EU-Japan cooperation takes shape in many forms. Time and time again, we read news reports about signed agreements 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 a gear in developing international cooperation?
The EU-Japan Centre for Industrial Cooperation is launching a new series of articles meant to introduce the individuals and organizations making EU-Japan collaboration possible. Should they be head of organizations, entrepreneurs, academics, scientists, or students, they are all united by the same passion for Japan and the act of weaving bonds that link the EU and Japan.
We hope you enjoy this interview with our first guest.
Q: What is your professional background and how did you first get in contact with Japan?
Sophie: In terms of my background, I am a pure Japanologist. I studied Japanese at Ghent University and during my studies, one of my classmates who was Japanese took us to Japan when she visited her family. I instantly liked the culture. I looked for opportunities to go back to Japan and work there, and that happened in 2005 when I had the chance to work at the World Expo in Aichi.
Q: What was your experience at the 2005 World Expo in the Aichi Prefecture, and what did that teach you in terms of cultural diversity when it comes to Japan?
Sophie: When working in Japan you realize how everything is really structured and detailed there. Housing, entering the expo, walking around on the expo grounds… everything was very well organized. But due to its international nature, I cannot really call it a “Japanese” experience. We had a lot of different cultural impressions during the expo, which I think is also the point of an expo. What we could notice, at least from my experience at the Belgian pavilion, was that there was a very strong interest from the Japanese for other cultures, with an amazing number of people visiting the expo despite the summer heat. I hope to see the same at the 2025 Expo Osaka!
Q: Looking at your following career path, you worked for 5 years in Kanazawa City Hall. As a Japanese environment, what challenges and opportunities did you face there?
Sophie: Through my studies, I learned about the JET programme (the Japan Exchange and Teaching programme). Kanazawa City always requests Belgian JET participants because of the strong relationship with their sister city Ghent, and because most Belgians know several languages. My biggest issue, especially in the first years, was the Japanese language. Even though it was the international department that I worked at, English was used to a very limited degree, and all written and spoken communication was in Japanese. Another challenging aspect was the decision-making. In a Japanese city hall, every decision must pass by many people. For instance, you have clipboards with forms being passed around where you have to put your hanko, your stamp essentially, and only once everyone has stamped the form, the decision can be taken. This resulted in several decisions taking enormous amounts of time. When it came to the sister cities, they expected faster decisions, but they just didn’t know the process and neither did I before I worked at the city hall. On the other hand, I would like to point out a very strong feeling of teamwork. In addition to the team making decisions together, when something goes well - it is thanks to the team, not a personal victory. As I come from a more individualistic society, it is something I started to appreciate more by working in Japan.
Q: When you worked in Startia, a Japanese company, did this affect your knowledge of local business culture?
Sophie: I was actually hired as a secretary to the CEO, but my main task was teaching him English. Startia is an IT company and they wanted to do business outside of Japan as well, but there was no one in the company actually speaking English except for me. I realized how much Japan still had to invest in language if they really wanted to be important internationally. I also learned then, as I had already noticed in Kanazawa city hall, how much importance is put on the work that is done after hours - like going out with clients, investing in personal relations and so on. Most of the people working in that company didn't see it as overtime, it was just part of the job. Although it was a short stint, it was a great learning experience for me.
Q: In the last 11 years, you have been working as the General Manager at the BLCCJ. Can you tell us about your mission and main activities as an organization?
Sophie: Our mission is to make a stronger connection between Belgium, Luxembourg and Japan, and help Belgian and Luxembourg companies that are based in Japan to expend their business. The way we do that is mainly by organizing many events – commercial events like business seminars, luncheon events, trade fairs - but also networking events. We think that networking is an important part of doing business, especially in Japan, so we organize monthly beer gatherings, a yearly gala ball, and others. An important thing when networking is reaching out further than just the BLCCJ, so what I have really put an effort into is making strong connections with other chambers of commerce in Japan, but also locally in Belgium and Luxembourg. Recently, when the pandemic started and perhaps owing to it, we have created a network of Belgian-Luxembourg Chambers of Commerce in Asia. I would like to think that in this way I played a role in expanding the horizons of our chamber. We are a pretty active chamber, with about 130 active members and only 2 full-time staff. Overall, I am proud of my 11 years at the Chamber.
Q: What advice do you have for potential companies wanting to enter the Japanese market? Why do you think an EU company should do that in terms of pros and cons?
Sophie: First of all, I speak for myself and not from the viewpoint of an expert economist or businessperson - which is why for this kind of questions I usually rely on external trade offices that are more qualified to answer precisely. I think that it is widely considered that Japan is a stable market. Of course, it takes time to establish a business there, but once it’s done, it’s done for the long-term. You can trust Japanese partners, also payment-wise. Many companies based in Japan that I heard from, said that they feel at ease when dealing with Japanese companies on that matter. Also, Japan is still the third largest economy in the world and that makes another point for it to be trustworthy and relevant. This represents several opportunities for any EU enterprise, but as Japan has been recently investing heavily in industries such as energy and healthcare, these are among the main opportunities for European industry. Beside all that, Japan remains a country with a rich, attractive history and culture, a huge population (though rapidly decreasing) and several other factors that make it a profitable retail spot.
Q: Especially in your years working for the BLCCJ, what did you see were the most common mistakes done by foreign companies in communicating or approaching the Japanese market?
Sophie: As I mentioned earlier, while communicating, language is the most important tool. Most European companies tend to assume they can reach any market just by speaking English, and they are shocked to realize that this is not always the case with Japan. We as an organization always recommend finding a contact based in Japan who companies can rely on for any communication issue, which also turns handy in terms of cultural differences. Together with that, Japanese counterparts tend to ask a lot of and very specific questions, which means you need to be willing to take the time to go through all of them and not to dismiss them. Time and effort are a basic requirement for an effective partnership with Japanese companies.
Q: Moving to a more general dimension, at what point do you think Belgium/Luxembourg’s market awareness about Japan is right now? What do you think can still be done to improve it?
Sophie: I think the current level of awareness is pretty good, and it increased even more after the EPA (EU and Japan signed an economic partnership agreement in 2019). Although apparently during the Covid pandemic the EPA was used less, and even now awareness can still be improved. SMEs would surely greatly benefit from it, but some have not yet realized the appeal or full potential. The role of chambers of commerce and other trade organizations is fundamental in this sense. The EU-Japan Centre, for example, did and is doing an amazing job in that aspect (*), but still more needs to be done to promote this opportunity to everyone. In general, I would say, the overall image of the Japanese market in the EU and vice versa is positive, which underlines a very good job that has been done so far. If we focus on the number of people visiting Japan now, just a few months after the reopening of its national borders, it’s incredible to see what an attraction Japan is for foreign countries, both in terms of tourism and business activities.
Q: As for what you as the BLCCJ are doing right now, how do you think initiatives like the NEA - Nippon Export Award, a prize for companies with excellent importation results in Japan - can help improve the business relations between Japan and EU markets?
Sophie: The point of this award has always been that of stimulating business between Belgium-Luxembourg and Japan on a smaller scale - and though we know a lot of companies that are active in this area, not all of them are our members or partners, yet. For this reason, we have always been trying to promote the NEA award to a very wide audience, and even asked the Belgian and Luxembourg Prime Ministers to support and sponsor this award as we do believe in its effectiveness. The award is still getting a lot of response, so much so that it has become a model to be followed and replicated, as some other chambers of commerce have done, which greatly flatters us and tells us how positively this project is perceived.
Q: Shifting to the future, are there any projects you plan to enact in the upcoming years, or anything else you would like to mention or promote?
Sophie: The BLCCJ has three flagship events, and the NEA is one of them. The other two are Delighting Customers in Japan and the YES (Young Executive Stay) programme. Delighting Customers in Japan is an annual business seminar where we invite three CEOs from different companies/industries to talk about how they successfully targeted Japanese customers in their sector - the 19th edition was on June 5th. The YES programme is an elaborate project we carry out together with the BJA (Belgium-Japan Association & Chamber of Commerce) and the Luxembourg Chamber of Commerce, where we invite a maximum number of 10 Belgium-Luxembourg based SMEs to Japan on the condition that they don’t do business with Japan yet (or very limited), in order to establish new relations between them and local businesses. Last edition was in 2018, and we are considering the option to re-launch it in 2024, though we are living in a global environment of turmoil and uncertainty, so we are still cautious. There is also a possibility that we will be involved in the 2025 Expo in Osaka, but there is too little information to say at the moment.
Q: As a final question, how do you see the current relations between Belgium-Luxembourg and Japan in the forthcoming years in terms of business and trade?
Sophie: At a dinner event we recently had at the Belgian embassy, our president was asked to give the closing words and they were the perfect answer to this question. While business relations between Belgium-Luxembourg and Japan stay positive, it is interesting to see how the focus is shifting. If in the past the focus was on Belgian chocolate, beers, and jewellery, right now this is changing to energy sources such as hydrogen, biopharma (many of the vaccines for the Covid crisis in Japan came from Belgium), digitalization processes, tools and other areas of expertise in Belgium that were not associated with the country until recently. As for Luxembourg, we can detect a shift from its fully finance-based image to industries such as green finance and aerospace. This doesn’t change the traditional business activities between the two actors, but we can really see other areas emerging in the last years that have a great potential. We have still much to learn from each other.
Thank you very much Sophie, for your availability and enthusiasm in this interview, it has been a pleasure.
(Interview held in May 2023)
Would you like to proceed to the second interview with Marcus Schürmann, the CEO of the German Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Japan (AHK Japan)? Click here!
(*) For more information about the EU-Japan EPA Helpdesk managed by the EU-Japan Centre please have a look here.
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