- The economy is large and quite insular – they don’t need to import or export the way we do, so it can be a difficult market to break into
- As a foreigner you are not expected to work the long hours expected of Japanese people, and you are allowed long holidays
- The Australia-Japan free trade agreement and the negotiations around the Trans-Pacific Partnership are just two signs that the future is likely to be increasingly Asian
Photography by Holly Treadaway
Being a tourist in Tokyo caused Allyson Pannier CA to realise how much she liked working. And how valuable it was to have built a strong business network back home in Canberra.
Pannier moved to Tokyo when her husband, who works for the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, was posted to Japan.
After nine years with leading local firm Maxim Chartered Accountants, she planned to take a break.
“But I wasn’t very good at being a full-time tourist,” laughs Pannier. “I started looking for work quite quickly.”
Having been a senior manager at a firm with a range of clients from large internationally-owned to small family-owned businesses, Pannier expected to easily find opportunities in a Japanese economy on the bounce after decades of stagnation.
But business in Tokyo is predominantly undertaken in Japanese, and without a good grasp of the language it was difficult to find employment.
“I was quite naïve in thinking that Japan is the third largest economy in the world, so I will find something quickly.”
It was her business networks back home that helped her find her feet in the unfamiliar environment and her advice to chartered accountants looking to take part in the “Asian century” is to link up with a major firm before taking the plunge into a country – that or already speak the language.
“That my brain is geared towards numbers, not language, is one of the things I learned,” she says.
That’s not to say Pannier is not a good communicator. After initially finding work at the Australian embassy, she discovered her English language skills were in demand among Japanese who were interested in better understanding International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS).
Pannier began consulting to the Accounting Standards Board of Japan, which was interested in international perspectives on IFRS. Japan has yet to adopt IFRS (although it is one of three different sets of accounting standards in operation in the country) but the push towards globalisation is increasing the demand from Japan for international insight and advice, she says.
IFRS, being devised in English, are best understood and interpreted in English.
“My job was to talk to them in English about accounting standards, to have discussions with them, to tease out points that might be of contention. There are cultural differences as well as differences in terminology.
“The Japanese approach is so different. In Australia, we have a standard that applies to every business and is mandated by the government. In Japan, they have three sets of standards and are on the way to introducing a fourth set.”
Companies in Japan can use Japanese Generally Companies in Japan can use Japanese Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (JGAAP), US GAAP, or IFRS. Consultation is underway on a fourth set, Japanese Modified International Standards (JMIS).
“Most Australian accountants would agree with one set of standards that applies to everyone. It is easier for business people and investors to understand and allows you to compare financial statements across industries.”
The Japanese approach is to try to accommodate the different needs and preferences of different businesses.
“A lot of Japanese accountants end up specialising in one set of standards. To them the idea of having just one set of standards is unbelievable. Seeing the Japanese point of view was incredibly interesting.”
She continues to help inter-cultural financial communication as a visiting lecturer at Chuo University.
“The role is with graduate students – it is a challenge for them learning the standards in their own language but you also lose a lot in translation.”
The trick to making standards understandable is to use examples, she says.
“I was big on using examples to show how it would impact, right down to journal entries.”
She has also co-developed an English language course to help Japanese accountants learn the specific English they will need in international environments.
There was a nuclear cloud of sorts. We might have had to bunker down for a few days, but the wind didn’t blow our way.
When a major earthquake and tsunami struck Japan in March 2011, Pannier assisted the Australian government in efforts to track down Australians in the disaster zone.
The situation became more complicated when a meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant (after it was struck by the tsunami) raised fears that fallout could blow south to Tokyo. Many foreigners left the country.
“All the children at the embassy came back to Australia. We don’t have children so I was asked to stay,” she recalls.
“There was a nuclear cloud of sorts. We might have had to bunker down for a few days, but the wind didn’t blow our way.
“It’s difficult when you have family watching it on the news, and ringing to say ‘this is going to be terrible’. But we were well-communicated to and had a good understanding of the situation and the possible risks.”
She says her skills developed as a chartered accountant were invaluable in the emergency response work: effective communication, organisation, logical thinking in stressful situations, decisiveness in difficult situations, analysing situations and assessing priorities, relationship building and people management, which included talking to and working with Australian survivors of the disaster.
“One of the things I experienced during the disaster was the crucial and difficult role that foreign affairs staff have during a crisis. Operating in a chaotic situation is what these people are trained to do. I saw people, friends of mine, do amazing things during this time and I have the utmost respect for the staff whose job it is to stay in a difficult situation when other people are trying to leave.”
The quake was felt strongly in Tokyo, and many of the aftershocks were violent. Earthquakes were not something she was previously acquainted with.
“There was one the first day we arrived and I thought, oh, that’s what it is. It is quite a different experience,” she says with traditional Aussie understatement.
Business in Asia
“You can’t treat Asia as a single entity,” Pannier says. “Each country has so many cultural and business differences. In many ways, China and Japan are as different from each other as Australia and Japan are.”
People need to know about the country they are working in, or trading with, and how to do business there if they want to take part in the “Asian century”, she says.
“And you need to develop local contacts in the country.”
How different the business cultures are is likely to surprise Westerners whose knowledge of Asia is limited.
“Japan, for example, might look like a Western-style developed economy such as Australia or New Zealand but the reality is very different.”
Pannier says it is hard to generalise about a country the size of Japan, but offers a couple of examples of how the business culture differs from the contemporary Australian or New Zealand model.
“The economy is large and quite insular – they don’t need to import or export the way we do, so it can be a difficult market to break into.
“One of the things that surprised me was the role of women in workplaces – we take for granted that women can go to university and have a career equal to men. In Japan, women are still inclined to stop work when they fall pregnant. Although there is a push to increase the participation of women in work to boost growth.
“I was told there are three types of people in the Japanese workplace – men, women and foreigners. As a foreigner you are not expected to work the long hours expected of Japanese people, and you are allowed long holidays.”
“I didn’t have to learn to play golf, but the golf course is really where decisions are made. Meetings are not as collaborative as they might be in Australia or New Zealand. They are not held to reach a decision. In Japan, meetings are more for a show of consensus – decisions have already been made on the golf course.
“But Japan is a country of contradictions, so of course there are companies where these are not the case. Going there and experiencing it is a great way to gain an understanding.”
Now back at Maxim in Canberra (“I’m more valuable now – that’s what I tell them!”), Pannier retains ties with Japan through her university work and her language course. And she urges young accountants and business people to seriously consider the opportunities that will arise in Asia over the next decade.
The Australia-Japan free trade agreement and the negotiations around the Trans-Pacific Partnership are just two signs that the future is likely to be increasingly Asian.
“And if Japan adopts IFRS, there might be a lot more work for chartered accountants,” she adds.
This article was first published in the December 2016 issue of Acuity magazine.
Top tips for doing business in Asia according to Allyson Pannier CA
Think more local
Think about the individual country you are working in, not the idea of Asia as a whole.
Do your research
Do your research and visit the country you want to do business in.
Establish local contacts.
Secure work beforehand
If you want to work in accountancy, link up with a major firm.