Estonian e-residency was something I considered for my business as a possible Brexit contingency plan. It wouldn’t have helped me keep my EU citizenship, but I could at least run the European side of the business from Estonia, and have a euro bank account for invoicing in euros. In the end I decided to ask my German partner to take over the euro business, but I was very tempted, having had an enjoyable business trip there a couple of years’ ago, combined with a holiday.
I wrote a couple of articles about Estonia and e-residency for a Japanese magazine after that, and it would seem the word has got out to Japanese businesses about Estonia’s digital economy as according to Kota Alex Saito, co- founder of SetGo, an e-residency business in Estonia, he is constantly having to field enquiries from Japanese businesses wanting to visit start ups there.
The dreaded hyoukei houmon
The Estonia Briefing Centre says that 146 groups of 1135 Japanese people visited Estonia in 2018, the second biggest grouping after Germany. However, as Saito points out, very few of them actually then start businesses or invest in Estonia or bring Estonian business to Japan. It is more what the Japanese call 表敬訪問 (hyoukei houmon – usually translated as “courtesy call”).
For Estonian start ups, it is more of a discourtesy to give up your time to show round groups of visitors, and get nothing in return except maybe some rice crackers. As Saito says, they are expecting visits to lead to some sort of business proposition, so “let’s keep in touch” is really not a good enough result. Hyoukei houmon were the bane of my life when I worked for Mitsubishi Corporation in London too – trying to persuade busy European executives that meeting Japanese “missions” would not be a waste of their time.
A difference in scale and mindset
For the Japanese visitors, the main point seems to be simply to see the petrie dish of a digital economy. But as Saito says, Estonia only has a population of 1.3 million, so trying to scale that up by 100 times to a Japanese scale is not a simple process. Furthermore, Estonia has a highly transparent system of data on companies, government and people, so e-government is less feared. There is a big difference in mindset that Japan could learn from, but may find hard to imitate.
Saito gives advice which I often give in my seminars to Japanese and Europeans working together – make the purpose of your meeting clear, do your research beforehand, make sure there are action points at the end that you follow up on.
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