Riku Tsokkinen: ”In my mind, Asia, economics and development, they are deeply entwined”

We all know the stereotype. That business student, promptly snapping his suitcase shut, darting to get a head start on a lucrative career at a desk job with a title no one understands. That humanities student, getting all hot and bothered over a vague existential question benefiting the economy mostly through the sales profit of that bottle of red wine lavishly sipped in cognizant company. The generalisations are oafish, but somehow we do seem to enforce them, time after time. We spoke to Riku Tsokkinen, Asian studies student minoring in economics, about how his particular profile of combining humanities with economics makes him, for many, the most confusing guy in the room.

Q: Who is Riku Tsokkinen?

I’m a 24-year-old student at the Faculty of Humanities, majoring in Asian studies, minoring in economics and Latin. Currently, I’m writing my Bachelor’s thesis on the potential effects of implementing the new tuition system for students coming to Finland from outside the EU and EEA area.

Who is Riku Tsokkinen, hm, what else to say! Well, I’ve played the cello since I was seven years old. Once it was actually my dream to become a professional cellist – I even studied the instrument before applying to study at the University of Helsinki. Then something happened. Suddenly it didn’t seem like the thing I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

Q: How did Asian studies step into the picture?

It probably has a lot to do with my background, my mother is Japanese. I’ve had this profound connection with Japan ever since I was a child: we’d spend the summers there, visiting relatives. As a kid, it didn’t seem like the greatest thing. You know, all my friends from Finland were back home, together, enjoying the summer vacation, all idle and free. And my grandparents, they lived in this deeply rural area in Japan. So, yeah, sometimes I felt out of place. 

But – the experience did push me to learn the language. English was simply not an option! If there was something you wanted to say in Japanese, but couldn’t, you just had to find a way. Yeah, for me there has always been something special about Asia and especially about Japan.

Q: How did you end up minoring in economics?

Huh, yeah, economics! Initially, economics simply represented a discipline I wanted to expand my knowledge in. I found myself to be rather intrigued by the subject. I began to identify all these connections between my studies on Asia and the courses on economics, a link of some kind. And I mean, they do go side by side: imagine the relationship of Europe and Asia, basically built on trade relations. Nokia, Fujitsu, the list goes on. So, economics eventually became my minor.

Also, Asia is an economically booming area. When I was a kid, I was utterly enthralled by the electronics stores in Japan. The colors, the shapes, the vibrance, that was quite a thing to witness as a child! In my mind, Asia, economics and development, they are deeply entwined.

Q: You have just recently completed your exchange program at Kyoto University in Japan. Did you encounter any culture shock during your stay?

I suppose most things which might have shocked me in Japan shocked me already twenty years ago! [laughter] One thing still bemuses me, though. The order of that colossal amount of people fluidly moving together in traffic, in the subway. In Finland, people would go like ”personal space, hello?”, but nope, not in Japan. These masses of people, they are just simply an intact entity, functioning in unison. It totally defies all laws of nature.

At Kyoto University I studied econometrics, macro and microeconomics, statistics and development economics. Some business strategy and courses concerning the governance of the private sector. The courses were mostly taught in English. And, yup, no humanities on that list – the Japanese government is severely cutting back on the budget of humanities.

Q: How do you feel about these budget cuts on humanities?

Ah, well, it’s obviously about maximising profit for the short run. In the long run, well, it may prove all but beneficial. To understand this, we need to dig deeper into how Japanese companies hire new employees. They expect a Bachelor’s degree, not necessarily a Master’s one, like they do here in Finland. Also, they don’t really care about what you have studied, which discipline you’ve graduated from. Companies tend to train their new employees themselves, so a specific discipline doesn’t really make a difference. What matters is the name and prestige of the university you’ve graduated from.

Q: Would you consider Japan to be a competitive society?

This is something that everyone seems to know about Japan. The competition. Yeah, it’s insane – it starts in primary school. First you need to get into a a great secondary school, then you need to get into a fantastic high school. Imagine, kids getting ranked in primary school! Japan is a very competitive society, and should you not perform, you are considered a failure in a way quite foreign to us in Finland. It is a huge pressure.

I would say that Japan might be losing a lot of potential because of all this competition. After all, some kids are late bloomers. Let’s imagine a kid not ranking very well on the primary school level, well, he is not really even expected to pick up from that and, for example, apply to university. It’s quite set and done, then. People who are still, lets say, in high school, trying to find themselves, they are hopelessly late. Finland should definitely be wary about encouraging the adoption of such a society.

Q: In your studies you combine humanities and business. How do people react upon hearing about this combination?

In Finland, people seem to determine humanities as fundamentally isolated from something like economics. It’s not really prejudice, but there is an idea that combining these two is, well, strange. Like, if you aim to work with business or the economy, why are you not studying economics as your major?

But humanities do offer some truly valuable knowledge. Business and the economy are sometimes seen as oddly devoid of human interference, as systems of numbers aimed at simply maximising profit. But, people seem to forget about the power of human forces, of emotions, errors, all of that. They are the root of innovation, criticism and sometimes even amount to huge ruptures in the economy.

For example, how do you export a product from Finland to, let’s say, Japan? Do you not need to know what your target customers consider important? These preferences will vary from what we view as pivotal here, in Finland.

I often find the forced separation of formal sciences and humanities, well, damaging. Yes, obviously they are different. But, dialogue and exchange of knowledge between disciplines are of utmost importance.

Q: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

Oh dear god, this question [laughter]. Well, I would see myself as a consultant of a kind. European companies starting their proliferation towards Asia, that could be a good environment for my skills. Human resources is an interesting field. For example, the meaning of work is quite different for people in Japan and in Finland. I could shed light on these distinctions in order to improve functionality.

Q: Finally, do you have a professional idol you look up to?

I find the founders of Rovio to be extremely inspiring. They understand the value of keeping business here, in Finland, instead of relocating abroad due to lower wages. They are adamant about giving back to the country they were raised in. That is a big thing. Obviously, they also blend creativity with business and fluently utilise interdisciplinary expertise at their company. Pretty much what we have been talking about for the past forty minutes.


Photos by Satu Isokääntä