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ETP in Tokyo at Waseda

June 8, 2008

Almost three month in Tokyo and it’s only now that I am able to update this blog! All the more it started recently getting heavily frequented. Sorry for that. But it’s symptomatic for our condition here, you will see.

Fujisan seen from Shinkansen in the early morning

ETPJ has reached its final destination Japan. After four incredibly thrilling and challenging months in Paris, Milan and London we had to settle here until November 2008. In the meantime we got our test results from Sciences Po, Bocconi and SOAS. I was happy to receive a triple A from the European part although I had a difficult start at SOAS. My test paper for Sciences Po on Japanese history can be found here.

Here is a pamphlet of ETP Japan with pics of all participants and with an overview of the program (3,5 MB). ETP has also come up with a promotional video in which some of us appear.

Most of my ETP colleagues arrived around the beginning of March. The inaugural session was held on March 5th in the early afternoon at Waseda University. The campus is located 15 min. by car or train north-east from Shinjuku. It was kind of tough for me as I only had arrived at Narita airport on the morning of the same day with 60 kg of luggage. But I was high spirits and enjoyed the trip altogether. I felt like in 1982 when I moved from Munich to Paris with my scooter (Zündapp) and one suitcase on the train just the day after my high school diploma. With the only difference that this time I had the farewell from my wife and the children in the bones. Initially we wanted to move together to Tokyo for a year but then the children were just too happy with their schools in Berlin where they get now an excellent musical education and my wife got a good job in the meantime. So it became unjustifiable to move the whole family to Tokyo just for the sake of my ETP participation. Not an easy decision…

Haruki Murakami and wine on the plain to Tokyo,
somewhere above the Baltic Sea

As usual I was well served on the flight with BA. They have excellent red wine and good movies on their planes, though the seats are really too small – or I have grown to big on my previousTour d’Europe with ETP? Anyway, for me the real excellency of the service was demonstrated by the fact that the steward after looking at me immediately served me with two bottles of the red “Prieur des Jacobins” and went on doing so at each consecutive order. You know what I mean?

“Yookoso Reginaado” – Welcome cake from my friend Matthias von Miller

When I arrived in Jiyugaoka at our residence Lotus Calyx I found a wonderful welcome gift from my German friend Matthias whom I accidentally ran into two years ago on Ginza. We knew each other since secondary school and had met last time before maybe ten years ago. The world is getting too small for us humans.

Sunrise on our Audiantis headquarters Lotus Calyx

And thus began my days in Japan. I had planned a huge program: finishing two books (one historical novel on the German physician Siebold who visited Japan in 1823, secondly a political pamphlet on the inevitable decline and end of the German Federal Republic in the near future), writing some short stories and articles, traveling on weekends through Japan, doing lots of sports, reading 1,5 tons of books – all because I am alone and without TV. Well, this was a sweet dream.

Welcome Dinner at Konno-san’s beautifully austere place

First, I was surprised with the cold weather. Consider that Tokyo is on the same latitude with Agadir in Morocco and with Lebanon. You would expect a little more than 6 to 9 degrees Celsius. Actually, London in February was much warmer. Then came the time when everybody in Tokyo seemed to have cought a bad cold. The sound of hundreds of people snuffling their noses in the morning rush-hour on the train was painful (it’s a regrettable Japanese habit; instead of blowing their nose once in a while they are permanently snuffling). But when I started to feel sick myself, I knew that it was something different from a usual cold. I could identify the usual symptoms like soar throat, headache and running nose. But there was no kind of fever or aching muscles and it didn’t pass after 3 to 5 days. It took me more than two weeks to find out that this was a very specific kind of hay fever and that the amount of pollen in the air was dramatically high this year. Most of all those people had just hay fever like myself, although I never experienced this kind in Europe and I had gotten almost completely rid of it almost ten years ago.

By the end of March the temperature climbed up decently, the hay fever disappeared and my blood started circulating again at the usual pace. Though there was a huge problem with sleep and it concerned all of the ETP participants. It was some kind of extended jet lag. We all had difficulties to go to bed and to sleep at a time that would have allowed us to get up well rested between 7 and 8 a.m. When Estelle, the ETP coordinator of Sciences Po, came to visit us in the second week of April she was visibly shocked to see us in such a bad state, pale and tired. Fact was, that most of us kept in touch with Europe, either with friends and family or with the company or all of them. I also got and sent most of my emails after midnight, same for the Skype sessions and telephone calls. This is why also the weekends didn’t really help. It was only after the so called Golden Week, which is the first week in May with some national holidays, that all of us had recovered.

Another rough experience is commuting in Tokyo during rush hours. I had been traveling to Tokyo since 2005 more than a dozen of times, but I seem to have avoided unconsciously this situation of being squeezed into the trains. It happened to me for the first time now and I was kind of shocked. Not only it gets really hot inside there, you can also lose your balance and be forced to keep your stand although your point of gravity is not any more above the ground where you have placed your feet. It took me a while to develop the necessary stoicism that helps you to endure such situations.

Unfortunately not a picturesque myth but daily reality

The first three weeks at Waseda with ETP where a time of grace. ETP showed some clemency and we had Japanese classes only from 9.00 to 12.10. Of course we needed this free time to find apartments, to open bank accounts and to get the alien registration cards. Then started the business core curriculum: “Foreign Firms’ Japanese Market Entry Strategies”, “Japan’s Economy and Government Policies”, “Japanese Style of Management and Culture”, “Consumer Behavior in  Japan”. For each class there were assigned readings and sometimes essay writings. Among the readings were fascinating case studies, either from Harvard Business School, Boston Consulting or specifically made ones for ETP. Together with the homework and assignments for Japanese classes the workload grew dramatically. We had up to 36 hours classes and lectures per week and some of us had to commute a lot. As interesting as some classes might have been: We quickly agreed that it doesn’t make sense to have classes going from 9 o’clock in the morning through 19.30 in the evening and then to commute back in order to do more homework.It is established knowledge in neurophysiology that the human brain can not digest more than 4 consecutive hours of information input. Some people got really demotivated, others made just a trade off by explicitly neglecting the business curriculum and prioritizing the language classes. Which makes sense because from August 1st on we have three months internships in Japanese companies. Our business knowledge will certainly be very useful by then, but only if we are able to communicate in Japanese.

Old tee house in Jiyugaoka

If you put all of this together you might recognize that this is an extremely tough program. It is like an MBA during which you are traveling around the world and learning one of the most difficult languages on our planet. The teachers are all hand selected experts in their fields, some of them are even quite famous like Kichiro Hayashi and Atsushi Funakawa, both professors for intercultural management. We had fantastic classes with them. My final test paper (2 pages) on “Fatigue in Japan” and “Digital Guts” in Hayashi-sensei’s course is here. He liked it.

Some more lectures with case studies that we enjoyed most were about foreign company’s strategies in Japan held by the ETP mastermind JJ Ikegami and about advertising strategies held by Mitsuru Yamada who has worked 32 years for Dentsu, Japan’s and the world’s biggest advertising agency. We learned many unexpected features of Japan, for example that the amount of communication through mass media of Japanese people, i. e. newspaper circulation (5,4 billions p.a.!), TV, Internet and mobile phone, is by very far the highest in the world. Or that the Japanese economy is by one third bigger than the German one, but the tax revenues of the Japanese state are by one third lower than the German ones – which means that the huge Japanese public debt (160% of GDP) together with this tax exemption policy is a crazy subsidizing program that lets Japanese people completely lose the sense of economic reality. We are curious to see when this plan backfires.

What is also amazing, that is the total dedication of the ETP staff and teachers in Europe and especially Japan. They are working not less hard than we do. And there comes the really nice and beneficial side of ETP in Japan. We don’t have only classes and lectures, but also many arranged business gatherings, networking events, social activities, excursions and regional trips. This proved to be a very good counterbalance to our stressful academic curriculum. And it showed us how much of business in Japan is actually non-business communication, drinking, enjoying social contacts, meeting people easily, getting friends quickly. One of the first memorable evenings was with Ando-san, the former CEO of Sony who forged the joint venture SonyEricsson. Now he is chairman of Sony Life Insurance. This energetic man gave us a fascinating lecture where he candidly shared his experiences and ideas with us, especially concerning technology trends in Japan and in the world. After that there was a reception with him and he was most entertaining and interested in all of the ETP participants, promising right away his support and help where it is needed.

Allen Miner with Niklas Ekarv from Sweden

Another key person in Japanese business whom Waseda and in particular JJ Ikegami-sensei (sensei means master and teacher) could attract to meet ETP was Allen Miner, the former CEO of Oracle Japan who made a very successful IPO at the Tokyo stock exchange. Today he is heading his venture capital company Sunbridge. He was also very straightforward with his initial personal mistakes in Japan and his opinions. His summary: “Personality is the ultimate strategy”. And he told us that if we want to sell products in Japan we will have to accept huge reseller discount because the Japanese distribution system has so many intermediaries who all want to earn money on the sales. But this will be compensated by loyalty and sales volume.

Murakami-sensei and Takayama-sensei

We had like in London three language groups, each of them being taken care of by three language teachers. For our beginners group it is Masami Murakami and Yukimi Takayama for standard classes and Reiko Nakano for conversation classes. The daily work is prepared by our teachers in a breathtakingly minute and detailed manner. They had also to show a lot of tolerance with us as there were quite a few days when we were just exhausted and unable to do or to finish our homework. They understood that we have very few time for self-study, and this is certainly the most critical point of the whole program.

Christina, Fabienne and Murakami-sensei in Rikugien garden

And now to the real fun part! If you have read the reports on our stations in Europe, you might have understood that this bunch of Europeans in ETP26 is always partying as hard as it is working. It took us a while to start but in the meantime we have developed some expertise in getting around in Tokyo and Japan. First, there are the excursions with our teachers. We went to Sugamo were there is a traditional shopping street, a shotengai where only old people go shopping. It is called the “Shibuya (which is “kids town”) for the old people”. It was like travelling in a time machine and you would not believe that you are in Tokyo. Next station was the beautiful garden called Rikugien. It is unbelievable how much a garden can relax you. After the excursions we have always to write reports – in Japanese, of course.

Delicious sweets based on sweet potatoes on Sugamos shotengai

The next event was unavoidably sakura, the cherry blossoming, and hanami, which means “looking at flowers”. This opens really splendid views in Tokyo as the city is covered with white blossoms for about 10 days. I always thought that the sakura scenes in Kurozawas late movies were kitschy exaggerations. But in reality the presence and beauty of the blossoms is even much bigger than you can show on screen.

Hanami picnic in the Emperor’s garden

Two more cherry blossoms, Julien (French) and Laetitzia (Italian)

We had more than one opportunity for hanami, one was the picnic in the Emperors garden with delicious obento, little set boxes with a variety of Japanese food. But the surprising one was late at night. And there I was enlightened about my naive misconception of hanami. I seriously believed that this is some aesthetically refined and spiritual event when Japanese people with friends and families sit down under cherry trees and marvel lengthily at this beauty of nature. How wrong! Hanami is basically an opportunity for public boozing and nobody cares about the cherry blossoms. Though it is extremely entertaining and funny and we had an excellent night with the ETP staff and JJ Ikegami on the bank of Kanda river.

Hanami by night

Then it became high time for us to make our own party. I invited all ETP participants, teachers and staff as well as many people from our Audiantis’ network. Initially we wanted to make a rooftop party at our office Lotus Calyx but it rained all the day long heavily. Our friend and landlord Vincent, a photographer and passionate collector of ducks, offered us his studio and we had about 100 guests. Everybody was happy in the end because we didn’t invite only business people but many artists, journalists and media people.

Lotus Calyx party seen from the gallery of Vincent’s studio

Mari, a SOAS alumna. Is she really Japanese? Yes, from Shikoku island

Everything was well organized and I could relax

There are many more pics on our new Japanese website

Vincent’s duck collection

Another fascinating excursion was just this week. We went all together to a sumo school. We watched the full morning training program of those heavyweights, one of them being Mongolian. There are now about 60 foreigners in the top ranks of Japanese sumo wrestling organizations. In this respect Japan has indeed opened up to the rest of the world. After the training we had to have interviews with the sumo wrestlers. I was intimidated and – against my nature – almost to shy to address the one who was assigned to me.

Inside the sumo beya

Since the party, which was on a Friday, we have managed to go out together regularly in different constellations. It became some kind of sport for us to head to Goruden Gai as a last stop. In the meantime we have become established customers in this crazy place that some of us never leave before daylight. Read and see more of Goruden Gai here.

With Miklos, Eric, Niklas and Fabienne at Soirées place in Goruden Gai

Next week we have our first big regional trip to the Kansei area, which is the region of Kobe, Nagoya, Osaka and Kyoto. We will visit many Japanese companies. I will stay the weekend after in Kyoto in a the beautiful Yoshimizu ryokan and visit my friend and mentor Tsutsumi-sensei.

Last year with Sadami Tsutsumi in his house in Kyoto

I will keep you posted – hopefully in less than three more months!

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