J@pan Inc talks to the President of the French Chamber of Commerce in Japan
By Peter Harris
Who does the chamber represent?
The French chamber in Japan is the oldest European chamber of commerce, started in 1918. In Japan we have now reached a membership of 556. We are also the largest contributor to the European Business Council in Japan (EBCJ) and for France, the chamber here in Japan is one its most important in the world; Japan is a major market for many French companies. There are Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Chanel and so on in the luxury brand sector with Renault and Michelin in the automotive industry. AXA have more than 10,000 employees here and Sanofi-Aventis are big in pharmaceuticals.
What does the chamber do?
We have a number of networking events, dinners, lunches, breakfasts, seminars, talks and more. Last year we had 74 events, the largest of which was our gala dinner attended by 961 people, with music performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic and two soloists from the Opera de Paris. On top of that, we have a golf tournament and, of course, committee meetings. We also offer a basic market entry facilitation service including an office with six desks for a company to rent if they are considering setting up in Japan. They have access to all the chamber’s corporate facilities plus the advantage of our business network. Companies have the option to stay up to two years with the support of the chamber. Additionally, we have a human resources department to help members search for candidates. We don’t compete with the executive search companies as everything is from the chamber—our members can send us a request for staff and many candidates send in their resume and then we match them up. We don’t actually actively look but if we make a successful match we do take a small commission. This has been running for many years. Last year chamber members submitted 124 requests and we were able to provide 33 successful placements for candidates.
What do you do to promote French- Japanese commercial relations?
About one third of our membership is Japanese and we have two Japanese board members, as well as many European or American members, so we are a good bridge between foreign and domestic companies. In the last few years, we have actively sought more Japanese members. We have no restrictions concerning different nationalities and we see it as our mission to help businesses communicate. This is one of the reasons why our chamber’s newsletter and journal are published bilingually in French and Japanese.
Can you briefly outline the history of French business interests in Japan?
The first company here was Air Liquide in the energy sector—they were established in Japan in 1907 where they saw an opportunity to provide oxygen and acetylene for the major development and construction that was taking place. Slowly, particularly after the war, more and more French companies came to Japan and then during the slowdown in the 1990s, a lot of French saw this as a good time to make acquisitions and get involved in the market. For example, it was during this period, the so-called ‘lost decade,’ when Renault took a large stake in Nissan and AXA bought Nippon Dentai Life Insurance—a number of French businesses extended their operations in Japan during that period. In fact, ironically, it was during the recession that sales of Louis Vuitton starting taking off too. In recent years, there have been less newcomers. The economy has been doing better and so there has been less of a need for foreign involvement and less opportunities. That said, French companies that create quality products, particularly small-medium sized enterprises, should really be trying to get into the market here because it is so important and there is a lot of help available through organizations such as ourselves. Although many companies stress China these days, I believe that Japan is equally important.
What brought you to Japan?
I studied pharmacy in Lyon and then I came in 1985 on the European Commission Executive Training Program (ETP) to learn about the market and the language. In total I have been here for 15 years and have worked for two companies. Just now I am President of Merial in Japan, a French animal healthcare company. I also have a Japanese wife who I met in Europe and that also got me interested in the country and the culture.
How are the French perceived in Japan?
When I did the ETP, I completed inhouse training in Japanese companies and many Japanese staff seemed to think that French people don’t work very hard because of the regulated working hours. Also, some believed that you can’t drink tap water in France. But actually, there is quite a favorable impression of France—it was voted second most loved country here, after the US, and that is probably a result of female voters because they view France as stylish and romantic and that is something very beneficial.
The French Chamber