Written by Kamini Devadass, Be Movement issue 3 – JAPAN, published March 2013

Mitsuhiro Akiyama, President of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI) Singapore, and the Director and General Manager of Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation, Singapore, is a man of stature in the Japanese financial industry.

Be Movement Japan issue JCCI 2
Dressed in a navy blue pinstripe suit, brightened by yellow polka dotted cufflinks and tie, Mr Akiyama cuts a dapper and cheerful figure. When asked what qualities are needed in the banking sector, he looks me in the eye and replies gently, “Integrity and prudence are needed.” His touch of humility became more pronounced as our conversation continued.

Mr Akiyama has been working in the financial industry for almost three decades. For him, economic growth is not defined solely by financial gains. Beyond the calculating eye of orthodox bankers, he also measures wealth in terms of people’s well-being. To Mr Akiyama, economic growth transcends dollars and cents. It matters how one uses it for the welfare of others.

“I personally wanted to have a job which can contribute to the development of a country or technology, or contribute to [the solution of] bilateral issues between countries and multilateral issues among countries. The United Nations or [another] multinational organisation would be the place at which I would want to work,” he says.

However, after a chance meeting with seniors from Sumitomo Mitsui Bank, the banking sector soon became the place where he felt most at home. There, he could contribute to international development efforts, a passion he has felt since young. Providing loans for companies to drive their investment plans, he saw such financial support as part of a larger picture, “Of course, companies cannot grow without financial support, so as a worker in a bank, if I can see a customer or a customer’s company grow with our support, it makes me feel very, very good. If that company contributes to society or the economy, that makes me feel [even better and more] satisfied. I really enjoy being a banker.”

Mr Akiyama’s conscientious character comes through when he speaks of his role and purpose as a banker. As the President of JCCI Singapore since March 2013, he has pushed for more funding from JCCI members to help corporations and individuals who have requested financial aid.

In 1990 JCCI Singapore set up the JCCI Foundation Singapore, with the primary function of contributing to Singapore society through corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities on behalf of the Japanese community.

Over its 23 years of CSR activities, the Foundation has provided funds of approximately SGD 6.2 million to 280 beneficiaries, serving to foster and strengthen bonds between Singapore and Japanese individuals as well as organisations, and within the local Japanese community.

The list of local beneficiaries over the years include the Singapore Arts Festival, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and the Singapore Disability Sports Council. There is also funding for scholarships for students pursuing higher education in Japanese universities such as Waseda University. The support of JCCI for individuals and organisations who have contributed constructively to the social landscape in Singapore, through cultural exchange and community service, has reinforced mutual interest and trust.

When the 2011 disaster devastated the lives of many in northeastern Japan, Mr Akiyama was not yet appointed as the President of JCCI Singapore and was working for Sumitomo Mitsui Bank in London. Still, he felt it necessary to contribute to disaster relief through the collection of funds and by attending memorial concerts.

“That disaster [caused] big damage to Japan and Japanese people emotionally, physically and economically. Of course, we recognised difficulties. It’s nobody’s fault [as] it was a natural disaster. Our mindset is to recover from that disaster through cooperation. I think this power is very, very strong and that’s a good part of Japan,” he says.

Be Movement Japan issue JCCI 3

He is especially impressed by the dignified manner in which Japanese people managed the aftermath of the earthquake and believes that Japan has set an example for the world to follow in times of distress. “The news on TV showed Japanese people in that area, standing in the queue to receive food or water. Of course they are not sure whether they can get it or not. Usually people would be rushing into stores and stealing. Japanese people didn’t fight each other. They just kept in the queue one by one and took the delivery from the people there. I felt sorry, but at the same time I was proud of our people and society,” he explains.

“Cooperation, not being selfish, harmonisation, patience and resilience, I think these are the kind of things other countries can learn [from the Japanese].”

Acknowledging that more can be done and the privileged position he is in to create enduring impact, Mr Akiyama shares his aspiration for himself and JCCI, “I want to contribute to […] mutual understanding between Japan and other countries […] I want more exposure [of] those people [to] my Japanese friends and [to] try to connect [them]. I think I can. That makes the relationship much smoother because without mutual understanding I don’t think the relationship will become stronger based on fake trust. So I want to pursue mutual understanding between countries or between people.”

His conviction in furthering connection and mutual understanding between people and countries, based on honesty, was cultivated during his undergraduate years in the United States when he faced an identity crisis. “[I was] trying to be American [when I first came to America] …After three years, I found to be American means to go back to Japan. Not geographically, but [in terms of one’s] mindset.”

“America is a relatively new country. It has a history of just over 200 years. [People from different societies] from all over the world [have] been gathering in the US and each of [these] American peoples [have] their own background – Asian background, Hispanic background, Indian background, European background and African background. It’s a mixture. Each of them tries to contribute to [American] society with their background. So I thought, yes, I have to go back to Japan and […] become more Japanese, which [will enable] me to become [more] American. That’s what I found out,” he explains.

“Once I recognised that, my relationship with American friends became very, very smooth. [Many] American friends came to Japan to stay with my family. They wanted to learn about Japanese culture. Once they came to Japan, my understanding of myself became much deeper. That was a very good memory. So I think what I thought back then was the right thing,” he says.

While some may see Mr Akiyama’s ambitions as a tall order, even for a man of ability, his infectious fervour for the well-being of individuals and society will unlikely disappoint those under his stewardship. •






Human Check*