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Speaker at Sheffield International Trade Forum-Working with Japan

Posted on 24 September 2018 in Japanese Corporate Culture, Market Insight, News -
Sheffield ITF

I was the key-note speaker at a recent Sheffield International Trade Forum event on ‘Working with Japan’ alongside David McWilliams from Withers&Rogers, who has been working with Japan for many years. I spoke about Japan as a business destination, the various routes to market and how people need to understand the Japanese to do business with them, giving delegates an insight into Japanese business culture. It was great to promote Japan as a business destination and network with Sheffield companies. #northernpowerhouse

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Brexit-Japanese Reactions

Posted on 24 June 2016 in Market Insight, News -

I was asked by the LA Times to comment on the impact of Brexit on medium-term and long-term trade between the UK and Japan. The UK has benefited from massive investment by Japanese companies bringing their European HQ here and there have been unprecedented levels of M&A activities from Japan in recent years, specifically to gain more global market share. Not all of this market share has been tied to the EU but every single Japanese company I speak to quotes the significance of the UK’s membership of the EU as their decision to invest here.  Although it is far too early to predict anything at a very uncertain time, I could tell the Times that from working with and talking to the Japanese business community in the UK at various levels, they were extremely worried about a Brexit and how it would affect their access to European Markets as well as knowing there would be uncertainty on an unprecedented scale following it.

Given the Japanese aversion to change and unpredictability, the Brexit has caused shockwaves amongst the Japanese business and diplomatic community in the UK. It also caused the Nikkei to plunge to the lowest level in 5 years, shares in Japanese companies in the UK dropped and the Yen surged prompting the Japanese Finance Minister to issue a statement that they would intervene where necessary to off-set the affects of this on their currency and Japanese exports.

There is also the issue of the Japan EU Trade Partnership that is currently being negotiated. It is too early to say whether this will continue and whether it will bring more advantages for European companies wanting to trade with Japan. However, British investment in Japan could  stay strong if we can negotiate a separate deal with Japan. We are mostly dealing with the unknowns at the moment- a situation that risk-averse Japan is very nervous about.

On a positive note, there are elements of the Japanese way of doing business that make me feel confident that we will continue to enjoy positive trade with Japan. Most Japanese businesses have long-termism at their core and recent inward investment from companies such as Hitachi Rail in the UK have built upon long-term relationships and were made with the intention of being here for the long run come what may. This will hopefully be the key to what will happen with most Japanese companies in the UK-long-termism along with a propensity to caution and dislike of change will hopefully mean they won’t jump ship straight away and may stick around long enough to support us keeping the UK economy strong and competitive.



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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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How Japanese Companies are Contributing to Sustainability in the UK: Event Report

Posted on 22 March 2016 in Market Insight, News -
Nottingham Event Panel (2)

This event took place at Nottingham Trent University on March 14th, 2016.

The first part of the evening comprised of a welcome by Dr Angelo Bisignano of Nottingham Business School followed by a short presentation by Sarah Parsons, Japan In Perspective, JETAAUK Chair and Associate Lecturer at NTU, who gave an overview of Japanese Investment in the UK including their key elements such as long-termism and huge investment into skills and training. She talked about examples of Japanese investments in sustainability such as Hitachi Rail’s investment into sustainability of the UK’s train infrastructure and highlighted challenges surrounding sustainability in Japan including the need for more sustainable softer technologies/social initiatives to address the ageing population, gender inequalities and corporate culture issues. She also spoke about the challenges for Japan to adhere to the Global Reporting Initiatives (GRI) guidelines for Sustainability Reporting, mainly driven by North American and European stakeholders commenting how Japanese companies are traditionally much stronger in the environmental areas but not so good at reporting social and governance issues.

This “environmental” strength was certainly evident listening to Rob Gorton, Corporate Planning Manager at Toyota Manufacturing UK, who spoke about the upcoming trends at Toyota in the area of sustainability, including their plans for hybrid and hydrogen technology, and also gave an overview of their recently announced 2050 environmental challenge to address key global environmental issues such as climate change, water shortages, resource depletion and degradation of biodiversity by 2050. Rob also re-iterated the long-term aspect of Japanese business mentality reflected in TMUK’s sustainability policies and spoke of how sometimes these can be at odds with the short-term mentality of British business – noting that it is difficult to graft long term thinking onto short term cultures. He used the example of the manufacture of the Prius that took more than 10 years from inception to achieving volume in sales to emphasise the need for long-term thinking; he anticipates that the numbers of Mirais being manufactured will grow significantly over the coming years. He also spoke about how the UK needs an increase in engineers to support sustainable innovation here. Japanese companies such as TMUK and Hitachi Rail are very involved in raising the skill set of young people in the UK in this area through apprenticeship schemes and links with local schools and colleges.

Both Professor David Smith and Dr Michael Ehret agreed that collaboration and information sharing on top of more long-term thinking is the key to sustainability and in some cases, institutional changes need to take place to realise this. Sarah added that although Toyota is a fantastic role model for information sharing through their various processes, there can be cultural challenges for other Japanese companies surrounding the sharing of information from a Japanese mind-set outside of Japan and also on a management level where slower and more structured decision-making processes and different communicational styles & methods of PR sometimes affect information-sharing both within organisations and to their customers and offices globally.

After the panel discussion, there were several Q&As from the audience including questions on the Brexit referendum (again bringing up the short-term versus long-term debate). This was followed by a chance to network and for everyone to sample the fantastic Japanese buffet provided by Japanese Ideas in Nottingham. Feedback was overwhelmingly positive with some students of the MSc in International Business students saying, “I learned so much, wrote so much and got to eat some amazing food so it was a great evening!”

This event was co-organised by the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programmes Alumni Association UK and Nottingham Business School as part of JETAAUK’s “Spotlight on Japanese Companies in the UK” and was attended by around 60 local business people, academics and students from surrounding universities, JETAA members and representatives from the Japan Local Government Centre and JET

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