For our inaugural interview of the “People in our community” series, we chose Kohtoku Enterprises CEO and Representative Agent Hideo Suganuma. He is also volunteering Secretary of Keiro Northwest. Hideo spent his childhood going back and forth between Tokyo and Seattle because of his father’s work. He graduated from the University of Washington in 1993, and has spent the last 20-plus years working in the real estate industry across Washington state. He’s a sports enthusiast. He lives in Bellevue with his wife Yuuri and their 9-year-old daughter.
Interview conducted by Naoko Watanabe, Translated by Bruce Rutledge
The Edge of Seattle, the Edge of the Real Estate World
I was born in Tokyo, but because of my father’s work, I came to the US when I was 1. I lived in Portland and West Seattle for eight years. Back in the 1970s, there weren’t many Japanese around. All of my friends were Americans. I think that even when I was spoken to in Japanese in our house, I would reply in English. I only spoke Japanese at Japanese school. But the Japanese school back then wasn’t as strict as it is today, so I spoke with my friends in English.
When I was in third grade, we returned to Japan. I entered a Japanese school, but when I got to the final year of middle school, we moved back here. That was 1985. We were living in Bellevue. My mom and I complained that we had bought a house in the sticks. When we were in the States for the first time, there was nothing in Bellevue.
Soon after our second return to the US, my father was diagnosed with lung cancer. He passed away. I changed my visa from my dad’s work visa to a student visa while I attended Bellevue High School. I then moved onto the University of Washington. Because my student visa would only be good through graduation, I returned to Japan to take part in job search activities and got an informal offer from Bridgestone. I was supposed to make sales calls at Boeing to get Bridgestone tires on JAL/ANA airplanes (he laughs).
However, when I got that offer, I also got a green card. I no longer had to return to Japan. I hadn’t looked for work in the US, so I was unsure what to do.
At the time, my mom had started Kohtoku Enterprises, but it was more of a handyman business than a real estate enterprise. So I got a real estate license with the intention of getting Kohtoku into the industry.
At first, I worked for a different real estate company, delivered food for an acquaintance, did some other business, and took care of whatever needed doing at Kohtoku. Eventually, we got more work and I began working full-time in real estate. I also got a managing broker license as our business grew. And now, here I am.
In Japan, the term “broker” doesn’t seem to have very good connotations, but in the US, it is very prestigious. In the insurance and travel industries, being a broker is a sign of professionalism and a source of pride.
Getting Influence from Both Cultures
I received education from both Japan and the US, but I would say I am very American when it comes to work. I see things in black and white. At the same time, I understand the Japanese way. When I work with an American agent and a Japanese customer, I think one of my strengths is explaining the gray areas the Japanese see to the American side.
The way the real estate business is handled is different in each culture. For example, in Japan, value is seen in larger plots of land even when they aren’t useable. The fact that it is a large plot adds value. Also, in Japan there isn’t the tradition of remodeling before selling to raise value. It’s difficult for them to understand the American way of sinking money into an old house to raise value. But that can raise the price of a house from $300,000 to $600,000.
Also, there are lots of cases of Japanese not caring about something that Americans care about quite a bit. For example, a home that is built just below power lines. In the past, people being affected by power lines was a big problem in the US. Even though it was later proven scientifically that there wasn’t any influence on people, many people worry about the safety of such houses, which lowers their value. In Japan, most people don’t care about this, but I think it’s important for people to clearly express these issues before selling a property.
Houses near the highway have the same problem. The Japanese typically are not bothered by the noise, but this is a big deal to Americans. Being near a train station or a bus depot — a 5-minute walk to the station — is a sales point in Japan, and a negative in the US.
Comfortable Living and Japanese American History
If I want to express the comforts of living in this area, the first word that springs to mind is “food.” When it comes to groceries and restaurants, there is very good Japanese food here that goes well beyond sushi and teriyaki. Next, I would point out the acceptance of Asians. The percentage of Asians is relatively high, and there is a long local history, making locals familiar with Asians. Also, we are close to Japan. You can fly nonstop and be back in Japan quickly. Also, there are four seasons and a good climate. There is good support for Japanese language speakers. There is a lot of business done in Japanese, and interpreters available at the hospitals, so it’s possible to live here speaking only Japanese. Also, for families, it’s important to note that the area has high education standards.
Today, Seattle is a comfortable, wonderful city. But the earlier generation of Japanese Americans sacrificed a lot to make it that way. Japanese American history and the culture of Japanese living here raised the livability step by step. What we have is beyond the imagination of the early Japanese Americans who built their communities here, I believe. They suffered through a difficult stage so that we could enjoy living here.
The Importance of Meeting People
The most important thing to me is my family. My mother, wife, and daughter make up my family. Then it’s my friends and all the people I work with and share interests with. They are all important to me.
I got into the real estate business because of various circumstances, but if I had it to do all over again, I would choose the same path. I can’t imagine any other life than the one that has brought me all of these personal connections. That’s how important these people are to me.
I love exercising. I have made a lot of friends through sports. I play rugby, golf, and soccer. I have been playing on Seattle’s Japanese rugby team, the Raccoons, since it was founded. I’m also a member of the indoor soccer team, the Drinkers. Just like the name says, we get together for a drink after the games. I love getting together with friends for a drink too. I also participate in the Japanese America Society and Keiro Northwest golf tournaments.
From Total Home Management to Life Support
Today, I help people moving from Japan with everything from housing to choosing the right schools for their children, to signing up for and installing cable TV — anything that is needed for living here. I’m more of a lifeline service than a real estate agent. I also provide aftercare. When there’s a problem and you need to tell the landlord but don’t speak English, I can help.
In the future, I’d like to expand our business. If we can come up with a system for Japanese to easily move and settle in here, Seattle will be more popular. It’s not just individuals — Japanese companies could come here to expand their business. To help with that, I plan to study tax, law, and other aspects beyond real estate. I want to grow along with society, and be a life supporter rather than a housing manager.
I have lived in the US longer — 38 years, I think, than my home country, Japan. If there are companies that can’t get something done in Japan, but might be able to do it in the US, I want to support them. My daughter turns 9 this year. As a Japanese being raised in the US, when she becomes independent, I want both countries to be comfortable places for her.
[About Kohtoku Enterprise Inc.]
Kohtoku Enterprise Inc. is a licensed Washington State real estate broker and a member of the Northwest Multiple Listing Service. Founded in 1992, Kohtoku Enterprise has helped bridge cultural differences between real estate laws and customs in the United States and Japan. For more information, please visit their web site http://www.kohtoku.com.