Attaché of the Japanese Embassy in Belarus Hiroki Okamoto on the air of ItStars podcast! spoke about the career unusual for the Japanese, business in his homeland and his plans to establish bilateral relations between our countries.
The way from a bad student to embassy attache
I had been studying Russian at university for four years, it was my specialty. But at that time I was a very bad student: I did not study hard but practiced rugby, I was a big muscular guy. After graduation, I started working in one of the Japanese trading companies — Marubeni. In addition to trade, such companies invest in various projects around the world. They greatly appreciated the knowledge of the Russian language, so I began to study it intensively. A bit later the company sent me to work in Russia, where I lived for two years. My activity at that time was the trading of industrial goods in the CIS.
In Russia, I both found a wife and learned Russian. I got lucky!
Even then I started thinking about moving to Belarus, although I had never been here before. While trading, I noted the high competitiveness of some Belarusian companies: they exported manufactured goods of good quality, especially compared, for example, with some Chinese brands. It turned out that the Belarusian industrial structure is very similar to the Japanese. I began to read more news in Russian and found out that Belarus is the Silicon Valley of Eastern Europe, thanks to the activities of the HTP.
The more I learned about Belarus, the more attractive it seemed to me. I decided to see everything with my own eyes, we only live once.
Very few Japanese people notice the potential of Belarus: there are almost no businessmen from Japan. Even me being such a young man of 27 years old can influence the change in bilateral relations in a positive way. I quit Marubeni, and after the exam, I joined the Foreign Ministry. The Ministry appointed me the attaché of the Embassy of Japan in Belarus since April this year, my area of responsibility is the economic relations of Japan and Belarus. I would like to become a bridge for business relationships between countries.
First impressions of Belarus: HTP is good and sushi is expensive
ЯI’d read a lot of articles about IT in Belarus, but when I decided to move, I didn’t believe that this was true. I thought that HTP is a kind of economic zone where technology companies gather, but it turned out that this is a whole legal regime. Moreover, the HTP does not limit the activities of companies, and registered companies are located throughout the country. It is very good!
It also seemed to me that Minsk is a very small city (when compared with Tokyo or Moscow). But I was very surprised that it is such a sophisticated city. There is very little garbage, the roads are good enough, and there is a lot of space. It is very beautiful.
You cook sushi deliciously. Yet I can’t say that this is Japanese cuisine. In Japan, sushi is usually a piece of fish over rice, and you cook mostly rolls that we don’t eat. And the cost! Japan is cheaper than here.
In Minsk, I like to eat Chicken Kyiv and lard. I like potato pancakes and machanka, I like everything!
The unpopularity of IT in Japan
In Japan, there is an acute shortage of specialists either IT specialists and representatives of other professions. This problem is associated with a low birth rate and a small number of young people.
Now the situation in IT has begun to improve, but up to this moment engineers' job was not popular. Engineers always have a lot of overtime work, delays until late, meeting all customer requirements. Due to labor shortages, the government began to take action. For example, overtime was limited to 45 hours per month.
The unpopularity of the IT sector for young people is explained by the fact that the highest paid jobs in Japan are far from the IT industry.
Top managers, doctors, lawyers, politicians, middle managers, sales representatives earn the most. In Belarus, the salary of an IT specialist is higher than in Japan.
Japanese corporate culture
I correlate problems in the Japanese economy with the system of lifetime employment.
Some companies contain retired university graduates who have come to work. If you are provided with a salary and social status, will you work diligently?
In Japan, employees who are devoted to corporate parties or some events are greatly appreciated. Worse is the employee who is trying to improve his skills, for example, attending a language school instead of a party. I am not saying that this is the case everywhere, now the life-long hiring system is gradually being destroyed. Large companies boldly declare that they can no longer keep bad employees until retirement.
Students in Japan, who are at the beginning of their professional paths, try to get into large companies where wages and social status are high. But they do not plan to work there always. Since the system of lifelong hiring is being destroyed, people in the future want to own different specialties in different areas. Here, let’s say, I: I know Russian, I would like to study programming, I live in another country, I plan to do business — and before, people just dreamed of getting into one company.
I think that the number of those who want to develop themselves and improve their skills is already higher than those who support the idea of working before retirement in one company.
Modern Japanese business
Previously, Japanese companies focused on the current business, but now they are looking for opportunities for its synergy with the latest high technologies. Therefore, some companies specifically create corporate venture capital, subsidiaries that invest in startups not only in Japan but also abroad. Due to the rapid development of technology, it is difficult for large companies to catch up with current trends, therefore, we need help from young companies, young people who can make decisions very quickly and find the information they need.
It’s easy for anyone in Japan to launch a startup because we have no restrictions on opening companies, but continuing is a different story.
We have accelerators, incubators, venture funds. Plus, there is urbanization now in Japan, people come to Tokyo. Therefore, the local administration, trying to keep young people, provides various benefits to those who want to open their own company.
The Japanese in the last 5-10 years have become very good about those who are engaged in their own business. There were skepticism and distrust earlier: “How do they earn?”, “How can a young man get something?”, “How can I exchange a stable salary for an obscure future?” But now, when someone leaves the company for the purpose start his own business, ex-coworkers and boss will most likely support it. There is a tendency to launch startups to earn money regardless of any organization.
The role of social status and problems of foreigners in Japan
Social status plays an important role in Japan, but there is no discrimination. Full-time employees have higher social status. Companies provide them with soft loans for the purchase of their housing, they have a higher salary, they are more likely to give out credit cards. Freelance employees have a little more complicated conditions.
It is very difficult for foreigners to find a job in Japan.
My wife had difficulties with this. She had moved to Japan before our marriage, and she needed to find a company that would provide a foreigner with a work visa. It’s almost impossible. But my wife is fluent in Japanese and, in the end, she managed to find a job. She worked as a marketer in a company that sought to develop business with the CIS countries.
Some foreigners in search of a good job accidentally find themselves in black companies, who use people as slaves.
Japan needs to solve these problems.
The mentality of the Japanese and the inhabitants of Eastern Europe
I worked in different countries of Eastern Europe and noticed such a difference between Japanese and people from Eastern Europe: Japanese at work do not talk on the phone, do not chat on Telegram or WhatsApp. The Japanese are highly loyal to their company.
Here is Belarus the most important thing is your work and result. Doing what you must and sometimes writing to your wife or son is normal, but this it is not the same in Japan.
All Belarusians I know do their work quick and seriously. Japanese and Belarusians are similar in a responsible attitude to what they do. Sometimes my compatriots working in Asian countries say that local people are very lazy, that they need to be forced, but here you should not. You are responsible for your projects and your work.
As it seems to me, Belarusians almost do not differ from Russians. But Belarusians are more modest, and this way they are similar to the Japanese.
Plans for the future
I will repeat that I would like to become a bridge between Belarus and Japan. But there is a question, what will I do when my contract ends?
Perhaps I would like to open a development center in Belarus and receive orders from Japanese companies. Development center will be placed here, and a product will go to Japan.
As in Japan, there is a shortage of young people, especially IT experts, the country seems attractive for Belarusians.
My second idea is to help Belarusians who want to try their hand in Japan. I would organize the necessary help and support them. They will be able to gain experience and knowledge, find new friends and, just like me, establish relations between Belarus and Japan.
I would also like to draw the attention of Japanese businessmen to Belarus. There is little information, but I try to spread some pieces of knowledge about this country with my social networks.
It would be great if Japanese companies opened their representative offices here to explore the local market. If there are representative offices, then the Japanese will come to Belarus.
Then it will be necessary to develop Japanese cuisine in Belarus, to sell Japanese goods, which will enable some Japanese commercial network to come to the country. Belarus is highly developed in IT, and with the help of this area, I would like to attract Japanese business, and then others will follow the first.
I would like to attract both accelerators and incubators. If at least one project is successful, then others will gradually appear.
Now I am trying to find at least one person who will boldly enter this market and make a business here. And if this does not happen, then I will be responsible for this.
My wife would like to start a business, now she is studying at a programming school. On the one hand, we are looking for courageous sponsors, but on the other hand, we strive to do business in Belarus ourselves.