‘I met my Swedish man in Tokyo’s first Ikea store’

Ai Hiroshima Hjelm, 32, met her future husband after a chance encounter in Asia's first Ikea store and now lives with him in Stockholm, where she runs her own yoga and dance business.

'I met my Swedish man in Tokyo's first Ikea store'
Ai Hiroshima Hjelm. Photo: Vincent Palma
Tokyo-born Ai Hiroshima Hjelm first fell in love with Sweden when she was an exchange student in Uppsala a decade ago. Impressed by the country's passion for nature, fashion and design, she vowed to return one day.
But in the meantime she ended up indulging her love for the Nordic nation by taking a job at Asia's first Ikea store in her home city, Tokyo.
It was there that she met her husband, a Swedish journalist who was sent on an assignment to Japan to write about the expansion of the flatpack furniture empire.
"There was some immediate chemistry," smiles Hjelm. 
"We ended up having a long distance relationship for a year – which wasn’t so easy – and then I moved to Stockholm.”
Hjelm started out hoping for a career in the fashion industry, but despite completing a masters course in fashion and having a keen eye for new trends, she ended up working in an office for four years.
"My job had nothing to do with my course and it was pretty intense. I felt like I was stuck indoors all the time, which isn't actually very Swedish," she tells The Local.
“I have always loved yoga, so I thought about becoming an instructor instead."
“I was fed up of sitting at my desk and working long hours – which is unusual in Sweden – so I decided to learn from the Swedes and focus on getting more balance in my life,” she adds.

Ai showing off her yoga moves. Photo: Vincent Palma
Hjelm now holds weekly yoga classes at several locations in the Swedish capital, through her company .
The lessons are in English and attract a mixed crowd of expats, immigrants and locals.
A keen dancer, she is also gathering a group together to put on a contemporary dance performance in Stockholm in the summer.
The event will be part-choreographed, also including improvisation and experimentation.
Another Japanese immigrant to Sweden, Sayuri Hayashi, has composed the music for the event alongside Swedish musician Hannes Egnel. The duo call themselves Krims-Krams, which means 'knickknacks' in Swedish.
Hjelm says she feels "very integrated" into Swedish life and that she hopes that other immigrants can feel inspired by her experience.
"I feel very welcomed as an immigrant in Sweden. People are very polite, have a great understanding of other cultures, and moreover, people are more interested in 'me' and not so much where I come from," she says.
“Stockholm is my home now and I hope my classes and workshops can help others to meet new people, express themselves and relax.”
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Reader question: When am I eligible for a Swedish pension?

A reader got in touch to ask how long he had to work in Sweden before he was eligible for a pension. Here are Sweden's pension rules, and how you can get your pension when the time comes.

Reader question: When am I eligible for a Swedish pension?

The Swedish pension is part of the country’s social insurance system, and it can seem like a confusing beast at times. The good news is that if you’re living and working here, you’ll almost certainly be earning towards a pension, and you’ll be able to get that money even if you move elsewhere before retirement.

You will start earning your Swedish general pension, or allmän pension, once you’ve earned over 20,431 kronor in a single year, and – for almost all kinds of pension in Sweden – there is no time limit on how long you must have lived in Sweden before you are eligible.

The exception is the minimum guarantee pension, or garantipension, which you can receive whether you’ve worked or not. To be eligible at all for this, you need to have lived in Sweden for a period of at least three years before you are 65 years old. 

“There’s a limit, but it’s a money limit,” Johan Andersson, press secretary at the Swedish Pension Agency told The Local about the general pension. “When you reach the point that you start paying tax, you start paying into your pension.”

“But you have to apply for your pension, make sure you get in touch with us when you want to start receiving it,” he said.

Here’s our in-depth guide on how you can maximise your Swedish pension, even if you’re only planning on staying in Sweden short-term.

Those who spend only a few years working in Sweden will earn a much smaller pension than people who work here for their whole lives, but they are still entitled to something – people who have worked in Sweden will keep their income pension, premium pension, supplementary pension and occupational pension that they have earned in Sweden, even if they move to another country. The pension is paid no matter where in the world you live, but must be applied for – it is not automatically paid out at retirement age.

If you retire in the EU/EEA, or another country with which Sweden has a pension agreement, you just need to apply to the pension authority in your country of residence in order to start drawing your Swedish pension. If you live in a different country, you should contact the Swedish Pensions Agency for advice on accessing your pension, which is done by filling out a form (look for the form called Ansök om allmän pension – om du är bosatt utanför Sverige).

The agency recommends beginning the application process at least three months before you plan to take the pension, and ideally six months beforehand if you live abroad. It’s possible to have the pension paid into either a Swedish bank account or an account outside Sweden.

A guarantee pension – for those who live on a low income or no income while in Sweden – can be paid to those living in Sweden, an EU/EEA country, Switzerland or, in some cases, Canada. This is the only Swedish pension which is affected by how long you’ve lived in Sweden – you can only receive it if you’ve lived in the country for at least three years before the age of 65.

“The guarantee pension is residence based,” Andersson said. “But it’s lower if you haven’t lived in Sweden for at least 40 years. You are eligible for it after living in Sweden for only three years, but it won’t be that much.”