Japanese takeovers

by Terence MacNamee

For a while now Japanese companies have been extending their global reach by investing in and acquiring companies in Europe and elsewhere in the world. In Switzerland, the list of Japanese acquisitions for the past few years has been impressive. In 2011, for example, Nabtesco acquired Kaba Gilgen AG (automatic door and gate systems), Toshiba acquired Landis + Gyr, Takeda acquired Nycomed, and Toyota Automatic Loom acquired Uster Technologies (quality measurement and certification products for the textile industry). In 2012, Tokyo Electron acquired Oerlikon Solar (solar cells), Citizen Holdings Co. acquired Prothor Holding SA, UCC Holdings acquired United Coffee, and Fuji Seal International acquired PAGO Holding AG (labelling).

In an interview with Swissinfo, Paul Peyrot, executive director of the Swiss-Japanese Chamber of Commerce, explained that they are doing this because, among other things, the Japanese domestic market is shrinking, the companies are cash-rich, and credit is cheap in Japan. He also pointed out that the Japanese economic ministry (METI) has been explicitly encouraging home companies for the past two or three years to diversify internationally.

It is interesting to see what happens when the Japanese take over well-established companies here. They are wary and respectful of European ways. They have presumably learned the hard way about cultural problems in business and management.

Yet the whole process has an Achilles heel, all the more striking in that it hardly ever seems to be mentioned. It is language. You may be sure that the Swiss are not learning Japanese, and one also takes it that the Japanese mostly will not bother to learn German or French. Inevitably, they communicate in English. This means, however, that where you started dealing with two cultures, now you’ve got three to deal with.

For English is not somehow a transparent medium of communication. No language is that. English is the language of the English-speaking world, which has its own culture – not just one, but a variety of cultures – expressed in the language, and constraining it. English does not allow a Japanese-speaker and a German-speaker to encounter one another as if they were looking through glass.

Verbal communication can be difficult enough, but in my experience, written communication in the third language is a real challenge, and a minefield of misunderstanding. It is as if the two sides needed an English-speaker to demine the terrain on a regular basis – something which I, for one, increasingly find myself doing.