Japanese work well with ‘friendly Slovaks’

THE JAPANESE are generally cautious when it comes to investments, carefully considering all aspects of a decision. However, once a Japanese firm commits to a decision, or to a country, then what they offer is long-term involvement, said Yoshio Nomoto, the Japanese Ambassador to Slovakia in an interview with The Slovak Spectator. He also noted that 2009 has been a challenging year for both Japan and Slovakia.

Yoshio Nomoto, the Japanese Ambassador to Slovakia Yoshio Nomoto, the Japanese Ambassador to Slovakia (Source: Jana Liptáková)

THE JAPANESE are generally cautious when it comes to investments, carefully considering all aspects of a decision. However, once a Japanese firm commits to a decision, or to a country, then what they offer is long-term involvement, said Yoshio Nomoto, the Japanese Ambassador to Slovakia in an interview with The Slovak Spectator. He also noted that 2009 has been a challenging year for both Japan and Slovakia.

“Now you have a new European Union: after ratification of the Lisbon Treaty the EU now has a ‘president’ and a ‘foreign minister’,” Nomoto said. “Japan held its elections at the end of August and the Democratic Party of Japan won over the Liberal Democratic Party which was in power for a half century. A new government has formed and Yukio Hatoyama became the Prime Minister. The new EU and the new Japan are facing a lot of global issues with which to cope.”

The Slovak Spectator spoke to Ambassador Nomoto about challenges that Japanese companies face in Slovakia, cultural and scientific exchanges between the two countries, as well as issues of energy security.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Slovakia continues to declare its interest both in keeping foreign investors here and also in attracting new investments. In your opinion what are the main attractions of Slovakia’s business environment for Japanese companies?

Yoshio Nomoto (YN): As for the economic and financial crisis, everybody suffers from it and Japan has also been hit very badly. But, Japan is large enough to cope with the situation while even continuing to help developing countries.

These circumstances do not make new investments abroad the most important steps for Japanese businesses right now. I know that the Slovak government really wants to attract foreign investments to help to overcome economic difficulties. Even in this difficult situation we have two new Japanese investments coming to Slovakia this year: one is a manufacturing company in Nitra and the other is an insurance company’s office in Bratislava which is the first Japanese financial office in Slovakia. Even with the crisis, Sony maintains its average production as Panasonic does in Krompachy. Yazaki has recovered and is increasing production again. Japanese companies are doing pretty well even in this difficult situation.

Geographical location is among the main advantages because Slovakia is in the centre of Europe and you are a member of the EU. Slovakia has also introduced the euro so investors no longer need to worry about foreign currency fluctuations. Slovakia also offers a well-trained labour force. You have a simple tax system and the political stability. In addition, Slovaks are generally friendly so Japanese investors can work well with them.

TSS: What are the greatest challenges that Japanese firms face in Slovakia? Is there anything that you consider as a hurdle in the way of Japanese businesses? Do you see some areas of improvement?

YN: Slovakia is not very much known in Japan. I think Slovakia needs more publicity work in Japan. I understand that the Slovak Embassy in Tokyo and the Slovak-Japanese Chamber of Commerce are making a considerable effort. The chamber is a very small organisation but it has already initiated a lot of activities: it organised a tour and held seminars to introduce Slovakia to Japanese business leaders.

The companies which are already here feel some inconveniences: for example, the double payment of the social insurance fees. Both governments will first study each other’s systems in an effort to find a resolution.

Also, it still takes quite long to get a work permit here and Slovakia does not issue short-term work permits. Some Japanese companies see this as inconvenient. They also have noted that there is more sick leave for Slovak employees than they had originally assumed.

TSS: Is the language barrier a significant factor for the Japanese community in Slovakia? Do Japanese firms seek out Slovaks who speak Japanese?

YN: Whether people speak Japanese is not such a huge problem. Of course, the language barrier gets obvious when one cannot find enough employees who speak English, for example. Even here in Bratislava it sometimes becomes difficult finding fluent English-speaking Slovaks. I really hope Slovakia will put more resources into English teaching since English is becoming more and more the common language around the world. We face a similar problem in Japan too and my country should also put more energy and resources into teaching practical English. Japanese companies do not regard the Japanese language as an absolute condition for hiring people at management level. They look more carefully at an applicant’s managerial skills than the level of Japanese, as long as they understand English. Of course, our embassy and the Japanese government would like to see more Slovaks studying Japanese.

TSS: What are the most significant exchange programmes that support cultural and scientific exchanges between Slovakia and Japan?

YN: We offer the Japanese government scholarship every year on a worldwide basis. It makes it possible for students to get bachelor and masters degrees. This is our national scholarship programme and several Slovak students get this scholarship every year. We also offer the Japan-Europe Mutual Understanding scholarship programme for high school students; some students stay for six weeks, some for six months. Every year one or two high school students from Slovakia attend this programme. We also have the Japan Foundation’s Fellowship for Intellectual Exchange programme, which is on our website.

I personally experienced scientific exchange this September at a Japanese, Czech and Slovak joint symposium on theoretical and computational chemistry when a high-level Japanese scholar came to Slovakia. The first time this symposium was held in Prague. This was the third time and this time Slovakia was the host. Comenius University hosted the symposium and I had a chance to talk with the Japanese researchers. They said the Czech Republic and Slovakia have a very high standard and reputation in the world in this field.

This kind of scholarly exchange is important. Many exchanges of scholars were done according to agreements between Japanese and Slovak universities. There is also a memorandum of understanding on the exchange of sciences between the Slovak Academy of Sciences and the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science.

TSS: Japan is known for its ability to promptly implement new research and development projects in real life. Slovakia still falls far behind in this area. How has Japan been able to achieve such progress in the swift implementation of the newest technologies?

YN: Historically, education has had a very high priority in Japan. Since the start of modern Japan 150 years ago, it was the national target to catch up with Western technology. At the same time we also achieved our original development. Japan has put a lot of resources into research and development (R&D) and the total amount dedicated to R&D puts us next to the US. Since we are such a small country without natural resources, our strength is mainly in technology.

TSS: What have been the most notable cultural events and programmes that your embassy has organised? How do Slovaks respond to Japanese culture?

YN: Slovaks are extremely interested in cultural events organised by our embassy. I was surprised that 400 tickets for the performance of the Japanese puppet theatre were completely sold out and after the end of the performance there was a standing ovation. I was surprised because this is a very traditional Japanese theatre and I had worried that it would not be very understandable to Slovaks. I was so moved by their response.

Since I came here my main priority has been to help Slovaks understand more about my country, so this kind of cultural or personal exchange is at the top of my agenda. In September we organised a tea ceremony and also held workshops on flower arranging and calligraphy. All these were successful. We also invite friends of Japan to view a Japanese movie at a gathering at the embassy. Next year I would like to make lectures on Japan.

TSS: Slovakia’s Banská Štiavnica and Vysoké Tatry have partner towns in Japan. How are these geographically distant towns able to maintain partnerships? Are there any concrete products of this cooperation?

YN: To maintain these sister city relations is not an easy task. Vysoké Tatry and Nosegawa, in the Nara prefecture, concluded their sister town relationship when Mr. Lajčák served as Ambassador in Tokyo. I feel it works very well, at least on the Japanese side. Every two years, the city sends a Japanese high school student to Slovakia. Of course, the local governments, which manage these relationships, have also been hit by the economic crisis and have fewer funds to invest in these activities. I have heard that in 2010 a student is planning to come from Japan. I do not know how often Vysoké Tatry sends people there, but I hope the relationship will continue.

Banská Štiavnica and the Japanese town of Kosaka have a common mining background and thus they decided that they might work together. They have concluded a cooperation agreement probably to boost tourism. It started only last year. It is not easy to maintain these relationships but I hope they will continue.

TSS: What aspects of the Slovak culture are interesting for the Japanese? Is Japan an interesting tourist destination for Slovaks?

YN: Japanese are not very familiar with Slovakia because of the geographical distance. But then, music is an interesting connection. Your Philharmonic Orchestra is pretty well-known; they have visited Japan almost every two years and the Japanese are actually waiting for the Philharmonic to come. Then the folk groups SĽUK and Šarišan are known as well and are popular in Japan. Your soprano singer Edita Gruberová is very famous and perhaps even if they do not know she is Slovak, they know her.

Then there is a Slovak cellist who is the member of the Japanese orchestra – Ľudovít Kanta – he plays in the ensemble Kanazawa. He used to be the number one player.

Well, it is a great challenge how to increase tourism on both sides. Gradually tourists from Japan are increasing, especially during the summer. Even yesterday I saw a group of Japanese travellers in that cold weather. I have heard that about 15,000 Japanese have visited Slovakia, but this number is only reported by the hotels. Because Slovakia is part of the Schengen area it is hard to count the Japanese tourists unless they stay at hotels.

We want Slovaks to visit Japan, but for Slovaks the Far East is still a long way and in some ways it is still not affordable. We are launching our national project Visit Japan Campaign and we invite as many tourists as we can to visit Japan. Next January there will be a tourist fair at Incheba exhibition centre. Our embassy will open a desk; even though we are not a tourist company we will try to provide information about Japan.

TSS: After the January gas crisis, Slovakia began putting more emphasis on the importance of energy security. What importance does Japan attribute to this issue? Is the energy sector among potential areas for cooperation between Japan and Slovakia?

YN: We also rely on imports of energy, almost 100 percent for oil. Diversification of energy resources is our issue too. As soon as I arrived in Slovakia your country experienced its gas crisis. Your country is rather heavily dependent on nuclear power; Japan too. Because of global warming Japan may rely more on nuclear power. We have very strong technology for nuclear power plants. As far as energy is concerned, Japan has a very high technology on energy-saving and ecology. We may work together in these fields in the future.

I think we have ample room to develop further all fields between Japan and Slovakia. Fortunately, your Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák understands the situation of Japan very well since he was ambassador to Japan.

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