Is Tokyo a terrible place to live

Christoph Seibt: "Our colleagues in Tokyo dispel the concern"


In September, Freshfields partner Prof. Dr. Christoph Seibt returned from a three-month sabbatical from Japan. Today he looks concerned, but not hopeless, at a country that has to face earthquakes, tsunamis and nuclear threats. Gil Eilin Jung spoke to the legal scholar about the local situation, Japanese understanding of law and aid measures.

The appointment between Christoph Seibt and LTO had been in place for months. More precisely, the promise to deliver first-hand impressions of his Japanese sabbatical and visiting professorship at Kyoto University. Nobody could have anticipated that an accumulation of catastrophic major events in Japan would dominate the conversation.

Around 30 lawyers are based in the Tokyo branch of Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, one of 28 worldwide branches of the renowned large law firm. One of them, the Japanese M + A partner Takeshi Nakao, is Christoph Seibt's counterpart. "We spoke on the phone a few days ago," says Seibt, "he said: Daily life in Tokyo is of course impaired, but we can manage it." Some colleagues would not have been able to go home on some days, some slept with colleagues or even in the office: Seibt was told that the office itself was "fully functional".

Freshfields in Tokyo is located on the 36th floor of the Akasaka Biz Tower in the center of the city. While there is talk of burgeoning panic in the German press, because of the threat of a nuclear-laden cloud that could possibly head for the 35 million metropolitan area, and of the beginning of hamster purchases, Seibt has not received any feedback of this kind. "The situation is dramatic , but you work and you want to be part of Freshfields. We asked: How can we help? The answer: We want to discuss that with each other first. " There is a clear effort to dispel any concerns and to do "business as usual", says Seibt. The lawyer suspects that this is to avoid the impression that the Japanese cannot cope with the situation on their own.

However, help is now to flow on the initiative of the German-Japanese Society in Hamburg, whose concerns Christoph Seibt wants to support and which is specifically targeting the crisis-ridden Sendai region.

"My observation: an extremely high level of self-criticism"

Seibt's sabbatical last summer was Kyoto, 400 kilometers southwest of Tokyo. There the fully qualified lawyer pounded Japanese - "ten hours a day, two of them with a private tutor, seven days a week, seven weeks". That would have made small talk with taxi drivers easier, but it would have already reached the limit when reading menus. "Too many Kanji characters," says Seibt, "that's terribly complicated." He gave Seibt's law lectures at Kyoto University in English. His observation: Although the majority of those present spoke excellent English, the questions were sent to an interpreter in Japanese, "probably because of an extremely high level of self-criticism, fear of losing face and fear of not having a perfect command of the foreign language."

Around 30 lawyers took part in the Hamburg attorney's excursions on "corporate governance and capital market law". Half were students, half were professors and PhD students. How do Japanese lawyers differ from European lawyers? "In the top class, both at universities and in law firms, the Japanese are much more academic than we are," says Seibt. The partners of the Tokyo Freshfield office are "the forefront of what Japanese practice is", according to the lawyer, but they are still very much oriented towards the wording of the law and the practice of the authorities, rather than "interest-driven, practice-changing considerations."

The separation between practice "and academia, which we overcome in Germany over twenty years ago" is even stronger in Japan, says Seibt. Among the top three Japanese universities, the private Wesada University and the state universities of Tokyo and Kyoto, Kyoto has a reputation for being particularly intellectual. The Tokyo universities, on the other hand, rely more on dialogue with companies, lawyers and investment bankers.

As for Seibt's lecture topics, he was able to observe politely wrapped skepticism about the American and European understanding of board members, as he says. For example, many Japanese listed companies consider it a mistake to bring outside directors into corporate administration. From their point of view, they sometimes produce good ideas, but significantly more undesirable developments. As a result, they hold back more than they advance. "Traditionally, the Japanese are often of the opinion that you have to have been with the company for 20 years to know exactly how this company functions and can be managed."

"I was allowed to fetch water, but not pour it"

Seibt attests that the Japanese have a "certain affinity with us when it comes to the accuracy with which things are done". The so-called secondary virtues are present to a much greater extent in the Middle Kingdom than in Germany. "It starts with a positive appreciation of the craft, where carpenters are only finished after seven years, specializing in certain types of wood. There are blacksmiths who only make certain blades or cooks who are only responsible for filleting a certain fish."

In the Tokyo restaurant "Shimada Sushi" in Shimbashi, the German lawyer was able to observe the fine art of handicraft up close, as a kind of all-round aid for two days. "There are masters, there are aspirants, there are apprentices," says Seibt with amusement, "and there was me. I was allowed to fetch water for the miso pot, but not pour it - that was the job of someone more competent."

The Japanese are considered to be very hospitable. However, invitations into private surroundings are unusual. The private is being shifted, says Christoph Seibt. "There is a strong separation between public and private life. My mentor, who was at the Max Planck Institute in Hamburg for two years, speaks very good German and English, is in a relationship with a professor, studied at Harvard and has a very western feel. who went to great lengths to look after me and passed me around to Osaka, Kobe and Tokyo - she always invited people to the restaurant. This is the private room. "

Personal issues were generally left out in Japan. But people talk about politics and social developments, ”says Seibt. "If you are really interested in the other person and don't want to repeat the clichés, you can experience astonishing depths".

"We underestimate Japan's cultural importance for the western world"

There have been one or two contacts with lawyers that will last longer. How do you feel about these people in times of disaster? Seibt ponders briefly, says: "It is very depressing. These months in Japan have brought me closer to the country and its people. I have great respect for Japanese culture in a broad sense and the many innovations in business and society Today children no longer grow up with Disney and Hollywood like we do, but with Pokemons, Nintendos, mangas and anime films. "

Japanese characteristics that are now reflected in the crisis are seniority and authority, says the lawyer. "When you are in faculty meetings, you often notice: Age sticks to competence. If the 70-year-old professor emeritus says, 'That's it!', You would never openly question that," says Seibt. The decision-making processes that are clear as a result would have to be changed - if at all - only in complex and face-saving, non-public discussions.

The second noticeable thing is the common sense in all areas. "Japanese culture is the only culture that functions differently," says the lawyer. Japan is the only top economic nation that is significantly aligned with this collective value at company level. American, English, German or New Chinese corporate life is "essentially individualistically oriented". In contrast, the Japanese economy is structured in a more complex way. So there is often the "factual right to give up and the desire for lifelong employment in a company and continuous, in-house training and further education". But the Japanese would also find solid structures and communities in other areas, such as in social and religious communities. "When you see how the population reacts to this current tragedy, it is not individualism that is in the foreground, no" Save yourself if you can! ", But public spirit, says Seibt," keep calm, show attitude - a remarkable attitude of mind. "


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