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On April 15, 2024, we had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Koji Tomita and Noriko Tomita, the JUKOFA SME company that is promoting the import of Japanese products to Colombia. The meeting allowed the Colombian-Japanese Chamber to hear about their experiences in Colombia and discuss their business encounters in Colombia.

By: Seleny Santamaria - Asistente de Investigaciones de la CCJCI, Sakura NAKANO – Practicante de Asistente de Negocios Internacionales CCJCI - Tobitate! Study Abroad Initiative.

CCJCI: What factors influenced your decision to choose Colombia as a destination to expand your business?

Koji Tomita: My work history at Toyota Tsusho Colombia for five and a half years laid the foundation for my interest in this country. Before the pandemic, we created JUKOFA with our friends. Although we initially planned to return to Japan, we decided to maintain links between Colombia and Japan through JUKOFA. My wife, Noriko, started marketing and importing Colombian coffee and fashion accessories to Japan. During these days, we had the privilege of meeting a very relevant individual, who is our current Japanese partner, Mr. Nakamura. He, as honorary consul of Colombia in the city of Nagoya, had made investments in Colombia, especially in the coffee sector. He offered us the opportunity to build a new venture in Colombia to expand our commercial activities beyond coffee. We therefore decided to return to Colombia and explore new business opportunities, both in imports and exports.

CCJCI: Could you highlight some of the opportunities you have identified in Colombia?

Koji Tomita: There are several aspects that we see as promising. Although I previously worked at Toyota Tsusho a big company, we are now focused on operating as a smaller company. This has led us to look for opportunities that are more specific and tailored to our scale. Currently, we are exploring the introduction of an innovative product to reduce air conditioning energy costs, as well as the importation of Japanese sake. These are two sectors in which we believe we can add value and find a niche in the Colombian market.

CCJCI: Could you share with us what are the challenges you have faced in establishing a company in a different business and cultural environment such as Colombia? And, furthermore, how do you plan to address and overcome those challenges?

Koji Tomita: In my experience, I have noticed that in Colombia, there is a detailed classification of jobs and the responsibilities associated with each. This approach can result in longer processes compared to what I am used to in Japan. Therefore, I believe that patience is essential to adapting to Colombia's business pace. Regarding the import of Japanese products, we still face significant restrictions. Unfortunately, between Colombia and Japan, we have not yet reached an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA). I strongly believe that talks between our two countries should be intensified to achieve an EPA agreement, crucial to reducing barriers to international trade.

CCJCI: How do you plan to contribute to the country's economic and social development through the company?


Koji Tomita: Well, as I mentioned earlier, we are focused on importing innovative Japanese products to improve the lives of Colombians. I firmly believe that by offering innovative products to Colombia, including new technologies, we can contribute significantly to the country's economic and social development.


CCJCI: What is your perception of Colombia in the long term?


Koji Tomita: For Japanese people, living in Colombia is very peaceful. I consider Colombians to be very friendly and hardworking people. I don't perceive a big difference between Colombians and Japanese in terms of coexistence. For us, living in Colombia is a very positive experience. Also, Colombia has positive aspects that are rare in Japan, such as open and friendly communication between strangers. This is something that is not so common in Japan today.


CCJCI: What sectors of the Colombian economy do you consider most promising for investment and why?


Koji Tomita: We are now working for a company, SME, and we are focusing on bringing Japanese culture closer to Colombians. For example, teaching Japanese and importing innovative Japanese products, such as Japanese sake, is important. In addition, we consider Japanese gastronomy to be a very essential aspect. In Bogotá, there are already several Japanese restaurants. Some are very good, but others lack information about authentic Japanese culture. Therefore, we are considering opening a restaurant with authentic and homemade Japanese food so that Colombians can get to know the different typical foods that exist in Japan. In addition, the concept of Japanese food is based on cooking concerning fresh ingredients and using less oil because Japanese food is very healthy.

CCJCI: How do you plan to handle cultural and linguistic differences in the Colombian business environment? This includes business etiquette issues and how business appointments are handled.


Koji Tomita:  We must respect Colombians, as we are operating in their country. It is essential to respect Colombian businesspeople and to understand the cultural richness of Colombia. The importance of communication is not only limited to the interaction between Colombians and Japanese but also between Japanese. It is essential to thoroughly understand what the other person wants to communicate. Without this understanding, effectiveness at work is compromised. I always strive to understand 100% what the other person is expressing. Sometimes, I notice that some Colombians tend to talk a lot but listen very little. In such cases, misunderstandings can occur that hinder the achievement of objectives. Effective communication with the counterpart is fundamental to achieving the desired results. It is crucial to fully understand the other person, which is also vital for business success.


Noriko Tomita: In my experience, I find that Colombians differ from Japanese people in their communication style. I often perceive that it is difficult to fully understand the meaning of a conversation with Colombians. While Japanese may prefer ambiguity, Colombians tend to talk at length about what suits them and what they consider necessary but typically omit to discuss what might be inconvenient. This tendency can make it difficult to understand what is important in the conversation and what its true purpose is.


Koji Tomita:  A key factor that made it easier to start my business at both Toyota Tsusho Colombia and JUFOKA was the ability to find a Colombian I could trust to manage the company. In the case of Toyota Tsusho Colombia, it was essential to have a local partner who understood the market and could represent the company's interests effectively. This same premise was applied in the creation of JUFOKA, where I also found a Colombian in whom I could place my trust to drive the project forward. Finding reliable local partners has been a crucial element in the development of my business in Colombia.

CCJCI: Could you share any relevant experiences you have had in your professional career, either working in Japanese companies such as Toyota Tsusho or others in the past?


Koji Tomita:  When I was at Toyota Tsusho Colombia, I held the position of president, which involved taking on all the responsibilities of the company, from ensuring the welfare of employees to ensuring the profitability of the business. This position entailed a variety of functions, including administrative, human resources, and accounting management. However, running a company individually is a considerable challenge. It is essential to have professionals trained in specific areas and to share responsibilities with them, always maintaining fluid communication.


CCJCI: I would like to take us a little deeper into your experience as a leader of Colombian teams. Could you share with us what that experience was like and what approach you took to leading workers in Colombia?


Koji Tomita: During my five and a half years in the country, I experimented with different leadership styles. Initially, I adopted a permissive approach, seeking to create a relaxed environment. However, over time, I realized that I had to strike a balance to manage the company effectively. So, over the next year, I opted for a more structured approach, incorporating elements of Japanese culture, and encouraging open and constant communication with my team.


Noriko Tomita: Yes, in my experience, I have observed that the human resources training system in Colombia faces significant challenges. Many of the companies I have worked with have experienced a low level of penetration of corporate culture and a lack of handover when people leave the organization. This results in poor communication at work and the loss of relationships that had been built up to that point.


CCJCI: How has your previous work experience in Japanese companies influenced your leadership style and business decision-making today?


Koji Tomita:  My previous experience in Japanese companies has left a significant mark on my approach to leadership and decision-making. I recognize the importance of delegating responsibilities and seeking the support of my Colombian collaborators. While I retain ultimate responsibility for decision-making, I allow my team to actively participate in the process. Knowing my limitations and trusting others is essential to business success.

CCJCI: What skills or competencies acquired during your career in Japanese companies do you feel have been most valuable to your success as an entrepreneur?


Koji Tomita:  During my career, I learned the importance of establishing and maintaining strong relationships. The ability to generate a circle of contacts and collaborators has been fundamental. It is necessary to recognize our limitations and seek external support to overcome them. In the Colombian context, fostering relationships between Colombians and Japanese is essential to strengthening collaboration and contributing to bilateral business development.


CCJCI: What were some of the most effective business strategies you implemented in your previous roles in Japanese companies? Do you plan to use any of these strategies in your new venture in Colombia?


Koji Tomita:  A key strategy has been keeping myself updated on Colombia and Japan's latest developments. This involves constantly monitoring market trends and exploring opportunities for the introduction of new products and technologies. In addition, I have adopted the Japanese approach of repeatedly questioning things (asking why? At least five times) to identify the essential reason (shinin真因) behind each decision to make and make a decision. This method has proven to be effective in making informed and accurate decisions. I plan to apply these strategies to my new company in Colombia, adapting them to the local context to drive growth and innovation.


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