Universitas Helsingiensis

Finland meets Japan

Finland meets JapanEstablished ten years ago, the Finnish Institute in Japan does PR work for the science and culture of both countries. The University of Helsinki plays a key role in the Institute, which promotes the exchange of research scientists between Finland and Japan.

At first glance, Japan and Finland would appear to be, culturally speaking, worlds apart.

In reality however, there are several similarities, particularly when it comes to scientific research.

“The Japanese are interested in a high standard of scientific knowledge, regardless of discipline, as are Finns,” says Heikki Mäkipää, PhD, Director of the Institute. “Another thing in common is the ideal of multidisciplinarity, held in high regard in many countries.”

Japan produces about twenty per cent of the world’s new knowledge, so in comparison, the number of studies conducted in such a small country as Finland is obviously marginal. So it is no wonder that the high standards of research maintained at places such as the University of Helsinki are virtually unheard of in Japan. The Finnish Institute in Japan, which celebrated its tenth anniversary this autumn, was established to export Finnish science and culture to Japan. The institute is run by a foundation which has as its members all Finnish universities and higher education institutions, the key science and art institutions, and a number of Finnish companies based in Japan. The foundation is subsidised by the Ministry of Education.

“Scientific co-operation enriches both countries,” says Mäkipää, “which is why we work towards creating contacts. We invite, for example, Finnish university management to tell leaders of Japanese universities about the research their respective universities are involved in.”

The intention is also to have Finnish postgraduate students visit Japanese centres of excellence for a period between six months and two years. So far only a few have used this opportunity.

The researchers who have visited Japan have all praised the experience as highly rewarding. “The differences between the cultures and mentalities is, indeed, a richness from which researchers can benefit. Based on what they have said, working with Japanese colleagues brought a whole new perspective to their research, resulting in insights that might not have emerged in a more familiar environment.”

English-language master’s programmes

According to Mäkipää, the Japanese have proved to be very interested in Finnish scientific organisations once the initial contacts have been facilitated. “To strengthen such co-operation,” says Mäkipää, “we have suggested that Japanese university rectors name a contact person for their Finnish affairs. This is quite an unusual practice, but one that has proved viable. Often these contacts are vice-rectors in charge of the research policies of their universities. They are a natural point of contact in all matters related to science and education.”

Mäkipää, a geochemist specialising in volcanoes, has himself worked as an invited researcher in Japan. Through the fellowship programme of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, he was there in the 1980s.

“I know from personal experience how smoothly-functioning the funding programmes of JSPS and the Finland Distinguished Professor Programme, or FiDiPro, are, and I make an effort to market them both,” he says. “We also represent CIMO in Tokyo and provide information for Japanese students interested in studying in Finland. There interest has been immense: we receive

5,000–6,000 inquiries annually, but only a few have, however, gone on exchange. We are now looking into why students do not pick Finland as their first choice. My guess would be that there is still a common belief that all university education in Finland is in Finnish. In reality, there is an extensive selection of high-standard, English-language master’s programmes at the University of Helsinki, among others, and this offering is on the increase. The quality of our education is our forte internationally, there is no question of that.”

Striking a balance

Mäkipää, who is on leave from his position as the Head of Academic Affairs at the University of Helsinki, has worked and lived in Japan for three years now, and he intends to stay for another two years.

“Fortunately, I was able to easily organise my personal life around this assignment,” he says. “I and my family have thoroughly enjoyed it here, although it has helped that I was familiar with the local culture from previous visits.”

Cultural encounters are often a matter of balance and flexibility. In the past few decades, Japanese culture has strongly approached Western culture, but the differences are still strikingly obvious. Within an academic community, for example, it is important to know that questioning things is not part of the traditional Japanese mentality. Mäkipää has seen indications that this might be changing.

“Japanese culture is largely based on respecting and acknowledging the other,” says Mäkipää. “Friendship, trust, and respect are key. This is not very different to Finnish culture, although the way it appears may differ. In Japan, this is something that has to be taken into account all the time, everywhere. They do not understand white lies, and losing trust would end all hopes of collaboration. This also needs to be borne in mind when planning research co-operation.”

It is typical of Finns to get to the point quickly and deal with issues efficiently, but in Japan this simply won’t work. First you has to earn the other’s trust. “Our institute is also there to help prevent culture clashes. We have created a foundation for trust, and others can rely on that preliminary work and have an easier start.”

But what kind of culture shock should the Japanese arriving in Finland be prepared for? At least one thing will raise eyebrows: from a Japanese perspective, Finnish student life is outrageously free and relaxed.

“The Japanese students usually rely on their parents for money, and it puts pressure on them to complete their degree quickly and efficiently,” says Mäkipää. “I think that it would be more difficult for a Finn to adjust to Japan than vice versa. For example, in one research group, the Japanese members consistently spoke Japanese although the researcher who had been invited in as an expert would be completely left out of the conversation. So, beware of the language barrier. Another problem is that there are no support services in Japan to help when family accompanies a visiting researcher, whereas in Finland, children’s education and day care are taken care of.”

Mäkipää and his family are happy with their lives in Japan. “We live right in the centre of Tokyo,” he says. “I am still fascinated by the contrasts of this city: in the hustle and bustle of the huge metropolis, there are still oases of peace and quiet in the many leafy parks and temples. It is very clean and people are incredibly friendly. All this makes

it such a nice place to live. And despite its 30 million inhabitants, it is very safe, which is important. We Nordics are also comfortable with the four distinct seasons, which reminds us of home.”

Arja-Leena Paavola