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Interview – Mr Robert Hirst: Chairman of the Board of Directors, FinTech Global, Inc

Acquiring English and its Environment

Kuribayashi (hereinafter ISN): “Could you please briefly tell us what you do?”

Mr Hirst: Chairman of the Board of Directors, FinTech Global, Inc (hereinafter abbreviated): “I am a Chairman of FinTech Global Inc which is an investment bank and listed on the Tokyo stock exchange. We do a variety of transactions, but the main thing that we are doing at the moment is creating a Moomins theme park, and also publicity to showcase the Nordic designs and new ideas. Moomins are very popular in Japan. Lots of Japanese people go to Finland where they originated to see them there. Japan counts around 40% of global income from Moomin products. I heard this idea from the Finnish ambassador several years ago, in 2013. We have decided to take this project. I’ve had a long connection with Finland through financial transactions. So I was familiar with lots of Finnish people.

ISN:”How do you find working with Japanese firms?”

Mr Hirst: “There are advantages and disadvantages. One of the advantages is obviously dealing with other Japanese firms. In general Japanese people prefer to deal in Japanese. Language is the issue.”

ISN: “I think so.”

Mr Hirst: “ A lot of people we have hired have had lot of experience from other theme parks but they still don’t have much English capability. Which is a potential problem because of the increasing tourism and foreign tourists coming to Japan. It is a sharp contrast with Finland, for example, even among Finnish companies the documents and agreements, things like that are always in English.”

ISN: ”What would be the reason English is so common in Finland?”

Mr Hirst: “Even Finnish law tend to be in English. Finland is not a large country in terms of population and the language is un-related to any other languages. So basically they have to learn English but they do it in a clever way in a sense that, for example, they can easily turn on the television stations like BBC. And all the foreign films that they show are always in the original language. They don’t dub into Finnish. They grow up with English. English is there in the background all the time.”

ISN: “The sort of English immersion system has been there in Finland for decades. On the other hand, in Japan if we introduce English to young learners some people might say that they will be confused with two different languages.”

Mr Hirst: “They also learn Swedish at school. 5% of the population is speaks Swedish as a first language and they manage three language without much difficulty.”

ISN:” It is considered as a common feature to be able to speak in multiple languages in Europe.”

Mr Hirst: “Foreign companies tackle this problem basically by recruiting Japanese people. When I first came to Japan many years ago, foreign banks were run by a foreigner. But they have been increasingly localised, which is both good and bad. Because they would tend to look at less international things to do, but our company is increasingly looking for people who could speak English.We even send them to study abroad.”


Skills required in a professional work environment

ISN: “You were saying you are recruiting quality and international minded people.”

Mr Hirst: “In Tokyo, even in convenience stores there are foreigners working. In fact, when came back from Finland this time a guy in Narita airport was a running a bus service speaking fluent Japanese and he was from Nepal. I attended a seminar recently and there was a discussion about tourism. Japan can’t find domestically a lot of the people it needs to operate five star hotels. Because five star hotels require people who speak a lot of languages and have international experience to start with. ”

ISN: “It’d take more than a year or two to earn an international point of view.”.

Mr Hirst:”One of the advantages in that respect of being a relatively small country is nobody learns your language so they have to learn your languages but Japan and few other countries such as France and America, manage on their own so people don’t have to worry too much about that.”

ISN:”However if you have decided to go to Tokyo and have a temporal job you won’t be able to meet the minimum requirement. Where do you look for people to join your team?”

Hirst: “We are interviewing people now. Very few are particularly good at English. We use head hunters but this is for the theme park. We have people who speak very good English working on the finance side but they have lived abroad or studied abroad.”

ISN: “Where do you find them?”

Mr Hirst: “The people that we find with those capabilities usually work for somewhere else and are looking for a new experience. To my surprise there is a university where we are working on the Moomin project and it is an art college. There is no English course at all. It strikes me, it is really bizarre. One of their specialties is media.”

ISN: “Communication.”

Mr Hirst: “If they don’t do anything in English then how can they be doing media? That seems odd. I have to say that compared to when I first came to Japan in Tokyo the ability to speak in English and interest has grown. So younger people seem better than before.”

ISN: “I believe it is always better to start early.”

Mr Hirst: “Ah, yeah”

ISN: “Instead of waiting till you become 20 something”

Mr Hirst: “Yes, I wish I had started early.”


The World Bank and Banks in Japan

ISN: “What have you been doing?”

Mr Hirst: “I graduated University (Cambridge) in the UK. Then I went to the United States and did a graduate course and MBA (University of Pennsylvania). Then I came to Japan out of curiosity and when Japan was in the 70s conquering the world, exports were going up and all seemed interesting. The UK didn’t seem that interesting so I came to Japan. I became fascinated with Japan and stayed on. I also saw that there was a much bigger communication problem then than now and I thought if someone can learn Japanese that would make a difference. So I did. And like you said it would have been much easier if I was two or three when I started that. I also worked in a the states and Hong Kong but I have been back in Japan two or three times. I expect I’m not going to go elsewhere from now on.”

ISN: “Oh, it is nice to know that you are going to be around. I have heard you have worked for World Bank. What was your interest and experience there?”

Mr Hirst: “Well the World Bank was interesting because first of all it is very global. By the way, to qualify to work for the World Bank you need two languages and when I joined the World Bank in the late 1970s they had great difficulty finding qualifies Japanese.”

ISN: “Well, still I think it is a ongoing problem.”

Mr Hirst: “Yes. And the main reason was that they couldn’t find a Japanese who could function well enough in English. The World Bank was interesting. You travel a lot to areas where you are responsible for. I was with IFC, which is a private sector side of the World Bank and I was involved in South Asia which is India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Indonesia. I used to go there quite a lot. But I got tired with it because it was bureaucratic. I joined an American bank and came back to Japan at that time there was almost a revolution in the industry with new ideas and new products coming. I got involved with the drilling products and it took off and grew and grew. I did that about 18 years. I was one of the people who developed this glue in marketing in Japan. The Japanese banks were very slow then. I think it was the fault of the Japanese education system. English was one thing, but the actual system within the financial institutions which hasn’t changed in many of them was to rotate people very frequently. So people are in a job for a year or two or maybe three, and they move to something totally different. So the Japanese system is to create generalists, but the financial industry was more specialised. That didn’t serve them well. They’ve since changed that but it took a long time for Japanese financial institutions to realise that they were structured the wrong way.”

ISN:”They still rotate frequently. Has it been changed?”

Mr Hirst “Some yes, some no. I think the Japanese financial industry went through huge changes in consolidations and companies dropping out but Long-Term Credit Bank has disappeared and became Shinsei Bank and it restructured. So much moving around of people when they don’t understand it enough, they shouldn’t be doing it. And during the process of all this the world economy changed and Japan went through a very long period of recession and deflation and in the meantime China came along.”


Is This a Good Question?

Mr Hirst:”In Finland teachers are well respected.”

ISN: ”I have heard that many times.”

Mr Hirst: “Even the global tests, what do these tests tell you? It doesn’t mean that they have brilliant business ideas or entrepreneur minds.”

ISN: “Exactly. Finding a solution and cooperating with others won’t be measured.”

Mr Hirst: “I’ve been very skeptical about the multi-choice questions.”

ISN: “It limits people’s idea.”

Mr Hirst: “Back to my time in Cambridge, there aren’t multiple choice questions anywhere. They wanted you to express your opinion and you are not judged on what you know but how you could explain your knowledge. One year before I entered Cambridge, for the entrance exam at Oxford there was one question for everybody whether you are focused on mathematics or language. “Is this a good question?””

ISN:”That is the question.”

Mr Hirst: “That is the question.”

ISN: “How long have you got to answer?”

Mr Hirst: “Probably half an hour. So it was kind of testing people’s..”

ISN: “experience and philosophy…”

Mr Hirst:”Philosophy, possibly. When I first came to Japan, I was asked to teach English to people at NTT or Denei Kosha in 1970s. Since it paid well I was happy to do that once in a week in the evening. I would pick something from the newspaper and have them read it because their pronunciation was problem. Then I asked questions. This is 1970s it was about politics and world affairs. I’d ask ‘If you are in this guy’s position, what would you do?’ and he was like…[nervously stand and looking around].”

ISN:”’Nobody told me this will be asked!’ they were thinking ‘what is the right answer?!’”

Mr Hirst:”They were all like that. They are staring at the article to find the answers. I’m not interested in that.”


Creativity-Moving Forward

Mr Hirst: “The actual leaning things, stimulating curiosity, like that are just as important as English. ”

ISN: “Yes.”

Mr Hirst: “And I have a feeling that traditional Japanese education dosen’t do that right?”

ISN: “No they don’t.”

Mr Hirst:”You’ll sit there, you learn and repeat until you know something and you move on to the next thing.”

ISN: “Because if you say something extraordinary you are weird. They don’t want that child in the classroom because it confuses the class and the teacher him/herself. It is also difficult to manage. Japan would be fine for now if people’s performance met a certain standard however it doesn’t take us forward and that means we are left behind every second because the world is moving forward so fast.”

Mr Hirst:”You are perfectly right. So many young people now don’t want to work for a big company. They are all interested in setting a game company or whatever. There is a difference there.”

ISN:”It is okay, I suppose if you are creative, like what you do, and are very good at it. In the States computer science courses are offered in many schools and universities. It is one of the hottest to learn in the States and other countries such as India. In Japan those sorts of studies are sadly still tended to be regarded for geeks.”

Mr Hirst:”It is alright to do your own thing. I know a guy who set up a company and sold it successfully. It was a series of flower shops. But it wasn’t a regular flower shop. They were doing things for weddings and parties and stuff like that. I don’t think he went to university. I think he was aiming to become a professional soccer player but didn’t quite make the grade. But he was entrepreneurial enough to do that.”

ISN:”There we go”

Mr Hirst:”And another guy working in the theme park. He is older but he is very entrepreneurial in creating very interesting food products, craft and a drink corner, things like that. So there are people who don’t follow this mould. That will grow because companies like Sony and Mitsubishi corporation are not hiring like they used to do so people will have no choice. They have to do something else.”

ISN:”It doesn’t matter if you are an individual or in a big company. You have to be able to do something that nobody has done before. That is real creativity, however you also have to have certain skills to be able to manage your time, team, or manage the clients. They are a part of interpersonal human relation skills. It has to be rounded. Something like that won’t be taught. ”

Mr Hirst:”When I think back the time when I was taught at school, the teachers that made the most impression were not the ones that were necessarily brilliant at their subjects. It was their personality. Things I remember are nothing to do with their lessons per say, but have lot to do with life. I guess if you have international teachers that counts because there’s already another level of interest, right?”

ISN: “They have different values, cultures and beliefs”

Mr Hirst: “Our company is looking for someone who is imaginative and adventurous. It is so easy to find a person who will sit there waiting to be told.”

Mr Hirst: “When I was traveling to Finland back in the 1970s there weren’t many Finnish who could speak good English. So there was a very conscious effort on the part of the government.”

ISN:”Our learning environment is working effectively for our children. This is something that has to be done at some point anyway.”

Mr Hirst: “The government would be pleased to subsidise you as this is a very cheap way to nurture international citizens.”

ISN: “I was asked to present what ISN does in a programming education seminar and one of the programmers said to me ‘I hesitate to say but what you do is meaningless because soon we would be able to translate the language through technology.’ I simply said that ‘Being able to speak in a different language would boost their confidence as well as being good at music and swimming. To us the objective of learning language is not the acquisition of the language itself but far beyond.’ Is he going to use his technology when he wants to understand a joke in a conversation? No! ”



At the end of the interview
Mr Hirst has been an active finance specialist from his days in the United Nations until now traveling around the world. He has a strong interest in Japan and Kominkan (traditional style Japanese housing architecture) and tells us about Japan from the point of view of a global citizen. The time I talked to him was a brain-storming opportunity. We would like to express our gratitude to have such on going support. We would like to reflect upon it in the most meani