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Japan remains magnet for Kobe-born Swiss hotelier

Urges people to take advantage of the service on offer here

by Minoru Matsutani

Martin Fluck has lived a cosmopolitan life childhood and his professional career has taken him to several different countries.

But for the 51-year-old Swiss born in Kobe, Japan is a magnet: Wherever he has been, he has always found an excuse to return to Japan. All told, he has lived nearly half his life in Japan — 24 years in four separate stints.

“I love Japan because I grew up here. It’s easy to find my way around, culturally and socially,” said Fluck, now the country manager of serviced apartment operator Oakwood Asia Pacific.

Fluck was born in Kobe to Swiss parents and went to international schools there for 10 years.

“The good thing is I had multinational friends. They were Swiss, Americans, Indians, Pakistani, Greek, Argentina, French and everything mixed. That is the beautiful thing. We had a ‘united nations,’ ” he said.

Fluck’s best childhood friend was a Japanese boy who lived next door. He also recalls two other friends from an international school in Kobe — a French Swiss and a German boy. “I hadn’t seen them for 10 and 20 years, but all three of us now live in Tokyo. All three of us love Japan.”

He left Kobe for Switzerland with his parents and sisters in 1968 when his father, an engineer, was transferred back home.

“I moved from a city of 1 million people to a village with 3,000 people. I was crying and wanted to go back to Kobe. Even in Switzerland, I had a funny accent and was called a ‘gaijin’ (foreigner),” he said.

While he was attending a school for hotel management in Switzerland, he interned at a Hilton hotel in Tokyo in 1983. The general manager offered him a job and after graduation he moved to Tokyo to work at the new Hilton Tokyo Hotel in Shinjuku in 1984.

At first, he was surprised how rusty his Japanese had become.

“I was shocked I couldn’t speak anymore. Seriously it was a big shock. I didn’t speak Japanese for 15 or 16 years,” he said. “But I was born in Japan and had Japanese friends, so the Japanese language came back to me. Somehow I had it in my ears.”

Fluck said he didn’t suffer any culture shock or difficulty in working in Japan.

“Because I had lived in Japan, it was quite easy. Only the language issue was hard,” he said. Also, that was his first job, and thus he had no other countries to compare Japan with as a place to work.

As an intern at the Hilton, he worked as a doorman and a bellboy — jobs that were rare among Japanese hotels at the time.

“During the summer as an intern, I was a doorman and so many Japanese took photos of me. Maybe I was the first gaijin doorman. So, that was funny. A magazine took photos of me. Also I became a bellboy and the same thing happened,” he said.

From 1990 to 1992 Fluck lived in Bali, working as a project manager and starting up a Four Seasons hotel. He returned to Tokyo to work on a project for the Park Hyatt Tokyo between September 1992 and August 1994.

The following month, Fluck moved to Ho Chi Minh City, working for several hotels through November 2001. He then returned to Tokyo to become the country manager of Oakwood’s Japan operations and general manager of Oakwood Premier Tokyo Midtown, a luxury serviced apartment near Roppongi Station in Minato Ward.

Serviced apartments have a lobby, a lounge and other hotel-like services. Oakwood has at least seven serviced apartment buildings in Japan, with monthly rents ranging from ¥250,000 to ¥2.4 million.

As a successful businessman, Fluck advises foreigners in Japan not to expect overnight success.

“You have to be patient. And once you are patient and understand Japanese culture and business, everything will come together nicely. Once everything is going correctly, it goes more smoothly (in Japan), compared with other Asian countries,” he said. “Nowadays it’s not essential to learn Japanese because many Japanese speak English.”

“Once in Japan you should enjoy the quality of services, (which are some) of the best in the world. If you travel to Europe you don’t have the service quality you have in Japan. Many people who leave Japan regret that they didn’t enjoy life in Japan enough,” he said.

He said he didn’t really feel disadvantaged for being a foreigner in Japan, except when he had to do paperwork in renting an apartment and buying a car. But he has no problem in casual conversation and uses Japanese in business occasions as well.

Of course, Caucasians are automatically viewed as foreigners. Fluck has a friend who is a third-generation Japanese living in South America and cannot speak Japanese.

“One day he and I went to a restaurant. Waiters always talked to him even though only I replied,” he said.

Fluck’s mother tongue is German and he is fluent in English, French and Japanese. His two elder sisters and parents live in Switzerland. One is in the music business and the other is a translator. But the “hospitality business is in my blood because two of my grandparents owned restaurants,” he said.