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Doing business the Japanese way

An interview with Iichi Mishima, managing director of Mitsubishi Corporation

Tokyo’s successful bid for the 2020 Olympic Games as well as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s economic plan “Abenomics” to revive the Japanese economy have once again put spotlights on Japan – a country with formidable industrial organisation, technological mastery and financial depth. We asked Mr. Mishima, Managing Director of Mitsubishi Nederland B.V., one of the global offices of Mitsubishi Corporation, about the Japanese businesses and their operations abroad.

What are some of the strengths of Japanese businesses in a global setting? In general, the strength of Japanese businesses lies in their ability to pay attention to the very details of their products, services and operations. That is why the Japanese products are known for their high quality and performance standards. The strengths of Japanese businesses also come from the Japanese culture itself. In Japan, people value teamwork and they are highly efficient because people are generally good at time management with much less delays in projects. Japan is also a country with a homogenous culture. The Japanese share similar values and most of them come from similar economical backgrounds. They also share similar high level of educational backgrounds. These makes communication within a team much easier and allows even the largest businesses to function in a very well-structured way. Since these advantages come from the Japanese culture itself, I think it is difficult for other businesses from foreign countries to imitate the Japanese models and that is why there are no similar company like us, Sogo-Sho-Sha, in the world.

What are some of the weaknesses of Japanese businesses when they operate abroad? One of the weak points of Japanese businesses, in general, is their linguistic skills. The ordinary Japanese have difficulties expressing themselves in English or other foreign language which sometimes makes business communication very difficult. I mentioned earlier that the Japanese share a homogenous culture, this can also become a disadvantage when it comes to operating abroad since they are slow in adapting to foreign culture. They tend to be less flexible and hesitant in accepting new ideas or new ways of doing things. This prevents them from actively expanding their businesses to markets outside Japan.

In addition, many Japanese companies, especially medium and small scale, lack a structured system to explain to their foreign employees about their corporate standards and share their corporate philosophies. They fail to construct an environment where the Japanese employees can work smoothly with other foreign employees.

Mitsubishi Corporation operates in more than 90 countries, how do you structure your business both in Japan and abroad? We don’t have problems in terms of communication between the headquarter and foreign offices within MC since we have long time history experience in doing business outside Japan and basically everyone who joins MC are already with excellent English skills. In fact, almost 25% of the new hires in the headquarter in Tokyo are those who studied abroad and/or grew up in a foreign country. In MC, if one person in the team does not speak Japanese, the meetings will be held in English naturally. Japanese is not required when working for a global office of MC. On the other hand though, most of the information sent from Tokyo is still in Japanese. Of course, they also send information to the offices in English but those are far less compared to the information in Japanese. This tends to create an information barrier between the employees who speak Japanese and those who do not.

What is MC’s experience in operating in the Netherlands so far? Have you encountered any problems when operating in the Netherlands or in Europe in general? Mitsubishi Nederland B.V. ‘s focus is not on trading between Japan and the Netherlands. We mainly conduct business investments and operations within Europe.  Currently, we are involved in the development, investment and operations of wind farms in the Netherlands together with our partner ENECO. Of course, we sometimes face problems such as the local residents opposing the construction plans but these are certainly not problems specific to the Netherlands or Europe.

Our experience in operating in the Netherlands so far has been great. As a country that depends heavily on trading and foreign direct investment, the Netherlands is very friendly to us foreign businesses, especially to Japan since we are the second largest investor to the Netherlands. They are very generous in giving foreign investers various forms of tax benefits and they also made the visa application process very simple for qualified persons. For example, in Japan, the corporate tax rate is around 35%, in the Netherlands, however, it’s only 25%.

Compared to other countries in the European Union, I would say that the Netherlands is one of the countries that are most friendly to foreign businesses.

Have you experienced any culture shock when working in the Netherlands or in other E.U. countries? Before coming to the Netherlands, I have worked and lived in Australia, the Philippines, Malaysia, the United States and Germany, so I am probably more tolerant to cultural differences than most Japanese.

In terms of the Netherlands, I was surprised at first that the Dutch employees would take time off from work no matter how busy it was at the office. In Japan, no one would go on holidays for 2-3 weeks without handing over the tasks properly to his/her co-workers beforehand. In Japan, everyone in the office will share most of the work information just in case someone is unable to come to the office.

In Europe, people value work-life balance more than the Japanese do. It is normal for the employees here to finish their work at 5pm and go pick up their kids, but working over time is common practice in Japan.

Do you think the Japanese are working too much? Well (laugh), we absolutely have to. In Japan—a country so small and without any natural resources, working hard is the only option left for us in order to stay competitive in the global market.

As the Managing Director of Mitsubishi Nederland B.V., what is your next goal? I want to start new kinds of projects that were never done by MC before. Right now, we are looking to start various projects that can bring the innovative Dutch “agro technology”to other parts of the world, such as Africa and/or other emerging countries. We hope to use the Dutch agricultural technology to help grow healthy and safe food that is produced with respect to nature and the environment. I have been studying a lot about the industry and technology. By collaborating with Dutch and/or other company in Europe, we hope to launch the projects in near future.

Can you give some advice to the current FEB students? I think it is very important to gain all kinds of experiences when you are young. When I was younger, I volunteered a chance to work in developing countries including South East Asia and I also met all kinds of people who really broadened my horizon. At work, I always tried to do my best at whatever tasks that were given to me and I tried to learn the essence from them. I believe all those efforts and experiences made me who I am today.

The young people tend to daydream a lot, they think they don’t belong to wherever they are now and dream that one day they can get out of there. The truth is, you will never succeed without living your life today at where you are standing now. You don’t have to go look for golden opportunities, they will come to you if you had worked hard enough.

Compared to other countries in the European Union, I would say that the Netherlands is one of the countries that are most friendly to foreign businesses.


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