©GLOBIS

I belong to several economic organizations, including Keizai Doyukai (the Japan Association of Corporate Executives), the New Business Conference, the Rotary Club, YEO, and the Japan Venture Capital Association. Each has invited me to go on inspection tours to China, Silicon Valley, and Eastern Europe, but I’ve turned them down every time. I guess I had the image that these trips were for top honchos with too much time on their hands, and anyone younger going along would simply be ordered around. I also don’t really like group activities.

But I finally consentedーin fact, I was the one who started the whole thing, and my image of inspection tours has changed.

This is what happened. Nine years ago, in 1995, a group of budding young managers got together and formed a study group. The idea was to create an opportunity for economically oriented men (including a few politicians) to think about what we should do and think about in terms of welcoming in the 21st century. There were about 50 of us, all of the same generation, but led by those who were then 30-35. We called it the Thinking about the 21st Century Association and decided to have it end on the first day of 2001. For about five years, we planned, almost every month, a speech session, and once or twice a year we went off together on what we called a retreat.

As planned, this association ended with a closing ceremony in December 2000. However, we continued to keep in touch through an email list. We were all friends of the same generation who, over the last few years, had exchanged many frank opinions and come to know each other very well. Needless to say, we have continued to exchange ideas.

Last November, I posted a column to that email list: “Network with young leaders of China (Japanese).” This elicited a lot of responses. Members were enthusiastic about going on an inspection tour of Shanghai. Everyone was busy, but we eventually agreed on April, half a year down the line. Ten people would participate. Some members of our group owned factories in China or were running enterprises there, and so these people were appointed to be tour leaders and sub leaders and put in charge of coming up with a program. Since it had originally been my idea, I did at first have a hand in the planning, but I left the practical details to the tour leaders and sub leaders and readied to take part as a participant.

Since we were calling it an inspection tour, I was concerned that GLOBIS staff would see it as a pleasure trip, so I took paid time off and booked my flight with mileage points. I decided to cover all expenses out of my own pocket.

April arrived.

When ordering food, people tend to order the same thing, eating what they already know they like and rarely getting a taste of something new. It’s the same with inspection tours. If I had planned it, we would have spent all of our time inspecting venture capital enterprises, high-tech companies, universities—the kinds of things related to my own work. My field of vision wouldn’t get any wider, even if I wanted to see a completely different side of things. With this in mind, I left all of the scheduling to the leaders, so I was just as excited as the rest of the participants when we arrived.

I went into this tour with two objectives.

The first was to learn to like China. I had been to Shanghai and Beijing twice and had also visited several places in Xian, but to be honest, I hadn’t really learned to like the country. Not liking a place can get in the way of genuine understanding. I decided to focus in on the good points.

The second objective was to talk with the other participantsーa group of very busy individualsーas much as possible. I first met them more than 10 years ago, long before they were company presidents or family men busy at home and work. This was a great opportunity to develop closer relationships with each of them.

We got together before the flight left and reviewed the schedule one more time.

4/15 (Thursday)
 19:00Check in to the hotel
Meet, hotel lobby
Travel (taxi)
 19:30-21:00Dinner at Ming Xuan Noble House
Building 1,No.46, Anting Road, Shanghai
Okura Garden Hotel 58 Maoming Nan Lu, Shanghai
4/16 (Friday)
 08:00Gather in hotel lobby
Travel (hired bus)
 09:00-10:00Visit Shanghai Stock Exchange
 10:00-12:00Visit real estate (apartments, golf course, exclusive residential district development)
 12:00-13:30Lunch at The7
No. 1110 Huaihai Zhong Lu, Shanghai, Donghu Hotel Bldg. 7
Travel (hired bus)
 14:00-15:00Field trip to Hymall Supermarket
 15:30-16:30Field trip to Inventec, PC Assembly Plant 
Travel (hired bus)
 17:00-18:00Lecture by President of Hymall Supermarket
Travel (hired bus)
 19:00-21:00Dinner at Zhen De Hao
No. 123-1 Xing Ye Road, Shanghai
 21:00-22:00After Party at Paulaner Brauhaus
Beer Hall, No. 123-1 Xing Ye Road, Shanghai
Okura Garden Hotel 58 Maoming Nan Lu, Shanghai
4/17 (Saturday)
 06:45Gather in hotel lobby
Travel (hired bus)
 08:00-09:00Field Trip to Yagi Fashion (Suzhou)
Wujian, Jiangsu Sheng Luxu Zhen
Travel (hired bus)
 10:00-11:00Visit Shanghai Shikibo Garment
North Jin Yang Rd, HuMin Road, Min Hang District, Shanghai
Travel (hired bus)
 12:00-13:00Lunch at Chinese rural cuisine restaurant
Travel (hired bus)
 15:30-17:30Visit Hangzhou Tingyi, No. 10 Gianwang Street. Hangzhou Economic and technological development area
Travel (hired bus)
 18:30-20:00Dinner at Lou Wai Lou
No. 30 Coo Shan Lu, Hangzhou
Travel (hired bus)
Okura Garden Hotel 58 Maoming Nan Lu, Shanghai
4/18 (Sunday)
 06:45Gather in hotel lobby, return to Japan

We would not be confined to Shanghai. This was a hard, four-day itinerary that would take us through Suzhou and Hangzhou. We would be visiting supermarkets, noodle factories, textile plants, and real estate markets. None of this would have been included had I been arranging the program!

The first day, as soon as we checked into the hotel, I had a swim and did a bit of work before dinner. While I was writing emails, I got carried away and ended up writing an article for my blog. This was followed by a dinner party, after which we moved to a bar with a great night view, and then had a Chinese-style massage.

Day two commenced with visiting the Shanghai Stock Exchange, followed by an inspection of high-class condominium units, an up-scale residential area, and a golf course before lunch. After fully enjoying some Chinese food, we visited a lively supermarket called Hymall. The president, who was the also the founder and owner, showed us around. The supermarket was a masterpiece. On an average weekday, 50,000 people come to shopー70,000 on the weekends.

Next we visited a factory called Inventec, where notebook PCs are made for Hewlett Packard and other companies. We then headed for the headquarters of the Hymall supermarket that we had just visited. The president showed a video and then spoke about business in China. We then went for dinner, at the invitation of the president, during which we were able to ask him lots of questions. That night, we were off to New World department store and amusement complex.

The third day involved a lot of moving around. We traveled from Shanghai to Suzhou, and after that returned to the Jinshan district of Shanghai, and then out to Hangzhou. Although the roads in Shanghai are well-constructed, they were very bumpy. There were only ten participants on the tour, but we hired out a full-size coach instead of a minibus specifically for the bumpy roads.

I stayed in the back seat with my Go-playing friends. As we traveled, we played a game with the board on the middle seat. I had taken the trouble of bringing a big magnetic set with me from Japan just for this occasion. We played five games (two of which I managed to win), which speaks to how long we were traveling. For me, of course, this was not travel timeーit was Go time.

In Suzhou, we visited the Yagi Corporation’s local factory, the Factory of Shikibo (an affiliate of Maruhachi Mawata in Shanghai’s Jinshan district) and the Tingyi ramen noodle and beverage factory in Hangzhou (financed by Sanyo Foods). That night, the executives at Tingyi invited us to dinner: Chinese cuisine at a premier restaurant called Lou Wai Lou on the lake shore of Xihu (West Lake) in Hangzhou.

Afterwards, we returned to the hotel in Shanghai, arriving at 11:30 p.m. We took the first flight home the next morning. The four-day trip had gone by in a flash.

There were three things on the trip that really impressed me.

1) This was my third trip to Shanghai, and I was beginning to like it. Unlike my previous trips, the main focus this time had been visiting factories and other places. While I can only give my impression—in line with the pace of China’s economic development and growing confidence as it gains a stronger foothold—I felt that anti-Japanese sentiment is starting to fade away.

2) We visited many companiesーHymall, Tingyi, and Inventecーwhich were managed and set-up by Taiwanese managers. In 1997, the last time I’d visited China, I went to American companies such as Whirlpool and Chinese state-owned companies like Baoshan Iron & Steel Complex, so my impressions were very different. These companies were dynamic and fast paced. According to the presidents we met, being fast on your feet is the key to succeeding in China, along with having an effective strategy. They’re competing in a huge region, after all. The strategy for becoming number one is crucial.

3) Finally, I am blessed with such great friends. We are all managers in completely different fields, so it is fascinating to hear diverse perspectives. Many of them even have factories in China. Most interesting of all was the opportunity to visit these factories and affiliates. Everyone talked candidly about their successes and failures, their struggles as managers. This was a really unique experience.

So the inspection tour turned out to be extremely valuable. There is talk of going to Russia next, but wherever we go, if it involves traveling with good friends, then I’ll be ready.