Stina Seppel and Karin Lõhmuste: the story of Japanese cooperation
Over the past few years, Estonia has set its sights on the land of the rising sun and, in cooperation with the private sector, organised joint activities to gain a foothold in the Japanese market. Estonians living in Japan have also helped our companies to enter the market. Stina Seppel shares her experience of supporting Estonian designers in Tokyo, and Karin Lõhmuste from Enterprise Estonia provides a broader background of the venture.
I lived in Japan for seven years, studying design, media, and art, having previously visited the country in 2009 and 2010.
In 2019, the interior design fair IFFT was held in Tokyo, where I was invited as an interpreter. I have friends in Japan who recommended me because I have the necessary knowledge of the field.
First of all, meeting Estonians in Japan has always been the most pleasant experience for me: being strangers in a foreign country brings together even the most shy Estonians. This fair was no different. Talking to other Estonians, who perhaps do not know Japan as well as I do, broadened my own understanding of the similarities and differences between our cultures. What made the event special for me was the fact that I was able to help people working in the same field as me. To be involved in their work and to listen to their experiences in design and production was a very rewarding and enlightening opportunity. It also taught me the value of my own skills and knowledge: translating turned out to be a much more profound task than it may first seem. Instead of simply translating, I basically gave a guided tour (as on previous occasions) – starting from culture and customs and how to communicate them between Japanese and Estonians and ending with sharing interesting facts about Japanese history and cultures. I like to perform so that might have something to do with it. Fortunately, so far, people have been very interested in what I have to say or at least said a few nice words.
Over the years, I have translated, interpreted, and mediated between the cultures of Estonia and, occasionally, other countries, and Japan, which has taught me a lot about diplomacy. In a country as unique as Japan, diplomacy is a vital skill in everyday life, but it is especially important in mediating communication between Japanese and foreigners. Common courtesy is a given, regardless of the country or culture you are in. When it comes to business, however, Japan has unique invisible protocols and rules, which are natural to the Japanese but which the untrained eye might not notice. While the Japanese say they do not expect foreigners to know and follow all of their business practices, I can tell you from experience that deep down, they do expect this kind of courtesy. When their expectations have been met, they have always been pleasantly surprised, making future communication all the more trusting and smooth. This is why it is important to involve an interpreter who understands the cultures and languages of the people involved in the business relationship. This can help avoid most of the bad situations that may arise from cultural misunderstandings.
Finally, when it comes to making yourself visible abroad to perhaps collaborate with your compatriots, I recommend being active in online groups, such as on Facebook or other business social media, so that you can be easily found in online searches, and of course, to look for coverage in the Estonian media about new projects that are planned in your country. If you have professional skills and work experience, it is always a good idea to publish CVs and portfolios online. Physical communities of Estonians abroad are also a lovely and fun way to ward off homesickness and to share and learn from experiences with other like-minded people. It can also be the start of new and interesting collaborations, but above all friendships.
Karin Lõhmuste, Creative Industries Topic Manager, Enterprise Estonia
Even though Enterprise Estonia has been helping Estonian designers to find export opportunities to Japan for two years now and the third season and activities are in the planning stage, people still ask – why Japan? Our businesses are so small, are they not? How will they cope in a distant market with an unknown culture?
Yes, the market is distant and the business culture is different, but there are more opportunities than obstacles. Luckily, there are Estonians who love Japan and Japanese people who love Estonia. It is people like these who have been, and will continue to be, part of our project teams. Thanks to them, we have realised that Japan is actually very close to us.
In reality, Estonia and our designers have a lot to offer Japan. The minimalist and clean style is understood and appreciated in the land of the rising sun. Increasingly, we are also standing out thanks to our recycling of materials and production methods. While our design exports may not have the same financial potential as, say, timber or IT products, the benefits are still there. Through our missions, we have introduced Estonian nature, culture, and different business sectors alongside design. This helps to reduce the distance between countries.
The two design missions we have carried out so far have been relatively different due to the circumstances. During the first mission, the designers were able to participate in the fair and showcase their products, but in 2020, the pandemic forecd us to make major adjustments to the original plans. Nonetheless, from October to December, we conducted pop-up sales in major department stores in Japan (JR Nagoya Takashimaya, Yokohama Sogo, Seibu Ikebukuro, etc.). In addition, our products were on display at the prestigious IDEE design and interior design store and the new SPBS Toranomon bookstore. Despite the fact that the designers were only present online, our Japanese friends and partners were able to provide significant negotiating opportunities for almost all of the mission participants. Now, we need time and consistency to allow the business relationship to develop.