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The Netherlands-Japan Business Relationship: Firmly Founded on Trust and Respect

Strong business and cultural ties that span centuries

Jeroen Bokhoven, Executive Director NFIA Tokyo, shares his insights

With a trading relationship that spans centuries, it’s perhaps hardly surprising that Japanese companies find a welcoming and dynamic European home in the Netherlands. As some of the first ‘outsiders’ to trade with Japan, business relationships between the Netherlands and Japan were founded firmly on trust, honor and respect. Indeed, the Netherlands-Japan business relationship is as strong today as it was back in the seventeenth century.

Japan Netherlands
The skylines of Tokyo and Rotterdam

Giant steps

One of the people tasked with maintaining that relationship is Jeroen Bokhoven, Executive Director of the NFIA Tokyo office, a task that he relishes. “I’m here to help companies settle in the Netherlands, and I’m focused on providing a high level of service, which itself is a very Japanese concept, to these companies. As a team, our goal is to get companies settled as quickly and comfortably as possible. As Japan is some 10,000 kilometers distant from the Netherlands, it is quite a big step for them to come to Europe and work and live there. So, the balance of good business and happy life is a key consideration for their success.”

After working for three years for NFIA as a Project Manager, Jeroen stepped up to the role of Executive Director in 2018. However, this is currently his 22nd year in Japan, as prior to NFIA he worked for many years in the Pharmaceutical industry in Japan. As a result, he has an in-depth understanding of the Japanese business culture

Business and society

“The Japanese are initially very cautious. They spend a lot of time in thorough planning, but once they make a decision, then they tend to move very quickly. In the Netherlands, we like to move very quickly right from the start, so that requires a little adjustment in our processes. Furthermore, once a Japanese business decides to commit, then they are very much in it for the long term. They are very much focused on ensuring the company has a long lifespan and are very much employee-oriented. The interesting thing is that the Japanese characters used for the word company in Japanese are 会社 kaisha,  and those for society are 社会 shakai – the same Japanese characters in reverse order. For them, a company is very much a body that supports society.”

Japan Netherlands
Downtown Tokyo and Amsterdam

Movers & shakers

Primary business sectors that the Tokyo office focuses on include Life Sciences & Health, Pharmaceuticals, Chemicals and Logistics. However, many well-known Japanese companies, such as Panasonic, or Kubota, have chosen to locate their global headquarters in the Netherlands and that is a trend that appears to be growing.

“Japanese companies generally tend to look for stability, and there are many cultural studies that back this up, and this is also reflected in the business culture. At the moment, Brexit is causing them a certain degree of anxiety and they are currently looking at countries with a more stable base. The Netherlands is in a very good position because we are stable and our economy is growing. What we see currently in Japan is that more and more Life Sciences & Health companies are looking at the Netherlands as a potential location since the European Medicines Agency (EMA) chose to relocate to Amsterdam.”

In terms of potential locations in Europe, the Netherlands is possibly number four on the list after the UK, Germany and France, and this is partly due to size – although this is very much sector dependent.

Trust and partnership

“Panasonic’s decision to locate their global headquarters in the Netherlands, back in 2017, is probably one of our most prestigious acquisitions, and this year, in July we welcomed Rakuten Medical – a very large company spanning both Life Sciences and telecommunications – and they have located their European headquarters in the Netherlands. Kubota, manufacturer of large tractors and diesel engines, and Norinchukin Bank are other recent companies that have made the step to locating here. Panasonic is, of course, very well known in Japan. Due to the relationship that it has had for many years with Philips, it is also well-known in the Netherlands. As a result, all Panasonic’s global financial transactions and investments are decided upon at the office in the Netherlands. That shows a huge amount of trust in the Netherlands as a business partner.”

Japan Netherlands
Traditional Japanese and Dutch gardens

Market forces

Due to the shrinking of the Japanese market, because of an ageing population and fewer babies being born, many major Japanese companies are looking to Europe. While the NFIA in Japan continues to manage the relationship with major companies and existing relationships, there is a new wave of small-to-medium-sized companies that are also looking to expand their market outside Japan, and so the task is now how to assist those companies with their plans. Many of these companies have limited language skills or perhaps a limited international perspective. As a result, they require higher levels of intervention and support.

R&D links

“We are interested in pulling more R&D to the Netherlands,” asserts Jeroen. “However, Japanese conservatism makes them slightly wary that somehow their R&D will be copied and consequently, they prefer to play their cards close to their chest. However, because there are already great tie-ups with Dutch universities, with the government and with the private sector, we are trying to encourage them to see the benefits of collaboration.” Whereas community, collaboration and open cooperation are very much inherent to the Dutch way of doing business, it may take a little longer to convince the Japanese of the benefits of a more open collaboration when it comes to R&D. Again, the fundamental ingredient to enable this is trust.

Japan Netherlands
Traditional delicacies: Japanese sushi and Dutch herring

Cultural similarities

After more than twenty years in Japan, Jeroen has had plenty of time to analyze the culture and to form his own opinions about it, and its relationship to Dutch culture. “I think the thing I admire most about the Japanese society, both inside and outside the realm of business, is the consciousness about other people – as in ‘you are not the only one in the world’ – and you have to get along with as many people around you as possible.” Both countries have areas with high population densities, with all the sensitivities, challenges and opportunities that that presents. The Dutch culture is also very much founded on collaboration and cooperation, both in business and society as a whole. Human rights, justice, the rights of the individual – are all fundamental elements of Dutch society. The Dutch even have a saying that underlines this: ‘It’s not what we do for you, it’s what we do with you that counts.” The concept of ‘samenwerking’ – working together for a greater good – is fundamental to society in the Netherlands.

Home from home

Although the Dutch and Japanese cultures might, at first glance, seem to be literally and metaphorically oceans apart, there are many common denominators. Moreover, with deeper knowledge and exposure, the similarities become more evident. Whatever the basis, Japanese companies continue to find a welcoming and nurturing, multilingual, stable and thriving environment at the heart of Europe that enables them to put down roots and grow their businesses for long term success.

Some Japanese companies established in the Netherlands

  • Sekisui Chemical Corp – Set up operation in the Netherlands back in 1974, manufacturing diverse plastics for many industries.
  • Mitsubishi Bank – Relocated its European Headquarter to the Netherlands in 2018.
  • Mizuho Bank – Relocated its European Headquarter to the Netherlands in 2018.
  • Iris Ohyama Europe BV – Established operations in the Netherlands in 1998, producing a wide variety of Household products.
  • Canon Europa NV – Established in 1982, famous for its cameras and photocopiers, but also active in medical devices.

Did you know?

  • The Dutch were amongst the first traders permitted to trade exclusively with Japan. They located on the island of Dejima, part of Nagasaki, in 1641 and during most of the Edo period (1603-1868) the island was the single point of direct trade and exchange between Japan and the outside world.
  • The Japanese Emperor Naruhito and his wife have a very close relationship with the Dutch Royal House. After Willem Alexander became King, his first visit abroad was to Japan.
  • The Dutch introduced Western medicine to Japan, a fact that many Japanese have learned in school. Many Dutch words still exist today in the Japanese language.

Want to know more about the similiarities and the opportunities the Netherlands can provide? Please contact our Tokyo office at +81 3 57765520 or email me at [email protected] to start the conversation regarding your international ambitions.

Japan Netherlands


10 September 2019

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