Chris Hodgens: You name it, Tokyo has it

Interview by Molly O'Brien, Marketing & Communications Specialist, Advance. 

Chris Hodgens has an extraordinary take on Tokyo. Nearing his 20-year anniversary of living there, he has seen this non-stop city through many developments, its inhabitants in particular. 

Working as a Senior Corporate Partner at Baker & McKenzie after starting out as a lawyer in the firm's Sydney office in 1994, Chris has remarkable insight on the parallels and differences between Australian and Japanese culture. 

Helping many global and international clients to acquire, divest or invest in businesses in Japan, Chris uses his fluent Japanese and significant corporate experience to help clients navigate cultural and commercial differences in Japan.

Citing the cuisine, the culture, the civility and the safety as the key reasons he loves living in Tokyo, Chris is unquestionably a global Australian immersing himself in the opportunity of an incredible international city.

How would you describe relations between Australia and Japan?

As a casual observer, I’d say increasingly close and collaborative, and in the trade and economic sphere, I’d also say complementary. Each nation serves as a great market for the other’s traditional exports but the opportunities for expanding trade links were greatly enhanced when the two countries signed the Japan Australia Economic Partnership in 2015.  Both are also party to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is now in the process of morphing into the “CPTPP” (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership). But it’s not just about trade - the last 20 years have also seen a marked shift in tourism between the two countries with the number of tourists heading from Australia to Japan for sushi and snow now equalling and possibly outstripping the number of tourists from Japan heading down under for beaches and bush.

What do you perceive as Australia and Japan’s biggest common interests?

Again, as a casual observer, I think the biggest common interest, or at least the most visible, is probably trade. Trade has been the bedrock of the relationship since the two entered into the Commerce Treaty just over 60 years ago. Increasingly, it seems regional security is also a big common interest, with both nations aligned in wanting to ensure stability and mitigate geopolitical threats in the region.

How has Tokyo transformed during your tenure there?

My tenure here will be 20 years next year!

I don’t think the physical landscape has changed dramatically, though there has been a steady flow of high-grade, high-rise residential, commercial (and even hotel) developments over the last decade, and we now have a new tower called “Tokyo Skytree” alongside Tokyo Tower which was built at the time the city last hosted the Olympics in 1964. Speaking of which, the city is undergoing significant transformation now, with the construction of a new national sports stadium, residential village and other facilities for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

However, I think one of the biggest changes in recent years has been in the city’s inhabitants: the human landscape has changed markedly with the presence of an ever-growing number of tourists, not just from Australia, but also China, Korea and all over the world, and also a steady stream of foreign workers such as students and technical trainees. I guess you could say it has become increasingly cosmopolitan. 

I think also the quality and variety of “international” restaurants has improved over the years, with a steady stream of Japanese chefs working abroad and bringing back high quality and innovative cuisine, often using Japanese ingredients but in new and different ways. Internationally renowned chefs have also come to Japan in droves over the years, and in the last couple of years there has been a veritable “invasion” of Australian restauranteurs opening up high quality, innovative establishments in Tokyo.

From a business perspective, I would say that Tokyo has become more accessible to global clients investing and doing business in Japan. As lawyers, dare I say I think we have had a role to play in helping to make the complex legal environment in Japan more transparent and navigable for our clients.

Finally, I think it’s noteworthy that the city also last year elected its first ever female governor in Yuriko Koike. Koike-san was originally elected to the national government as one of former Prime Minister Koizumi’s so-called “children” (cohort of newly-elected politicians led by the charismatic Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi). In her current role, she has developed quite a reputation as a forthright and outspoken political leader.

You have worked at the Baker & McKenzie offices in both Sydney and Tokyo. What are the major differences between workplace culture in the two cities? 

Yes, and I have also worked a little in our Melbourne office in recent years and so I do see differences from my Sydney days and also more recently from my time in our Melbourne office.

Dare I say that the workplace culture in our Australian offices is noticeably more “relaxed”, or perhaps “balanced” is a better word, in comparison with our Tokyo office.

It’s not unusual to see our Australian lawyers taking the opportunity during their lunch hour or perhaps after hours to go to the gym or go for a run around the “harbour” (as in Sydney Harbour) or the “Tan” (Botanical Gardens in Melbourne) or maybe pursue some other physical activity outside the office. You also sometimes see people arriving at the office in their bicycle shorts or heading out in their running gear.

I think our Tokyo lawyers have traditionally tended to focus on work and spending long hours in the office in order to get ahead to the exclusion of “extra-curricular” activities. However, that has changed somewhat in recent years with our lawyers participating in more competitive sports events such as soccer, baseball, and running, and of course golf!

Having studied in both countries, what do you recognise as the key differences between Australian and Japanese education systems?

It’s true that I studied at university in Australia and Japan, though that was some time ago! However, my children also attended school in both countries so I guess I can say I have had a glimpse at the differences at the primary as well as tertiary levels in each country.

My overall impression is that in education in Japan tends to be about “teaching”, whereas in Australian schools it is more about “learning”.

In other words, in Japan, the approach is to “prime” students, for example, in order to compete more effectively in exams, whereas in Australia the approach these days seems to be more to encourage learning through inquiry and to equip students with broader skill sets.

Having said that, I think the quality at primary school level in Japan is quite high. Students that study at that level in Japan and then switch to school in Australia tend to excel in subjects like maths.

What particular industries is Tokyo excelling in?   

By any measure, Tokyo is one of the world’s leading business and financial centres. It is of course home to the Tokyo Stock Exchange and the corporate headquarters of the vast majority of Japan’s leading corporations.

It is also the primary location for foreign businesses operating in Japan.

I think the leading industries in Tokyo would be finance, retail, food and beverage and information technology and communications. 

It excels, however, in public transportation, with arguably one of the most efficient, cleanest and safest subway systems in the world, and also Tokyo station from which the bullet train departs for locations all over Japan.

Tokyo undoubtedly excels in the food and beverage industry. I think I read that there are more than 80,000 restaurants in Tokyo and it’s well known that Tokyo has more Michelin stars than any other city in the world. Goodness knows how many bars there are in Tokyo! 

Then there’s shopping: from luxury in Ginza to electronics in Akihabara to young fashion in Shibuya. Not to mention casual wear retailers such as Uniqlo and 100 yen shops such as Daiso.

You name it, Tokyo has it.

Do you think Tokyo is a good city for Australians to relocate to? If so, why?

Yes, I do. It is a good city for professionals such as lawyers and accountants, and also finance industry workers, because it is one of the world’s leading business and financial centres and offers a sophisticated business environment and a wealth of opportunity.

It is also clean, civilised, safe and sophisticated, and these days relatively inexpensive from an Australian perspective!

Knowing Japanese helps, especially if you end up staying for the longer-term because you will get more out of life in Tokyo with the language, but for short-term assignments lack of Japanese language skills is not really an issue.

What do you enjoy most about living there?

I am fortunate to be able to count two homes: one being Melbourne and the other Tokyo. I think you always enjoy coming home and being home and that certainly is the case with Tokyo. 

I enjoy living here because of all the things that Tokyo has to offer: the cuisine, the culture, the civility, the safety and all of the other attributes that make it such a great city. I also enjoy being immersed in the language and culture and the opportunity to experience and hopefully learn something new every day.

AsiaAdvanceBorn Global, Tokyo