Commerce Connect Tokyo:
Selling the Italian Dream and Lifestyle through Cultural Activities

What kind of attitude does the Italian Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ICCJ) have when it comes to doing business in the country? We recently sat down with General Manager Davide Fantoni to find out.
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For more than half a century, the ICCJ has been promoting relations between Italy and Japan. Among its members are several iconic brands.

— You've been with the ICCJ for over a decade. How's it been?

I never thought I would end up working for the chamber as I felt it was very institutional, which is the opposite of what I am. I started here in 2009 because I wanted to get closer to a community that I'd been cut off from for a long time. Back then, the ICCJ wasn't in good shape, so I saw it as a personal challenge to turn things around by focusing on my own strengths such as event planning. Soon enough, we were hiring new people and our revenue started growing.

— How did you manage that?

By focusing on what we do well and not restricting ourselves. The Italian name is, in itself, a strong brand in Japan, but at the chamber there were too many boundaries. It was important to reverse that mentality and convince the board and members to act more freely. While the core of what the ICCJ does is to support companies, we went from strictly business activities to more cultural ones, selling the Italian dream and the country's lifestyle. Our attitude is, if you like something, try it. Express your passion freely without overthinking. Don't always go by the book. Be yourself and be daring.

— Can you tell us about a member or client that has benefited from working with the ICCJ?

One that comes to mind immediately is Fabe, which specializes in pillows. While it's big in Europe, it was only known here for selling to healthcare facilities such as hospitals and nursing homes. It, therefore, had no brand identity. So, a few years ago we began to help. As well as communicating closely with Fabe's partner, we redid the company's entire website and significantly increased its social media presence. We also arranged events and made Japanese volleyball player Ishikawa Yuki, who plays for Allianz Milano, the face of the brand here. It's about creating an image and now the company's starting to take off in Japan.

— How active is the ICCJ and its members when it comes to addressing social and environmental concerns?

We've been talking about and promoting diversity and inclusion for over 10 years. Not just because it's become trendy, but because we believe in it. For instance, we have various initiatives based around gender equality. This includes a project called Mimosa Day, which is named after a flower that men in Italy buy for women on International Women's Day. With this campaign we're trying to give women more social status in Japan and encouraging them to believe in themselves. In 2023, the theme was women and sustainability. We invited speakers from companies such as Enel X Japan and Mitsubishi Electric Corporation to tell us what they've been doing. In 2024, we're holding a green energy event.

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Fantoni at the ICCJ office in Minato City, Tokyo. The chamber was established in 1972 and he started working there over a decade ago.

— What makes Tokyo a special place to do business?

It's such a big metropolis. Anything can happen here and that's why everyone wants to come. If you can do business in Tokyo, you can do it anywhere in Asia. In terms of quality and discipline, it represents a good starting point. Also, since the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011 and the COVID-19 pandemic nine years later, the way people work and do business here has been changing for the better. You are seeing more diversity and more flexibility. Young people are being given more space and freedom to do what they want to do.

— What advice would you give to Italian startups thinking about doing business in Tokyo?

Before you come to Japan or Tokyo, you must look at yourself in the mirror and consider whether you're truly ready for it. You also need to think about why you want to come here. Japan requires a big investment in terms of money, time and energy. If you're coming just because it's trendy, you probably won't last long. On the other hand, if you really love the country and its culture and are prepared to work incredibly hard, it's a place with so much potential. Also, when you come here, respect the way things are. Rather than questioning everything, go with the flow.

— Do you have any examples of startups that have done well here in recent years?

A brand called Nanis, which makes Italian jewelry. It had previously exported goods to Japan but decided to take the plunge and open a branch in Tokyo during the COVID-19 pandemic. There was skepticism at first because Japan requires patience and money, but it seems to be going well. The brand has realized that to do well in Japan, you need to be here. Also, Jyamma Games, a Milan-based independent game studio, is considering opening up in Japan. At the Tokyo Game Show, it announced a collaboration with SEGA Corporation for the game Enotria: The Last Song.

— What can the Tokyo Metropolitan Government do to help Italian businesses and startups in Japan? 

It's important to be flexible and understand that some foreigners that are trying to do business in Japan might be having a hard time. They need a constant flow of information. It doesn't have to be perfect, just easy to understand and access. On social media, for instance. It would also be good to have a platform in which Italian startups could talk to their Japanese counterparts to gain a better understanding of what goes on in each country. It's about facilitating communication in an effective way. 

The Italian Chamber of Commerce in Japan
Interview and writing by Matthew Hernon
Photography by Ben Cooke