Final Thoughts on Japan

Final Dinner in Kyoto:
For our final evening in Kyoto, our organizers were able to invite a Geisha over to our last dinner together. To provide context, foreigners can’t book Geishas for events (such as dinners). This was a big deal for all of us. The Geisha introduced herself, sang us a few songs for us and even taught us how to play a few games that date back eras. We ended the night with our usual photoshoot but, this time, included our new lovely Geisha friend.

Bonding and Nightlife:
With half the people on this trip being form the J-termers and the other representing Fall termers, the evenings presented the perfect opportunity to bond over sake and karaoke. From the clubs of Tokyo to the tiny pubs of Kyoto to the riverside hangouts in Kanazawa, we made the best of our evenings and met with so many locals who were kind enough to get to know us.

Final Thoughts on People and Culture:
Japan was unlike anywhere we had been to before. When I ask my Chazen buddies now about what they miss the most about the country, answers ranged from the clean streets to the kind locals to the exciting baseball games. Personally, I miss the level of respect that is deeply knitted into the Japanese culture. The way an airport worker bows to the bus filled with tourists as its leaving. The way special needs workers would lift themselves off their wheelchairs to bow to us and welcome us to their facility. It’s a different nature of respect. One that is more defined by action than words. And it positively affected us, individually and collectively, on a daily basis during out trip.

Georges Bassous is a 2020 MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School

Variety in Japan’s Professional Scene

The variety in the industries we were exposed to was a staple of this trip.

Shiseido, for example, is the fifth largest and most succesful luxury and cosmetics company. We visited Shiseido’s Global Innovation Center; which incubates a cosmetics museum as well as develops, tests and demonstrates innovative technology and products in the cosmetics sector. Given that the company’s CEO was supposed to meet with us but had last minute travel obligations, we got a personalized video message from the CEO and the Chief People Officer led the presentation on his behalf. We also received a cute parting gift from Shiseido which included some strong sunscreen; which provided to be quite valuable throughout this trip.

Omron, an industrial and robotics manufacturing conglomerate, was another interesting company visit. We specifically visited one of the company’s subsidiaries, one which only employs people with mental and physical disabilities. It was eye-opening and quite comforting to see how to facility, processes and tools were customized and designed in a manner that caters to the employees’ specialized needs.

We also got exposure to the startup scene in Tokyo; since we got to meet several startups involved in printing, logistics, education and blockchain / cryptocurrencies. Raksul for example, a Harvard Business Review case company, leverages underutilized printers using an online platform. Raksul is a unicorn and is known as the “Uber for Printers”. We were greeted by its founder and CEO, a previous management consultant, who described to us the best practices and pitfalls of launching a startup in Japan. He emphasized how the Japanese market offers Raksul unique advantages, as well as challenges, that would not be easily replicated in foreign markets. Additionally, we got a bonus presentation on the founder’s other venture, a sort-of “Uber for Trucks”, and what he foresees for the future of the startup scene in Japan. Given that a significant portion of one’s identity in Japan is tied to the company he / she is working for, this normally de-incentivizes young individuals from starting their own company. However, this trend is progressively shifting and we can therefore expect more superstar entrepreneurs stemming from Japan in the coming years.

Georges Bassous is a 2020 MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School

The Art of Purification and Subtraction

The Japanese believe in the art of purification; whereby an emphasis is placed on physical and mental cleanliness and emptiness. Another one of their core values is the art of subtraction; which constitutes the origins of modern-day minimalism and is quite focused on simple / practical design. The basis behind these values is that cognitive virtues, such as creativity and empathy, can be achieved (to the greatest extent) only in the absence of clutter and distractions. These values can be seen across Japan in practice, from the ultra-clean streets and public bathrooms to the neatly designed buildings and products.

Given that culture made up such an integral part of the Japanese business scene, checking out some of the landmarks in Japan was a must. We decided to visit the famous shrines and temples of Tokyo, Kanazawa and Kyoto. Although there were quite a few tourists and students around these majestic areas, we were still able to get our souvenirs and photoshoots in.

Our most memorable cultural highlight, however, was the mediation session we had at one of the most iconic buddhist temples in Kyoto. Our meditation session was led by an influential monk; who is very well known for his TED talk on meditation and his many lectures on mindfulness at some of the top U.S. schools (such as M.I.T and Stanford). He also showed us around the temple garden and explained to us the monks’ responsibilities as well as the theological bases behind their spiritual practices.

Georges Bassous is a 2020 MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School

Business & Pleasure in Japan

In Tokyo, one of the founders of the Teamlab design studios took us on a private tour of their HQ office and flagship museum. Every room in that museum was unique and left us in awe. At each stage of the tour, the co-founder explained to us his philosophy behind integrating technology with art as well as the company’s plans going forward. It was interesting for us to meet such an eccentric business person. He was homeless for most of his life and was working across the Middle-East to make ends meet. His views on life and his journey to-date took us off-guard but inspired us.

The CEO of SEGA greeted us at their HQ and involved a thoughtful discussion on the trends in the gaming industry as well as the challenges associated with launching the SONIC movie in partnership with Paramount. Following the event, we got to visit and try out the company’s Virtual Reality games alongside Berkeley Haas MBA students.

That evening, we gathered on a boat to have dinner and sing some karaoke. The captain had grown up in Hawaii and had an amazing voice. He kicked off the karaoke until we eventually decided to join him and, of course, take over the stage.

The next day in Tokyo, the CFO of the SoftBank group greeted us at their HQ offices. The discussion mostly focused on the group’s $100 Billion Vision Fund; which is larger than all of the VC funds in the U.S. combined. The CFO went over the most interesting and impactful startups in their fund portfolio, across a variety of industries, such as Uber and OYO.

The CBS alumni event took place at Japan’s most prestigious business school and one of our organizers’ alma mater. The event involved a presentation on Japanese culture and norms. This was followed by an alumni panel moderated by a Mckinsey & Co. partner and involving several CBS alumni who founded their own startups and VC funds. To finish off the evening on a high note, the CBS Japan alumni kindly took some time out of their busy schedules to get to know each and every one of us.

Georges Bassous is a 2020 MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School

Off we go to Tokyo

Between the formal pre-trip meetings, the sushi socials and the offline planning sessions, I’ve come to notice that all 40 Chazen participants have one thing in common: This is everyone’s first visit ever to Japan.

Avec son rouge éclatant et son allure de tour Eiffel, la tour de Tokyo est l'un des symboles de la capitale nippone

At this point, we don’t know what to expect. We’re aiming to cover three major regions – Tokyo, Kanazawa and Kyoto – in under 10 days. There are some amazing company visits lined up, such as a meeting with the CFO of the largest fund in the world “The SoftBank Vision Fund”. Additionally, this marks the Japan Chazen Trip’s 30th anniversary and the organizers are putting together some exceptional events to solidify this milestone, such as a private tour of Japan’s famous Virtual Reality studio “The Tokyo Teamlab”.

Quite a few of us are so impatient that we’re planning to be in Tokyo four days before the trip officially starts. We’ve already organized a dinner at the iconic “Robot Restaurant” and have six learning teams assigned to research each of the lined-up companies. It’s not everyday that MBA candidates get to personally meet the leadership teams of some of the most influential organizations in Japan and globally. As such, the purpose of the learning teams is to come up with questions that would drive the discussion forward and provide us with industry insights we would not normally get in the classroom.

On a final note, I authentically believe that this trip will foster new lifelong friendships. The 40 participants represent both first and second year, Fall and J-term, students and it seems that people are really excited to get to know each other going forward.

Georges Bassous is a 2020 MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School