It’s obvious to me that our exporters need to step up when a region such as Hokkaido in northern Japan has such a neat fit with what Australia has to offer.
In Sapporo, in the prefecture of Hokkaido in the far north of Japan, they have a jazz festival – with a difference. This one caters for pets.
That is, the music has been chosen that will help soothe people’s pet cats (and also some dogs too). The idea for a jazz festival for animals was the brainchild of Hokkaido entrepreneur Tatsuya Kato, who runs the awards winning store Pet Land.
Believe it or not, but Pet Land has an Australian connection. According to Sally Phillips, Australia’s Trade Commissioner in Sapporo: “We have worked closely with the Pet Land family as many of the products and ideas they have sourced are Australian. In fact, they recently undertook a photo shoot on the Gold Coast as Australia’s open lifestyle appeals to the aspirations of Japanese families – particularly here in Sapporo.”
In fact, there is quite a lot of Australian influence in Hokkaido, but it’s mainly due to snow rather than sunny beaches, which are few and far between in these parts.
Australians have been attracted to the ski fields in the hundreds – taking advantage of the amount of high quality snow on offer, the short flight from Australia with little time difference (compared to flying to Europe or North America) and the pre-existing Australian ski community in Hokkaido.
One great ski resort town is Niseko, which is only a two hour drive from Sapporo. Niseko is booming as a result of all this Aussie activity and is attracting jazz festivals, top-rate restaurants and other forms of entertainment to cater to the influx of tourists from Down Under.
But many Aussies have become more than just seasonal visitors. In fact, some have actually moved into the area and have become major investors in local real estate.
For example, one such couple, Simon and Joasia Robinson, run Hokkaido Tracks, a major property development business in nearby Kuchan. The couple, who are mad skiers (they recently returned back to Japan from a ‘heli-skiing’, that is a helicopter replaces the humble chair-lift, holiday in Russia) built their new business in Japan after losing everything in the Canberra bushfires.
“We lost everything except the shirt off our backs – and of course, our skis,” says Simon. “We had nothing to lose, and given our passion for skiing we decided to start afresh somewhere new and the relatively undeveloped northern Japan ski fields were just full of opportunities for expansion.”
As a result, the Robinsons have become major investors in the area, and according to Simon they have found it relatively easy to find good properties, as in recent times (after the great deflation), “the Japanese have become ‘wowsers’ when it comes to investment in real estate,” he explains. “Although this might change as the Japanese economy continues to recover.”
Of course, the tourism sector is important to Hokkaido as it doesn’t have the manufacturing base of the other prefectures in Japan. The region was hit hard by the decade-long recession of the 1990s and the failure of a local bank Hokkaido Takushoku, and as a result the Hokkaido unemployment rate of 5.2% is still above the national average of 4.4%. In addition, there are fewer job vacancies than there are skilled workers to fill them. The “opening ratio” in Hokkaido (that is the ratio of job vacancies to workers) is at 0.58 compared to the national ratio of 0.98.
However, Japanese policy makers, now that economic recovery is well under way, are trying ways to reduce “the gap” or disparity in income by region, known as Kakusa.
According to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry’s Hokkaido bureau chief Fukano Hiroyuki: “The fall in construction activity has particularly affected Hokkaido, and therefore we are keen to attract investment in manufacturing, services and ‘knowledge-based industries’.”
And like in the snow fields, international investment has a big role to play in the region. Phil Ingram, Australia’s Senior Trade Commissioner in Tokyo, is a regular visitor to Hokkaido and believes that there are growing opportunities for Australians in areas such as Incat fast ferries, which has won a big contract, but also potential joint ventures in agribusiness, IT and biotechnology with Hokkaido University and the neighbouring Otaru University. “Regions in Japan such as Hokkaido need investment, and Australia’s capacity in food and beverage, infrastructure, agribusiness and education makes it a good fit,” he says.
Sally Phillips in Sapporo is also keen to leverage the growth in the region and Austrade is working closely with the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry on a “Niseko strategy”.
But she says that Australians could also do more to take advantage of the cultural life in Sapporo too: “It’s a good size city of two million people, with jazz, short films and performance art. The restaurants are great – including an Australian-run place in town – and it’s not as overwhelming as a big city like Tokyo or Osaka,” she says.
So next time you head to the snow in northern Japan, go check out the Sapporo Jazz Festival, where you’re sure to see plenty of cool cats and who knows, maybe the odd hot dog.
*Tim Harcourt is chief economist at Austrade and author of Beyond Our Shores (www.austrade.gov.au/economistscorner).
Thanks to Phil Ingram, Fukano Hiroyuki, Mariko Fujita, Sally Phillips and colleagues at the Austrade Sapporo office for their assistance.
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