Highlighting contributors to EU-Japan cooperation: Anna-Maria Wiljanen

EU-Japan cooperation takes many forms. Time and time again, we read news reports about agreements signed between the EU, or its Member States, and Japan, about trade missions and cultural events, about joint innovation and dialogue. But the question remains: Who are the people behind these efforts? What is their story and how did they become involved in developing international cooperation?

The EU-Japan Centre for Industrial Cooperation is happy to introduce the third installment in a series of articles introducing the individuals and organisations making EU-Japan collaboration a reality.


Anna-Maria Wiljanen, the Director of the Finnish Institute in Japan and one of the vice presidents of the Board of Directors of the Finnish Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Japan.

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Q: What is your educational and professional background? How did you first get in contact with Japan and its culture?
Anna-Maria: I have a master’s degree in political science with economics as my major and a PhD in art history. Concerning my professional background, after graduating university I worked for 4 years at a family business, selling B2B coffee machine systems. When I got pregnant with our first child, it was time to make a change, so I started a job at L’Oréal Finland first as a product manager and then as Head of Selective Haircare Range Kérastase, responsible for the sales and marketing. In my opinion, time at L’Oréal Finland could be considered like a university since I learned so much about leadership, business management, global marketing, and how to lead by example and inspire your team to get the best sales results. However, the working culture at L’Oréal was quite hectic. During the three and a half years, I was often away from home. But then, something unexpected happened. I ran the New York City marathon in 2000, and when I came back, I resigned. I had not even thought about that before, but something must have happened during those 42 kilometres. Without knowing what to do next, my husband took me on a surprise trip to Florence. At the Uffizi Gallery while standing in front of Sandro Botticelli’s painting La Primavera, I realized what my next career move would be - I wanted to become an art historian. I started my studies in art history first at the open university and then as a graduate student. At the same time, I was also working at the Finnish National gallery as a guide. Art history was my passion, so it only took 3 years to get my second Master´s degree. I became a Communication Manager of the Finnish National Gallery, and acted as the Head of Development for a couple of months before the UPM-Kymmene Cultural Foundation recruited me as their Executive Director. Four years later, I got a phone call and was asked whether I would be interested in working in Japan, and I have been here for 6 years now. However, my first contact with Japan was back in 1995. I was studying Japanese at the time because I loved Japanese food. Food was the entry point to Japanese culture for me.

Q: You are currently the acting Director of the Finnish Institute in Japan, and you sit at the Board of Directors of the Finnish Chamber of Commerce in Japan. Could you tell us about the missions of these organizations?
Anna-Maria: Finnish Institute in Japan was founded exactly 25 years ago, and the main task has remained the same - to establish, develop and strengthen the ties between Finland and Japan when it comes to science, culture and higher education. Regarding my position at the Finnish Chamber of Commerce in Japan, I was offered to be part of the Board soon after arriving in Japan due to the many networks I was involved in, and because I have vast experience, not only from the corporate world but also from culture, economics, art history, marketing and communication. The Finnish Chamber of Commerce in Japan, of course, wants to help organisations and companies do business. I am also the chairperson of the Board for the Finnish private art foundation called Didrichsen, which also has its own art museum. I was recently elected to the Board of ICOM (International Committee of Museums) Finland. If you ask why I am involved with all these organizations, it is because I think culture, science, higher education, and business go together and benefit each other.

Q: Can you tell us more about the connection between culture and business?
Anna-Maria: It is important to understand the impact of culture when the company is trying to establish itself on a new market. At the end of the day, different companies might have similar products. Culture can provide an added value; it can be the final touch for a Finnish company to establish itself in Japan instead of its competitor. Furthermore, we all need culture and there is scientific research showing that culture improves our wellbeing. The Institute´s task is to introduce new ways of implementing culture, to introduce new artists, designers, writers, and scientists to the Japanese audience. For example, I have been knitting and crocheting all my life, so why not introduce the Finnish tradition of the Knitting Club to the Japanese audience? The Institute started its knitting club more than 5 years ago, and it instantly became a huge success. Today, almost 90 people gather every month to knit and crochet, both onsite and online. Eventually, we also found a Finnish sponsor who has been providing us with Finnish yarn and Finnish needles. This sponsor then established itself in Japan with yarns being sold in more than 60 stores in Japan. This is what I mean with the connection between culture and business.

Q: Still on the topic of the Finnish Institute. What does the Finnish Institute in Japan or the FCCJ have planned for the future? Is there a particular project you would like to mention and promote?
Anna-Maria: The goal of the Finnish Chamber of Commerce is always to help our member companies, we have more than 40 companies, and to share information about business in Japan. Companies can contact the Chamber and get all the information they need. Next year, we are planning to have a vast program with different activities, whether it is a golf tournament, networking events with the other Nordic Chambers or activities aimed towards the female employees. 
The Finnish Institute in Japan also focuses on women’s empowerment in Japan. The Institute aims to strengthen the ties between the Finnish and Japanese Universities and to continue the “Study in Finland” webinars, aimed towards the students in Japanese universities. In addition, the Institute´s science program will consist of scientific seminars about: AI, the connection between wellbeing, music and the brain, and on smart cities and aging societies, just to name a few.

Q: One of the focuses of the Finnish Institute in Japan is the promotion of research and student mobility. At the EU-Japan Centre for Industrial Cooperation, we are especially proud of our Vulcanus program(*), where EU students in engineering and science can do an internship in a Japanese company and vice-versa. Why do you think it is important to include students and education in cooperation efforts between countries?
Anna-Maria: It is vital that the students have a chance to broaden their image of the world and that they get as many different experiences as possible when it comes to studying and working in different cultures. This way, the students broaden their knowledge, get more confidence, and gain global education. Students also learn to break out of their comfort zone and challenge themselves with new experiences. I have been talking about the importance of academic exchange for students while teaching at the Musashino Art University for the past three years.

Q: We have seen that besides your extensive professional career, you are also part of numerous projects and associations in various fields, such as ICOM Finland, The Asiatic Society of Japan, NORDIK, Gaia.... Why is it important for you to be involved in these associations and what are the benefits and challenges in doing so?
Anna-Maria:  In terms of the why - I have gotten a very good education for free in Finland. Life has been good, so I want to give something back. When it comes to the organizations mentioned above, I see the membership in them as a great opportunity to learn more and exchange ideas and knowledge and support the talents of tomorrow. About the challenges, there is really only one challenge and that is time because it is the only commodity that we do not get more of, so I am pretty rigorous with my time management.

Q: Further on the participation in various organisations you are involved. You seem to also be involved in the College’s Woman Association of Japan. Could you explain to us a little about what your activities are and what is the relevance of women’s associations such as this one, especially in Japan?
Anna-Maria: I got introduced to this organisation by a woman whom I met at a networking party. As it turned out that, she was a Finnish woman who back then lived in Japan. CWAJ promotes education and intercultural relationships between women - both topics that are important for me. CWAJ also helps the visually impaired to study abroad or to study in Japan. Safe to say, I will be a member as long as they will have me. I also present stories of successful Finnish women in the Knitting Clubs.  

Q: It seems like a significant part of your career has been intertwined with art just like your interview has been. What is the relationship between the Finnish and Japanese art scene?
Anna-Maria: Finnish art and culture in general are well-perceived in Japan. We are only 5.5 million people and Helsinki is 7860km away from Tokyo, but the Japanese and Finnish mindset is actually quite similar. Nature is very important in both countries - also as a source of inspiration for design, art and business opportunities, just to name a few. 
The exhibitions organized by the Finnish Institute in Japan have always been popular. The most recent example was the exhibition called Intimate entanglements, that focused on digital fashion. The exhibition was so popular that the Institute is planning to organize a seminar next year about Digital fashion, combining fashion, digitalization, sustainability and green transition.

To conclude: Japanese people are truly genuinely interested in Finnish art and culture, and Finnish people are interested in Japanese art and culture. Many Finnish artists want to come to Japan, to stay in a residency, exhibit their art, or to experience Japan as a source of inspiration. And vice versa, many Japanese artists want to go to Finland. Fortunately, the Finnish Institute in Japan has residency programs for this kind of demand.

Q: What would you advise to cultural and art-related organizations and artists who want to cross between Finland and Japan?
Anna-Maria: Do a thorough self-reflection: What are the benefits? What is the importance of crossing over to another culture and are you ready to invest in a long-term collaboration? How would it be beneficial for your career one, three, or ten years in the future? Sometimes people come to Japan unprepared. It is very important to study about the culture in advance. In the case of Japan, to be established in the art market might take a bit longer, but when you do your ‘homework’ properly, when you know the Japanese cultural habits and respect them, and you are ready to build networks for a longer period of time – then only the sky is the limit.

Q: How do you see the relations between Finland and Japan developing in the forthcoming years?
Anna-Maria: Excellent I would say. We celebrated the centenary of the diplomatic relations in 2019. Our relation has been very fruitful from the beginning, and I do not see any reason why it would not get even better. We can learn so much from each other. Finnish Institute in Japan is part of Team Finland (network that promotes Finland and its interests abroad), which also includes the Embassy of Finland, Business Finland, and the Finnish Chamber of Commerce in Japan. The fact that we are all here at the same compound is a strength. Finland is a small nation, but we are curious, innovative, bold, always willing to help and test new ways of doing things. We see that education and innovation are assets. Critical thinkers and innovators are coming out of schools into the cultural and business sector. 

Q: Anything to add?
Anna-Maria: I would like to invite Japanese people to contact us at the Finnish hub, whether it is related to science, culture, art, or higher education. Do not hesitate to contact the Finnish Chamber of Commerce in Japan if you are a Finnish company, but you can also join as a Japanese company if you have a connection to Finland or if you want to establish yourself there. We are here for you!

Thank you very much Anna-Maria, for your availability and enthusiasm in this interview, it has been a pleasure. (Interview held in November 2023)

For the next interview with Christa De Kemp, the Managing Director of the Dutch and Japanese Trade Federation (DUJAT)., you can click here.

Curious about the previous interview with Marcus Schürmann, CEO of the German Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Japan (AHK Japan)? Click here!

(*) For more information about the Vulcanus program, have a look at the Vulcanus in Europe, and the Vulcanus in Japan websites, managed by the EU-Japan Centre.

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