03

INTERNATIONAL EXPERTISE

Together with our international staff we cross language & cultural barriers,
to create dynamic architecture & urban spaces around the world

Introduction

JMA and PCPAJ have worked on many projects outside of Japan, primarily in Asia. Regardless of the country or region, our mission remains the same. What we must accomplish is to create attractive buildings and spaces from the perspective of town development while using the “design on response” method to provide richness and inspiration to local residents. Just we our projects in Japan, what we create is built on an understanding of the site-specific environment, including the local culture and history, and dialogues with people involved in the project.

The success of our method depends on how closely we can communicate with local clients and partners. JMA and PCPAJ employ international staff, and all members play active roles in overseas projects conversing in their native tongue, and use their knowledge of local culture and customs, and any personal connections they have forged.

In this round-table discussion, three team members who have greatly contributed to JMA and PCPAJ operations outside Japan talk about the keys to success in overseas projects based on their own experience, describing why our working style is supported across borders.

PEOPLE

  • Issei Iwata

    Managing Officer Project Director Architect
  • Seung Jun

    Associate Interior Design Department
    (*present Senior Associate)
  • Ray Wu

    (former staff)
    Managing Officer Project Director

Local rules, schedule awareness and other differences compared to Japan”

Iwata
Wu-san from Taiwan and Jun-san from South Korea have both contributed to projects in their own countries as well as in places with cultures similar to their own, not only as designers but also as liaisons with local clients and partners. I teamed up with Wu-san as JMA and PCPAJ were taking on more overseas projects, and we worked on many projects in China. He worked as a designer and translator, helping we to communicate with the client.
Wu
Except for the period when I was working part-time, the competition in Taipei in 2007 was the first time for me to work with Iwata-san. Back then, I was just a new hire and my spoken Japanese was poor. I remember I was communicating in English with Iwata-san, who was the team leader. Subsequently, as lots of projects in Asia came through, I was able to be involved in a total of four projects in the Greater China region, including in Shanghai and Cixi, in 2011. In those days, both Iwata-san and I were very busy and were visiting the sites every month, so we hardly spent any time in the Tokyo office. I was busy but learned a lot. I cherish those memories.
Jun
I heard that when he first started to work in the Greater China region Iwata-san was confused by the differences with Japan. In my case, in my childhood I frequently traveled back and forth between South Korea and Japan, so I was able to quickly adjust to working here in Japan. But in Sweden, where I worked before I joined JMA and PCPAJ, I was keenly aware of the differences in culture and national character. Even Iwata-san, who has long worked with PCPA in New Haven, there has a lot of experience in the United States, must have had a hard time serving as a project leader in places he was unfamiliar with. Iwata-san, what did you find was the biggest difference?
Iwata
I think even how you carry out work is completely different. Sometimes, because of differences in awareness about the schedule between the client and ourselves, we couldn’t come to an agreement and I got stressed out to some extent. In particular, processing applications that we submitted to administrative bodies took so long. I was surprised to hear that in China it is not rare for it to take several years to process an application that is normally processed within several months in Japan. I was wondering why, but Wu-san was not at all worried, saying, “You can’t expect too much.”
Wu
Many things don’t go as expected, when working on international projects, not just during the construction period. And sometimes that benefits us, which I view positively as an interesting aspect of working in the Greater China area. For instance, we once proposed to build a 150-meter-high building in a place where the height limit was 100 meters. Eventually, we met in the middle and reached an agreement for 130 meters. Things may vary and depend greatly on the coordination abilities of local design offices.
Iwata
It is often said that Japan is good at elaborate and precise work, but I realized that rather than getting carried away with our own reputation, we must adapt ourselves to overseas projects by understanding not just the language but the national character and customs.
Jun
Even compared with South Korea, I think Japanese people are meticulous in their work to a remarkable degree. In South Korea, people put priority on completing work on time. They first create a building that looks good, and if the client’s budget allows, they sometimes rework it after the opening. I happened to be involved in a project in which a penalty or volume reduction was imposed if work was not completed on time. Such factors may have some bearing. Another characteristic of projects in South Korea is that local construction firms are very powerful. They incorporate their own intention into an application as they prepare it. When their intention is somewhat different from our design concept, we sometimes prioritize their intention.

Our style of responding in a flexible way based on communications with the clients is well received

Iwata
What I feel as I work with overseas clients is their respect for architectural designers. They also give designers greater discretion. In projects in Japan, we often focus just on design when we participate in projects comprehensively managed by general contractors. Therefore, we play a bigger role in overseas projects.
Wu
In the Greater China region, people trust the expertise of designers who are from countries with cultures different from their own, particularly Japan, Europe and North America. In Asia overall, many people think Japanese technology is No. 1 in the world.
Jun
South Korea also respects famous architects outside the country. People hold architects from Japan, Europe and North America in high regard. They tend to value a name and appreciate even a very rough sketch if it is drawn by a respected big-name architect.
Iwata
International big-name architects enjoy absolute trust from clients so they can stick to their own styles. I am sure that some clients in fact leave everything to the discretion of big-name architects. On the other hand, I think JMA and PCPAJ are trusted by clients in the opposite way.
Jun
I agree. Our style is to create a building together with the client and local partners by discussing what the client desires and incorporating our design ideas into that. In a South Korean project I worked on, the client was immensely pleased by the fact that JMA crossed the ocean several times to present them with a wide variety of proposals.
Iwata
So, our flexible responses are welcomed by people in South Korea. I guess our clients find that our process of providing a lot of design options and narrowing them down according to their response is easy to understand.
Wu
Moreover, we provide a solid concept around each option. That’s why our clients are convinced. Additionally, our principal, Mitsui-san, never runs out of topics of conversation and is very friendly. Not to sing our own praises, but he is so sociable that clients feel comfortable voicing their candid opinions.
Jun
One South Korean client was surprised, saying, “No other office has visited us to make a presentation within a few days of our inquiry.” When we talked with them over dinner after our presentation, one of them happily told us, “JMA is so knowledgeable and asks us many questions, so I’m happy to speak frankly. I find JMA easy to talk with and a reliable consultant whatever the subject.”
Iwata
From my past experiences, I have learned the importance of responding to what clients and concerned parties want. Not just for projects in Japan but also for those outside the country, being easy to talk to and consult with is crucial for a company like ours that respects clients’ opinions and creates buildings together with clients. In Asian countries, including the Greater China region and South Korea, I experienced how people gradually opened up while enjoying dinner and drinks together and talking to each other. Wu-san and I drank a lot in China and Taiwan, didn’t we? (Laughs)
Wu
Yeah, I remember that. Once, three of us, Mitsui-san, Iwata-san and I, and 20 people from the client’s side had a party in the early afternoon following our presentation. We gave a toast to every person on the client’s side. I drank a tremendous amount of liquor and passed out. (Laughs)
Iwata
In Japan, it would be unseemly to pass out in front of clients, but in China people appreciate the fact that we socialize with them to our limit. I have learned through experience that it helps to instantly lessen the distance between the two sides.
Wu
I realized that the same applies to South Korea when I worked with Jun-san. We always drank a toast with clients and partners whatever the country. In projects in Asian countries, you may be able to build relationships with clients more easily if you can socialize with them over drinks more than you would in Japan.
Iwata
It is also true in Japan that you can get hints about design even from what’s said outside a presentation, such as at a party. To find the optimum solution for the project, we try to obtain clients’ opinions, rather than just impose our own ideas, to create a building together. Therefore, social occasions are important.

Listen to what our client wants even when in a casual conversation setting

Wu
There are many designers who stick to their ideas, but JMA and PCPAJ never say no to a client’s demands. I think our clients trust us as a company that never fails to respond to them and to present a proposal that goes beyond what they requested.
Jun
As I work on projects outside Japan, I have realized the importance of seeing and talking to people in person. It’s only after seeing and talking with the client that I can tell that we understand each other.
Iwata
The key to our way of working with clients through dialogue is communication. I think you two are playing a crucial role in ensuring communication with no misunderstanding.
Wu
Minimizing communication breakdowns and winning the hearts and minds of clients are the roles of team members who know the local language, culture and regulations like Jun-san and me. To that end, I try to absorb clients’ opinions in my own way, identify problems and communicate to them internally in an easy-to-understand manner. After translating between two people, I sometimes feel very tired but I take pride in this important task.
Jun
Even those who speak English as a common language find it easier to speak in their mother tongue and so are able to glean clients’ true opinions while chatting. They help people communicate subtle nuances, which results in fewer misunderstandings. Korean speakers use direct expressions, so when I translate their opinions for Mitsui-san or other colleagues I sometimes translate only the essence and sugarcoat it to prevent any conflict. In collecting information and building a relationship, I believe it is a great strength to be able to communicate in the local language based on an understanding of the national character and culture.
Iwata
Lastly, I would like to put a question to both of you. As you work in Japan, are you finding anything really amazing, anything you want to incorporate into architecture in your own country?
Wu
The difference I find living in Japan is that development in Taiwan has yet to be carried out from the perspective of town development. They are interested in creating good buildings but not so interested in the surroundings. In Japan, JMA is proposing town development using a master plan. I would like to create a building that is needed in a particular location in Taiwan, too.
Jun
Currently, I am interested in a specific part of buildings. I find toilets in Japan are particularly great. A toilet is a place to hide and is normally situated in a less conspicuous location inside a building. But Japanese toilets are put together meticulously, with great attention to detail. In South Korea, toilets in luxury hotels and department stores are nice but people are not as eager to make toilets beautiful and easy to maintain as they are in Japan. I would like to pay attention to the neglected or inconspicuous places when I work in South Korea.
Iwata
Wu-san talked about the grand-scale issue of town development while Jun-san expressed her interest in the specific space of the toilet as necessary to all buildings. What you have in common is the desire to work on design that should exist in the specific place with due consideration to the state of mind of residents or users. That overlaps with the philosophy of JMA and PCPAJ. I have high hopes that you will continue to demonstrate your value as a bridge between clients and JMA and PCPAJ, and will become outstanding designers in your home countries.

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