Content - “Southern atmosphere is Kansai’s attraction”

  • April 06, 2018

“Southern atmosphere is Kansai’s attraction”

Tokyo (SCCIJ) – Dieter Sommerhalder has been the “Face of Switzerland” in the Kansai region of Japan for many years, for one thing as Honorary Consul General of Switzerland since 2007, for another since 2004 in his other incarnation as the deputy branch manager of UBS Wealth Management, both in Osaka. On the occasion of almost completing a quarter of a century in Japan, the SCCIJ talked to Mr. Sommerhalder about his business career, his consular responsibilities, his long-lasting commitment to the Swiss Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Japan and his personal connection to the Kansai region.

Osaka castle

What brought you to Japan in the first place? 

Dieter Sommerhalder: After working for Credit Suisse in Zurich, Singapore and New York, I got the opportunity to transfer to Tokyo in late 1993. Actually, it was rather by chance and I was eager to gain further experience in international banking. In the beginning, I was in charge of the foreign corporations and later took over the responsibility of the Letter of Credit & Structured Finance Department. 

You have become the Swiss face of the Kansai region. How did this happen? 

Dieter Sommerhalder: In 1997, the bank's operations were step-by-step taken over by the Investment Banking Division and the even quite profitable commercial banking activities were finally abandoned. As a consequence, I was looking for a new challenge and, again by chance, found a new assignment as the head of a Swiss trading/import company's subsidiary in Japan – with the main office in Osaka and branches in Tokyo and Fukuoka.

I was doing this job for eight years – it was very interesting and covered all aspects of business, locally and also internationally with frequent travels to Asian & European countries. In mid-2004, I got the chance to help opening up a new Private Banking office for UBS in Osaka, covering Western Japan - I seized this unique opportunity to make use of my diverse business experience and my contacts in the area.

Mr. Dieter Sommerhalder, the "Face of Switzerland in Japan's Kansai region" (click to enlarge)

Mr. Dieter Sommerhalder, the "Face of Switzerland in Japan's Kansai region" (click to enlarge)

For more than ten years, you have also been the Head of Mission of the Swiss Honorary Consulate General in Osaka. How did this happen? 

Dieter Sommerhalder: In 2007, the Swiss Government had decided to close the Consulate-General in Osaka. Since I had actively cooperated for years with the Consulate-General and also the Embassy of Switzerland in Tokyo, mostly via the Swiss Chamber of Commerce's Kansai Chapter and also the bank, I was asked if I would be willing to be the Honorary Consul-General of Switzerland in Western Japan. I was very interested and at the same time honored to do this "job" not really knowing at first what duties it included.  

And how did you manage the change from banker to diplomat? 

Dieter Sommerhalder: Of course, a job description given by the Swiss Embassy was very helpful as well as regular reporting meetings with the Swiss Ambassador and the Swiss Embassy staff. Additionally, I became a member of the Kansai Consular Corps and through the contact with professional diplomats in Kansai could gain valuable experience in the past ten years.

Wearing "two hats", i.e. working for the bank and for the Swiss government at the same time, is very rewarding and opens up many opportunities to meet and connect with interesting people. However, as a rule, I always try to be explicit and clear in which function I am attending an event or a meeting, because as a Swiss Representative, I am representing all Swiss interests and companies in the area and not only the bank.    

How important is the Kansai region with regard to Swiss business in Japan? 

Dieter Sommerhalder: Given the Kansai region's gross domestic product of about US$ 800 billion, i.e. No. 17 worldwide (similar to Turkey and bigger than Switzerland) – the relevance for Switzerland is certainly there. When it comes to Swiss companies in Kansai, the "weights" have shifted from Kansai to Kanto/Tokyo – the same phenomenon as for major Japanese companies, many of them founded in Osaka, now having their head offices in Tokyo. Nestlé Japan has had its headquarters in Kobe for over 100 years and is one of the top foreign companies in the Kansai area. 

If you had the choice between Kansai and Kanto, what would be your decision and why? 

Dieter Sommerhalder: Looking back, working and living in Tokyo was a great experience and also, professionally, the opportunities in Tokyo are definitely much better than elsewhere in Japan. Privately, from a "quality of life" point of view, I prefer living in the Kansai area for the long-term. The slightly "southern atmosphere", the cultural diversity between Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto, the openness and friendliness of the people, the quality of the food at affordable prices, easy access to mountains and seaside – the summary of all these aspects contributes to an interesting life at a low stress level. 

Regarding your consular tasks: What kind of requests are quite common and how can you help Swiss citizens in the region? 

Dieter Sommerhalder: With the closure of the professional Consulate-General, the consular services (i.e. passports, visa etc.) were centralized at the Consular Section of the Swiss Embassy in Tokyo. Periodically, about once a year, Embassy staff organizes a "consular window" for local Swiss citizens in Osaka, to renew their passports etc.

My job as Honorary Consul-General is limited to representative functions, i.e. I attend events, receive visitors, support the Swiss Embassy's activities in Western Japan in all aspects, except for consular duties and political affairs. Of course, in case of an emergency, I offer my support if necessary. 

You have been consistently representing Kansai in the SCCIJ. How relevant is the SCCIJ in Kansai and what could be done to improve this situation? 

Dieter Sommerhalder: Yes, I am member of the SCCIJ's Executive Committee since 2006, i.e. Vice-President Kansai from 2006~2009, Adviser of the Swiss Embassy from 2010~2013 and again Vice-President Kansai since 2014. The Kansai Chapter is certainly small, however, I think it is important that the SCCIJ is not only represented in Tokyo and the "view from the Kansai" is voiced actively in the chamber. Additionally, there are more and more Japanese companies with representations in Switzerland becoming members of the SCCIJ, some of them headquartered in the Kansai region and there is still further potential to develop that area, preferably out of Osaka.


Interview: Martin Fritz for SCCIJ; Top photo: Osaka castle (via Pixabay CC0); Middle photo: © Dieter Sommerhalder


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