Christina Ahmadjian

Christina Ahmadjian: ‘If Armenians Remain Optimistic, Energetic, and a Bit Patient, We Will see the Armenian Miracle’

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By Artsvi Bakhchinyan

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

YEREVAN/TOKYO — I met Dr. Christina L. Ahmadjian last April 3 at the Armenian State University of Economics, while attending her lecture titled “Japanese Miracle: Challenges and Lessons Learned.” The lecturer, who is a professor at Hitotsubashi University in Japan, presented two economic “miracles” from Japanese history, in the early 1900s and after World War II, and showed the origin, growth and peculiarities of the modern Japanese economic system.

Ahmadjian has been an associate dean (and professor) at Hitotsubashi University Graduate School of International Corporate Strategy since September 2008. She joined the Mitsubishi Electric Corporation in September 1982 and then joined Bain and Company in September 1987. She served as an assistant professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business from January 1995, then began working as an assistant professor at Hitotsubashi University Graduate School of International Corporate Strategy in October 2001, where she became full professor in April 2004.

Ahmadjian is a director at Sumitomo Electric Industries, Ltd. She has been an Outside Director of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. since June 2012 and serves as a member of its Audit and Supervisory Committee. She has been an Independent Outside Director at Japan Exchange Group, Inc. since June 2014. Ahmadjian also served as an Outside Director of Eisai Co. Ltd. since June 2009.

For me, a researcher for many years of Armenian-Japanese connections, it was a nice surprise to meet a professor from a Japanese university with an Armenian name…

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How did it happen that you, an American student, went to Japan?

When I was an undergraduate university student, I majored in East Asian Studies, specializing in Chinese language, history and society. I was very interested in foreign cultures and languages, and China had just opened up to the US. But one of my professors wrote a popular book called Japan as Number One. He told us that Japan was the future, and encouraged us to visit Japan, to study Japanese society and business. Also at that time, the US economy was in a recession, and there were not that many job opportunities in China. So, when I graduated, I moved to Japan. I taught English for one year, and then found a job with a Japanese company.

Christina Ahmadjian

Wasn’t it a shock for a Westerner like you to be in such a different world?

Yes, it was a very big shock. The biggest shock was the low status of women. On my first day at my job at a Japanese company, I was asked to wash ashtrays! I also had to serve tea and coffee to my co-workers and to guests who came to our office.

Also, I was very surprised and shocked by the low standard of living at that time. Homes were small and badly heated. Home appliances were primitive. Telephone service was so expensive. Travel within and outside of Japan was so expensive. It was interesting, but not so easy to live there. Also, people were friendly but not so comfortable around foreigners.

After a few years, I realized that Japan was not a good place to live for me, and I returned to the US.

But you went back there and now you speak and read Japanese. How much are you integrated into Japanese society?

In 2000, I received a fellowship to stay in Japan for a year and study corporate governance. I only intended to stay for one or two years, but the situation in Japan had changed so much. The status of women had increased, foreigners were more common and better accepted, and the standard of living was so much higher. These days, I feel like the standard of living in Japan is much higher than in the US (except that homes in Japan are still small).

Of course, I will never be Japanese, because the only way to be considered Japanese in Japan is to be ethnically Japanese. But, I work at a Japanese university, I am on the boards of Japanese companies, and to be honest, I spend most of my time with Japanese friends, colleagues, and business associates. There is a big foreign community here, but I am not really part of it, though I do have friends from all over the world.

Armenians meeting one other usually ask about their roots. Where are your roots?

My grandfather was from Pazmashen, in Kharpert. His father emigrated to the US in around 1890, leaving his family behind. My grandfather emigrated to the US in about 1910. My grandmother’s family was from Kharpert, though I’m not sure if they were also from Pazmashen. My grandmother came to the US around that time, I think, and it seems that her father arrived earlier than that. Actually, our family history is not so clear, because my grandparents did not talk about it so much, and they kept few records, as far as I know. My grandparents settled in Whitinsville, Massachusetts, and had 6 sons, 5 of whom survived into adulthood. Though they had almost no education themselves, and my grandfather never learned English, they managed to send their sons to top US universities including MIT, Harvard, West Point, University of California at Berkeley, Clark, and Babson. My father was the youngest of the family, and did not learn too much Armenian growing up. My mother was not Armenian, but the Armenian side of my family loved and welcomed her.

There is a very small Armenian community in Japan. Are you in touch with them?

I know Ambassador Pogosyan. In fact, I knew him when he was a university professor before he became Ambassador. I have not met many other Armenians here, but I would very much like to have more contact with the Armenian community.

After the revolution of last year, the new government often speaks about the economic revolution. Even if you are not a specialist of Armenia’s economy, do you think that some kind of “Armenian miracle” might happen?

Yes, I think it is the time for an Armenian miracle. I was so impressed by the determination, energy and optimism of the young Armenians who I met during my visit. And the many programs to foster new ventures, and encourage cooperation with US and European businesses impressed me. I think that Armenia could become a very important partner for Japanese businesses. Japan is experiencing a declining population, and although education levels are high in general, young people are not seeking advanced training in technical fields. Companies are struggling to find engineers, especially in areas like AI, cyber security and fintech. I think Armenia could help the Japanese fill this growing gap in human resources.

You were in Armenia for the first time recently. Was this a regular trip for you or something special?

I met Prime Minister Pashinyan at the World Economic Forum at Davos this year, and I was so excited to learn about the Velvet Revolution, exciting economic and social policies, and the power of the Armenian people. The year before at Davos, I had also met former Prime Minister Karapetyan, and was also impressed by his description of exciting policies to invigorate the Armenian economy. To be honest, I had never thought of visiting Armenia, and imagined it only as a place for tourism and brandy. After learning about the new Armenia, I was determined to visit. PM Pashinyan’s office kindly assisted me in arranging meetings and university lectures. Ambassador Pogosyan also gave me some great advice on where to visit.

I can’t wait to return. Next time, I hope to bring some Japanese students with me. The beginning of the Japanese miracle was over 100 years ago, when young Japanese overthrew the samurai dominated government and brought back the emperor. Young people travelled abroad to learn about best practices from the west, and returned to Japan to create a new society and economy. Today, Armenia feels like Japan in that period, when people were building a new country, a new economy, and a new society. We can see now how successful Japan was in doing that. I believe that if the process is managed carefully, and if Armenians remain optimistic, energetic, and a bit patient, we will see the Armenian miracle.

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