Sonoko Takahashi was born in the Netherlands from Japanese parents. She had Dutch and Japanese secondary education and graduated from TU Delft in Technology Management (Technische Bestuurskunde). She worked for several companies in the Netherlands in strategy and innovation management. In 2019, Sonoko started working for the Dutch Embassy in Tokyo as innovation officer in digital technologies. Sonoko identifies with both cultures.
In many cases, she understands both worlds, and she usually does not prefer one world over the other. When she is in Europe, she often feels more Japanese and when she is in Japan, she often feels more Dutch. You are usually not aware of the things you have in common, but when there is a friction between what you see, what you feel, think or what you expect, then you notice the cultural differences.
I have noticed, and maybe even more due to the Covid situation, that the Japanese government is always talking about how we can find a good balance between the economic momentum or impulse by having people spending the money and safety and health. It is quite obvious again that it is all about spending, making people consume. I hope, and I think I see some of the signs that the spending and consumption, and the exhaustion of natural resources comes more together with the sustainability mindset – the circular economy way of thinking. The Suga government is also saying, we want this economic growth for the coming years, but we also want to implement this carbon zero policy. A lot of people on the street have this SDG pin on their lapels. I am not sure to what extent this is window dressing, but if you compare it to ten years ago, there was none of that at all. Tackling food waste – people need to be aware how
much food they throw away. The idea that they are also talking about these companies in the valid food chain. The circular ecnonomy way of thinking does not affect economic growth, but there is a way now to combine those two. I hope it is not only about spending and consuming but also spending and consuming in a sustainable way. That is the only way to go forward.
I think now that people had to suddenly limit their movements, it showed the weakness of how businesses have been structured in Japan. People felt that they had to be present in the office because of the ‘hanko’ stamp (the hanko is a carved stamp that can be used in any situation where an individual, or an individual on behalf of a company, might otherwise use a signature or initials), or because they did not have access to the server or they did not have a laptop as they always had a computer at the office. They were not accustomed to working from home, and it showed that businesses were not structured for
working from home. So I think it is a positive change. Normally, it would go step by step, and you would need approval from above to change these things, now it was imposed by the government. Not all companies and organisations can work this way, but a lot of them just had to. People might still not feel comfortable yet, but it has changed a lot. A week ago, I had an interview with someone. He had previously sent me a Zoom invite, but this time, I organised the meeting and I used Microsoft Teams for the online meeting. So this person wanted to test the link first, before we had the actual meeting as he still felt insecure about using a different platform. This is just a small example. It takes time, but it shows a positive change.
Seniority is very much appreciated in the company structure. The older you are, the more experience you have and people will listen to you. But now there is more use of new technologies. The younger generation can work easier with them, and in a certain way, they get a bit more respect. They are on a podium to set a good example because they
are adapting to the new way of working. I hope that is also changing a little bit of that balance.
As I work at the embassy, I can relate to the mixed environment. There are Dutch people and Japanese people working together. It is considered to be a Dutch organisation, but it focuses very much on what is suitable and appropriate in Japan. It is very hybrid. Setting a goal takes place both in the Netherlands and in Japan, but the way to reach that goal differs a lot. To generalise, if the quickest way to reach a goal is to go from A to B, Dutch people will go from A to B. Japanese people might take a longer route, going via C, if that is less risky or if you would get less resistance. It might take longer, but that is ok, if that does not cause conflict.
The challenges were not evident at first. Communication did not go smoothly with certain people. I felt a little resistance. To overcome this, I just talked with a lot of people about certain cases, and especially Japanese people who had experience with working in the Netherlands or Dutch people who had experience with working in Japan. My parents were able to help me a lot. Their input helped a lot. Very often, I thought, this is probably so typical Japanese and I do not understand this. For example, there was an online event, and a Dutch person was speaking upfront, it was already clearly mentioned that the meeting should be very interactive. Mainly Japanese people were attending this meeting, and everyone knew that it was meant to be interactive. So the Dutch
person asked some questions and no one answered. It was silent for a long time, until another Dutch person answered the question. The following questions were not answered either. I felt that was so awkward. So I asked many people, what was going on, how could this have been prevented. I thought it was almost rude. You should answer if there is a question, and you have an obligation to participate. Later, a Japanese friend told me that this is the Dutch way to get interaction in the meeting. With Japanese people in the audience, you need to arrange it differently. The set up was not right. If you like the Japanese to answer your questions, you need to point out that you would like your questions to be answered and that you will start from the front row and onwards. You tell a person that you will ask them the first question so they can be prepared. You could also split the audience in small groups and ask the groups to come up with a question.
I have had a series of interviews with Dutch people working with Japanese companies to create innovations, and I have noticed that patience is key. You need three or four times more time than what you would calculate to reach your goal in the Netherlands. The Japanese take quite some time to reach certain goals. As a foreigner, it will take even longer. You have to be patient, and you need to be prepared. I would also recommend trying to find someone who can guide you, who has the knowledge of both cultures, who can give you feedback–also about the things you do not want to hear.
In these series of interviews, I have been in touch with Japanese companies that have partnerships with Dutch companies in the Netherlands, and Dutch companies that have partnerships with Japanese companies in Japan. I have noticed that it makes a lot of difference if you reach
out to the Dutch side or the Japanese side. I was complaining because it took such a long time to get approval for the interview on the Japanese side, while in the Netherlands that was not an issue. It probably took more time in Japan because of the strict hierarchy and these people whom I contacted might have to ask for approval from a higher level. In the Netherlands the hierarchy is less strict, and people can easily decide to cooperate. Japanese people do want to cooperate too, but they first need time to get approval.
I recommend reading the book ‘The Culture Map’ by Erin Meyer to understand the theory about cultural differences. The book ‘Cultural Dimensions’ by Geert Hofstede is also good to read, but the nice thing about the book by Erin Meyer is that she has split the cultural aspects in how to do business. There are nine steps to follow and it is very helpful to get an inside look at certain processes!
Cecile Eijsink-Bonnier represents Houthoff in Tokyo. Her focus is on developing close ties with our local clients and firms to create new alliances and strengthen our network. Cecile works closely on this with our Netherlands-based professionals who will be visiting Tokyo regularly.
Cecile has experience as a corporate lawyer as she worked for more than 10 years for several law firms in the Netherlands. Her former role as a lawyer makes her the ideal candidate for this representative position.