ITIJ spoke to Kazumasa Yoshida, president and CEO of Emergency Assistance Japan (EAJ), about his career, his company’s future plans, and the idiosyncracies of providing assistance in Japan
Blazing a trail
ITIJ 196, May 2017
I feel my life has been a lucky one
President and CEO
Emergency Assistance Japan (EAJ)
What’s your background in the assistance industry, and how did you progress to founding Emergency Assistance Japan?
Originally, I had no association with assistance; I was working for a Japanese investment bank. In 1989, while I was stationed at the bank’s French subsidiary in Paris and serving as executive vice-president of marketing, an officer of GMF (la Garantie Mutuelle des Fonctionnaires) visited to say they planned to invest in the Japanese stock market. At the same time, he asked whether we would help their affiliated assistance company establish a presence in Japan. This was the first time I heard of assistance.
First, I did a little research to understand what it was, and then I went to people like the president of Japan Airlines’ French subsidiary and the owner of the Seibu Saison Group and asked if they thought the assistance business model had a chance of succeeding in Japan. The consensus of everyone I spoke to within the Japanese business community was that since, in Japan, services are an expected part of ordinary business transactions and not something to be paid extra for, it would be difficult for the concept of assistance to gain market acceptance. Consequently, I did not pursue the matter further.
Later, however, I was recruited by a French bank to head up their operations in Japan, and since the bank also had good relations with GMF, I was asked to assist in establishing an assistance company in Japan. Due to legal issues, and as a matter of expediency, I was made president of the new assistance company in tandem with my position at the bank.
In the 1990s, Japan’s economy collapsed and all the European financial institutions, including mine, went through drastic restructuring and downsizing. Around the same time, friends of mine at the Yasuda Fire and Marine Insurance Company (now Sompo Japan Nipponkoa) brought me together with an American assistance company called World Access, and I became president of World Access Japan.
The reason for establishing EAJ has to do with the special nature of our Japanese clientele. When compared to customers in Western and even other Asian societies, Japanese customers have expectations that require a different mindset and a different concept of service if they are to be met. It had become apparent to me that this difference was difficult for the management teams of non-Japanese assistance companies to adequately appreciate.
As part of World Access, I enjoyed a good working relationship with World Access’s CEO and owner, Sol Edelstein. When World Access was acquired by a large European group, however, all that changed, and exploring the unique needs of the Japanese market did not align with the desired direction of the new management.
When we first established EAJ, we did so in partnership with Europ Assistance, because Europ Assistance’s managing director understood that the Japanese market needed to be treated differently from the company’s European markets. Once he retired, however, the new management team wished to make our Japan operations conform to the same standards used in their European operations. I saw it was difficult to meet the needs of our customers under those circumstances and organised a management buyout of the company.
Can you tell us how your previous role as president of World Access Japan helped equip you to found EAJ?
The ‘Japan-style assistance’ that we deliver and advocate as the ‘Japan Standard’ of assistance did not just appear magically out of nowhere. When we were part of the World Access Group, we enjoyed the support of an experienced organisation willing to listen to and accommodate our needs; you could say we had a lucky start. Next, working for first Allianz and then Europ Assistance, both icons of the European assistance industry, I learned a great deal about the industry and its behaviour and about medical and service provider networks. These experiences also provided me the opportunity to look at what worked and what didn’t work in Japan, and to really think about what the correct standards of Japan-style assistance should be.
As the first medical assistance company in Japan at that time, did you face any major logistical or legal challenges?
I had already overcome most of the legal and organisational issues in the course of operating, first as an American subsidiary and then as a European one. So in this respect we were quite lucky and could begin operations almost immediately.
Additionally, when we made it known that our mission was to implement a truly Japan-style assistance, we were fortunate to be able to recruit experienced personnel who had worked for foreign-owned assistance companies but who also harboured doubts and grievances about the way these companies were conducting themselves in Japan.
What impact did EAJ’s inauguration have on Japanese travellers and expatriates and, indeed, the world of medical assistance at large? For example, did it help foreign assistance companies to access the Japanese medical system more smoothly?
In terms of the effect it had on travel insurance-related assistance services in Japan, the founding of EAJ was unprecedented.
One could say that assistance has gone through three stages of development in Japan. These are: assistance as a service that helps persons in need; assistance as a service, rendered in Japanese, that helps persons in need; and assistance as a service that renders the kind of help that the person in need wants and expects.
The evolution of that third stage of development occurred, I believe, with the founding of EAJ.
As regards your question concerning access to the Japanese healthcare system, such access is not easy for foreign assistance providers and is not likely to become easier any time soon. The Japanese market for medical services is about US$400 billion, while the market for services delivered to foreign expats and visitors represents, at best, no more than 0.2 per cent of that number. Japanese nationals are all covered under public health insurance, so hospital billing and payment systems are not set up to handle other types of insurance or billing arrangements, nor is there an incentive for them to do so.
That said, there is a push, with the coming of the Olympic Games to Tokyo in 2020, to increase the number of institutions accepting foreign patients. EAJ is playing a key role in these efforts: we are working with the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare and the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, as well as local administrative authorities and medical institutions, to promote a better understanding of travel insurance issued abroad, and, I am happy to say that we have made some progress.
With EAJ acting as an intermediary, I believe it has become easier for foreign insurers and assistance companies to work with Japanese hospitals. However, the process of gaining access for foreign patients to Japanese medical institutions is still laborious, and, consequently, associated assistance costs are quite high. We are seeing some businesses go to other providers who make promises and offer lower prices but are unable to deliver results; unfortunately, this causes problems for both insurers and their beneficiaries. EAJ recognises the need to improve and simplify the admission process so that we can lower the costs, and are working toward that end.
As president and CEO of EAJ, what excites you most about your role?
Even though we are still small, we have established ourselves as the pioneer of Japan-style assistance, and consequently, as president, my recommendations and opinions regarding healthcare and security risk management carry some weight within the Japanese Government and can have some effect on public policy.
Furthermore, to receive a postcard from a little boy or girl we have helped after an accident suffered abroad and who is now writing to say he or she is fully recovered is extremely satisfying.
What are the most important lessons you have learned in your career to date?
Whether my business counterparts are Japanese, Westerners, Chinese or African, the most important thing in making key decisions, I have found, is to establish a high level of personal connection and trust.
Can you discuss some of the most exciting changes afoot at EAJ? What is on the horizon in the coming five to 10 years?
While it may or may not be good news to my employees, I will probably still be serving as president when that time comes (laugh)!
As one of our 2017 corporate objectives, we have implemented a plan to improve the salaries and earnings of all employees. To be realised, this plan will need the full participation of not just management but all segments of the organisation. Assistance benefits society, and it is important to me that the employees of EAJ understand the social importance of the work they are doing, that they take pride in it, and that they derive satisfaction from it. They should also share in the determination of their compensation and that of their co-workers.
I also believe this to be an indication that, after 14 years of activity, EAJ has achieved financial maturity and stability.
One of EAJ’s goals is to assume some of the roles and functions currently performed by Japan’s embassies and consulates – to become a civilian provider of consulate services. In the years ahead, I believe, the Japanese Government will outsource more and more of its functions to private corporations. This will begin in Japan and then extend to Asia, Africa, Europe and America.
Professionally and personally, what are you most proud of?
If I had to choose one thing, I would point to the number of friends I have in so many different occupations and so many different parts of the world. None of these are friends I have cultivated intentionally or with a particular purpose in mind. While many are people I have met through work, they have become friends outside of work too. In this respect, I feel my life has been a lucky one. ⬛
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