Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Flying the Japanese to Russia

Kohei Shimizu has a mission: to improve Russia's image.

Shimizu, who has been in Moscow since August as vice president and regional manager of Japan Airlines' office for the Commonwealth of Independent States, hopes to make Russia a more tempting tourist destination for potential visitors from the Asian-Pacific region. He admits that several obstacles stand in his way.

"Firstly, I have to learn about more places in Russia," he says, adding that this will require him to travel the country more than he has been able to do so far. Shimizu, who already speaks nearly perfect English, says he is also taking Russian lessons as part of his effort to become a more effective spokesman for Russia's most attractive tourist spots.

Another hurdle is the growing crime and health concerns that have hampered JAL's expansion within Russia as well as its ability to attract customers from outside the country, he says.

"At the moment, unfortunately, security has worsened here, and also some of the diseases like diphtheria," he says, explaining Russia's sometimes negative image among Japanese. These problems have affected group tourism, an important part of JAL's business, Shimizu says.

JAL has yet to attract many Russian customers wishing to travel in the opposite direction as well, something Shimizu attributes to the fact that Japan is still far more expensive than many of Russia's other neighbors.

"I think that Japan is one of the most costly countries," he says. "That is one of the reasons why I think Russian people prefer to travel to other countries like the United States and those in Europe."

Shimizu says he first became interested in Russia during his days as a law student at Waseda University, when he worked part-time for politician and former Prime Minister Tanzan Ishibashi. He credits Ishibashi with impressing upon him the value of cooperation with Russia at a time when Japan's economy was still struggling to emerge from the postwar period.

"'From now on, the Japanese have to cooperate with the United States, Russia and China. It's a very important thing'," he remembers his mentor advising. It was this early advice, he notes, that influenced his lasting professional and personal interest in those three countries.

Shimizu joined JAL in 1963 and initially worked in the company's legal department, which afforded him opportunities to travel to New York and Washington for months at a time. Previous to his current post in Moscow, where he expects to stay three or four years, Shimizu spent four years working in Sydney in the mid-1970s and has traveled throughout Australia, New Zealand and the Far East during his 30-year career with the airline. He has had particularly broad exposure to Chinese culture as result of nearly 100 trips to Taiwan.

Shimizu says tensions between Japan and Russia have had little effect on his work environment. "Our airline business is an interchange of peoples," he says, noting the special relationship between JAL and Aeroflot, which together pioneered the first foreign trans-Siberian air route 27 years ago.

For Shimizu, the greatest difficulty of working and living in Russia has been the separation from his family, including two teenage daughters who attend high school back in Tokyo, and the challenge of adapting his "Japanese way of working life" to a solitary existence.

In addition to working at JAL's Kuznetsky Most office during the week, Shimizu spends his Sundays managing the airline's office at Sheremyetevo Airport. He says he tries to spend his one free day a week photographing Moscow churches, indulging his fascination for Russian architecture and history.

Shimizu enthusiastically praises the hospitality and friendly welcome he has received from Russians. He even has kind words for the GAI, the Russian traffic inspectors, bane of foreign and Russian existences alike.

Driving home recently, Shimizu tells, following a night of Moscow entertainment with a Japanese business client, he was flagged over by the GAI.

"He was saying something over the loudspeaker but I didn't realize it because I didn't understand the Russian. Then three policeman appeared form the car," he recalls. He was uneasy, remembering that he had had a drink or two with his client, but relaxed when he realized that the officers were pointing to his hubcap, which had fallen off. "The policeman showed it to me and he put it back on the car," he says.

"I appreciated it very much," he says, "and just to show my appreciation, I wanted to give them some small thing but they refused to accept it."