Interviewed & written by Isao Tokuhashi
Mail to: email@example.com
David Sindell (USA)
David Sindell is a business immigration lawyer with offices in New York, San Francisco (Silicon Valley), and recently in Tokyo. We met him at the presentation and exchange event for entrepreneurs called “GTIC (Global Techno Innovation Cafe)”, which was held by Tomo Akiyama, a Japanese venture capitalist.
He’s been traveling between America and Japan for many years and recently became a gaikokuho bengoshi (foreign law registered lawyer) in Japan. Specifically through his Silicon Valley office, he acts as a bridge between Japanese ventures and the mecca of the innovation.
In addition to the clear business opportunity, the root of his activities is his deep attachment to people and culture in Japan.
*Interview in Jiyugaoka (Meguro-ku, Tokyo)
I have no competition in Japan
I am based in Tokyo for at least 6 months out of the year. Many ventures commence in Tokyo and create subsidiaries in the U.S. The genesis of these ventures is in Tokyo.
We receive inquiries from several companies per month, mostly Japanese ones. They are not specifically always ventures in Japan but are ventures in the US. Some of them were established dozens of years ago. Of course, if they start business in the US from scratch, they are ventures over there.
Before Japanese companies go to San Francisco or New York, the normal sequence of events is usually that they have an office here in Tokyo and they decide to set up over there. I’m here and I can advise them prior to their departure. That is what prompted me to set up a small satellite office in Tokyo.
I was very recently admitted to as a foreign registered attorney in Tokyo and I am personally starting my very own venture of sorts in Tokyo. It is my understanding that there is only one other foreign registered lawyer in Tokyo specializing in US immigration law. It’s still a very small market as far as Japanese companies go, but because there are very few attorneys doing what I do in Japan, I may be of assistance to many companies and individuals and I have the ability to take care of their needs once they arrive in the US on either coast.
One of the things I enjoy most about practicing US immigration law is the end result. In most cases, I am able to change a life, help someone or some company start in the US. I have an important role to play between our two countries and I love that aspect of my job.
I feel relaxed when I’m with Japanese
I come from a long line of attorneys. My grandfather, my mother and my father were attorneys. In particular, my father still has a great love for Japan, especially its culture and language. He studied Japanese about 30 years ago, and he took me to Japan when I graduated high school and that trip turned out to be a turning point in my life since it was the start of 25 year love affair with Japan and Japanese cultures. Unlike many professionals who come to Japan initially for business reasons, I came to Japan to learn the language and culture, way before I was ever engaged in any business venture or legal practice.
After high school, I attended New York University, and commenced my studies of Japanese language when I was a sophomore. I majored in French literature and Japanese language.
But I wanted to learn more. I could speak French at that time so I knew how to learn language. I decided, based on my previous travels to France, that the best way is to live in a place where the language is spoken.
I asked my Japanese professor, Noro-sensei. She recommended Nanzan University in Nagoya, Japan. Nagoya has a population of over 2 million but in the late 80’s, the number of foreigners was inconsequential, so it was a desirable location for studying Japanese.
Since I graduated from NYU about six months earlier than planned, I had enough leeway time to start working, so I went back to Nagoya again and taught English and French for almost a year. Since then, I’ve been traveling between America and Japan for about 25 years.
Today, I can go weeks without seeing or speaking to a non-Japanese person. I don’t specifically seek out foreigners although I have friends from all different nationalities living in Japan. It so happens that many of the friends I made at a younger age, in New York in the 1990’s were Japanese and many moved back to Japan, so I actually have more close friends in Tokyo than in New York, even though I have traditionally been based more in New York. Interestingly, here in Japan, I don’t have the occasion to speak English, maybe I can find someone to practice with 🙂
I love Japan. I love people. I think after 25 years, my personality is probably more Japanese than American, so I feel quite at ease when I’m with Japanese people.
Focusing on immigration law
I became a lawyer in 1994 after I graduated law school. When I first started, I did many things including real estate, trust and estates, domestic relations, and even litigation, but I found immigration law had the most meaning to me.
When I first hung up my shingle, people started asking me about immigration law, but back in 1994, there was very little taught at the law school level about immigration law and there wasn’t a plethora of information available. This was prior to the advent of the internet. I actually took the one class of immigration law taught at my law school, Fordham Law, but it wasn’t much help.
At that time, my friend John, who is now living in Tokyo, was working at a large firm and they bought him a book about immigration law. I didn’t have enough money, but he said, “I don’t use this book anymore. You take me to lunch and I will give you the book.” Then I got a book and studied immigration law by myself little by little. I think I must have read the book 10 times.
I started to take on immigration matters little by little and more people started to come to me for immigration advice. I decided that was what I wanted to do and I decided to focus exclusively on US immigration law in the late 1990’s. By then, I had opened an office in Seattle and Los Angeles, and after divesting myself from those operations, I opened an office in Silicon Valley (actually one in Sunnyvale, and one in Union City) in addition to Tokyo and New York.
Became a Silicon Valley lawyer
Until the end of 2011, 95% of my clients were Japanese companies and Japanese individuals. In the beginning of 2012, I partnered with a close friend who was working in several large immigration firms to run the California office. Her friend, another attorney, also merged with our firm in May, so that now we have a large following of new US IT start-up clients in the Bay Area. They hire all nationalities including Chinese, Indian, Eastern European, and of course Japanese.
In California, what’s interesting in terms of the US economy is that there are now a large number of new ventures. Right now in the US, economically, I feel a lot of new businesses or ventures are in Silicon Valley. Japanese ventures are also starting their businesses there and we are able to assist these companies with their immigration issues. Silicon Valley is very exciting right now.
I never chase money
I was also a start-up, almost 20 years ago. I started with $4,000. I found an office in Manhattan, which was a very small space which I obtained in exchange for legal services in lieu of rent.
And now I’m a venture here again. I’m kind of new to Tokyo so I don’t know many people here yet in the business community. I enjoy meeting new people, so I try to attend seminars or exchange events related to Japanese ventures.
When I started my business in NY back in 1994, I joined events and actually created several event based organizations for Japanese people living in New York. I had a great time doing it. I did it for the opportunity of cultural exchange. I was never doing it because I wanted business. I don’t believe in doing something for business purposes only. Building connections may help my business a year later or five years later. Actually recently, I got a phone call from a man who is a friend of a person whom I met 10 years ago.
If you start out deciding that you want to make money, you won’t. If you do what you love to do, help people, create positive karma for yourself and love your work, money will flow naturally. There is no way to force money since the most satisfaction comes from what you love.
Over twelve years ago, I bought a castle in France and ran a B&B and restaurant. I lost a ton of money and had to sell it, but it was a terrific experience. I am also a partner in several restaurants in New York and in New Jersey because I love the restaurant business and finally, three years ago, I started importing French and Argentine wine into the US and now am a wine distributor and importer.
Life is about doing what you love and being passionate about whatever you do. As long as I can be passionate about my life, my activities, and the people surrounding me, I will find satisfaction and ultimate happiness. At least that is what I strive for!!
Treasure your own uniqueness & embrace other cultures
Japan is a very unique country. Japanese people are totally different from people in other Asian countries even though they look similar. This can be tied to the uniqueness of Japanese history.
Japan used to have an isolated policy and they kept out foreigners until 150 years ago. So the unique climate and characteristics were created during the period of national isolation. That created a negative side, but there must be a positive side. Look at Toyota. It makes cars in the US by using its own unique system such as “Just In Time” and it made up on General Motors.
My restaurants are Japanese, one is actually famous, Hakata Ton Ton, in the West Village. Our restaurant has taken a process of trial and error. When we first opened every dish had Pig’s Feet (Tonsoku), but we added other dishes from Hakata. Now we serve not only tonsoku but also local cuisines of Kyushu Island. It’s so popular that you have to make a reservation a week before you go.
If you offer Americans the same things you offer in Japan, you will not succeed. There must be adjustments to the American palate while still embracing the Japanese ethic and culture. The key is to be able to mix both cultures and come out with something better.
In essence, this is what I strive to do both on a personal and business level.
True reason I’m in Japan
In one word, because I love Japan and it is part of me. The business reason is that. I would like to continue to assist companies or people giving them excellent advice on US immigration issues prior to going to the US. Because of my knowledge of both American culture and Japanese culture, I can assist those who are totally new to the US and are unfamiliar with the US immigration issues that they may face. After 25 years of attempting to bridge the two cultures, I feel that I am well placed to assist those who are brave enough to want to navigate through the murky waters known as US immigration law.
America and Japan are best friends now even though only some 70 years ago, we were fighting each other. Clearly, the way to continue to engage both cultures is to continue to try to understand each other. Communication is always the best path to peace and harmony. It is my hope that our two countries can continue to forge ahead and that in a small way, I can continue to help bridge the cultural gap between them.
With Himi Okajima, his partner at Hakata Ton Ton
What is Japan to you?
Part of me.
What is Tokyo to you?
Very exciting city. There are still many things that I’ve not discovered. Living in Tokyo is an adventure.
Sindell Law Offices: http://www.sindelllaw.com/
Hakata Ton Ton: https://www.facebook.com/HAKATATONTON
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