Hitachi’s friendly face


A 19th-century merry-go-round has been restored recently in the city of Orleans, 130 km south of Paris, thanks to the efforts of former JET Clarisse Carl. It is something her two children, ages 8 and 5, are proud of. But for Carl, an assistant to the president of Hitachi Europe, it is just one of her numerous accomplishments during the four years she’s worked for this Japanese industrial giant.

At Hitachi, Europe’s largest maker of high-end data-storage units, Carl’s duties include planning work agendas and organizing business trips for company president Tadamitsu Kurokawa. She also produces an in-house company magazine, helps Japanese expatriate staff acclimatize to life in Orleans and organizes a teacher-exchange program funded by Hitachi — called HISTEP — between public school teachers from Japan and France. The program is intended to encourage teachers to share their traditional culture with elementary school, junior high school and high school students from their host country.

“The teacher-exchange program has aims similar to those of the JET program,” explains Carl, “although the teachers stay for only 10 days.”

Working on such community-outreach programs is one of the most enjoyable aspects of Carl’s job. She is one of the directors of a local association of companies that donates money to support community activities in Orleans, such as renovating and promoting cultural assets. In this capacity, she serves as a kind of ambassador for Hitachi, promoting the image of the Japanese company in France. She meets regularly with the city mayor and business leaders to arrange events and discuss plans for future community activities. As part of her PR work, Carl also organized the company’s 10th anniversary ceremonies in 2002 while serving as interpreter between top Japanese and French dignitaries.

When Carl first began working at Hitachi in 1999, she intended to stay only four months. “I’m a feminist,” Carl points out. “I thought I’d never work for a Japanese company.”

A friend of hers, employed in the human resources department at Hitachi, asked Carl to fill in temporarily as assistant to the company president. Carl, then a busy mother and housewife, accepted reluctantly. However, her Japanese-language abilities and networking skills were soon noticed by Kurokawa, who had become president a few months earlier. He offered her a permanent position as his personal assistant, but Carl wanted to do more than just play secretary. So Kurokawa placed her in charge of the company’s public relations program as well.

For Carl it was an opportunity to do what she does well — “bringing people together.” “Mr. Kurokawa is a very PR-minded person,” says Carl. “He knows how important it is to create harmony among people and to dispel the image of Japanese companies as closed and aloof. With his sensibility we have been able to develop excellent relations between Hitachi and the local community.”

With growing confidence in Carl’s abilities, company management continues to give her more important corporate responsibilities. When Japanese guests come to visit with the president, however, some of them, accustomed to the Japanese sensibility of hierarchy, treat her as an office lady whose role is to bring them coffee. This doesn’t seem to faze Carl. “I make coffee for them in my own way,” Carl explains. “Just as I would for friends, as a gesture of hospitality.”

Carl’s connections with Japan go back a long way. She studied — and excelled — in Japanese at university in Paris. She first visited Japan as a JET in 1990, working as coordinator of international relations for Hiroshima City. Her duties included interpreting for visiting French dignitaries and training local French-speaking guides at the Hiroshima Peace Museum.

With her fiance waiting for her back in France, she returned to Paris after only one year. There she took up a job with the Galeries Lafayette — a major French department store that is also one of Paris’ main tourist destinations — receiving and looking after Japanese customers. She also trained and managed a team of 15 Japanese-language interpreters at the store. She left that job to move with her husband to Orleans in 1998. Here, she spent the next year helping him start up his business.

In France her involvement with the JET program continued. From 1991 to 2001, she served as French representative of the JET Alumni Association. During that time she organized events and created a Web site to strengthen the network of former French JETs.

As part of Carl’s ongoing mission to bring people together, she has recently founded a Japanese-French friendship association in Orleans. The primary aim is to make the lives of Japanese expatriates easier. “In Paris there are 20,000 Japanese expats,” Carl explains. “They have all the comforts of Japan, but for the 100 Japanese living here there’s a need to make their lives easier and more integrated.”

With the support of the provincial and city governments, a program has been set up whereby Japanese expatriates and local residents can exchange language lessons, participate in origami and flower arrangement classes and learn cooking at Les Antiquaires, Orleans’ best French restaurant.

What’s on Carl’s agenda for this year? “We’re now working to develop a partnership with another international association of expats here in Orleans to make an even bigger network that brings all kinds of people together, not just French and Japanese people,” says Carl.