October 1, 2003｜Russia
Executive Director, Suzuki Co., Ltd.
In February 1991, when I returned to my hometown of Nemuro, in Hokkaido, in order to take over the management of my father’s company, entry restrictions on Russian boats were eased under a reciprocal agreement with Russia. As a result, the number of Russian boats entering Nemuro’s Hanasaki Port, which has been designated an important port, rose by leaps and bounds and this led to rapid progress being made in mutual relations with Russia.
As its name might suggest, Nemuro, sometimes called “the city nearest the rising sun”, is the place where the movement demanding the return of the Northern Territories to Japan has its grass roots; it is also a city facing the problem of national sovereignty, which has yet to be resolved, more than 50 years after the end of the war with Russia. At the time, those of us in Nemuro did not imagine that Nemuro would be in the front line of the snowballing development of interpersonal and economic exchange with Russia. It seemed as though the biggest wave of internationalization in more than 200 years had engulfed Nemuro, at the easternmost edge of Hokkaido, since Adam Laxman arrived in Nemuro in 1792 on the Ekaterina II, as the official emissary of the Empress Catherine II. Coincidentally, the “visa-free exchange” program began in 1992, marking the start of interaction between former Japanese residents and current Russian residents of the four islands. Nemuro is also the hub city for this exchange.
In 1992, the Nemuro Information Center was opened, to provide Russian sailors coming ashore with information and a place to interact with residents of the region; the following year, the Northern Territories Exchange Center was built as a hub for Russo-Japanese exchange.
For the last few years, about 2,000 ships have docked and 20,000 Russians have come ashore each year at Nemuro, which has a population of just 33,000; in a sense, this is a fluctuating population increase and has created new markets. The main focus of Nemuro’s trade with Russia is the import of seafood, particularly crab and sea urchin, but there are diverse needs, from miscellaneous daily goods, such as oil and foodstuffs, to alcohol, tobacco, clothing, electrical appliances, and recently construction materials; Russian visitors to Nemuro buy these and take them back to Russia with them. This is just my opinion, but industry in the area, particularly the fishing industry, which is the key local industry, was blessed by the Nemuro bubble (crab bubble?), which lasted from around 1995 to 2000, and there can be no doubt that there were many businesses and groups that experienced a recovery or even dramatic growth in their profitability.
According to statistics compiled by Nemuro City Office, Nemuro Chamber of Trade and Industry and Nemuro Credit Association (now Daichi Mirai Credit Union), the economic effect – total value of imports plus the ripple effect – in 2000 was estimated at 9.388 billion yen. However, at the time, I often heard the opinion expressed that, if invisible aspects and items for which it was not possible to gather information were included, a significant upward revision would certainly be the result.
At present, trade with Russia in marine produce is being systemized and marine produce businesses’ financial means, ability to gather information, network of personal connections and ability to translate thoughts into action seem to be factors in their success. On a commercial basis as well, it seems that the purchasing structure of Russian customers is changing, moving away from individual customers towards purchases by groups and companies. If I were to sum up Russian business, I would have to describe it as ‘risk management’. However, if one understands risk management as being solely the avoidance of risk, one’s dealings with Russians and Russian businesses could well go awry. Russian business is definitely based on controlling risk and one cannot help but feel that one will not succeed unless one thinks in terms of coexistence and collaboration in everything, from the style of the business to the personnel working within it.
In 1998, my company hired its first Russian employee, a Russian woman; we hired another the following year and, after she married a Japanese, we employed a Russian man in 2000. Our two Russian employees married and they are still doing a great job working for us today. It is easy to talk about relationships of trust and mutual understanding, but I speak from experience when I say that it requires a great deal of time and energy to build them up. Last year, our two Russian employees had a child; I was very moved, as I felt that the real outcome of my company’s activities so far was not money or material goods, but the birth of a new life, as if it were the result of grassroots diplomacy in Nemuro.
From the perspective of those in the center of the country, this city of Nemuro may well seem as though it is at the easternmost edge of the country, but from the Russian point of view, it is the closest entrance to Japan, and I think that the city is in pole position in Russian diplomacy, in a variety of ways. The peculiarities of Nemuro lie not only in the culinary delights of the northern sea, but also in its position as the basic focus of issues relating to Russia and the Northern Territories. Specific initiatives with an eye on the future, which focus on the themes of “urban development and Russo-Japanese exchange” and “Russo-Japanese exchange and the movement for the return of the Northern Territories” are needed, now more than ever. It is important to ensure that the six pillars of the Japan-Russia Action Plan concluded by President Putin and Prime Minister Koizumi in January this year filter down in tangible ways to the level of regions, private-sector businesses, groups and individuals from the level of government and big business. Furthermore, in order to ensure that this plan does not just become a “castle in the air”, I believe it is necessary to set our sights on the coming fiscal year and beyond, i.e. the second term of the Putin administration, which is currently stable. I think that Nemuro itself needs to think in terms of venture businesses, in order to approach this Japan-Russia Action Plan from a variety of angles, further promote the cause of securing the return of the Northern Territories and make the region more affluent. I hope that the day is not far off when we will see Russians working for Nemuro City Office, Nemuro Chamber of Trade and Industry and Daichi Mirai Credit Union, which compiled the aforementioned statistics on the economic effect of trade with Russia.
[Translated by ERINA]