Speaking up for a ‘right-size’ city

by and

In their search for the soul of Nagoya — a city some dub “Japan’s best kept secret” — staff writers Setsuko Kamiya and Yoko Hani met up with five long-term foreign residents. All five happened to be American, and all have been in business there for between five and 10 years. Settling down for a chilled-out chat, these insiders with an outsider’s perspective eagerly discussed their love of Nagoya, and in doing so offered a frank and fascinating insight into just what it is that’s so special about Nagoya — and what makes the city tick.

How did you come to be in Nagoya?

Steve Brown, president of Zergsoft, a software development company: I came to Tokyo first in 1991 and was there for two weeks. It was too crowded — too many people — and too overwhelming. Then I went to Kyoto and was there for about three months. I like Kyoto as well, but I got my first job in Nagoya and started working here. Nagoya is the right size and it’s not too crowded — but there is still lots to do.

Jason P. Morgan, president of The Meat Guy: My wife is from Ise [in Mie Prefecture], and when I first came to Japan, Nagoya was the closest place I could get a job teaching English. Now, I sell meat. We do some importing but mostly I am a wholesaler. I buy from import companies and sell it to restaurants, hotels, private clubs and resorts all across Japan. I started my company about eight years ago. We deal with meat from everywhere.

Justine Bornstein, editor of Japanzine, an English-language magazine: I have my own unscientific belief [about Nagoya]. I’d call Nagoya “Japan’s best-kept secret” because few foreigners set themselves on a “Nagoya course.” People will say, “I think I’ll try Tokyo” . . . “I’ll try Osaka” . . . or “I’ll try Kyoto” . . . but nobody does that with Nagoya. They come here because they know somebody who is already living here, or because there are some jobs here. Many people don’t even know it exists before they get to Japan. Expo is supposed to change all that and make it more international.

Joe Sichi, co-owner of The Red Rock Aussie Bar & Grill/English teacher/painter: I had worked as a teacher for eight years in Los Angeles before I came here in 1997 as an exchange teacher. Nagoya and Los Angeles are sister cities, and they bring teachers from L.A. I enjoyed Nagoya and wanted to stay, and so I switched to part-time university work. Now I am a part-time teacher at different universities and I have the businesses in the evenings. Even though the business does quite well, I don’t plan to quit teaching. I enjoy it.

What about the business culture in Nagoya?

Carter Witt, CEO of Carter Witt Media, which runs Web sites, publishes magazines and city information booklets: If you look at the way foreigners do businesses in Tokyo, they tend to do business with foreigners. In Osaka, business tends to be a little bit fast and furious, and it’s not always by the book. But in Nagoya, they want you to do it by the book. They are very particular. And it’s a closed circle. Getting inside that circle is very tough. But once you are a part of the circle, it’s much easier to do business. It’s a good training ground. If you can do it here you can do anywhere.

Justine: You have to do it in the right, Japanese, way [in Nagoya]. You have to go to a lot of meetings and you have to be conservative. That helps you when you go elsewhere.

Joe: I have an example. We were negotiating the lease for The Red Rock. We had six separate meetings with the landlord. From the first meeting to the last meeting, nothing in the contract actually changed. Nothing. All they wanted to know was if we were willing to follow the protocol, such as to show up for the meeting and negotiating each item on the contract. Once they saw we were willing to do that, and could do it in Japanese . . . “Contract, there you go, no problem.”

Steve: For me, doing IT, we cannot really run a business focusing only on expatriate companies. You have to be able to handle Japanese and foreign companies. I found out I had to get more bilingual and bicultural.

Carter: In the foreign business community here, people tend to support each other. The tone is definitely much more competitive than a year ago, but the same factors are at play. You cannot come to Nagoya just to take a lot of money out of it and leave. You have to make a commitment to this community, otherwise you just won’t succeed.

Jason: That applies to everything, not just to business, but if you go up to Tokyo and say you’re in Japan for two to three years, you are a long-termer. You’ve got your friends, mate, you’re set. But in Nagoya, nobody bothers to know your name until after at least five years, minimum.

Talking ’bout Nagoya talk — how do you handle it?

Justine: Actually, in Nagoya-ben [Nagoya dialect], there are different stresses on different syllables. When I am speaking to people, they say “you are from Nagoya.”

Joe: That happened to me, too. In Hokkaido, they asked me “you are from Nagoya, aren’t you?”

Where do you like to take visitors to in Nagoya?

Carter: I take people to the Toyota Automobile Museum. It’s a very cool experience. Very interesting.

Justine: I take them to the Daibutsu (Big Buddha) in Toganji Temple or to Koshoji Temple — and then to eat yakitori.

Steve: I would take them to various izakaya. Smaller is better. Very small and very old ones.

What do you think of the locals?

Justine: Here, people can be very reserved when you first meet them. But when you get to know them, if they are friends they are always friends. Also, unlike in Tokyo or in Kyoto, where the local people assume that foreigners are passing through and so they try to talk to them in English, here in Nagoya, people assume that foreigners speak some Japanese. More and more, I have these encounters with people where my “gaijinness” just doesn’t matter any more.