Interview series: the people behind EU-Japan Cooperation

EU-Japan cooperation takes many forms. Time and time again, we read news reports about agreements signed between the EU, or its Member States, and Japan, about trade missions and cultural events, about joint innovation and dialogue. But the question remains: Who are the people behind these efforts? What is their story and how did they become involved in developing international cooperation? 

The EU-Japan Centre for Industrial Cooperation is happy to introduce the second installment of a series of articles meant to introduce the individuals and organizations making EU-Japan collaboration possible.


We hope you enjoy a snippet of our interview with Marcus Schurmann, the CEO of the German Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Japan - AHK Japan.

Q: What is your professional background? How did you first get in contact with Japan and its culture?
Marcus: Starting with my educational background, I have a BA in Business Administration from a three-year programme within the German dual education system that included an apprenticeship. Since then, I have always had an interest in living and working abroad, and often travelled to the former eastern bloc. I went to China in 1989, as a kind of study tour, and had the idea of continuing my journey eastward in the direction of Japan. Looking for a way there, I was accepted for a scholarship by the Carl Duisberg Society and combined language classes and an internship. I arrived there roughly one week before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Finally, I started my first job in the company that I had the privilege of supporting during my internship.

Q: In your previous roles with German companies, what challenges and opportunities did you personally encounter?
Marcus: My first employer, Docter Optic, was a manufacturer of aspherical lenses, which were used in car headlights and were at the forefront of technology at the time. As you can imagine, the size of the Japanese automotive industry attracted many German SME’s such as my company. One of my very first tasks was to establish business relations with its relevant counterparts. This was a huge challenge for me, being still very young, trying to understand the business culture and the decision-making process of companies. I learned that there is a different speed of business, a peculiar “Japanese speed”. In general, I found that cultural assimilation in Japan demands a lot of respect and understanding for how things work.
There is one experience about Japan being an island nation and Japanese customers relying on foreign business partners that I will never forget. Considering that Japan and Germany are so far away, what happens in the event of disruptions to the supply chain? This matter is hugely sensitive in Japan. When the Gulf War started in 1990, I remember there was a shipment near the Suez Channel, on its way to Japan. I received a phone call from one customer who had just heard the news on the radio that the war had broken out. They asked me if I could make sure that the shipment would arrive in Japan on time. I was wondering at the time how the customer could ask such a question. How shall I know? I understood with that phone call how sensitive customers are when they work with overseas suppliers, especially in industries where quality, reliability and punctuality are key. This was an important learning experience for me then, and it is still relevant today. When it came to providing an answer, I said: “Yes, of course. It will arrive on time” and planned for a worst-case scenario. At that time, I also learned how important personal relations are because the customer had observed that I was really trying hard to get the situation resolved, even though logically they were very much aware of the challenge of getting the shipment into Japan on time at all. As a result, as they have seen my commitment, it helped me in the long run to earn trust.

Q: Since 2000, you have been working as COO and CEO for the German Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Japan (AHK Japan). Can you tell us about your mission and activities as an organisation?
Marcus: We are a bridge between Germany and Japan – the first contact point for German businesses in Japan, especially when they start expanding to the Japanese market. AHK Japan is also a huge platform for dialogue and exchange, and we provide a lot of services from a foreign trade promotion perspective. Being the official representation of German business in Japan, one of the key tasks that I must fulfil is keeping an eye on what the hot topics in both our countries are. This gives a lot of leverage to develop member related activities and services.

AHK Japan logo

The interview continues online, read the complete version here.

Published: October 2023