Japan fever in Iceland Skip to content

Japan fever in Iceland

The Embassy of Japan and Japanese Studies at the Faculty of Humanities, University of Iceland, hosted a Japan Festival at the university on Saturday. IR’s web editor Eygló S. Arnarsdóttir attended the event and had a chat with hosts and guests.

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“Visitors were a mixture of young and old, Icelanders and foreigners, families and students. Last year 400 people attended the Japan Festival, and we think we may have set a new record this year,” said Ólafur Ágúst Sigurdsson who is studying Japanese in his first year at the University in Iceland and took part in organizing the event.

The Japan Festival was held for the third time this year and is becoming an established annual event. Visitors are given a taste of Japanese culture and food, an introduction to Japanese art and history as well as a lesson in Japanese board games and calligraphy.

The Japanese Studies course was launched at the language department of the University of Iceland in September 2003, as the first university course in Iceland to teach an Asian language and to specialize in Asian culture.

The department offers a two-year course, with one year of study in Iceland and one in Japan, but the university has plans of adding a third year to make it a full-time BA course.

Currently there are 25 students enrolled to the course, which is the largest class so far. Most are Icelandic, but the course also attracted Nika Efanova, who moved with her family from eastern Russia to Iceland three years ago. “Japan is cool,” she said.

“I’m very interested in Japan and the Japanese language and I’m really enjoying the course. I plan to use this education for a job in translation, for example,” student Ólafur Ágúst Sigurdsson said. “I hope to continue with the course [in Japan], because I want to go someplace exotic. Europe is too close.”

His course mates agree. Many say they first became interested in Japan through Japanese cartoons and comics. Others say they joined because of their interest in Japanese history and mythology, kanji, the Japanese way of writing, or shogi, Japanese chess.

“The most interesting thing about Japan is the clash of old and new,” said Solveig Karlsdóttir, who also studies Japanese and has visited Tokyo. “Tokyo is like a time machine. On the one hand you have the latest technology and feel like you’re in the future and on the other you have neighborhoods with old buildings that represent the old Japan and you feel like you’ve traveled 80 or 100 years into the past.”

While Icelanders are becoming increasingly interested in Japan, there also seems to be an increase in the number of Japanese tourists who visit Iceland. “I work in a hotel and I see more tourists from Japan every year,” said student Gestur Hilmarsson.

“Many come to hunt the northern lights. In Japan they say the northern lights bring good luck, especially if people get married or conceive a child underneath them,” Hilmarsson stated.

Hilmarsson and his coursemate Ágúst Thorvaldsson took a group of Japanese tourists who hoped of catching a glimpse of the northern lights to Thingvellir before Christmas.

“To us the northern lights are nothing spectacular, but the Japanese tourists get so surprised. To them, this is an once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Thorvaldsson said.

Iceland has a small Japanese community of about 40 people. “I have lived here for five years,” said Hiroko Ara, who attended the Japan festival with her young half-Icelandic daughter Jökla. “I hated it at first, but now it has become my second home,” she said.

“I had an Icelandic boyfriend when I was studying photography in London and moved with him to Iceland. We are not together anymore, but I decided to stay anyway,” Ara said. She now works as a chef at the Japanese restaurant Ósúshí in Reykjavík.

Click here to read more about the program of the Japan Festival.

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