Looking at yourself through the eyes of someone else can be revealing. That’s why we were looking forward so much to talking with Mr. Kohei Yamagata, about Belgium, Japan, the Yamagata Group and the language industry in general. But of course, we were very keen to get to know Mr. Yamagata a bit more personally as well.

Kohei Yamagata, son of the current owner of the Yamagata Group, joined the company in 2015 and is now working as a Key Account Manager for Yamagata Europe in Ghent. Reason enough for us to invite him for a short interview.


Mr. Yamagata, you are currently living in Ledeberg, near Ghent. What do you think of Ghent up to now? Would it be a city you could work or live in?

What I like about Ghent is that it is a nice mixture of the city and the countryside. Of course, I am used to Tokyo. I know Belgium has bigger cities than Ghent, such as Brussels and Antwerp, but I really like the charm of Ghent.

Kohei Yamagata at Studioskoop

The first time you visited Belgium, what were your first impressions of Belgium and Europe in general? Was it what you expected to be?

I came to Belgium shortly after the terrorist attacks at Brussels Airport. My family and friends were a bit worried about me traveling to Belgium. They thought it would be dangerous. But it didn’t stop me from going and now I can reassure them that it’s not dangerous at all. At least, I feel very safe over here. And I had already been to other places in Europe, so it wasn’t such a big culture shock for me.


On this blog, we have already covered some of the cultural and social differences between Europe and Japan. At first sight, the Japanese social rules of conduct seem to be very complex. Should Europeans feel intimidated by them? Because, as a foreign visitor in Japan, you don’t want to offend anyone.

Foreign visitors shouldn’t feel intimidated by those rules at all, because even for me it is sometimes difficult to keep up with all the different social rules. I think that, if you come from outside of Japan and if you present yourself in a kind, non-intrusive manner, you will be just fine. Japanese people know well enough that foreigners cannot know everything about Japanese social conduct. If they feel like you are someone who shows good moral behavior, they will appreciate you and forgive you any sort of violation against the Japanese social rules.


Which are the most striking differences in everyday business life between Europe and Japan? Can you give some examples?

Compared to Western custom, the Japanese way of doing business is more indirect. The Japanese are not always straightforward, which means that sometimes you might have to guess what your business partner is trying to tell you. Europeans are more direct. If they don’t want something, they will directly let you know. In Japanese, we use a lot more veiled language: maybe, sometimes, next time…


Have your trips to Europe and Belgium taught you anything new?

One of the most striking European cities I visited is Vienna. To me, it came across as a great mix of Western and Middle-Eastern Culture. An absolute must, if you ask me! On a personal level, I have been able to try cycling. Actually, in Japan, I never really rode a bike. But here in Belgium, I was persuaded to try it. When you’re in Ghent, a bike will get you anywhere, and it’s much more convenient than taking out your car. But riding a bike is still hard for me to do, so I’m not taking it to work yet.


The Japanese language is totally different than any other European language. But maybe that’s what makes it so attractive and challenging for Europeans to learn. What tips could you give anyone who is learning Japanese?

I would say that the grammar makes Japanese very hard to learn, because it’s totally different than European languages. Take word order for example. In English you have Subject – Verb – Object. But in Japanese, a sentence can more or less be ordered just about any way you’d like. 


What is the most difficult language you have learned so far?

I am trying to learn Dutch, but it’s really difficult, as you can imagine. I am learning it from my colleagues and from the people in my nearest sandwich shop. Now, I already vaguely understand what people are saying in Dutch, so I am improving. Alles goed? Goeiemiddag. Momentje alsjeblieft.


Working in the translation industry, what aspect of this business attracts you the most?

Of course, I have only been in the company for a few years, so my knowledge is still very limited. But I really like to follow the trends in translation technology. Machine translation is a very fascinating aspect of the business.


Japan is probably thé reference country when it comes to robot technology. What impact will this technology have in the future?

In certain aspects of business, the human factor will become less and less important and technology will take over. This will not be different in the language industry. Take Google Translate for example. This is a very important trend for us. Just think of the many people using Google Translate every day as a free tool. And then think of the massive amounts of data Google is collecting on a daily basis. As a translation company, we have to deal with this. But I believe we will be able to cope with it. If you look at the Yamagata Corporation history, we already made big changes, because we went from a printing business to a translation business. It’s our challenge to find that next blue ocean.


Is Yamagata already preparing for this future in any way?

Yes, we are, because it’s the only way forward. A few years ago, we were only interested in text-based translation. Now, we have also moved on to video. For example, we offer the creation of instructional videos, which can be very interesting for technical content. We are no longer limited to text. Also, we are continuously trying to improve our services, in order to offer faster, better and cheaper translation. Ideally, it should be possible to offer translation within 24 hours, a bit like the printing industry is doing. But we’re not there yet.


Does it help if you have an interest in other cultures when you work for a translation company?

I think so, because if you deal with the international market, it’s good to know the background and culture of your customers. There is so much more than the Japanese way of thinking. That’s why I like to travel and meet new people, see new cultures, new ways of thinking.


Is Tokyo looking forward to receiving athletes from all over the world for the 2020 Olympics?

Definitely, Japan is looking forward to having so many countries from all over the world visit us. I am sure my country will be able to provide everyone with a great experience.


What are your predictions in terms of Olympic medals for the Japanese team(s)?

Of course, we have high hopes for our national wrestling and judo teams. And also, our national baseball team is not doing bad at all. Baseball is very popular in Japan. Together with the US and a number of South-American countries, Japan is one of the best baseball countries in the world.


We wish you and the Japanese Olympic teams the best of luck! Thank you for the interview!