Commerce Connect Tokyo:
Leveraging Diversity to Strengthen South Africa-Japan Business Ties

What is the buzz with South African business in Tokyo? In an interview with the South African Chamber of Commerce in Japan (SACCJ), we discussed Tokyo's business environment and the need for more trade support.
SACCJ First Vice-Chairperson, Finance & Digital Francois de Villiers (Left) and Chairperson, Simon Farrell at Custom Media's Office at CIC Tokyo, an innovation hub facility in Minato City.

Established in 2008, the South African Chamber of Commerce in Japan promotes bilateral trade and commerce as well as enhances friendship and cultural understanding. We caught up with the SACCJ's Chairperson, Simon Farrell, who is also Publisher at B2B SaaS (Software as a Service) digital marketer Custom Media K.K. and Statutory Auditor at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan, and SACCJ First Vice-Chairperson, Finance & Digital Francois de Villiers who is Representative Director at the shipping company Höegh Autoliners K.K.

— Can you give us a brief introduction to the SACCJ?

De Villiers: We're a volunteer-based chamber, with nothing like the membership numbers of as the American and British chambers. We work closely with the South African Embassy in Japan to identify economic opportunities for bilateral growth. Trade between the two countries is largely focused on raw materials and wholesale food items. The challenge we face, though, is that South Africa is under-represented here in terms of consumer goods.

— What do you think makes the SACCJ stand out from other chambers?

Farrell: I would say it's the diversity in our board of directors. This is Francois and my first year together as first vice chairperson and chairperson, respectively, and one of the things we're proudest of is introducing the most diverse board in our 15-year history. As a nation with the world's most progressive Constitution and 12 official languages—including the addition, in May 2023, of sign language—we have a bigger opportunity and challenge to include and diversify than most other nations. When Francois and I were elected as chairs, we pledged to introduce, encourage and assimilate directors who could bring many different viewpoints and skills based on their gender, culture, age, experience and careers. We are still doing that and the positive results so far can be seen at our well-attended business, charity and social events and on our website and newsletters.

— Can you give us an example of a member of the SACCJ, either an individual or a company, that is thriving in Tokyo?

Farrell: South Africa relies heavily on domestic food production for consumption and for export, which can put us at the mercy of currency exchange fluctuations. Japan imports South African seafood, fruits, cereals, vegetables, nuts, coffee, and, of course, our famous wines by Cape Cellar and healthy rooibos and honeybush by Gass Co., Ltd. But the amounts in cash terms are much less than our traditional exports of precious stones and metals, especially by Impala Platinum Holdings Limited, one of the world's foremost producers of platinum and associated platinum group metals. South Africa is Africa's biggest food exporter by far, but we would like to see Japan import more of our delicious products, such as fresh avocados, which Japan finally approved for import from our country in November 2023. The SACCJ is not involved directly in advocacy, so we leave that to the Government experts and advise them when they ask us for feedback from our members.

Sport is another South African export, as shown in this shirt signed by the late rugby great Chester Williams.

— What makes Tokyo a special place to do business?

De Villiers: The opportunities are basically endless because everything is here. Despite what you might hear, it's a growing, multicultural city with all kinds of activities going on and where people love to network. You have all these facilities and most things can be done efficiently and cheaply by global standards. In regards to logistics, a field I've worked in for some time, nowhere is as efficient as Japan. You just don't see the delays here that you do in other countries. Even after natural disasters such as a major earthquake, things are back up and running quickly.

Farrell: As well as all the clichés about cleanliness, safety and security, which are all true, I think one thing that's often underestimated about Tokyo is its creativity. It's a hub for innovation. People think of Japan as a cookie-cutter nation that's never invented anything, but when you get here you realize how wrong that is. If you have a creative itch you want to scratch, Japan, and Tokyo in particular, is the place to come.

— What are some factors startups should consider before doing business in Tokyo?

De Villiers: In Tokyo, everything is about consistency. You need to be respectful of the position of the customer and supplier. Coming in with a Euro or US-centric approach, thinking the brand is stronger than the market, will never work here. You need to find the right partners. It's about finding a good balance. If you're too concerned about the unique Japanese way, you're going to be left in the long queue to enter and expand in the Japanese market. On the other hand, if your approach is too harsh, you won't even get in the queue. Be authentic, know what you want and make sure the message is flexible.

Farrell argues that Japan should open its market to South African food.

— How about the biggest challenges facing South African companies in Tokyo?

De Villiers: South African companies tend to be loyal. This matches the Japanese business culture, but as they don't shop around, it can also be their downfall. Another bottleneck we have is that South African global policies are sometimes a challenge for companies, especially regarding free trade agreements (FTAs). Japan and South Africa have been slow to finalize FTAs, which means products such as South African wine can often be too expensive here.

— What can the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG) do to help South African companies and entrepreneurs in Japan?

De Villiers: Compared to many countries, Japan is extremely supportive and well managed. The information is all there. I just feel it could be simplified and easier to find, especially for those who don't speak Japanese. For our chamber, it would also be great to have more exposure to small and midsize enterprises among the established local importers. Regular interaction with government officials would also be very useful.

South African Chamber of Commerce in Japan
Interview and writing by Matthew Hernon
Photography by Anna Petek