Three years after celebrating the 150th anniversary of bilateral relations, Italy and Japan have seen renewed vigor in their long-running partnership. While separated by much distance and distinct traditions, the two countries share a common ground on which they built valuable partnerships — namely their deep respect for culture and passion for innovation.
“When you visit northern Italy, you will feel like you visited many countries because of the variety of cultures. There is a lot of tradition, technique and technology. Culture is very important, and a new generation of Japanese and Italians can benefit from that,” Consul General of Japan Yuji Amamiya said.
Like many of their foreign counterparts, Japanese companies chose to establish their operations in northern Italy, the country’s traditional commercial center and industrial heartland, as well as the home of Italy’s biggest brands such as Ferrari and Pirelli.
And in recent years, Japanese and Italian companies have found new spaces for collaboration, such as in textile development, automotive design, food and beverage and medical technology.
“There is a mutual respect and curiosity between the Japanese and Italian cultures. We would like to develop our cultural exchanges and commercial business relations with the Japanese. We are investing in medical research for aging populations and believe this is something we can work together on with our Japanese counterparts,” Mayor of Bologna Virginio Merola said.
That sentiment is shared by the head of the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) in Milan.
“There are a lot of Italian companies with unique technologies. They are looking for cooperation with foreign companies and these partners could be Japanese companies,” said JETRO Milan Director General Kentaro Ide.
Because of its well-known work ethic and hardy attitude, northern Italy survived the economic crisis that rocked the European Union a decade ago. Japanese companies did not abandon their investments in a region they found to be accommodating.
A victim of the global economic downturn, Yamaha Motor Europe N.V. suffered a huge setback in 2013. Instead of pulling out of Europe, the Japanese company revised its regional strategy and expanded its operations in Italy.
“Yamaha in Italy has evolved a lot. We aligned our goals with Japanese management. The work was transparent and it was about building a sustainable business,” Yamaha Motor Europe Country Manager for Italy Andrea Colombi recalled.
In Milan, one of the world’s most important fashion centers, textile manufacturer Alcantara S.p.A. has thrived, certainly helped by its proximity to innovators in design and technology.
“There is a mysterious link between Italy and Japan. They attract each other and at a technological level, there is a deep exchange,” said Alcantara Chairman and CEO Andrea Boragno.
Founder of the local firm Hands On Design agrees. “Italian creativity and Japanese efficiency complement each other. Together, they create things that are both functionally beautiful and beautifully functional,” Hands On Design CEO and Art Director Kaori Shiina said.
Apart from design, if there is an aspect of life where Japan and Italy display extraordinary reverence for, it is food. Few people in the world are as steadfast to their culinary traditions as the Japanese and Italians.
Protective of their artisanal heritage and standards of quality, many Italian food companies have chosen to remain family-owned. These companies also comprise the country’s robust small and midsized enterprises that, emboldened by the EU-Japan economic partnership agreement that went into effect in February, recognize the importance of international expansion to build a sustainable business.
And the “Made in Italy” brand has served those home-grown companies very well, among them Parma-based Barilla, whose products are found in many supermarkets and are used in several leading restaurants around the world.
“We have had strong operations in Japan for many years. Since the beginning of our joint venture at the start of the 1990s, Japanese consumers have gotten to know our products for their quality. We also provide our food in Japan through gastronomical channels, such as restaurants and chefs,” Barilla Group Chairman Guido Barilla said.
Likewise, in the land of pasta, Japanese soba is gaining new local fans.
“Italy is a market that appreciates buckwheat noodles. We found great success in EXPO 2015 and conducted two test marketing activities, the results of which exceeded our expectations,” said Sagami Holdings Corp. CEO Toshiyuki Kamada. Last year, the Japanese noodle chain opened its first European outlet in Milan.
In another sector, Italian universities welcome this internationalization. The number of Japanese students has risen and vice versa.
“The world is becoming more global. We need to have more transfer of knowledge across cultures,” Bocconi University Rector Gianmario Verona said.
And as northern Italy retains its position as the country’s economic engine, the region’s leaders face the challenge of attracting more foreign investors while supporting local businesses to venture outside the country.
“We have always felt a lot of affection for Japanese culture and life, and we will warmly accept all entrepreneurial initiatives and visits to our region,” Lombardy Region President Attilio Fontana said.
In Turin, the home of automotive giant Fiat, the mayor wants to further consolidate its long-running ties with Japan.
“In both the automotive and aerospace industries, there is already a strong relationship with Japan. We also work at the local level with the Japan Business Forum and with Japan Week to strengthen these connections. We have had a strong relationship with the city of Nagoya since 2005,” Mayor of Turin Chiara Appendino said.
And knowing its biggest strength, the city of Verona is determined to stay a top tourist destination in Italy.
“We are investing our resources to make the city a better place and to keep it clean for tourists. So, we are inviting our friends in Japan and other people around the world to visit us,” Mayor of Verona Federico Sboarina said.