Silver surfing, speed and Van Gogh's Sunflowers in Tokyo

“Flying via Singapore, where I attended the EuroFinance Singapore three-day conference, I arrived overnight in Tokyo last Friday. A momentous occasion indeed as we celebrated the 30th anniversary of the ING Bank Tokyo branch with some 60 Japanese and Dutch clients at a very special location, the Dutch residence.”

The Dutch ambassador, Radinck van Vollenhoven, hosted the event and there was a very interesting speech by Harold George Meij, the recently promoted CEO of Tomy, one of the largest Japanese toy manufacturers. Think Pokemon, Beyblade and Transformers, all Japanese inventions that have gained worldwide fame and growing revenues.

Plag blog May 15 sunflowers

The opening speech focused on the 10 specific Japanese business principles observed by the Dutch-born Meij, having lived in Japan for over 30 years. Yes, Japan is very different, that is well known, but utilising some specific Japanese traits like eye for detail and planning, compared with Dutch creativity, can provide interesting results.


A prominent example could be seen in the hall of the Dutch residence: Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. Not the real painting obviously, but a 3D copy produced by a Japanese printing company for the Van Gogh museum. They have printed a limited 3D edition, which has been lent to various government institutions, including here in Japan where Van Gogh, who got some of his inspiration from Japanese postcards apparently, is still very popular. A great example of (old) Dutch creativity and Japanese attention to detail, as the relief in the picture was clearly visible. 


Jeroen Plag

Jeroen Plag, head of Client Coverage Americas, Asia & UK at ING Commercial Banking, regularly shares his opinion on market developments and perspectives, based on extensive travelling across the global ING network.


Back to Singapore, where we had sponsored a small stand at the EuroFinance conference. Compared to the other, much larger, bank stands, we, however, generated the most traffic! Other than the pan-European payments and cash management offering, ING´s orange lion attracted a lot of interest from Asian and international corporates, as well as their business cards. In exchange for their business cards, visitors had the opportunity to have their photo taken with the lion and participate in a tablet lucky draw - which always works with an Asian audience.


During the event in Tokyo, I had multiple opportunities to engage with Japanese and international clients who were present there on sustainability. The fact that we are looking to further engage with our corporates on the sustainability topic, including the circular economy developments, spurred interest. While many CEOs have included sustainability KPIs in their external statements, this has not yet filtered down into all treasury environments. However, increased scarcity of resources, different business models and continued growth and urbanisation are topics that are hot topics for our corporate clients and provide them with opportunities. Reaching out to them at an early stage, to determine how and where these changes are impacting the financial value chain of our corporate clients, was clearly appreciated and local follow up was arranged. 


Last year, during the royal mission to Japan, a lot of Dutch companies discussed with their Japanese counterparts –how to address the opportunities offered by the growing older population in Japan. 'Silver surfing' has now made its way to Japan with a focus by global manufacturers, who are for example offering tablets that will feature pre-loaded apps with simplified interfaces and larger text. They will include medication management tools, exercise and diet regimes and a modified version of FaceTime so users can speak to their families and caregivers. Growth in the senior citizens segment is impressive as they are make up roughly 25 per cent of Japan’s population, growing by 40 percent over the next 40 years. Globally the trend is the same: from 841 million in 2013 to more than 2 billion in 2050. 


En route to Toyko it struck me that I had just missed the Japanese cherry blossom (hanami) festivals. From around April every year, Japanese meteorologists closely track the so-called ‘cherry blossom front’ as it moves northwards with the approach of warmer weather, so people know when the best time is to celebrate the 1,000-year-old festival. Today, however, pizza deliveries have replaced the traditional beer and picnic baskets. Imagine placing the order: deliver to the seventh tree from the right, under the bridge at the entrance to the park.


This feeling for good service and quality, and the mix between old and new, is something that you see everywhere in Japan. A former director of an American soft drink maker told us that Japanese soft drink cans are heavier than those in Europe because they are made with five paint layers rather than one. This is because Japanese consumers will not drink from a can if it is even slightly damaged during transport or in the vending machines, it has to be perfect. They will also return toys if the packaging is damaged, even if there is nothing wrong with the product itself.


Finally, the increasing speed of Japan's bullet train, or Shinkansen, caught my eye. Although often cited as a nation good at improving other countries’ inventions, the high-speed train developments in Japan are second to none. Recently they clocked 603 km/h (!) with the Maglev (magnetic elevation) train ‒ that is Amsterdam to Paris, in well under an hour! Obviously, all silver surfers will be offered high speed WiFi on board as well.


Follow Jeroen on Twitter: @JeroenPlag