For over five decades and counting, Seiji Omote has helped deliver Canadian timber to market in Japan and bonded with Canadian colleagues along the way. His ability to adapt and open nature exemplify the way business should be done across national borders.

Seiji Omote was born deep in the mountains of Gifu
Prefecture right after the Second World War. A headstrong, rambunctious boy who reveled in the natural wilderness around him, he spent his days hiking, swimming, wrestling, playing baseball and skiing. In the ninth grade, he set a district record in the 100-metre dash of 11.7 seconds that stood for a decade.

And he was raised tough. Food was scarce, and in midwinter the temperature inside the house often fell to minus 15 degrees Celsius. 

“One day I complained about the quality of what we were eating, and my father got so mad that he tied me to a tree,” Omote recalls. “I wasn’t allowed back inside for a couple of hours. Since then, I never complain about food, and my family members have copied my lifestyle. It’s a good mindset to have.”

In what turned out to be foreshadowing for Omote’s five-decade career in the wood industry, his father operated a small sawmill that supplemented the family’s main occupation of processing rice. “Looking back, watching my parents run those operations gave me my first real education in business,” he says.


Career Interrupted

After graduating with a degree in foreign languages from Nanzan University in Nagoya in 1969, Omote secured a job at one of Japan’s biggest trading houses, Ataka & Company. “I was assigned to the North American timber business section in Nagoya from the beginning,” he states. “!t was like fate. For the first three or four years, though, I did nothing but accounting and bookkeeping, although that proved invaluable later.” 

Ataka was a typical old-fashioned company, Omote says, but he finally got into actually selling timber products from North America. “Like many other trading houses, Ataka had offices on the West Coast in the U.S., including Alaska,” he reports. “Our head office was in Portland, Oregon. But during my time at Ataka I never left Japan.”

In the mid-seventies, Ataka made a big bid on the oil refinery business in North America and came up short. Sensing the company’s impending collapse, the Japanese government stepped in and arranged a merger between Ataka and C. Itoh & Co. [now Itochu]. 

“I was the Nagoya office leader of our newly formed labour union,” Omote explains, “and we fought against that merger. We lost, and out of 4,000 employees only 1,000 were allowed to join C. Itoh. Unfortunately, I was one of the other 3,000, blacklisted because of my union activities.”

That was at the end of 1976. Although he was over thirty at the time, Omote says he was relatively unfazed by this setback. 


Good Company

Fate and fortune were on his side. While struggling in unsecured circumstances, including union duties, Omote got a job at the Tokyo offce of a Vancouver-based lumber sales company called Seaboard, a consortium of over twenty sawmills that sold British Columbia timber products internationally. 

“In Japan, one of the largest sawmills at that time might process 10,000 cubic metres a year,” he notes. “In Canada, though, a mill’s output volume could be 200,000 or 300,000 cubic metres annually. It was quite amazing.”

Omote finally took his first trip abroad at the age of thirty-two. “After I landed in Vancouver, I was introduced to the heads of Seaboard, and one guy took me to a city club,” he remembers. “We started drinking Scotch and water. Then he left, which was okay, but I hadn’t eaten anything so I was fairly drunk.

“I went back to my hotel and ordered an appetizer,” he continues. “Probably shrimp cocktail. My first dish outside of Japan. They brought me a finger bowl—sliced lemon in water—and I was wondering if it was something to drink. Fortunately, some waitress brought the same thing to another table before I did!”

He was in Vancouver for about one and a half years at Seaboard between 1988 and 1989.

He felt completely at home in the wilds of British Columbia, and got along well with the Seaboard crew. “Although my English was still limited, I had no trouble communicating with them,” he says. “We worked hard and played hard as a group.” 

In fact, while he was at Seaboard, Omote and several colleagues and even some friends from competitors decided to form a group. “We called ourselves the Mustache Club, since some of us, including me, had mustaches. We were crazy—there were no barriers to what we did. This group still exists, with the majority there, and whenever I go to Vancouver I get together with them.” 


After the Disaster

When the Seaboard consortium was dissolved in 1993, Omote joined Interex Forest Products Japan as a vice president. He was there when the March 2011 tsunami washed away several plywood mills in Tohoku—along with about a third of Japan’s stockpile of plywood. 

“We were a major supplier of oriented strand board, or OSB,” Omote explains. “To replace that lost plywood, I immediately phoned Ainsworth Lumber Co., explained the situation, and asked for special support without raising prices.”  

Ainsworth complied, and Interex began filling orders at five or six times the usual rate. “A Japanese TV station in New York later went to Vancouver to interview people at the Interex head office as well as Ainsworth Lumber, and then came to the Tokyo office to talk to us,” he says.


The CCCJ and Beyond

Omote had been a CCCJ member for a long time but was mostly inactive. “While at Interex, though, I joined the CCCJ as a corporate member,” Omote says. “Right after I retired as the chairman of Interex in 2013, CCCJ Chairman Wilf Wakely contacted me through Sean Lawlor at Canada Wood, Japan to tell me about the Honorary Board of Advisors. They wanted someone from the forestry industry because that’s big in Canada.”

Omote joined the HBA, and later became a member of the Golf Committee. Two years ago, a vacancy opened up on the Board of Governors, and he ran for that and won. Last year, he joined the Membership Committee. “Because of my nature, if I’m committed I do my best,” he notes.

Outside of his many CCCJ commitments, Omote does some consultation work for a couple of clients. “One is Japan Kenzai, one of Japan’s biggest building material distributors, especially for offshore business. I provide them with information on global circumstances. I also work as an advisor for Ehime Prefecture.”

During his free time, Omote loves playing golf and tennis. “I started playing tennis about thirty years ago, and I still play two or three times a week,” he says. “This is my health barometer; if I can’t play that means bad news about my condition. And human beings need to sweat to revitalize our systems. My favorite place to go outside Japan is Hawaii, the Big Island, because in Hawaii everything is slow and healthy.”

Omote self-published his memoirs in 2019, My Half Century in the North American Timber Business, in both Japanese and English. The book was based on a serialised newspaper column he wrote for one of the biggest publications covering the Japanese wood industry, Nikkan Mokuzoku Shimbun. Every Saturday for six months, he described a different facet of his life and business career.

In the pages of that book, you’ll see the enduring friendships Omote has formed throughout his life that have gone far beyond business. He has served as a quintessential connection between Japan and Canada, and keeps demonstrating that through his activities at the Chamber. 

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