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14 Feb

“Tradition is a responsibility, not a privilege”

IMG_3442 Japan Your Next Step

During one week, we had the pleasure to open up to Japanese opportunities visiting Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. Jointly with Howest staff and business people we discovered a deferent, always online community. 

Overal we learned that “tradition is a responsibility, not a privilege”. Their respect of their tradition is a source of inspiration. It helps putting short term actions into perspective. It is also impressively powerful for defining future actions.


Day 1: Toppan / Hitachi / Belgium Embassy


Toppan is a leading marketing service provider. Their commitment to their roots is remarkable. Born in printing, they have evolved over the last two decades to a 360-degree solution company, covering all relevant touch-points on the customer journey: online, offline, in store, packaging, digital display systems etc. Roughly 65 % of their turnover is no longer in traditional printing. Yet, their corporate branding still features “Toppan Printing” as a key signature line. Their printing museum, where a significant collection in Flemish books are on display – curtesy to our visit-  also reflect their proud roots. This historical perspective, allows to put into a much broader context today’s initiatives, highlighting the need for long-term thinking. A theme that seems to be quite central to all Japanese companies.


Hitachi is no longer selling “hardware”, such as high speed trains, wind and solar power. They are now selling “on-time train journey’s”, next to hardware, systems and maintenance services based on IOT. These SAAS based business models, are quite a revolution and allowed them to win the bid for the new high speed train services in the UK.

Consequently, Hitachi is shifting it’s focus to big data, acquiring recently companies such as Pintaho and Oxya. The jury is still out, whether they will be able to dance as fast as start-ups to capture this new space. Their organization structure is still layered and most likely far away from the “autonomy, mastery and purpose” organizational design concept as already practiced by Google. They also will need serious gaming inspired interfaces, allowing to access and translate big data into meaningful and actionable next steps. With the Howest team, teaching staff from Belgium schools and business people, we try to capture the essence and implications going forward. Spending time in the highly effective metro net, was never so fruitful.


Living and working +30 years in Japan, a team of Belgium business entrepreneurs are spearheading the Flanders conquest of Japan, translating differences in culture and “doing things” into business results. Meeting up with them at the Belgium embassy allowed taping into their experiences, learnings and benefiting from their networks.

Their common love for Japan is inspiring. They are also battling with European habits, such as “Happy holiday” x-ma’s period mails from Belgium headquarter staff, whist there is no x-ma’s break in Japan. The Japanese work ethic is however evolving, with companies now “suggesting” staff to go home at 19.00. Maybe this can help to improve the birth rate with an aging population creating a decrease from 120 million people to 80 million by 2050.

The FIT representatives we also met `at the Belgium embassy, are following in the footsteps of Thatcher, who pro-actively engaged with Japanese companies to invest in Britain in the seventies. They now hope to convince Japanese companies to shift away from their historical investments in Britain to the mainland post Brexit. Japanese companies hate the uncertainty that Brexit is creating, so there must be opportunities. Our ports and logistic networks remain the key asset to promote Europe in Japan, starting with Flanders as the key entry point, however our mobility issues are know and are becoming a liability. What are we waiting for to bring in Japanese reliability into public transport and infrastructure building?


Day 2: Bridgestone /Tokyo University

The 2020 Olympics are already felt in Tokyo’s daily life. All signage in the fabulously effective, quirky clean and punctual metro system, are subtitled in English, which is not exactly the case in Belgium. One is no longer lost in translation and the available app’s are extremely effective bringing people door to door and reducing car traffic / pollution.


All major companies are rallying behind this Olympic event, such as Bridgestone, who we are visiting this morning. Most impressive is their cadcam powered tire design department, making use of 3D and augmented reality, within boundaries set by Artificial Intelligence.  This allows to incorporate consumption efficiency, safety and noise reduction in the tire design. In addition, Bridgestone is contributing actively in earth quake protection making rubber base systems allowing to absorb the enormous seismographic energies.

Tokyo University

Developing solutions for significant major national problems seems to be a central theme today. Faced with the Fukushima radiation problems, the II S University of Tokyo, is developing robot systems, copying human gestures from a safe distance. This will allow normal work through robots without exposing humans to radiation.

Augmented reality solutions are in full swing development, allowing drivers to add layers of information during their normal commute, without distracting from the normal road traffic. Soon we will be driving through Rome, and with a push on a bottom, can continue our car journey in an ancient Roman setting.

Central to these developments at the II S University, is the close collaboration between Universities and large companies.   40 % of total revenue of this “public” University is funded by the industry. 3 monthly update meetings are organized, keeping companies up to speed with latest developments in academia and R&D centers. With 12.000 staff, there is one staff member for every three students, allowing hands-on coaching in education. Only the very best students enter universities, setting standards and high stress levels for high school students.


Day 3: Daikin Innovation Centre / Kyoto

The Sinkansen experience brings us swiftly to Osaka, where Daikin has set up in 2015 a new innovation center, bringing together different divisions into one open space environment. The concept is to stimulate collaboration and using the large building itself as a “life lab” to test fast new idea’s. Open collaboration and ideation is possible (captured on floor 3) inviting third parties to contribute into creative sessions. Open floor spaces intertwined with rooms for meetings and idea sharing, should stimulate an open culture “the silicon-valley” way. Yet, the silence during our visit hinted, that a truly open culture is most likely not an easy cultural shift within a traditional Japanese company. They have however the courage to build these impressive new buildings and encouraging a shift in culture, despite their obvious world success today.

A visit to Japan cannot be complete without a visit to a historical center, such as Kyoto, stressing the cultural historical heritage with temples and floor seating restaurants. We reflect on what makes Japan unique and how resilient it success will be going forward, in a world of Trump and Brexit. Not an easy answer. What we take with us, is their long-term focus, hard working culture, the sharing of their successes as everything is a team effort, and the ability to adapt in a controlled manor. After 3 day’s, many question remain unanswered, however our curiosity is definitely triggered to learn more and to come back.

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