, of course.

Foreign Minister Taro Kono has emerged almost as Abe No.2 in pushing Japan views through assidious travel around the world. Last two weeks we have seen him, at least, in USA, Canada, Phillipines, Israel, Palestine, Saudi, UAE, Turkey, Iran and Myanmar. Maybe he was even elsewhere, just missed out that in media. Naturally, Kono sticks close to the official line set out by the Prime Minister, but has a clear way of expressing the views and discussing them with counterparts in good English thanks to his US university education. Pity he must leave his own views behind in the job - an abrupt strong condemnation of Abe's energy policy last week in Dubai was a rare exception and reminder that Kono that I know is still there. When ever I heard him in past, always liked his wide knowledge and no-nonsense approach. It was history's irony that the son of Japan leader who made Japan's first dramatic apology in the "comfort women" issue was tasked to hammer to his Korean counterpart Abe's decision that there won't be any repeats as the case was mutually agreed in 2015 to be "finally and permanently" closed.

In last week's meeting of 20 nations on North Korea, Kono was the only one to spell out how childish it is to expect any change in North's behavior when the "Olympic peace" is over. In my view, he could have added that the whole thing turned into a political farce with South giving in on every whim from North to get them join in and abstain from provocations. North will now send in 500 (!) strong troupe of communist party officials, party cheerleaders and party orchestras in addition to 2 pair skaters that were officially qualified there. Another 20 sport participants were added last week even the registering was already closed, half of them to be somehow fitted in South's women ice hockey team in place of country's own players. In my own childishness always thought IOC rules forbid politics from the games!

Even the South Koreans themselves think their government has gone too far with 80% happy North will join but 70% opposing unified team with them. New president's high popularity has taken a hit and so has the very idea of unification following constant threats from the North: just little over half of South support the long time dream anymore.

That the "unification flag" the combined Korean team will carry atthe opening ceremonies is white, is a perfect symbol of Moon government's total surrender in the negotiations. The result also solves deftly the earlier confusion whether these Olympics were Pyongchang or Pyongyang: now we know clearly they belong to the latter.

Hopefully, some attention will be given to actual sports, too, once the games start. Japan has to put some "ice in the hat" into its high expectations for women's skijump. Norway's Maren Lundby was in a class of her own in the World Cup competitions held over the week in Sapporo and Zao leaving Sara Takanashi and Yuki Ito far behind in meters and points. There's still two weeks to go before the Olympics, so we have still some hope the Finnish coach Janne Väätäinen and others in Sapporo can sharpen up the two ladies.

Timo Varhama  
Tokyo, January 23, 2018  

Previous Columns

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

20 December 2017
"Look back at 2017: commotion around Japan, but steady and safe here"

11 December 2017
"Missiles, footballers and fishermen from North - Big spending on child care to get more mothers working"

28 November 2017
"Foolish things sell in retail, but sports are to be serious"

20 November 2017
"Making China Great - with Gaffes, Platitudes and Bullying"

10 November 2017
"Good news week: Finland business grows, EU trade deal gets cleared, Nikkei hits new heights and Trump visit goes smoothly"

20 November 2017
"Making China Great - with Gaffes, Platitudes and Bullying"

1 November 2017
"Japan: Endless Discovery"

21 October 2017
"Power play in Japan and elsewhere - some potentially serious, some not"

10 October 2017
"Abe's useless snap election sparks big changes he did not count on"

26 September 2017
"North Korea boost Abe popularity - opportunity to extend his rule"

7 September 2017
"Kims'allah, Japan is OK and doing well"

28 August 2017
"From North Korea's missiles to Turku Terror and US Navy Mishaps"

17 August 2017
"Raining cats and dogs, missiles and threats, but strong sunshine in economy"

27 July 2017
"Forests, floods, fish and consumer prices - stories too good and data too bad to be true"

21 July 2017
"From Cool Finland to Hot Tokyo: A Round-Up of Recent Happenings"

26 June 2017
"Anniversaries and Memories: Finland, Japan, USA."

19 June 2017
"Rainy Season in Japan, Political Storms in Europe"

8 June 2017
"Trump impact spreads - Japan struggles with workforce issues"

30 May 2017
"Taormina to Tokyo: Heavyweights and fashionable ladies"

"New Missiles, Diet Debates, Yet Big Business in Big Profits - Down on Ground Challenges Remain Basic and Simple"

9 May 2017
"Golden Week, Special Trains, Luxury Spending, Even North Worries Makes for Good Business"

20 April 2017
"North Korea, USA both worry Japan - Koike worry Abe and LDP even more"

5 April 2017
"Spring, Sakura and New Year Start in Japan - Commotion, Tensions Rise Around the World"

27 March 2017
"Questions Unanswered, Unasked – Lifestyle and Surveys Bring Light"

21 March 2017
"Finland in Focus: Friendship, Dictionary, Music, Food - Even Elevators?"

13 March 2017
"Uncertainty Increases Around Japan - At Home Rebuilding Uncompleted in 6 Years - Abe Popularity Takes a Hit."

3 March 2017
"Book Readers, Police Jokes, Nerdy Napoleon and Poison Scare"

24 February 2017
"Populism, Ignorance and Isolationism Leads to Mayhem and Mess"

16 February 2017
"Golf Diplomacy, Chocolate Festa and Hokkaido Deams-Come-True"

9 February 2017
"Tokyo overcoming winter, business changes, political battle and Trump threats "

2 February 2017
"Warm Feelings in Japan, Wild Winds from USA"

20 January 2017
"Ready for Rooster? It will be a wild ride!"

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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