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Trading with Japan – A Family Affair

By Suzannah Lipmann

Looking back, it must have been down to the fact that I’d read ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ at a young and impressionable age, that led me to read Social Anthropology at the University of Kent. Little did I know this would later result in me taking my elective ‘year abroad’ on Japan’s southern island of Kyushu, or that 10 years later I would be visiting one of Japan’s largest copper smelters, just 25km away from my old university campus, to buy Rhenium.

Kylie, Kimono & Koi-Carp

My interest in Japan had been ignited at about age 4, by watching a VHS recording of ‘Kylie Minogue’s “On the Go” tour to Japan. I was enthralled, watching her being dressed by someone in traditional Kimono, feeding Koi carp and making sushi. Or, was my interest stimulated by our family’s eccentric ‘Uncle Eric’ who used to tell me about Haiku, which he taught as part of his literature lectures at Goldsmith’s college. Or was it maybe his very un-PC, non-age-appropriate mime of a Samurai performing ‘Seppuku’ (Harakiri)? I find myself thinking of this more often these days, when I am writing a grovelling email to a customer apologising for a typo on a packing list – a cardinal sin, when it comes to trade in Japan!

Japan Connections

As I’d lived and studied in Japan for my ‘year abroad’, my father persuaded me to ‘give the family business a go’, knowing the way to capture my long-term interest in the metal trade would be to give me the Japanese business to handle. At no point did he mention that prior to the Second World War, in the 1930’s, my grandfather and his brother were already trading with Japan. It was only after years of annual business trips to Japan that he casually mentioned that my grandfather used to buy celluloid sheet from ‘Iwai’, one of the great Japanese trading houses of the day. By the time my grandfather established Lipmann Walton, he was solely trading metal and no longer working with Japan – and by the time I discovered my own interests in Japan as a teenager, my grandfather, great-uncle and ‘uncle’ Eric had all died.

As lovely as it might have been, chatting to them about their business dealings all those decades ago, with what was then a more imperial Britain and Japan, the inter-generational connections have slowly revealed themselves over the past 10 or so years, allowing a posthumous connection with my forebears.

On a trip to Japan a couple of years ago – I visited Lake Ashi for the first time, from which on a clear day, you have the most beautiful views of Mount Fuji. As I stood there, with the ‘Tori gate’ in view to the right, the kitsch tourist pirate ship sailing along, Mount Fuji in the background, I was struck by how familiar this view was to me. I realised that I had seen a picture of it before, in my grandfather’s memoir.

During the Second Word War, my grandfather, his brother and an eclectic group of (mainly*) Jewish refugees were deposited (by the British) in a POW camp in Hay - a rather bleak, deserted town north of Melbourne, Australia (the name of the town surely inspired by the barren landscape). Here, to occupy the time, they turned the camp into a college of sorts. My grandfather, having learnt a bit about Japanese language and culture back in Vienna before the war, not to mention having traded with Japan – on one of these endless days in Hay, was due to give a little lecture on the ‘customs & traditions’ of Japan. It was the little hand painted poster for the talk, beautifully illustrated by a fellow-friend and inmate in which I had first seen this scene. Never had I anticipated that it was an accurate depiction of Lake Ashi!

Collage of Photographs compiled by Suzannah Lipmann

In memory of ‘Uncle-Eric’, a little Haiku I wrote, inspired by my favourite season:

Autumnal wind blows

Fallen leaves animated

In a moment, still

‘Don’t Mention the War!’

Although it was my grandfather, a true raconteur, who lectured to his inmates on Japanese culture, it was really my great-uncle, Bruno, who was quietly teaching himself Japanese with the assistance of a Japanese and English Bible. Religion aside, as the war in the Pacific was intensifying, word got round the camp that the Australian army was looking to employ a Japanese speaker to ‘assist’ in intelligence. The post was that of colonel, so once my great-uncle put himself forward, it was promptly downgraded to a civilian post – to appropriately accommodate a Jewish POW within the Australian Army. After some time, he happened to be on shift when the Japanese surrendered. He was photographed in August 1945 on the front of ‘The (Melbourne) Herald’, having translated the surrender! As you can imagine, this anecdote is maybe not one to bring out at business meetings…much like talk of religion, which leads me to an amusing encounter during one of my 30-odd annual meetings in Japan one year!

‘Do You Pray to God?!’ – Lost in Translation

After a round of ‘Russian roulette’... (Where one of 12 maki sushi-rolls is dosed with extra wasabi) and many a round of sake, hot, cold, cloudy, clear…, I was shocked to be asked by our customer, “Do you pray to God”? I do not count myself as a complete expert in Japanese customs, but having lived there even just for one year, I have grown accustomed to people steering clear of taboo subjects, religion, sex and even politics. As I sat there, shocked and not sure how best to answer, and not sure if I’d had one too many sake, I realised that I had misheard the question, it was actually, “Do you play (the) Golf”!! Thank God...!

Transitions & Traditions

In a family business the lines blur between the two, the history, story-telling and collective memory of both family and business intertwine and weave a tradition which often cannot be separated. You grow up seeing the world through a metal-trading lens, full of second-hand stories of my grandfather, or maybe my father’s from his travels to the old Soviet Union, you learn quite early on, that you’re destined to never quite fit-in with your peers. When Justin Timberlake’s single ‘Cry me a River’ came out in 2002 – it’s only natural that I thought he was singing, “Crimea River”… just imagine the blank faces of my friends’!

As many in the metal trade will testify, a family business is quite the long-game, but one in which each generation has every opportunity to make their mark. In our case, the pandemic and forthcoming Brexit are likely to be the making of our young team, as my father retires at the end of this month. He will now have ample time to pursue his many interests.

Though, one thing is for sure – he won’t be “Praying to God**”!

*Of the 2542 prisoners who arrived in Australia from Liverpool on HMT Dunera on Sept 3rd 1940, the majority were indeed Jews (intellectual or otherwise) who had been exported from UK as possible Fifth Columnists. Amongst this number were also Italian POWs as well as some Nazis. Finally, and importantly, there was a small group of ‘anti-Nazi’ Germans, amongst whom was Geoff Sambrook’s and Fred Piechoczek’s uncle.

**playing golf

The above article was published on 15th July 2020


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