CRE Midwest

CBRE's James Otto & his humbling Tokyo experience

James Otto

In 2013 when a colleague asked James Otto if he had ever considered Tokyo, his response was no. Fast forward to today, Otto recently returned home in January after working in CBRE’s Tokyo office for the past two years.

In 2013, when a colleague asked James Otto if he had ever considered Tokyo, his response was no. Fast forward to today, Otto recently returned home in January after working in CBRE’s Tokyo office for the past two years.

“I had never been to Asia before, and hadn’t experienced anything like that,” Otto said, first vice president in CBRE’s Chicago Tenant Representation group. “The CEO and President of CBRE Japan happened to be in town at that time, I met with him, and he told me to come take a look. I did, and three months later I moved. So it was a very fast process, but seemed like an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”

While working in the Tokyo office, Otto focused on the needs of multinational clients conducting business in Japan and across the APAC and EMEA regions. James and his team consulted with clients to develop strategies and advise them on a broad range of projects including headquarter relocation, new operation rollout, regional expansion, property acquisition and labor analytics.

Some of Otto’s significant clients include Barclays, Boeing, Blackstone, Manulife Financial, MetLife and Tesla.

“I was working with a lot of teams in the United States, Europe, and throughout Asia,” he said. “For example, we were working with a Fortune 50 company who was looking to expand their presence in Japan, as it’s their second biggest market besides the United States. They are a United States based company. There is a declining population problem in Japan, and throughout the country.”

“Also, that is coupled with an unemployment rate of, I think, three and a half percent,” Otto continued. “So this company was looking for specific skilled positions throughout Japan. Seeing where they could expand, where they wouldn’t be able to, amongst other things. We did a test on 135 cities throughout Japan getting demographics information, and studying the cities, looking for some labor arbitrage opportunities.”

Otto noted that although he and his team successfully helped their clients, it was certainly a challenge, as the information in Japan was not feasible to get a hold of.

“We have a labor analytics team at CBRE in Phoenix,” he said. “But the information in Japan isn’t readily accessible. A lot of the time you have to go to the local governments, local prefectures, and extract the information. There are a bunch of sources you have to put together in order to extrapolate on the data. It’s a lot more challenging than doing it here.”

Although it was a challenge for Otto, he said it was fun to go through that process with his clients, as they did not know much about it either.

Another fun challenge for Otto while in Tokyo was getting use to being in a place where very little English was spoken.

“When I was originally asked to go, I said I don’t speak any Japanese,” Otto said. “The language was very difficult from the beginning, and I had a translator. I was very fortunate enough to have a lot of friends visit. Language was always the biggest thing with them too. They had been to places like Hong Kong before, and people spoke English. So to come to Tokyo, and that wasn’t the case, they really didn’t understand.”

Despite not knowing how to speak Japanese, or understand it, Otto still tried to handle all of his affairs, as he would normally in the United States.

“I would show people addresses on pieces of paper, and even those are written differently in English versus their language. So initially, I was going to meetings with a translator. Simple things that we take for granted on a daily basis, like ordering food or picking out furniture, I had to have a translator help me with those types of things.”

“So things I took for granted here, when I got back, I was just so relieved that it was easy to do,” he said excited. “I was so happy that I could do anything, and that I wasn’t helpless. It’s very humbling when you first get to Tokyo. As an American, I think you’re assertive. So you can go out and ask questions, and say to people ‘problem solved’. In a different language, country and culture, that becomes very difficult.”

Otto said that, in his opinion, Japan is one of the most rigid cultures in the world for a first world country. “It’s very challenging because there are procedures, formal ways about how things are done, and they do not derive from that.”

Despite all of those challenges, Otto completed his work successfully and enjoyed his time in Tokyo as well—with the help of some very genuine people.

“The people of Japan were very helpful,” Otto said. “That is what I really love about that country. The people will go out of their way for you. They’re so accommodating even if they do not speak very much English. They would go out of their way to try to speak English to be on your playing field, as opposed to making you try to speak Japanese.”

Since Otto has been back home in the States, he says it has been great, and he certainly isn’t in any rush to travel somewhere else anytime soon.

“Being international is very fun,” Otto noted. “But I did miss my family and friends. Alot of my friends at CBRE as well. So it’s been awesome being back at the office seeing them, and my clients, and sharing with them about my experience. It’s been a lot of fun.”