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Where It All Started | The United Nations

Jim Hudak likes to say he went to Japan to stay in Michigan. It took a few years and a few corporate stops, but today he is back in Michigan ready to help Japanese companies come here—or elsewhere in the U.S. —to grow their businesses and help US companies grow business in Japan and other countries in Asia.

Jim spent a good share of his 35-year corporate career starting U.S.-based business in Japan and other parts of Asia. Later he translated that knowledge into successfully implementing business strategies and starting new businesses for several Japanese companies in the U.S..

Here’s an interview with Jim, who explains how it all began.

You spent time in Japan early in your career. How did that help pave the way for what you are doing today?

I spent two years right out of college in Japan teaching English. Going there was one of the best experiences of my life. It taught me how to turn challenges into opportunities and solutions, and paved the way for my 35-year career starting up new business and operations for global companies in North America and Asia.

Where did you get your start in international business?

I got my start in international business working at the United Nations.

When I attended James Madison College at Michigan State University, I had had two choices for internships my senior year—a paid one at the capital in Michigan or an unpaid one at the United Nations. It was a tough choice since I was paying for my education, but the UN was calling my name and I wanted international experience.

It was tough at first. I spent several days living in my car, but I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. At 22 years old, I got to sit in on U.N. Security Council sessions and meet high-level diplomats. It provided a tapestry of international relations that gave me a global perspective.

What did you do after you graduated?

I initially focused my job search in Michigan, but I didn’t land a job there, so I went back to Japan. I knew I’d be back someday, and now I am.

How did your experience at the UN help you get your job?

The UN published some of the reports I wrote for the director of the U.N. Centre for Transnational Corporations. One report was on the role of transnational corporations in world development. That was a terrific learning experience and opened doors for me.

When I visited the Japanese embassy one day on behalf of my UN work, I learned of the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) program. The purpose of the program is “to promote internationalization in Japan’s local communities by improving foreign language education and fostering international exchange at the community level.”

I was intrigued.

I applied and after a lengthy interviewing process was offered a position as an assistant English teacher (AET) working for the Japanese Ministry of Education.

Where did you teach in Japan?

I landed in Oda in the Shimane Prefecture, the second most rural district in the country. Oda faces the Sea of Japan and is home of Mt. Sanbe, Shimane’s tallest mountain, where I used to ski, and the World Heritage Site Iwami Ginzan, a silver mine. It is also close to Izumo Taisha, one of the most ancient and famous Shinto shrines in Japan.

Oda was a very smallish, rustic town with very genuine and great people and today is home to a population of about 40,000 people. The Japanese were great hosts, and I established many friendships and formed lasting memories.

Even so, it was sometimes difficult living there as a foreigner.

This was before the internet and cell phones, and our tools of communication were limited to telephones and fax machines. I would watch Magnum PI every Sunday night, dubbed in Japanese, of course. The nearest native English speaker, another AET, was 45 minutes away.

I taught classes in Oda as well as traveled around the area teaching English to students. Sometimes there were four kids in the class and other times there were 500. I met more than 5,000 students during my time traveling the countryside and mountains, to visit students in rural communities. Many of them had never met an American. It was an experience I will never forget. It taught me so much about finding a common ground and helped shape me into who I am today.

How did you overcome those obstacles?

Not speaking Japanese was a big problem, especially living in the countryside where English speakers were few and far between. I remember when my phone rang and the person on the other end spoke Japanese and I couldn’t communicate. I then asked my boss how to say hello when the phone rang, then I learned how to say I can’t speak Japanese and then hung up the phone.

I decided I needed to up my game and hired a tutor. The following year I moved across the country to Nagoya and began studying full time at the Kawaiijuku school and took classes geared for Asians, not Americans.

I was initially told I would be placed in the lower band. No way. I knew I would never be promoted out of that band and pushed until they placed me in the top band.

I succeeded and it was tough. I had to learn 20 Kanji the next day. From then on, I had to learn and be tested on 20 Kanji a day, During the 18-month program, I learned to speak, read and write Japanese.

How did learning Japanese help you?

When I came back to the U.S. I got a job as a consultant and interpreter for Toyota Motor Sales in California and worked at the auto shows in New York, Detroit and Chicago where Toyota was showing the Lexus product line.

That led to a job at Toyota Machine Works as a full-time interpreter and liaison working at Ford manufacturing plants and supplier facilities in the Midwest and Canada. The job was to get grinding machine technology information transferred from the Japanese technical specialists sent to the UAW (United Auto Workers) workers at the plants.

Working with those two Toyota Motor Corp. operations gave me my first look at how Japanese companies operate, from the plant floor to management. It was a great place to learn.

Much of the knowledge I gained helped me move forward in my career. I learned how to close the communication and cultural gaps between how the Japanese and Americans approach issues. My ability to bridge that gap resulted in successful collaborations for all the parties involved.

One example that sticks in my mind happened later in my career. When I was executive in charge of Asia for Metaldyne Corp., which was sold to the Japanese company Asahi Tec. My experience helped to create a productive environment between the two CEOs, who came from different backgrounds.

Those experiences played a big role in my ability to successfully help U.S. companies open operations in Japan and Japanese companies open businesses in the U.S.

Working at the U.N. started it all.

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