December 1, 2002｜Russia
President, Japan Sea Network Ltd.
As you are doubtless aware, almost all of the Japanese companies that had established a presence in such Far Eastern Russian cities as Vladivostok have had to withdraw from the region during the last decade. The reasons for this withdrawal lie in the many problems on the Russian side; however, the problems on the Japanese side cannot be ignored either, such as the structural recession in the Japanese economy and changes of strategy vis-a-vis Russia on the part of Japanese companies.
At present, the Japanese population in Vladivostok consists of two employees of trading companies, one from a computer software development company, and one person working for the mass media, in addition to officials from the Japanese consulate general and the Japan Center. Given this paltry number, I feel profoundly depressed when I contemplate the future of economic relations between Japan and Far Eastern Russia.
However, even though Japanese companies have been forced to leave Vladivostok and elsewhere in Far Eastern Russia, I would like to talk about the fact that Japan’s corporate philosophy, service-oriented mentality and culture have steadily taken root there.
In 1992, a Japanese trading firm opened a showroom for new cars made by H, a Japanese car manufacturer, and began selling them. At that time, the manufacturer focused on sedan cars and was popular in Europe and the U.S., but it was obvious that such cars were unsuitable for driving on the rough roads of Far Eastern Russia. I heard that sales were relatively good during the first year, but the showroom had disappeared within three years of its establishment. The trading firm also pulled out of the region.
However, from the time when sales commenced, company H undertook the training of Russian engineers. The company instigated a partnership with a technical college in Vladivostok and sent Japanese engineers to provide technical guidance in such areas as vehicle mechanisms. This training nurtured some excellent engineers. It is therefore no surprise that even now, many Russians have a high opinion of the technical guidance regarding Japanese cars that company H undertook in Vladivostok.
Summit Motors, which presently sells new Japanese vehicles in Vladivostok, placedthe utmost emphasis on training its engineers, and the Toyota cars that it sells are number one for reliability in Far Eastern Russia. As a consequence, the opinion of Russians in general regarding Japan is that, “it takes time for Japanese companies to establish a presence here, but once they do, they do everything properly”.
The Hotel Acfes Seiyo stands a little away from the center of Vladivostok. As the name suggests, the hotel was established as a joint venture with Japan. A Japanese manager was in residence there for a while and the hotel is famous for providing accommodation for many Japanese who visit Vladivostok.
It is no exaggeration to say that the style of service in this hotel was instrumental in bringing about a change from the style of service that had traditionally prevailed in hotels and restaurants in Vladivostok and Khabarovsk. When the hotel opened, one thing was particularly troubling to those on the Japanese side; in the Soviet era, receptionists at hotels always dealt with guests while sitting down, which conveyed the impression that “I am allowing you to stay”. The Japanese manager at the time told me that Russians were stubborn in their resistance when told to stand up while talking to guests, so the hotel had to put a great deal of time and effort into teaching its Russian employees the principles of good service.
These days, almost all receptionists at hotels in Vladivostok stand up when they deal with guests, which is a major achievement on the part of the Japanese companies who taught them the principles of good service in hotels. This style has become standard. Nowadays, those wishing to lodge objections about the quality of the service tend to be Russian rather than Japanese.
There are currently four restaurants in Vladivostok which serve Japanese food. I should emphasize that all these restaurants are owned by Russians. Since there are many people in Vladivostok who have traveled to Japan on business, among other reasons, ethnic Japanese restaurants have become popular, being seen as rather chic. These restaurants import ingredients directly from Japan and their chefs exercise their ingenuity with regard to the dishes.
Until the middle of the 1990s, Vladivostok was home to several Japanese restaurants run as joint ventures by Japanese and Russians. One of the restaurants, “Sakura”, which was in the basement of the Vladivostok Hotel, was popular for its tempura dishes and was crowded with Russian customers. I recollect that the restaurant often appeared in the media as a symbol of joint ventures between Japan and Russia, as the customers were welcomed by Russian women wearing kimono. Now, with hindsight, I think that this restaurant gave Russians a feel for Japanese culture.
Russians have been interested in Japanese culture throughout the ages. The four Japanese restaurants provide a bridge between the two nations in the form of gastronomic culture. I wonder whether there might be any way in which Japan can provide cooperation in this area.
The above are just a few examples. For the past ten years, it seems that people in Far Eastern Russia have been diligently observing Japanese business procedures more than the Japanese have been watching Russians.
One day, when I was on one of Vladivostok Air’s planes, I noticed that they had begun to provide something like the damp towel commonly provided in bars and restaurants, and on airplanes in Japan. They seem to have come up with this service to please their Japanese passengers. Moreover, recently, I was on the train “Okean” from Vladivostok to Khabarovsk, and the compartments for two passengers were sleepers with food and alcoholic drinks provided. This kind of service will please foreign tourists and give rise to added economic value.
I think that the service industries in which Japanese companies and individuals tried to do business with the Russians at the beginning of the 1990s have taken on a different form and are beginning to bear fruit for the Russians.
[Translated by ERINA]