Is speaking Japanese more tricky than making marmalade?

I have a mixture of curiosity and jealousy when it comes to the British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

I wonder how, as a very senior British politician, he finds the time to practice the Japanese language?

It’s an impressive achievement, especially as he’s married to a Chinese person and has a young family.

Marmalade lessons

Mr Hunt used to live in Japan and at one point had a job trying to import British marmalade – a business which ended in failure, apparently, but which he claims was a useful learning experience.

This week he was back in Tokyo and paid a call on a high school in Hibiya.

The BBC’s Tokyo Correspondent Rupert Wingfield-Hayes went to the school with him said that Mr Hunt gave a speech in extremely fluent Japanese and then took questions from the children about Brexit.

“He certainly did a very good of charming them and I think the Japanese are very flattered that Britain has a foreign minister who speaks such good Japanese. He has a good public image here,” said Rupert.

Apology due

But Rupert also said that the Foreign Secretary may need to apologise for a letter which was sent to the Japanese government in February, in which the British urged the Japanese to get a move on with trade talks post-Brexit.

“Time is of the essence” was one of the phrases used.

However, as Lianna Brinded explains in an excellent piece on Yahoo Finance, Prime Minister May has tried to pass the Brexit deal through parliament three times, and each time it was massively rejected by politicians within her own party and opposition MPs.

The Yahoo report points out that Japan is the third largest economy in the world and is one of the UK’s biggest investors. Japanese companies employ 150,000 people in Britain. Trade between the two countries totalled £28 billion in the past year, according to the government.

Bewildered

The Japanese are now “bewildered” by Brexit, according to the former chief executive of UK Trade and Investment.

Sir Andrew Cahn told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme: “The Japanese are really very disappointed about Brexit, probably of all the countries in the world, they are the ones which have reacted worst to Britain’s decision to leave the European Union.”

Sir Andrew  said that foreign secretary Hunt has a huge task on his hands, as Japanese firms use the UK as a gateway to the EU. This would be “significantly closed” if the UK left on World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules, he warned.

So, although I am jealous of Mr Hunt’s language skills and his VIP treatment in Tokyo, I am not the least bit jealous of him when it comes to the arduous task of justifying the Brexit to a key trade partner. That’s a tough call in any language.

The disappearing salaryman

Do you sometimes feel sorry for the poor Japanese salarymen, slaving away selflessly for the good of their corporation and never allowed to be creative or take risks? If so, perhaps your pity for the poor souls is based on an outdated stereotype. Nowadays in Japan, entrepreneurialism is valued – although old ways of thinking die hard, as this week’s guest blogger Lucy Kikuchi explains.

There is a prevailing stereotype about the men who work in Japan.

They are often presented as conservative, risk-averse salarymen who sacrifice their own happiness for the good of the company. This is a contrast with the stereotype of the maverick westerner, who voices his opinion and follows his dreams.

These cliches appeared in a news story by Bloomberg, when it covered the major deal struck between Panasonic and Tesla earlier this year. Panasonic has begun manufacturing batteries for Tesla Model 3. The piece began, “They’re the oddest of couples: Elon Musk – the free-wheeling co-founder of Tesla Inc – and Kazuhiro Tsuga, the buttoned-up salaryman who runs Japan’s Panasonic Corp.”

Bloomberg suggested the two businessmen are borne from different psychologies. In Japan, ‘success’ is synonymous with ‘security’. Entrepreneurship on the other hand is risky; risk is the polar opposite of security.

The birth of the salaryman

After Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II, companies like Panasonic helped propel Japan into the modern era. To gain employment with a company like that was to enjoy a lifetime of job security. Toyota, Sony, Panasonic – these were the companies to aim for. Mr Tsuga joined Panasonic in April 1979 (at the time, Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd.) after graduating from Osaka University. He is the epitome of Japan’s traditional notion of success.

Then there is Tesla, founded by Elon Musk.

Musk is one of the ‘PayPal mafia’ and was a young millionaire thanks to his startup Zip2. From linking online searchers to businesses then disrupting banking in his early twenties, he now plans to save humanity by sending us to Mars courtesy of SpaceX. Some of the risks he has taken may prove to be unsuccessful, but he succeeded in Silicon Valley when many others floundered as the dot-com bubble burst.

Old and new

One of the things I love best about Japan is how traditional ways exist parallel to high-tech modern life. I’m not sure anywhere else in the world manages to pull this combination off so effortlessly. Many westerners are fascinated by the Geisha who totter through the streets of Kyoto, then they flock to Tokyo as the mecca of everything high-tech. Yet despite the country’s global and long-standing reputation for innovation and high-quality products, it seems that’s not enough to keep Japan globally competitive in the future.

The country can no longer expect the large corporations to fuel innovation, productivity and growth. But if they can’t do this, it means the security of lifetime employment becomes less of a guarantee.

Startup scene

Although Japan’s startup scene is a long way behind that of the US, economic, stagnation is forcing a change.

According to the Nikkei Asian Review, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Stanford University in April 2015, saying he wanted to “soak up all that Silicon Valley has to offer and take the lessons to Japanese.” He also reminded those present that Japan’s largest and most prestigious corporations set the global agenda back in the 1980’s and said that Japan can do this again.

As Mr Abe delivers tax incentives for businesses to invest in venture capital, and finance becoming more readily available to startups. But progress towards a more entrepreneurial culture requires a shift in the psychology of a nation.

More and more successful Japanese entrepreneurs are emerging and they become role models to the younger generation. Some young people believe that they can follow a new career path. Success to them is no longer synonymous with security. Perhaps it means being the fastest to deliver the smartest solution?

There’s never been a better time to take a risk. If Tsuga San can do it with Tesla, so can Japan’s next generation.

Lucy Kikuchi lived in Tokyo for six years working as a translator both on the agency-side and in-house for a Japanese manufacturer. She now lives with her family in the UK and is married to a self-employed Japanese businessman – not a salaryman!

Burgers on the menu for Japan’s new era

I’ve often wondered why in a land of beautiful food, like Japan, people want to eat burgers and chips.

This week, I am especially wondering why anyone would want to eat a burger which weighs three kilograms and was apparently created with patriotic pride as Japan enters a new era of “beautiful harmony.”

A chef called Patrick Shimada has made the enormous burger using beef made from Wagyu cattle, which according to legend, enjoy drinking beer and receiving massages from their human masters, in order to keep their bodies tender.

The meat is served between gold-dusted buns and is also “topped with foie gras and freshly shaved black truffles.”

It costs an eye-watering US$900.

“Myself in a bun”

Chef Shimada workers at the Oak Door steakhouse in Tokyo’s Roppongi district, near my former home.

He says he created the burger to mark the crowning of the new Japanese emperor, Crown Prince Naruhito. It’s the sort of rather crazy story about Japan which the media love and it’s obviously been stoked up by a clever press officer.

The press release came with some nice pictures of Mr Shimada preparing the dish, along with quotes, such as: “We wanted to do something to celebrate the new emperor and a new era for Japan.”

Mr Shimada, a fourth generation Japanese American, said: “It also gets me more in touch with my Japanese roots.

“Doing this through an American-style burger using Japanese ingredients – it’s kind of like myself in a bun.”
MOS burger

I actually think that the food in fast food restaurants in Japan is nicer than in many other countries and the service is great. My personal favourite is the Japanese chain, MOS Burger.  According to its website, its corporate goal is to “make people happy through food.” It says it provides “safe, healthy and delicious food” with “cordial service and a smile.”

MOS Burger is more Japanese in atmosphere than the big players, McDonalds and Burger King, which are in the process of are opening yet more restaurants in Japan. McDonalds already has around three thousand branches around the country.

It might seem odd to open more, given Japan’s falling birthrate and changing dining habits. However, according to the business newspaper the Nikkei, the hamburger business is one of the few bright spots in an otherwise bleak restaurant industry.

McDonald’s aims to open as many as two hundred new branches in the next three years and Burger King aims to triple its Japanese locations by 2022.

The Nikkei also says the burger joints are hoping to target the many tourists who visit Japan, including large numbers of visitors from other Asian countries.

These people, says the Nikkei, include “a steady stream of fresh customers looking for familiar flavours in an unfamiliar land.”