The Land of the Rising… Investment Opportunities?

Mike Rogers, an American-born and raised entrepreneur who has lived and worked in Japan for nearly 30 years, shares his thoughts on the recent earthquake, its consequences on the Japanese economy and answers the question: “What do the Japanese REALLY think about Americans?”

International Man: Tell us a little bit about yourself, how you ended up in Japan, etc.

Mike Rogers: I’m half Japanese. My mother was born in Kyushu and my father was stationed here right after WWII. He was in the first Marines. When the Korean War started, he was in one of the first Marine units to go to Korea to fight there.

He then met my mom, they got married and moved to the States. So I was born on a US military base. I lived all over the United States as a military brat most of my life (we moved every year or every few years).

In 1979 I came to Japan for the first time and really liked it. It was wonderful. There were no foreigners here at that time. I mean, there were some, but you very rarely saw them. It was like being a movie star… you could walk around and people would point at you. It was heaven for guys because you could just stand in front of a building and girls would try to pick you up. You had four or five girls hitting up on you in an hour. Beautiful women too. So I thought: “This country is wonderful!”

So then I went back to the United States to finish university. Then I married a Japanese girl.

After graduating between 1981-1984 I was working at an insurance company. We sold life insurance annuities and things like that. There were about 60 guys working in the office. Most of them were ex-military guys, like my dad, all about fifty or sixty-years-old or so. I was one of the young guns there — I was always in the top 5 salesmen. I made a lot of money, had three cars, and I bought a house in a year and a half. Straight out of college.

But I started getting disillusioned…

We’re taught when you get the SEC license that you’re in this business to help people. But just look at the retirement situation now in the United States. It’s a mess. You’re supposed to be helping people to set up their retirement. But the fact of the matter is, it’s just churning money so you can earn commission.

Since I was the younger guy, the other workers who were the bosses could psychologically dominate me in front of clients. And I wouldn’t say anything.

To make a long story short, I got fed up. The last straw was when this woman client of mine had a stroke. She was 44 years old and had a ten-year-old son. She didn’t smoke. She didn’t drink. She had a wonderful husband, a wonderful house.

Because of the stroke, she couldn’t move the left side of her body anymore. It was shocking. My boss took me over there and talked her into cashing in all of her life insurance policies — to buy a new life insurance policy. And that’s just absurd because once you have a disability like that, you don’t have to pay for insurance anymore on existing policies. I was astounded! I felt like we were just ripping people off. I spent the next 3 days drunk and decided to quit that job.

Also, another thing that disturbed me around that time is that we [the US] invaded Granada. I remember coming to work and everybody was having a party and drinking at the office. I walked in and everybody was having a toast. “Mike, come on over and have a drink — we’re having a party!” What’s the occasion? “We won a war – yeah!”

I’m serious!

I remember drinking with them and then it dawned on me… Wait a minute… why are we invading Granada? Isn’t that a little country by Grand Caymans or something like that?

And so I went home and looked in the Encyclopedia Britannica and started doing some research. I found out that basically we’re being told a bunch of propaganda, and we were told that there are 5,000 regular Cuban soldiers in Granada. But the situation in Cuba is, actually, if you’re Cuban then you’re in the army. So if there’s a guy with a wife and eight kids, you’d count that as 10 people in the Cuban army. And we’re sending 19,000 marines to blast them out! I was getting quite disillusioned with the United States too.

So I thought, “Forget this job. I’m going to travel the world with my wife.” I believed I could sell ice water to Eskimos, so we moved to Japan in 1984. I thought we would only stay for a few years and then check out Italy. But I found a good job here and I just stayed. I like it here. People in this country are very civilized.

IM: And now you run an advertising firm in Japan?

MR: I own three companies. The first one is a TV / radio / video / mass media production company that also has a talent agency inside it. But because the radio and TV production business is just collapsing all over the world (due to declining revenues from sponsorships and things like that), two years ago I decided to open up a marketing section for that.

My idea was to help foreign companies that are trying to get into Japan promote themselves to the Japanese.

My second business is in the travel industry.

It's funny, but bad things keep happening in that business… I set up promotional campaigns for certain countries, tie-up a bunch of TV and radio stations and magazines - the whole thing. And then, just when the campaign gets started, there is a big demonstration in the capital city and the police are shooting people! And this is all over the world now. This is not good publicity!

IM: I wouldn’t think so!

MR: It even happened in London recently - the cops were shooting rubber bullets and tear gas at demonstrators. And I actually have a campaign that’s ending on Saturday [to encourage Japanese people] to fly to London. Not good.

So I don’t know if I’m jinxing these people, or if I’m picking the wrong places. But anyway, when the Japanese media find out, they call me and I have to go there and bow my head and apologize. That’s the way it’s done here, but I have no control over these things.

So I’m on a sit and wait situation on that business.

And then I just started another company. It’s with the first foreign boss who ever brought a company to IPO in Japan. Actually, he did it the first two times in history. He is my partner and we started a new Internet-related company just last month. So I’ve been doing that.

So, while I run three companies, I’m hoping this year one of them can make some money! (Laughs).

IM: Mike, let’s talk a bit about the Earthquake situation. There was a lot of misinformation that spread immediately after the quake. And even now. Over here in the West we have no clue what’s really going on. So from your perspective on the ground, what’s going on with the fallout from the earthquake, with the nuclear power plant problems, the situation in general?

MR: This is the hard question. So let me break this up…

As far as the nuclear radiation is concerned — and it’s always been this way even in the start — for the people living in this area this is a very serious situation. It’s a level-7 nuclear disaster.

They evacuated a 30-kilometer or so zone around the nuclear power plants, which is about the same that they did for Chernobyl. That’s about 18 miles. And you can’t go in there - it’s evacuated. Compare that to 3-mile island which was evacuated for a ten-mile radius…

The fact of the matter is (and we can only deal with facts I think) nobody has died from the nuclear accident. So far, six people have gotten sick, and all of them have been released from the hospital without any expected complications. Even the guys who stepped in the radioactive water, the worst thing that happened to them was like being seriously sunburnt.

So dealing with facts, radiation within this area is high. There is radiation leaking in water around the power plant and they’ve got to get a grip on it. But plutonium and things like that get attached to dust or materials — they can’t blow up wind.

I’m in Tokyo, which is 230 km away from that place. The prevailing winds here in Japan have always blown from the South or the West or North-East in winter; it has been this way for millions of years. I don’t think it’s going to change soon. So we’re pretty safe here. No matter what season the winds are blowing the mess away from Tokyo.

And if Plutonium is in the water, it’s going to go downstream. So again we are pretty safe here in Tokyo.

Ultimately, if you look at the end of WWII, Japan had more than 2 million military dead and almost a million civilians dead (I think). There were cities carpet-bombed just to ruins and Japan recovered. This earthquake and tsunami — it’s a very bad disaster — but the entire Miyagi prefecture is only 2.3 million people. There are 35 million people just in Tokyo. So in the long term this is basically just a blip on the screen. Japan will recover from that.

The problem is there are too many things involved right now. And everything is linked to each other…

Do you know that there are nuclear power plants in a place called Hamaoka south of Tokyo that are going to shut down now because of this?

This is a big deal. You are now shutting down 40% of Japan’s electricity. 20% from the one that got damaged, and now 20% from this nuclear power plant voluntarily shut down by a private company being strong-armed by the government!

And on that point I’m not pro or anti-nuclear power. I just think that the worst thing that could possibly happen to us is to lose a cheap source of clean energy

So anyway, if that nuclear accident had happened in Hamaoka and not in Fukushima this would be a totally different story because that radiation would be blowing towards Tokyo. And that would just mess things up. 51% of Japan’s GDP is created in the Tokyo metropolitan area. Like I said, there are 750,000 people in the area affected by the earthquake and tsunami and nuclear problems compared to about 35 million people in Tokyo. It’s a totally different situation.

They call it a black swan event. There are so many things related. The world economy is so fragile… so messed up… that this sort of thing happening in such a small area has wide effects on other segments of the market. It’s hard to get a handle on what this actually means.

For example, I would have never guessed that shareholders of a privately-owned company would have agreed to shut down the Hamaoka nuclear plant. I thought that when the government would ask them to do it, that they would say “yeah yeah”… but they went and did it! That really blows my mind. Had this Fukushima thing happened in 2007 when the world economy was good, it would be fine. It would be just a blip. The world economy would have absorbed it. But now there are so many things going on Europe, and the US printing money like crazy.

Talking about a ping-pong effect, last night I hosted a radio show and when I did the news, we found out that the debt-to-GDP is the highest in history… Japan is now 11.4 trillion dollars in debt. It’s about 225% of GDP.

So these things happening related to that nuclear power plant is enough of a problem as it is. But then it expands to when we’re gonna close these other nuclear power plants and it just starts becoming a wider and wider and wider problem.

It’s just difficult to grasp the enormity of the situation.

Up until recently, the Southeast Asian Nations group has been asking Japan to join and Japan hasn’t wanted to… But now I think Japan will probably want to join this trade block. And that’s bad for the US.

Before the earthquake happened, the buzz was that the Yen was going to weaken and that we were going to see 120 yen to the dollar by June-July. But after the earthquake, everything is off the table. Even with Bank of Japan and other central bank intervention, the yen just keeps getting stronger and stronger…

And go figure that! Here is a country that has just been radiated and their currency is getting stronger!

What does this tell you about the US dollar and what people think about the dollar?

If you were to ask me before the earthquake “okay, Japan is going to have this big quake and their economy is going to get bashed up…what’s going to happen to the yen?” I would have said the yen is going to get very weak. No. It’s getting stronger!

I don’t know what to say about that…

IM: It’s the least ugly of the three big currencies now. The Spiegel reported that Greece is considering leaving the euro zone and going back to the Drachma. It’s the start of the beginning of the end for the euro.

MR: I think if I was Greece, that’s what I would do.

IM: It’s the only solution. Either that or default. And that’s not going to happen. Not at this point, anyway.

MR: There’s another piece of this puzzle. Do you know what we call foreigners in Japanese? We call them Gaijin, or “outside person”. Now there is a play on words going on in Japan called Flyjin.

Right after the earthquake, people were panicking. Not the Japanese, generally speaking, but the foreigners. They all left. We are talking about the ranking executives of the foreign firms just up and leaving.

Maybe I don’t have a problem with them leaving. But let’s say you are an executive of the world’s most famous soft drink company, and you think the nuclear accident is a bad problem. So you take a business trip leave with pay from your company and take off to some island in the South Pacific with your family.

But at the same time, you’re not telling your Japanese staff where you’re going and when you’re coming back… and… you expect them to keep working while you’re gone as if nothing happened. Well, then, the Japanese staff no longer trusts you, and you lost the respect from them.

This has happened to a lot of foreigners. So they call them “flyjin”.

The other thing that’s bad is that Japan has a very aging society. We don’t have many young people working. So a lot of the younger foreigners (the Chinese, Iranians, Pakistani) that are here working cheap labor are gone too. This is not reported in the news, but they are all gone. And that’s very bad for the economy.

And at the same time the Japanese currency is getting stronger, which makes our exports less attractive.

So all these things they are coming together. It makes for such a muddy picture that I can’t tell you what’s going on. I think, in Japan too, a lot of people are buying gold and silver.

IM: Has gold and silver traditionally been something in Japan that people use to store value? Or is it like China, where, in addition to gold, the store of value is seen in land and houses?

MR: In Japan too, its store of value is land and houses. But it’s also traditionally in gold and silver. Recently, I’ve been going to the little gold dealer and little silver dealer downtown and they are always crowded now, mostly with people selling their gold teapots and things like that. I think people have burned through their savings, and in Japan, land is out of reach for most people.

IM: Are there any opportunities for a foreign entrepreneur?

MR: I think there are opportunities for entrepreneurs. If you had a little bit of money and just came here with a very American attitude, like “OK this is what I’m going to do… I’m going to do this etc.”, then you will fail. But if you’re a young guy, out of college and you can take huge risks and live in a dumpy little apartment, and you study your butt off to learn Japanese — because language is the key to culture — and can learn how things work here and what makes people tick, then you can still do well here.

IM: We talked about it a little, but are there any other political or economical trends that would be of concern to foreign investors?

MR: Our Prime Minister Kan’s party has just gotten trashed the last three elections. He would have been out the door next month… but after the quake, the Japanese people and media have decided for three months it’s a cease-fire. So nobody is making any complaints.

But here is a political party that just doesn’t have a clue. Right after the quake, tsunami and power plant disaster in Fukushima, they were talking about raising sales tax to pay for it — just like one week before the election. So of course they lost. And if it weren’t for the people deciding, “OK well we got to work hard for three months and be quiet, and carry on”, he would have been out.

Despite that, I expect that sometime before September or October, they are going to do something stupid again, and people will want to call a general election and he’ll lose a vote of confidence. The people are not happy with the handling of the Fukushima crisis. The government keeps wanting to raise taxes. And I mentioned the debt-to-GDP rose to 225%… people aren’t happy about that.

And two of the other big political parties announced they would not join with reconstruction of Northern Japan. It’s not that they don’t want to do it. They just don’t like the way Kan wants to do it. So we’re heading for another crisis here. He’ll lose a vote of confidence and he’ll be out.

So we’ve got chaos again. And up until now, when this chaos happens, it weakens the yen.

IM: Can you see Japan getting into a situation like the Americans are in right now where the system is completely frozen… that nothing can get done anymore because of the in-fighting between factions?

MR: I think we’ve had that in Japan for a long time. And actually, that’s a good situation. I think that sounds so radical but when you have government deadlock, they are not passing new laws and they are not passing new taxes. When they are in session and doing something, you know they are not doing anyone any good. So if they can stay in deadlock forever.

IM: We had a federal election here just last recently in Canada. We had a coalition government for about 7 years, and now our so-called conservatives (which are similar to the American Republican’s party) got a majority. We’re not looking forward to that because now they can start passing all sorts of laws they could not have done before.

OK, let’s move on… Can you comment on the statement that Japan is a generally xenophobic culture that doesn’t accept outsiders? Is that a fair assessment?

MR: It’s true. But on the other hand, if you were a person of color in the US, you would think no white person in the US has any business saying that the Japanese are xenophobic. I think the Japanese are xenophobic, but I don’t know if they are any more so than other countries are. This is a very ancient country with centuries of tradition; some people consider this a sort of superior culture.

And going back to the history of the US… when the settlers wiped out the Indians… and how black people have been treated… and wars with Mexico and how Hispanics have been treated… I can’t see how anyone can complain about that.

But Japan is funny, you know. In Japan, Caucasians (Americans and British) are treated better than people from Southeast Asia or South Americans.

In Japan, if you meet someone from Pakistan or some country like that and they are working manual labor jobs, you don’t think anything of it. But if you met someone from the US doing a manual labor job, that would be confusing. Because we are kind of held up on a pedestal.

And the Japanese people have an inferiority complex in many ways against Caucasian Americans, British, and Canadians… and they’ve had it for a long time.

IM: Is that pre-dating the war?

MR: Oh no. After the war American culture came here and there’s a lot of older generation Japanese people who were just little kids after the war... and they just love the US — Coca Cola, Elvis Presley and everything. They love the idea of what the US was. A very rich country. (The image of what it used to be, not what it is anymore.)

A lot of people still think that way……... My wife just said “they gave us chocolates after the war.”

But, if you came to Japan and you made an effort to assimilate — to do in Rome as the Romans do — people here will let you slide. The problem with Caucasians is we have what I like to call “white-cultural-superiority complex” (and I consider myself on both sides of the fence because I’m half Japanese and half American). And when they come to Japan, they [Caucasians] can’t deal with the fact that they are no longer in the very top rank of society.

Let’s face it. A foreigner comes to the US, they live there for 3, 4, 5 years and they can’t speak any English. The average American is like “get the f out of here!” That’s what they think. So I don’t know why white people think that they can come to Japan and live here for five years, not learn any Japanese, and then complain that the Japanese are xenophobic! It’s just stupid.

IM: That’s an interesting point.  Well, we´re out of time, but I´d like to thank you for sharing your time with us today.

MR: My pleasure.

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