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  • Writer's pictureEinar Páll Svavarsson

Takeshi Atwater-Kaji pursuing a passion for arctic languages and issues

Updated: Mar 22, 2023

Due to its high latitude and subarctic climate, Iceland is critically positioned at the forefront of the fight against global warming. In recent years, this tiny island nation has become a hub for international research and a whole host of conferences on Arctic policy making and preservation. One of the most prominent transnational gatherings for discussion of Arctic issues is the Arctic Circle Conference, which takes place in Reykjavík once a year. Takeshi Atwater-Kaji—a San Francisco native, who went to school at Columbia University in New York City—works in between Iceland and the U.S. throughout the year to help organize and bring the convention to fruition. His efforts and travels across Iceland over the past couple years have given him a deep appreciation for Arctic issues, Iceland’s unrivalled natural beauty, and the diverse languages of the Arctic’s inhabitants.

A Love for Languages

An accomplished linguist who studied evolutionary biology at Columbia and speaks Russian, Swedish, and French, Takeshi initially developed an interest in Arctic preservation and languages through his best friend in college. “My best friend was, and still is, working towards her PhD in Geography with a special focus on the Arctic, and the more I read her blog posts, the more I felt a northward linguistic pull in terms of my interests and reading habits,” he explains. This curiosity prompted him to pursue a unique volunteer opportunity with the start-up conference, which eventually led him to relocate to Iceland. “I started volunteering for the Arctic Circle during its first year as the social media kid,” he says. “I was still living in New York at the time, but I guess I was gung-ho enough about my limited volunteer duties that I was offered a more boots-on-the-ground paid role the next year.” He has been doing a variety of programming and event coordination work for the organization ever since.

Feeling More at Home

The more time Takeshi spends in Iceland, the more opportunities he has had to immerse himself in the nation’s distinct scenery and culture.

“My favorite place in Iceland so far is the descent into Þórsmörk from Fimmvörðuháls,” he reports. “I hiked the Fimmvörðuháls trail twice last summer and greatly preferred the northward trek for its views, despite encountering worse weather. I’m a big fan of Avatar (the Nickelodeon cartoon, not the James Cameron movie), and I’d be very surprised if the setting of a particular fight scene in the finale of the third season weren’t based on Morinsheiði plateau.” Fimmvörðuháls is near Eyjafjallajökull, the notorious Icelandic volcano whose giant ash cloud famously disrupted air travel across Europe back in 2010. Takeshi admits that the longer he resides in Reykjavík, the more it starts to feel like home, and the more familiar and endearing Icelandic culture becomes to him. “My general impression is that Icelandic culture is the quirkiest form of Nordic bland reasonability. But coming from a multicultural background, there are no major surprises here; I understand Japanese culture from afar, and Iceland is still undeniably a part of the West, where I feel more at home.”

An Ongoing Adventure

As his work continues in Iceland, Takeshi would like to study Icelandic more in-depth, and has even considered putting off grad school plans to do so. “I’m in no rush to leave Iceland,” he explains. “I’m hoping (fingers crossed) to start a second B.A. in Icelandic as a Second Language in September, which would at least take two years, likely more since I’ll be working at the same time. The masochistic side of me wants to apply to grad programs in linguistics back home, but I am getting quite good at coming up with excuses to make delays.”When asked what he would say to someone who is on the fence about visiting Iceland, he reports that, aside from the country’s disappointing lack of good Korean food, he would not hesitate to give it a positive recommendation.“I’d happily tell them about what I love and dislike about Iceland, why I personally enjoy living here very much, but I’d stress that there’s nothing that I hate.”


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