Japan, high potential entrepreneurial ground for SL - Prof. Karunaratne | Sunday Observer

Japan, high potential entrepreneurial ground for SL - Prof. Karunaratne

Two businessmen greet each other in Japan
Two businessmen greet each other in Japan

 One of the main issues is policy inconsistency and drastic changes in policies. New products of low quality and price coming in from China is another constraint. The Chinese influence is substantial in the automobile and machinery sectors

In the wake of rapid globalisation, migration has become a common phenomenon. The migration trend is mainly in a one way direction, from the developing to the developed world. Advanced economies such as the United States of America, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and the European Union have attracted many immigrants from Asia, Africa and Oceania.

Japan was lagging behind in this game of attracting skilled immigrants from developing countries for decades. However, it has recorded a massive growth in the past few years by a foreign born population of 2,307,388 in 2016 from 802,477 in 1982.

Developing ties

Senior Professor, University of Colombo H.D. Karunaratne, who has vast experience in areas such as Micro and Macro Economics, Business Economics, Economic Policy and International Trade and Finance has carried out research on Sri Lankan entrepreneurs in Japan over the course of several years. An interesting observation of Prof. Karunaratne’s work is that he focuses on areas which are fruitful to the development of Sri Lanka rather than seeking academic limelight through his work.

The main purpose of his research was to study possibilities of reaping economic benefits for Sri Lanka through developing ties between Sri Lankan entrepreneurs in Japan and Sri Lankan suppliers.

He has been to Japan on a number of occasions and lived there for several years on a Japanese Government postgraduate research scholarship to pursue his Masters and Doctoral research degrees, form 1993 to 2000 and as an invited professor, Faculty of Economics, Hosei University, Tokyo from 2006 to 2008.

“When I was in Japan in 2007, I interviewed 100 illegal migrant Sri Lankan workers. Then I interviewed 100 legal migrants and finally 100 Sri Lankan students. Based on those interviews, I wrote the book Distant neighbours at workplace; Sri Lankan migrant workers in Japan. I gathered that there is a Sri Lankan business community in Japan and began collecting information on them, commencing 2007.”

The Sri Lanka-Japan Business Council of the Sri Lankan Embassy in Tokyo assisted him in contacting those entrepreneurs. He interviewed 100 such businessmen spending approximately two hours with each. Then in 2016, he received a well-recognised fellowship to Japan and the last two years spent there helped him to meet 315 Sri Lankan entrepreneurs. Spending hours with them, Prof. Karunaratne gathered adequate data for his study.

2,000 SL businesses in Japan

According to his findings there have been more than 6,000 illegal Sri Lankan migrants to Japan in the early 2000’s. However, that number has gradually decreased as most Sri Lankans migrating to Japan now are professionals.

“According to my calculations, currently there are at least 2,000 Sri Lankan businesses in Japan. This has created a number of employment opportunities to Sri Lankans as well. For instance, if there’s a Sri Lankan restaurant, at least two chefs will be from Sri Lanka” said Prof. Karunaratne.

The research also shows that 36 per cent of Sri Lankan entrepreneurs in Japan are involved in the Automobile industry. The primary nature of their business is trading used automobiles, parts and machinery. The next top businesses in line are restaurants, spices and the food trade, human resources, tea, gems and jewellery and tourism. Fifty-two per cent of these entrepreneurs are married to Japanese and 96 per cent of them are fluent in Japanese.

Japan doesn’t have a well organised Sri Lankan diaspora compared to Australia and some other western countries, said Prof. Karunaratne. “These Sri Lankans are not influential in the Japanese community, as Sri Lankans in other countries are.

They are scattered all over Japan and perform their business activities individually. The potential we have is huge. Japan is a niche market for development of Sri Lankan products. If we could create a solid, sustainable network between Sri Lankan entrepreneurs in Japan and their home land, the economic benefits for Sri Lanka will be mammoth.” he said.

Prof. Karunaratne said that Sri Lanka should focus on developing sustainable avenues for its economic betterment than concentrate on remittances generated by its expatriates in Japan. Sri Lankan entrepreneurs in Japan are seemingly a very good opportunity for that. “I think the Sri Lankan embassy in Japan should focus on the commercial aspects of the friendship between the two countries.

Japan is not the USA or the UK. Hence the relationship is not of political importance. Our two countries are tied together in commercial activities. We must understand that difference and implement our policies accordingly”.

The involvement of the Government and Sri Lankan embassy in Japan are not to their fullest capacities to promote such business ties, the study also revealed.

The Export Development Board (EDB) in Sri Lanka can leverage current business or commercial ties between Sri Lankan entrepreneurs in Japan and their home country with a good strategic plan, said Prof. Karunaratne. “The Sri Lankans in Japan are involved in export businesses as well and have a good understanding of foreign markers and have valuable contacts. The EDB can obtain those contacts and information from them to share with Sri Lankan entrepreneurs”.

Issues

In his research Prof. Karunaratne has uncovered some basic issues which the Sri Lankan business community faces. One of the main issues is policy inconsistency and drastic changes in policies by the Sri Lankan Government.

New products of low quality and price coming in from China is another constraint. The Chinese influence is substantial in the automobile and machinery sectors, the research revealed.

Technology issues Sri Lankan suppliers face, regulations for agriculture goods importation to Japan and skilled labour shortage in Japan are also crucial challenges, Sri Lankan entrepreneurs in Japan face .

Use of innovations, export orientation and high assimilation into Japanese society and economy has been identified as special characteristics of successful Sri Lankan entrepreneurs in Japan.

“Last year alone over 3,000 students from Sri Lanka left to Japan to study only the Japanese language. It is a clear sign that they are attracted to live in Japan and most probably they would end up migrating to Japan. These students will pursue professional study in Japan later. We must push them towards entrepreneurship, which is a win-win situation for them and their home country. The Government should understand this situation and must convert this into a golden opportunity” Prof. Karunaratne said. 

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