Working with Tokio Marine HCC-Building the Trust and Adding to Leicestershire Links

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Working with Tokio Marine HCC-Building the Trust and Adding to Leicestershire Links

Posted on 13 December 2016 in Inter-Cultural Training, News -

Japanese Investment adds to Leicestershire Links

Tokio Marine Holdings Inc. bought HCC Insurance Holdings Inc. last year, in one of the biggest acquisition deals by a Japanese company to date. In doing so, they sparked a curiosity within the then HCC International into Japan and its culture, initiated by its office based in the Leicestershire village of Rearsby. The HR department there felt that their staff needed to know more about Japan, as for many of the staff it was their first experience working for a Japanese company.

Raising Interest in Japan

Together with the HR department, we developed an introductory presentation for staff in Leicester and London to get an insight into current Japanese culture, society, language and corporate philosophy. There is a big interest in all things Japanese in the UK, but the two cultures are very different. The training was tailored so that participants could really grasp the basics of Japanese culture to understand current events that are happening in and around Japan, raise their cross-cultural skillset and transfer these to any direct involvement they might have with their Japanese colleagues.

Angela Baker, Head of HR for Tokio Marine HCC, said:

“We had over 185 employees attend the presentations that Sarah delivered, and the feedback that we received was very positive.  Staff enjoyed the sessions which gave a real flavour of the culture and the economic and social issues in Japan.”

I was very impressed with the genuinely positive attitudes shown towards Japan from Angela and her team and the high level of interest shown by participants through their questions and prior knowledge about Japan. Every time I visit the offices, people are always talking about Japan and they all know the name of the Japanese representative from Tokio Marine in London -Kenichi Sakakibara – better known as Ken to the local staff.


In front of the new company sign at Tokio Marine HCC, The Grange, Rearsby, Leicestershire. From left to right, Sarah Parsons (MD Japan in Perspective), Angela Baker (Head of HR) and Jane Thorpe (HR Co-ordinator)

East Midlands/Japan Regional Links

This raised awareness of and interest in Japan highlights the soft power of Japanese investment in the UK, which has not only brought economic benefits but has fostered cultural and educational exchange on a regional level. There is a lively Japanese community in the East Midlands based around Toyota Motor Manufacturing UK in Derby and NSK in Newark. The University of Leicester has an active Japanese student population and Her Imperial Highness Princess Mako (the Emperor’s grand-daughter) recently graduated from there. Leicester is also well known to the Japanese thanks to the recent success of their football club and Japanese striker Shinji Okazaki. Hopefully now, staff from the Leicester office can access the Japan – UK links already developed in the area, and create more.



To find out more about Tokio Marine HCC, please visit their website,

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The Japanese Relationship with Humanoid Robots

Posted on 25 April 2016 in Cultural Awareness, Inter-Cultural Training, Market Insight -
Hitachi Robot

When I go into British companies to talk about Japan, I often get asked, “Why do Japanese people love Robots so much?” Although the development of Artificial Intelligence is happening on a global scale with robotic manufacturing technology no longer dominated by Japanese companies, they have developed a close relationship with and acceptance of “humanoid” robots as seen by the recent examples serving in shopping centres, banks and hotels (although technically this one was a dinosaur). With a rapidly ageing and decreasing population (with no real signs of immigration filling the gaps) alongside limited child-care facilities, the use of humanoids is certainly attractive for Japan’s current social challenges. Last year, PM Abe opened Japan’s Official Robot Revolution Initiative Council and called on the nation’s corporate sector to “spread the use of robotics from large-scale factories to every corner of our economy and society.” The humanoids that are being developed by Japanese companies such as Soft Bank (Pepper) & Hitachi (EMIEW3) can express themselves, have good mobility and seem to offer an alternative to the “human” experience.

Japanese Acceptance of Humanoids

The Japanese have never had much of a problem forming strong emotional bonds with substitutes for human connection. Look at their relationships with manga characters and let’s not forget they were the country who gave us virtual pets such as Tamagotchi. Many of these create intense emotional connections. The social media network LINE’s AI school girl character had men falling in love with her. I have often heard people quote the Shinto concept of ‘animism’ in Japan (meaning that all objects have spirits) to explain the emotional relationship between Japanese people and robots.

Cultural Factors Needing Consideration

A recent symposium* on the acceptance of humanoids comparing the UK and Japan showed that there is a significantly lower acceptance of humanoids in the UK and alarmism that they may take away jobs and render humans useless. Findings from the same symposium stated that: “In order to further social acceptance of the humanoid across cultures, designers of robots need to consider cultural factors in their potential users.”  Japan must culturally assimilate these humanoids outside of Japan to avoid an inward focus of their technology. They may be leading the way scientifically with face recognition yet facial expressions of Japanese people can be quite hard to read and even come across as indiscernible to more expressive cultures. The ritualistic set phrases used in different social interactions may foster a sense of intimacy for Japanese users, but may prove too distant and again “robotic” if used elsewhere.

However, to meet Japan’s current social challenges, humanoids may well be a solution-recent Nomura research indicates that almost half of the jobs in Japan could be managed by robots. However, I still remain unconvinced for their substitute as a child-care option..

*4th International Symposium on New Frontiers in Human-Robot Interaction-April 2015, Canterbury UK: Differences in Social Acceptance of Humanoid Robots between Japan and the UK.

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Japanese Stand-up Comedienne Wins Prize laughing at UK/Japan Idiosyncracies

Posted on 7 December 2015 in Cultural Awareness, Inter-Cultural Training, News -

It was refreshing and heart-warming to listen to the sketch of Japanese Stand-up Comedienne Yuriko Kotani, who recently won the 2015 BBC Radio New Comedy Award. As someone who has lived both in Japan and the UK, I found her sketch not only hilarious, but poignant. She cleverly contrasts the poor punctuality of the British train system and our attitudes towards it with Japan, subtly inferring that since Japanese society is so structured, the British obviously have more time to “mess about”. Signs declaring the comparatively woeful punctuality record of the trains would in Japanese society indeed be seen as an apology or, as she puts it a “confession.” Her take on the use of “ish” in our vocabulary is insightful. We use it to cover up shortcomings not only in the punctuality of transport but in our own more flexible attitude to time-keeping. These represent some of things that Japanese people living in the UK indeed find very different and in her case, mildly refreshing as she quotes, “I don’t want to live like a robot”. This is a sentiment shared by several longer-term Japanese residents here, who embrace the less structured side of society and enjoy the freedom that living outside of Japan brings.

However, it is not always easy moving outside of your cultural norms. Having worked with newly arrived Japanese ex-pats in the UK, facing certain British idiosyncracies in a business setting can cause problems ranging from annoyance, frustration, mis-comprehension, judgemental attitudes and in some cases, a complete rejection of a different culture. This is something I myself went through when living in Japan-bewilderment at why things were so different and no context of my own to compare it with. It is easy enough to become frustrated and cynical. Humour such as this is incredibly useful to break up these frustrations and promote understanding, which is an important part of successfully living in other cultures without going mad!

Through a simple 5 minute sketch, she shows two different cultural perspectives of everyday things as well as appealing to the British sense of humour through dry sarcasm and laughing at our own failings -I can’t wait to hear more from her! Listen at

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BBC Radio 4 Misunderstanding Japan: Contrasts and Complexities

Posted on 20 August 2015 in Cultural Awareness, Inter-Cultural Training, News -
midunderstanding japan

I recently spoke on a Radio 4 programme called “Misunderstanding Japan”, where I wanted to convey that Japan will naturally seem quirky and incomprehensible to people who have no understanding of its cultural context. People wanting to do business or engage with Japan need to understand the complexities of the cultural context to avoid misunderstandings. However, things are not always as they seem. At a recent UKTI seminar on Business Japanese for Beginners that I delivered to local businesses looking at working with Japan, we covered many interesting contrasts in Japan that can sometimes muddy the waters nad indeed revealed some interesting pre-conceptions. Some examples include:

  • The clutter of outdoor advertising and information vs the order and Zen like calm attributed to Japanese lifestyles
  • Hierarchical company structures vs an emphasis on a very Japanese style of consensus within decision making
  • The status and importance of Japanese business leaders vs their fairly anonymous presence in marketing campaigns/PR about the company (although this is changing with entrepreneurs such as Rakuten’s Hiroshi Mikitani and Masayoshi Son)
  • The bureaucracy and seriousness of Japanese government institutions vs the cute mascots they take very seriously to promote them
  • The seemingly submissive role of women within one of the most masculine societies on earth vs the relative dominance of women within the home/ child rearing and control over finances.
  • The infantile behaviour and use of childish, cute objects on TV adverts/reality shows and the drunken fairly inhibition free after karaoke-session vs the conservative behaviour within traditional Japanese corporate life.
  • The immense need for detail contrasted with the indirect vagueness of Japanese oral communication
  • The garish packaging of the “kawaii” culture vs Japanese minimalism
  • Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, J pop idol- a grown woman who dresses and acts like a 10 year old vs kimono -clad, demure enka singers
  • The hidden emotions and public masks vs the immense emotional outpouring at national competitions and the general irony-free sentimentality of the Japanese
  • The sensuality and open acceptance of sexual desires and practices vs the low birth rate and reported lack of interest in sex amongst the younger generation.
  • The peace of a Japanese temple vs the onslaught of noise and announcements within Japanese everyday life.
  • The expectation of convenience and high levels of politeness & hospitality displayed in the service industry vs inefficiencies and a lack of flexibility within this industry
  • The high-tech nature of Japan and their use of the latest gadgets vs the fax machines still used in most Japanese offices and the emphasis on written communication.

The list could go on-do you have any more?

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Sushi is not fish, it’s wrestling.

Posted on 3 June 2015 in Cultural Awareness, Inter-Cultural Training -
Peter Kay

Anyone having watched the brilliant Peter Kay’s ‘Car Share’ series will have seen a very interesting parody of Japan related misconceptions featuring ridiculous attempts at speaking Japanese and  comments such as: “Sushi isn’t fish. It’s wrestling!” The Japanese should take heart-whilst being lambasted for their poor levels of English on a global stage, our attempts at speaking foreign languages sometimes leaves much to be desired. What Peter Kay does, though, is poke fun at a level of cultural ignorance that does exist on various levels.

Some of this can often be broken down by exposure to other cultures and an open-minded attitude. When I went out to Japan, there were many misconceptions there of British culture and the same vice versa in the UK. In my work now, I play a part in breaking them down within UK-Japanese business ventures.

In a corporate setting, the obvious misconceptions are not always the ones that cause the most misunderstandings. In preparation for a recent seminar on Global Leaders, I read that the biggest problem in cross-cultural negotiations is the in-built assumption that everyone else thinks the same way as you do. They may not agree with you but they are still working from the same premises.

This comes as no surprise as we often find it difficult to see outside of ourselves and accept other opinions never mind recognise alternative methods of communication that stem from different cultural contexts. Maybe this is why some people are unwilling to explore the cultural elements that affect crucial aspects of International Business. Some people go on business trips abroad and ex-pats embark upon international assignments with great business plans but little more than basic etiquette & travel advice. They do not explore the cultural contexts that affect how their counterparts build up trust, form relationships, negotiate, make decisions, give feedback etc. Upon finding that these are in some cases vastly different, it is possible with time to learn through mistakes.

However this is not an easy process. I know from my own initial ex-pat experience in Japan that the tendency not to look outside of one’s own cultural lense can result in feelings of frustration and alienation and wondering why those in a culture dissimilar to theirs can’t just do things the “right way”.

With the right knowledge, support & adaptations, it becomes so much easier to break down any misconceptions and reach a much deeper level of understanding that will only enrich your business experience. Let’s start with what sushi actually is……

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