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Sunday, Jan. 22, 2006
FOREIGNERS WITH FIRMS
Bosses where they want to be
By MARTIN WEBB
Born and raised in Yokohama, Nalin Advani, 40, never tires of extolling the virtues of his home town.
"There's so much going for this city," says the vice president of tech firm Solid K.K. during an interview at a cafe inside Sakuragicho's Landmark Tower, which, at 296 meters, is Japan's tallest building.
"For a start, costs are much lower here than in Tokyo," he continues. "Then there's the ease of getting around. For me, it's a just short drive from home to work, and when I need to travel by air, Haneda is just 20 minutes away."
Despite Advani's personal attachment to the city -- his grandfather spent some 20 years living there from 1917, and his father arrived there from India to settle in 1953 -- he says that locating in Yokohama the Finnish I.T. business he represents in Japan was an objective decision based on considerations of cost and convenience.
"For foreign firms setting up here, basing your operation in Tokyo is a no-brainer," he says. "But when I saw how much that company was spending on rent and taxes, I immediately suggested relocating. Rent in the happening Landmark Tower is less than half what the company paid in Tokyo," he says, "and the city bureaucracy even helped with the paperwork to qualify for a grant, and then helped us to negotiate a good deal on our rent."
Justin Gardiner, publisher of Hamazine, a guide to wining and dining in Yokohama, was also pleasantly surprised to realize the extent to which the city government was prepared to provide support.
"Someone from the city office saw my magazine and they called me up asking if there was anything they could do to help," he recalls. "They asked me if I wanted a list of potential advertisers, and even offered to put me in touch with companies on the list. Then they said that -- for free -- they could provide me with a better map of the city than the one we were using. As far as I can see, they're falling over backward to help foreign-run business in the city.
Sri Lankan-born Jagath Ramanayake, president of Rama D.B.K., a used-vehicle exporter with an annual turnover of 25 billion yen, also recounts several visits from local government officials offering help to overseas firms interested in gaining a foothold in the Japanese market.
"They visited us on three occasions," says Ramanayake. "Our business only launched late last year, so there's still some red tape to get through, but we're hoping to work together in the near future."
Ramanayake is very positive about Yokohama as a location for foreign enterprise. Although when he started Rama D.B.K. some 17 years ago there was little support, things are very different these days, he says, including tax breaks and investment rebates.
"There's been a big improvement in terms of incentives and subsidies for corporations locating here from overseas, and organization like JETRO and IDEC [Yokohama Industrial Development Corporation] are also a great help," he says, also pointing to the Yokohama World Business Support Center established in 2004 to provide temporary start-up offices for foreign firms, which can also be assisted by the city's start-up support team.
According to Toyo Keizai's "Directory of Foreign-owned Companies in Japan," in the two years from fiscal 2002 to 2004, more than 25 overseas firms have set up in Yokohama, bringing the total number of foreign-affiliated firms to 184. In 2005, the city assisted 13 new firms, mostly in the engineering and technology sectors, to set up operations.
While the city government appears to be scrambling to help in some areas of business, those running one-man shows may be getting left out.
Nigerian-born bar-restaurant owner Sammy Guobadia says he has never received any assistance from the city authorities, although his local bank has always been very accommodating.
But even without any incentives or special help, Guobadia says Yokohama is a far better place to live and work than Tokyo, where he spent the first seven of his 17 years in Japan.
"Yokohama's just got something, you know?" He smiles. "Maybe it's because of Chinatown and all the foreigners, or that there's so much more space [than Tokyo]. Then again, it could be that it's so much cheaper!" he says with a cackle.
The congenial Nigerian says that his adopted city's 68,000-strong foreign community is a major source of his business. His bar, Why Not, which recently played host to the English soccer team Liverpool during their trip to Japan to play in the Club World Championship, has a 50 percent foreigner clientele.
Guobadia, who at 42 is married with two kids, and will open a new restaurant in the Motomachi district this spring, says Yokohama's strong pull for foreigners is what keeps him in business.
"I guess when gaijin see a non-Japanese face they feel a sense of ease," he muses. "Whichever way, my foreign customers keep coming back. And of course, they tend to drink quite a lot."