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When Michael Mroczek decided to become a lawyer, he felt he was closing the door on a childhood dream — a path leading to Japan, which he had been enamored of ever since he came across a book about Hiroshima in his father’s collection.
But Mroczek discovered the door to Japan had never closed. After working for five years as an international arbitration lawyer in his home country of Switzerland, he started considering postgraduate education options and eventually set his sights on the country that captured his imagination as a child. This fascination with Japan came to a head in 2012, when Mroczek moved to Tokyo to obtain his master’s of law at Temple University Japan.
Although he originally intended to return to Switzerland after obtaining his degree, Mroczek never left. He had grown fond of life in Tokyo and its abundant opportunities. “I was able to be in Japan and do everything I had wanted to do in Switzerland,” he said. “When my wife asked me if we would go back to Switzerland, I replied ‘Aren’t we doing well here?’” Now, almost eight years after his initial arrival, Mroczek leads a dynamic professional life as president of the European Business Council in Japan and as foreign law partner at Okuno & Partners.
Over the course of his career, Mroczek has observed several differences between Swiss and Japanese law firms. The strong sense of hierarchy that typifies Japanese organizations is present at his current firm, but contrary to the negative connotations sometimes associated with such structures, Mroczek finds the hierarchy helps mitigate tension between partners and employees. “The working environment is more harmonious in Japan than in Switzerland,” he explained. “Everyone knows where they belong, whereas in Western countries people tend to constantly compete with each other.”
With that said, some logistical aspects of working in a Japanese office have taken Mroczek some time to get used to. “In Switzerland I had a nice office to myself with plants, but here we work in cubicles,” he said. “When I started, I thought to myself, ‘Wow, will I be able to handle this?’ But it’s part of the Japan experience and something you have to be humble about.”
Japanese work culture is often characterized by its long working hours and rigid chains of command, but Mroczek enjoys considerable freedom at Okuno & Partners. Although Mroczek admits being a foreigner is the main reason he is afforded this freedom, he recalled how his outsider status initially created social barriers between himself and his colleagues. “At first, it was difficult for me to get close to my colleagues,” he said. “But as those who work in Japan know, the ice starts to break after you go out for drinks a couple of times, and I gradually developed closer relationships with them.”
The social dynamics of Japanese society is one of Mroczek’s favorite aspects of living in the country. “I’ve always been fascinated with Japanese culture, especially the way Japanese people treat each other,” he said. “There’s a feeling of trust. Sometimes one word is enough. You don’t need to make a long contract to get things done. That’s been my impression, and after seven years of living here I feel it’s mostly true.”
Mroczek believes Japanese people’s sense of social responsibility and mutual respect will play an invaluable role in overcoming the coronavirus pandemic. “I believe Japanese people’s respect for social rules, such as not interacting with each other when they’re told to practice social distancing, will be a miracle for Japan with regards to the pandemic. I don’t trust that the official numbers are entirely accurate, but I believe these qualities are one of the reasons we are seeing low numbers here.”
As president of the European Business Council (EBC) in Japan, Mroczek is working with European businesses and the Japanese government to help alleviate the economic impacts of the pandemic.
The EBC’s primary function is to lobby the Japanese government on behalf of European businesses in Japan, a significant portion of which are medical device providers. The pandemic has wreaked havoc on global supply chains, but the EBC successfully lobbied the Japanese government to continue to allow shipments of medical instruments into the country.
Other industries have not fared as well, Mroczek noted, commenting how European business in the airline, hospitality and beverage industries have been devastated by the economic fallout. As Japan lifts its state of emergency and begins to adjust to a post-COVID-19 world, Mroczek expects businesses will modify their strategies, including a push toward a digital economy.
When he is not working with clients, or representing European businesses as EBC president, Mroczek promotes the growth of future international arbitration practitioners as a lecturer at the University of Tokyo.
Although some of his students, all of whom are Japanese, are eager to express their opinions, he notices many do not participate in class out of a fear of making mistakes. It is for this reason he encourages his students to fail and make mistakes. “I try to push them to do something wrong, to not be afraid,” he said.
“We learn a lot more from our mistakes than we do from achievements we’ve obtained without failures along the way. Similar to how Europeans can look to Japanese to learn how to be more selfless and considerate of others, I think Japanese can look to Europeans to learn how to be more daring.”
Master’s in Tokyo leads to life abroad
Michael Mroczek is a foreign law partner at Okuno & Partners and president of the European Business Council in Japan.
He first came to Japan in 2012 to pursue his master’s of law at Temple University Japan in Tokyo. Although he intended to return to Switzerland after obtaining his degree, he decided to stay after being offered a position with Okuno & Partners, a law firm he worked with while serving as an attorney in Switzerland. Before becoming EBC’s president, he served as president of the Swiss Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Japan from 2015 to 2019.
Mroczek is of Polish descent and manages a business club for members of Polish businesses to periodically meet and converse in Polish.
He has lectured at Rikkyo University and the University of Tokyo and is passionate about fostering international arbitration practitioners. He is currently promoting the internationalization of Okuno & Partners by encouraging associates to gain experience abroad.
By Joe Muntal, The Japan Times