Diplomatic relations between Finland and Japan

​​​​​​Into an observation post to help follow developments in the Soviet Union

After Japan's de facto recognition of Finland's independence on 23 May 1919, Finland started to consider posting a Chargé d'Affaires to Japan. The country's geopolitical location was thought to serve as a suitable observation post of developments in the eastern parts of the Soviet Union. Foreign Minister Rudolf Holsti was determined to advocate the appointment of Gustaf John Ramstedt as Finland's representative in Japan. Because of a civil war in Russia and, in practice, no land connection across Asia, the only option for the new representative of Finland was to embark on a long and time-consuming travel by sea.

From house to house

After the arduous sea voyage, Mr Ramstedt eventually arrived in Tokyo in late autumn 1919. He first set up the Finnish mission in the Tsukijien-Sejok hotel close to the main railway station. A couple of weeks after his arrival, Mr Ramstedt managed to hire a house in the Shimo-Sibuya district outside the city. In May 1920, the former embassy building of Argentina in Azabu, a district known for the many diplomatic missions located there, was made available for the Finnish mission.

In September 1923, a devastating earthquake hit Tokyo, wreaking enormous havoc in the city. The Finnish mission was again without premises. In January 1924, Mr Ramstedt reported: "I'm staying in room 327 of the Imperial Hotel. So far it has been impossible to find permanent housing in the city."

In the mid-1920s, military-politic

Imperial Hotel in Tokyo
The Imperial Hotel became a meeting point for the international society in Tokyo after the earthquake in 1923.

al tension in the Soviet Far East reduced to the extent that the Finnish mission in Tokyo found it appropriate to direct the focus of its activities to the defence of the trade political interests in the vast economic area of the Far East. During Ramstedt's term in Japan, the political situation in the country was still stable. After Ramstedt's return to Finland in 1929, the world had already started to sink in the depths of the depression. Within the army, nationalism and the emperor cult were gaining momentum.

Towards democracy

Minister George Winckelmann was appointed the Finnish Chargé d'Affaires in Tokyo at the beginning of March 1930. Democracy development had stagnated. The political conditions in Japan were stormier than for years. The country's main interest was Manchuria.

As a result of its China policy, Japan drifted on a sidetrack in the League of Nations and was eventually separated from the organisation. When Hugo Valvanne was posted to Tokyo in 1933, ultranationalistic forces had started to gain the upper hand over the moderate circles in the domestic and foreign political decision-making in Japan. The threat of a major war, attitudes towards the Soviet Union and the country's national interests were items that had an influence on the talks between diplomats in the Tokyo of the 1930s.

The world at war

In the autumn 1939, the international position of Japan changed. Events in Europe and the fact that Germany and the Soviet Union concluded a non-aggression pact caused a painful disappointment to the power elite of Japan. The country became isolated.

On the eve of the Finnish Winter War, the Japanese held a very positive picture of Finland. They extended their moral support to the country that was struggling in the heat of difficult negotiations. During the first days of the Winter War, the Japanese thought that Finland was in an almost hopeless situation. The Finns' successful resistance and major tactical victories aroused great respect in the Japanese.

Telegrams to Helsinki

In the early spring of 1941, Foreign Minister Yosuke Matsuoka visited Germany and Italy. In Berlin, Joachim von Ribbentrop had urged Japan to attack Singapore. On his way home, minister Matsuoka visited Moscow and signed the Neutrality Pact between Japan and the Soviet Union. Japan had safeguarded itself. It could now turn the focus of its military activities at the Pacific Ocean.

The military pursuits of Japan isolated the Finnish mission in Tokyo for the war years from 1941 to 1944. The courier connections were broken and contacts had to be taken care of via telegrams.

In the summer of 1942, Japan started to go downhill in the war fronts. After Finland had severed its diplomatic relations with Germany, minister Matsumoto approached the Finnish envoy Mr Idman and asked with concern about Finland's view of Japan in the new situation. On 30 September 1944, Mr Idman reported that he understood that the question of our diplomatic relations did not interest Japan only because of Finland. He said that if Finland was required to break its relations with Japan, Russia might follow suit later on.

The Soviet Union did exactly what the Japanese had feared it would do and attacked Manchuria and the Kurile Islands. Finland severed its diplomatic relations with Japan and evacuated the staff of the mission home through Siberia.

​​​​Renaissance of the bilateral relations

Foreign Minister Keijo Korhonen paid the first official state visit to Japan in February 1977. In December the same year, Prime Minister Kalevi Sorsa participated in the meeting of the Council of the Socialist International in Japan. In the autumn 1977, the Ministry of Education started negotiations on a cultural exchange agreement. There was an unprecedented period of boom in the relations between the countries.

One of the record years in the relations between Finland and Japan was 1980. The Cultural Exchange Agreement entered into force in June and an Air Traffic Agreement, which had been pending for a long time, was signed in December. Visits were frequent, including one by the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee and speaker Johannes Virolainen. Many Japanese art galleries featured Finnish culture.

Several export promotion events were also arranged, the most important of which was a visit to Finland by a delegation of the Japanese employer federation Keidaren in March 1980. In September the same year, a group of Japanese MPs visited Finland. President Mauno Koivisto visited Japan four times during his term in office. Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone visited Finland in 1987. Finnair started direct flights between Helsinki and Tokyo in 1983. The collapse of the Soviet Union enabled direct flights across Siperia, and the time of flight shortened considerably.

Popular culture, state visits and disaster aid

The period of fast economic growth ended in an economic crisis and depression both in Japan and Finland in the early 1990s. Nokia and technology industry lifted Finnish economy up in the following years. Japan, however, looked for alternatives to maintain its international status as its economic power peaked. From the 1990s onwards Japan started to actively promote its popular culture, which had already gained a strong following abroad. The global Cool Japan trend eventually reached Finland, too.

At the turn of the millennium, Pokémon and tamagochi were followed by the emergence of an avid Japanese culture fan community with its own magazines and conventions. In Japan, The Moomins by Tove Jansson enjoyed unprecedented popularity thanks to the Japanese-Finnish-Dutch TV series Moomin. Additionally, the 2006 movie Ruokala Lokki increased awareness of Finland among Japanese people. As a sign of deepening relations, Finnair introduced flights to Osaka in 2000 and Nagoya in 2006.

High-profile relations remained close. Emperor Akihito visited Finland with Empress Michiko in 2000. In October 2004, President Tarja Halonen and Dr. Pentti Arajärvi made an official visit to Japan. To commemorate the 90th anniversary of diplomatic relations, princess Takamado visited Finland in 2009. Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen visited Japan in 2005 and 2008, and Prime Minister Junichirō Koizumi paid a visit to Finland in 2006. In the early 2000s, Japan followed closely Finland’s success in PISA and other international rankings as well as in the field of digital technology. A case in point was a 2005 seminar by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which focused on gender equality, Nokia and clean nature in Finland.

In March 2011, the Great East Japan Earthquake hit Northeastern Japan. The biggest earthquake in recorded history was followed by a tsunami and a nuclear accident. In the Northeastern coast of Japan, ca. 18 000 lives were lost. Hundreds of thousands of people had to leave their homes. Finland contributed to the recovery and reconstruction efforts. Projects included providing liquid infant formulas, participating in support concerts and the Santa Project to brighten the lives of children in Northeastern Japan.

A century of diplomacy between Finland and Japan

The year 2019 marked the centenary of diplomatic relations between Finland and Japan. As the new century is unfolding, the relations between the countries on cultural, economic and political levels are arguably more intense and diverse than ever before. Since 2012, the Finnish representation in Japan started to crystallize towards Team Finland, signifying the seamless collaboration between the Embassy, the Finnish Institute in Japan and Business Finland.

In the 2010s, knowledge about Finland in Japan was widest in the history of the countries. Finnish nature - especially the Northern Lights in Lapland, a key inspiration to the 2019 movie Yuki no Hana - became renown in Japan. Furthermore, the Finnish model of welfare and equality, including the neuvola child care counselling centres, balance of work and life, social experiments, gender equality and sexual minority rights were of interest to the Japanese public. Finland Film Festival, Finlandsvenska veckan and other cultural events became established in Japan. Meanwhile, the visits to Japan by Finnish students, academics and artist increased.

Japan has been an important trading partner for Finland for decades: by 2017, Finnish exports to Japan had grown to the record number of 1.3 billion euros. For Japan, Finland has been a gateway to Europe and the European markets. In the 1960s, Japanese cars started their European conquest via Finland, and in the 2010s Japanese investors have invested in both the forestry sector and gaming industry. The startup event first launched in Helsinki, Slush, found its way to Tokyo in 2015. Finland and Japan both promote environmentally sustainable circular economy, and the EPA free trade agreement between the EU and Japan will make the economic ties of the countries even stronger.

As a sign of close political ties between the countries, President of the Republic Sauli Niinistö and Prime Minister Shinzō Abe issued a joint statement on strategic partnership in 2016. Presidents, Prime Ministers and other ministers from Finland paid frequent visits to Japan throughout the 2010s. Japanese Prime Minister Abe visited Finland in 2017, the first Nordic country during his tenure. Finland and Japan signed memorandums in the fields of well-being, environment, defence and trade. In multilateral organizations, Finland and Japan worked together for multilateral collaboration, solutions for mitigating climate change and the realization of human rights.

With a relationship that is growing more intense and diverse than ever, as well as the rather special understanding and trust that exists between the Finns and the Japanese, one can well expect the collaboration between Finland and Japan to grow ever more successful during the next century.