The Republic of Estonia has maintained its unique language and culture and regained independence after being invaded by various countries including Denmark, Germany, Russia, and the Soviet Union. Today it continues developing as a member of the EU and NATO. Toshio Motoya spoke with the Estonian Ambassador to Japan Jaak Lensment about topics including Estonia’s complex history, the industries it is devoting efforts to, and the future Japan-Estonia relationship.
Motoya Thank you for joining me on Big Talk today. I have held dialogues with many ambassadors to Japan up until now, in which we have exchanged views and they have introduced their countries. Apple Town has a circulation of 70,000 copies, so I hope you can teach many people about Estonia.
Lensment Thank you for inviting me. I studied up on you and APA Group before our dialogue, and I think your business is wonderful. Are you now focused on plans towards the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo?
Motoya Thank you for your understanding regarding my business. This year we are starting our second medium-term, five-year plan and are implementing business plans with an eye towards the Tokyo Olympics and overseas expansion.
Lensment I look forward to that.
Motoya Today, I would first like to hear about your country. Can you share some basic information about Estonia?
Lensment Yes, of course. Estonia is on the Baltic Sea. To the north is Finland and to the northwest is Sweden, across the sea. Estonia shares borders with Russia to the east and Latvia to the south. The area is roughly 44,000 square meters, slightly more than half of Hokkaido. The population is 1.3 million people, which is the same as Okinawa, so the population density is not very great.
Motoya What language do you speak?
Lensment We speak Estonian, a language that is unique to Estonia. It is part of the Finno-Ugric language group and resembles Finnish.
Motoya Having a unique language greatly increases feelings of identification with one’s country. Japan has its unique language of Japanese, and moreover we have placed importance on this language due to our philosophy of the soul of language. Only Japanese people speak Japanese, so it serves to create solidarity among the Japanese people.
Lensment It’s true that Estonian is an extremely important part of Estonian thinking on identity. There are two points of similarity between Japanese and Estonian. Both of these languages are only spoken in one country, and neither have grammatical gender. English also lacks grammatical gender, but there are genders in French, Spanish, and German.
Motoya Is that so? Do Latvia and Lithuania – the other two Baltic countries – have different languages?
Lensment Yes, they speak Latvian and Lithuanian. These two languages are similar and belong to the Baltic language group. They are different from Finno-Ugric languages like Estonian and Slavic languages like Russian.
Motoya Estonia has been ruled by other countries multiple times during its history. For instance, it was annexed by the Soviet Union for a long period of time. Was Estonia forced to use Russian at that time, and was the Estonian language lost?
Lensment When Estonia was annexed by the Soviet Union after World War II, many immigrants came from the Soviet Union and there were many important language-related issues. However, Estonian was not abandoned. Linguistic issues are tied up with history and are rather complex…
Motoya Looking at Estonia’s history, it was ruled by other countries for a long time and it seems like there were many twists and turns.
Lensment Estonians have lived in this location since the pre-Christian era. It has been ruled by Denmark, the Teutonic Order, Poland, and Sweden since the 13th century. However, Sweden was overpowered by the progressively mighty Russian Empire and ceded Estonia to Russia according to the Treaty of Nystad in 1721. But because Estonia was originally conquered by the Teutonic Order, many Germans had come there from before the dominion of Russia. For many centuries Estonia resembled Germany, and a wealthy minority group called the “Baltic Germans” was the ruling class. That did not change even after Estonia became a Russian territory.
Motoya So it resembled Germany even though it was ruled by Russia.
Lensment Yes. Estonia declared its independence in 1918, right after the Russian Revolution broke out. Soviet Russia recognized its independence in 1920. This first republic period spanned roughly 20 years, but it did not last long. The three Baltic countries all came under the rule of the Soviet Union in 1940, and were then subjugated by Nazi Germany in 1941 when the war broke out between Germany and the Soviet Union. A movement to make the Germans leave Estonia began two years before the period of German occupation. When the Soviet Union gained control of Estonia a second time in 1944 most of the Germans had left, and then the Soviet Union drove out the remaining few Germans all at once. Afterwards, Estonia was a de facto Soviet territory until 1991. But a characteristic of Estonia that must not be forgotten is that Germany had greater influence than the Soviet Union during that period.
Motoya If I visit Estonia today, can I see the vestiges of German people in various locations?
Lensment Yes, in many ways Estonia still resembles Germany in terms of its culture.
Motoya What are the main religions in Estonia?
Lensment It was commonplace to have different religions; the Germans were Protestant and Soviets had Russian Orthodox roots. The piety of the Estonians was considerably weakened during its complicated history. There is a comparatively large number of Orthodox adherents among Estonian inhabitants, of which I am one. But most Estonians are less interested in religion.
Motoya Was religion prohibited during the occupation by the Soviet Union, a socialist country?
Lensment It was not prohibited, but there was oppression. In fact, there were many people who went to church as a way to oppose the Soviet Union.
Motoya I see. Estonia has a complex history. What are its strengths?
Lensment I think the biggest strength is the existence of the Estonians, Estonian language, and nation of Estonia. Many countries were occupied by the Soviet Union, but among all of these Estonia maintained the freest atmosphere and was the least impacted by the Soviet Union.
Motoya Estonia became a member of the Western Bloc countries after the Soviet Union collapsed and Estonia declared independence once again.
Lensment Yes. It has been a member of the EU and NATO from 2004, and since 2011 our currency is the euro. We also joined the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2010.
Motoya I suspect that Vladimir Putin of Russia is threatened by the countries in Eastern Europe, including the Baltic countries, that were previously part of the Soviet Union and are rapidly joining up with NATO. The source of the current conflict in Ukraine is Russia’s prediction that this neighboring country would become a member of NATO, which it wanted to prevent. The annexation of Crimea was likely because Russia did not want to lose its Black Sea Fleet base. I assume that Estonia – which shares a border with Russia – was able to join NATO because several factors worked to its advantage.
Lensment Putin will not admit this officially, but I think it’s true that Russia believes its annexation of Crimea and various activities in Ukraine are necessary for its defense.
Motoya Estonia has sent troops to Iraq, some of who have given up their lives. I think you are fulfilling your required obligations as a member of NATO and an independent nation. Like Estonia, I believe that Japan must contribute to collective security guarantees with an awareness of the costs required. Japan will suffer if we continue believing that peace will last forever just because of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty and pacifist constitution.
Lensment I agree with you on collective security guarantees. One’s mission as a member of the contemporary international community must be fulfilled.
Motoya Japan and Estonia are alike, yet Japan lacks the national will to fulfill its duties and the country is not functioning.
Lensment Still, it’s not the case that Japan did nothing during the 70 years after the end of World War II. I believe that Japan has made various efforts for the sake of world peace and prosperity. Before coming to Japan I was stationed in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. In Belarus there are many victims of the nuclear accident in Chernobyl. Japan provided more enthusiastic monetary aid and other types of assistance to Belarus than any other country. I think Japanese people should share this information more loudly across the world.
Motoya I agree entirely. Yet I am concerned by the fact that many people discuss the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents in the same way. The reason is the mistaken judgments by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) government regarding forced evacuation and decontamination. Because people were forcibly evacuated from areas with 20 millisieverts of radiation, many people have died due to disaster-related causes including elderly and sick persons. The decontamination standard was set at one millisievert, requiring enormous amounts of money and human labor. Scientifically we know that the risk of dying from cancer has hardly been confirmed when exposed to 100 millisieverts of radiation throughout a year, so these standards of one or 20 millisieverts are much too strict. We should calmly compare the Fukushima and Chernobyl accidents. The nuclear reactor itself exploded at Chernobyl, but at Fukushima the zirconium cladding on the fuel rods reacted with water to produce hydrogen, which built up in the buildings and caused explosions. It looked very bad but the accidents were quite different. The United States and major oil companies wanted to have Japan buy its oversupply of oil resulting from shale oil development, so they purposely stirred up anxiety in Japan regarding the Fukushima accident, halted the re-starting of nuclear power plants, and worked to make Japan purchase this oil. Information strategy warfare of this type is always taking place across the world, and I feel that Japan must become more capable of analyzing information.
Lensment I understand what you are saying, but I think Japan is wonderful for providing aid to countries that need it.
Motoya There are two countries in the world that receive Japanese aid and feel no sense of gratitude. It would be one thing if they were censuring Japan based on the truth, but their assertions are lies.
Lensment All countries have various issues with their neighbors…
Motoya Right now I am writing a book entitled Theoretical Modern History, a play on the phrase “theoretical physics.” The reason is because I feel we are currently being asked to think about history logically, not according to the right or the left. For example, it is said that Nanking had a population of 200,000 people, 300,000 people were killed there, and then the population was 250,000 one month later. Does that make any sense? And thinking logically it is absurd to claim that 200,000 women were forcibly transported and taken as sex slaves on the Korean Peninsula while preventing the men from both protesting and revolting. I am writing about a view of history based on this way of thinking.
Lensment I look forward to reading it when you are done. History is also a type of philosophy, so various ways of thinking are allowed and emotion is always involved.
Motoya I think we should start by attempting to verify the truth logically, not based on ideologies.
Lensment I agree.
Motoya Let’s return to the topic of Estonia. What industries and other fields are you strong in? I’ve heard that Estonia is very accomplished in the field of IT.
Lensment As you say, becoming an IT-focused country is our national policy. Today various procedures can be completed online, from administrative bodies to banks, corporations, and medical care. We are proud that Estonia is one of the most advanced e-societies in the world – an incredible success story that grew out of the partnership between a forward-thinking government; a pro-active ICT sector; and a switched-on, tech-savvy population. Thanks to this success, Estonians and the Estonian state enjoy a wide range of e-solutions that those living elsewhere can only dream about. We are also building strong ties with Japan in the IT field; the major resource in both Japan and Estonia is the brains of the people. I hope we can work together to lead the IT industry in the 21st century.
Motoya I agree with that policy. I think Japan should refine its cutting-edge sciences and technologies, as well as its advanced medical technologies, and aim to become a tourism-focused nation.
Lensment I can agree with becoming a tourism-focused nation. The Japanese aesthetic exists nowhere else in the world, and it’s great that all Japanese people have this sense.
Motoya I suspect that Japan’s long history and abundant nature with four seasons have cultivated the sensibilities of the Japanese people. Yet Japanese people themselves do not understand how wonderful this is.
Lensment I also enjoy seeing the seasons change.
Motoya More and more foreign tourists are visiting Japan during the cherry blossom season, and the operating ratio of APA Hotels during that period is 100%.
Lensment More Japanese tourists are visiting Estonia than in the past.
Motoya What are the best sightseeing spots in Estonia?
Lensment Estonia is truly compact and you can see a lot in a short time span. The first is the capital city of Tallinn, which still has streetscapes from the medieval period. It was designated as a UNESCO Cultural Heritage Site in 1997. I also recommend Pärnu, a resort area on the Baltic Sea, and Tartu, Estonia’s second urban area. Beside the urban areas we have plenty of forest and fascinating wildlife; a long, indented, and diverse coastline; islands; bogs; and marshes. Estonia is a destination for both the summer and winter holidays, for spa and wellness tourism, and for nature and natural holidays. Visiting islands and bird watching would be only two samples of the many options Estonia offers. Also, Estonia is a suitable destination for those who are lovers of pure, fresh, and tasty food. We have the world’s cleanest air and plenty of personal space. Estonia offers a lot of cultural events; unique music festivals; inspiring design; and traditional, high-quality handicrafts. You all know Baruto, the Estonian song festival tradition, and Skype. But there is more to discover in Estonia. Year after year, tourism from Japan to Estonia is showing a strong increase.
Motoya When is the best time to visit?
Lensment June. Estonia has short summers that are hot but not as bad as Tokyo. In the summer the skies are blue and temperatures can reach 30° C, but the summer average is a very pleasant 16.4°C. June is the season of the midnight sun. It stays light until late at night during the summer. There can be 19 hours of daylight. You can book flights to Tallinn from Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya via Helsinki in Finland, which is the most direct route from Japan to Europe. Further, Tallinn is the closest capital to Helsinki, and both cities are logistically well integrated. The distance from Helsinki to Tallinn is roughly 80 kilometers so it’s a very short flight by plane. Reaching Tallinn by sea is very popular with tourists as well. Traveling by ferry enables you to combine the fun of cruising with efficient transportation. The Tallinn-Helsinki sea-line is one of the busiest international passenger routes in the world. Ferries cover the distance in roughly two hours. From late spring to late autumn, high-speed vessels also operate on the route, reducing travel time to just an hour and a half.
Motoya Is Estonia mountainous or flat?
Lensment It’s mostly flat. Estonia’s highest mountain is just 318 meters tall.
Motoya That must mean that agriculture is prosperous.
Lensment Yes, dairy farming is thriving. The Japanese company Marubeni recently concluded a contract with an Estonian dairy product manufacturer, so Estonian cheese and other items should be available in Japan soon.
Motoya What resources do you have?
Lensment We have a great deal of rocks that produce oil, called “oil shale.” It is a strategic energy resource in Estonia. The oil shale industry in Estonia is one of the most developed in the world. Of all the oil shale fired power stations in the world, the two largest are in this country.
Motoya I am sure you depend on Russia for many things including energy. Still, Estonia gained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union and was even referred to as the star of the Eurozone for its high economic growth rate and solid financial affairs. Is a strongly independent spirit a national trait in Estonia?
Lensment Yes, indeed, we buy Russian oil and gas but we are able to pay for oil and gas at world prices. In that sense we feel independent. This is true in other issues too. The Soviet occupation lasted for approximately 50 years. The Republic of Estonia today is a continuation of the republic that was formed in 1918. Now, 24 years after the restoration of independence in 1991 we still have to face some certain challenges, but generally we feel free.
Motoya I think Estonia is the way it is because of its complicated history and because it shares land borders with other countries. In the case of Japan, the ocean has served as a defensive barrier. I’m sure it was very difficult to maintain a language, culture, and independence as a country that shared land borders with other nations. The other day Gurenko Andriy, a Ukrainian graduate student at Kyoto University, gave a talk at the Kansai Shoheijuku school. Ukraine used to be a major military power with the world’s number-three nuclear force. Desiring peace, it established the three antinuclear principles, disposed of its nuclear weapons, and has also engaged in major disarmament since the era of the Soviet Union. This resulted in the annexation of Crimea by Russia and the conflict in Ukraine. Ukraine teaches us that pacifist constitutions cannot prevent war. In reality Japan has not been drawn into wars because of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. But unlike Ukraine, which could not join NATO, I think it’s great that Estonia has joined NATO and maintained its independence from Russia.
Lensment I think you’re right in regards to military force and conflicts. But Ukraine and Estonia have different situations. It’s not the case that Estonia has a great relationship with Russia in all ways. In some areas, for example, regarding Estonia-Russia cross-border issues we have rather good cooperation, but we have our differences too. We signed with Russia a treaty setting out the position of our joint border only in 2014, after more than 20 years of wrangling. In fact, this was major progress between the two nations. It is noteworthy that the agreement was concluded shortly before the change of atmosphere in Russia because of Russia’s increasing involvement in the Ukraine crisis.
Motoya The issue in Ukraine began when President Viktor Yanukovych, who was pro-Russia and was elected democratically, was ousted by the illegal method of citizen demonstrations. I think that itself is a problem.
Lensment The vote to remove Mr. Yanukovych from the presidency in the Ukrainian parliament was certainly the turning point.
Motoya Estonia also has a presidential system. How long is the term of office?
Lensment In fact, until February 2014 Ukraine was a republic under a presidential system. We are different. Estonia is a parliamentary republic, which allows us to avoid the concentration of power in one person’s hands. Consequently, the president of Estonia is mostly a symbolic figurehead and holds no executive power. The president of Estonia is elected for a five-year period and cannot be elected for more than two consecutive terms.
Motoya So a president can remain in office until 10 years. I think about that much time is needed to change the nation. How long have you been the ambassador to Japan?
Lensment Eight months. I’ll be here for three more years (laughs).
Motoya I hope you will see various things across Japan during that time and contribute to an even friendlier relationship between Japan and Estonia. At the end of the interview I always ask for a “word for the youth.”
Lensment I think the most important thing is to study and develop a complete education. This cultivates study habits, time management skills, and self-discipline.
Motoya In addition to knowledge, it’s essential to learn how to discuss and think.
Lensment That’s true. A good education gives not only fundamental knowledge but also cognitive and social skills. I hope young people will place importance on human relationships and family ties.
Motoya I agree entirely. Thank you for sharing so many interesting things with me today.
Born in 1966. Studied philosophy and other subjects at Belarusian State University and graduated in 1991. Entered the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1993 and then was posted to Kiev, Moscow, The Hague, and Vienna. Became the ambassador to Belarus in 2010 and the ambassador to Japan in 2014.