Japan and the Dutch: connected through a centuries-old business relationship
Japan and the Netherlands have long enjoyed a special bond. In 1609, the two countries established trade treaties and they’ve continued to work closely together ever since. In the Amsterdam Area, the countries’ close connection can be seen everywhere: there are Japanese stores, restaurants and businesses spread throughout the city region. One of those is Mizuho Bank, which is led by CEO Kenji Saito.
Speaking to Saito from his Amsterdam Zuidas office, his appreciation of how the Netherlands and Japan are so closely intertwined is clear. “We have a long diplomatic and commercial relationship,” he says. “That’s had a good impact on our mental solidarity. At the same time, both countries are heavily focused on trade, so the interdependency is quite high.”
Though only officially established in in 2002 through a merger of three financial institutions, Mizuho Bank is one of Japan's three largest banks and has offices in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, the Middle East and the Americas. It opened in Amsterdam in 1974 but recently expanded its operations in the city due to Brexit. It offers a suite of corporate banking services and focuses on helping major Europe-based companies as well as firms with a connection to Japan.
How Amsterdam offers stability to businesses in tough times
Though the world of finance can be intense, Saito thinks Amsterdam is a gezellig (a Dutch which defines a specific sort of cosiness) place to work and live. He says members of the Japanese and Asian business community are eager to live and work in the city region due to its excellent quality of life and proximity to other major European cities.
“A lot of Japanese companies see Amsterdam, or the Netherlands, as a sort of continental hub,” he says. “Because geographically speaking, this is the centre of Western Europe and a financial centre as well. And, of course, English is the business language, which makes it quite easy for Japanese people to live and work here.”
The Dutch capital also offers stability, something the bank has used to help steer its customers through economic challenges. “Especially after Brexit, a lot of companies, including a lot of Japanese companies, that have been mainly based in London are thinking that only being located there is a risk,” he explains. “They are looking for someplace new, and Amsterdam is one of the top choices. We’re here to support them.”
If companies want to cross borders, Mizuho Bank can assist with that, too. “Companies in Tokyo are only licensed for one country,” he explains. “But we are here as a European bank, so we don’t have any restrictions on doing business here.”
Amsterdam – a business hub that offers a high quality of life
And when it comes to that fabled quality of life, Saito has nothing but good things to say. He thinks the city is a “gentle and quite convenient” destination for internationals, something that makes things easier for many Japanese colleagues at Mizuho Bank when compared to the intense hustle and bustle of Tokyo, where his family lives.
“The size of Amsterdam is quite handy,” Saito says. “Commuting, working and living is easier here than Tokyo, where it’s famous for a very crowded commute and people are working from a very early time in the morning until late in the evening. Here, it’s much easier to have a good work-life balance.”
Like many businesses, Mizuho Bank has had to change the way it operates due to the coronavirus outbreak. The company recently moved into a new office in the Atrium, a large building in Zuidas that has been implementing new schemes to help reduce its carbon footprint.
Mizuho Bank's Amsterdam office
Though Saito says it’s a pity to see the space sitting empty, he’s also found that working from home is much easier in Amsterdam. “Especially in this time of corona, we have noticed that we can be very efficient here when working remotely,” he explains. Part of the reason for that, he explains, is Amsterdam’s high level of broadband penetration, which Saito says lets his team avoid delays and other issues when working in remote locations outside of the bank’s offices.
Beer, bitterballen and boats
Soon, Saito will head back to Japan to join his family, including his two Dutch-born daughters who are now college students in Tokyo. Though he looks forward to being close to his family again, he says there is much he’ll miss about his adopted home.
“Bitterballen and Heineken,” he says with a laugh. “I can get Heineken in Japan sometimes, but real bitterballen is hard to find. And I will miss the summertime in Amsterdam. Tokyo summer can be terrible, it’s almost 40 degrees every day with high humidity. In Amsterdam, from the tulip season until the end of August, it’s really nice.”
Like most people who have called the Dutch capital home, Saito says he will always love the city. “It’s a beautiful city with a lot of green and you can have a beautiful life here. I’ve enjoyed five years with my family here, and four years of living alone. I love being in a small boat in the Amstel river - I will miss this life.”