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My Japanology / Sapporo life helped deepen experience

Kanshiro Sonoda/The Yomiuri Shimbun

American Chamber of Commerce in Japan President Christopher LaFleur

The Japan News The American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ) (see below) has been one of the most influential foreign business organizations in Japan. Christopher LaFleur, the 55th president of the ACCJ, has spent a total of more than 20 years in Japan as a diplomat and in other roles. He recently talked about the ACCJ’s activities and economic issues as well as his personal experiences in the country.

The Japan News: When and how did your first encounter with this country take place?

LaFleur: That goes back quite a ways. I first visited Japan in 1969 on my way toward being a student of Chinese in Taiwan. I stayed a few days in Tokyo, and so that was my first experience. But in a real sense, I got to know Japan much better later on after I joined the U.S. government. I entered the U.S. State Department in 1973 and was assigned to be a vice consul at our consulate in Sapporo. In order to serve in that position I had to study the Japanese language in Washington for several months. And then I arrived in Sapporo in 1974, so that was really the beginning of my experience with Japan.

Q: What do you remember most from your time in Sapporo?

A: I was very delighted to have an opportunity to live and work in Sapporo for a few reasons. Sapporo is probably — Hokkaido in general, and Sapporo in particular — the part of Japan that’s most similar to the United States in that it is a place that many Japanese came to live in only relatively recently — many settlers came from all different parts of Japan. In that sense it’s rather similar to the United States. I think people in Hokkaido are very open and make friends easily. It’s a society in which I think Americans feel quite comfortable, so I enjoyed being in Sapporo. I learned how to ski there — although I come from the northern part of the United States, I’d never had a chance to learn how to ski, so that was great. And the opportunity to work on a variety of different jobs as vice consul — some of that work involved consular affairs, others involved commercial work. In Sapporo I also had to go around and talk to Japanese businesspeople about the business conditions in Hokkaido so I could report back to the American government on what opportunities there might be for American business in Hokkaido. So I got to learn something about the Japanese business mentality and practice from that.

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  • Kanshiro Sonoda/The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Christopher LaFleur speaks to The Japan News.

Q: Can you elaborate on the Japanese business mentality?

A: Sure. I’ll give you a somewhat humorous example. I think for people running businesses in Japan — much as it is, I think, in society in general — people are very modest, they’re careful. And if you went to ask the head of a [Japanese] company for instance, as I did for some of my business surveys, what business conditions were like, even if their business was extremely good, they would never say that. They would always say, “We face some serious challenges.” Americans might say, “We had a great quarter,” that sort of thing. But Japanese businesspeople don’t generally give that sort of response. Now that’s an example.

Q: The ACCJ held its fourth annual Women in Business (WIB) Summit in Tokyo last October. What have been the results of that?

A: Our women in business activities are one of the most important, you might say the most important, contributions that we have been trying to make to strengthening Japan’s economy. The idea of “womenomics” has been around for a few years, of course. Indeed, one of our members wrote the famous book with that title. But the effort to take those ideas and put them more concretely into policy has clearly accelerated significantly under Prime Minister [Shinzo] Abe’s leadership, and we’re very pleased to try to make a further contribution in several areas. First, many of our companies, being American-based companies, have very strong policies in favor of diversity. We also try to follow those policies here in Japan, and that creates greater opportunities for women in our member companies. We’d like to share the experiences we have had with others here in Japan because we feel that they may benefit from seeing what we’ve been able to do, and perhaps introduce some of those policies into their own systems. So part of the way we do that is by holding these “women in business” summit meetings — the prime minister has come to a couple of those — and in those we gather a large number of people to share experiences, to hear from some of the leaders in our companies about what they’ve been able to do to promote diversity and particularly to promote women’s roles in their companies, and in that way we hopefully get those experiences out to a larger number of people here in Japan. We think that’s been successful. We’ve appreciated the participation of a lot of company leaders, not just from the ACCJ, but from Japanese business and from the Japanese government, and we certainly hope to continue those efforts.

In addition, this past year we issued a new white paper that contains a number of proposals about things that the government or private sector could do to further expand the opportunities for women to contribute to the Japanese economy. Now, it is a fact that in terms of the percentage of women participating in the workforce, Japan is actually maybe a few percentage points higher than the United States, so that isn’t so much the issue. The issue is, what is the kind of work that they’re able to do, and are they able to make contributions not just at the lower and middle levels, but also at the senior and managerial levels where their role, I think up until now, relative to many other countries, is quite modest. So a lot of the things that we talk about in the white paper are focused on that set of issues: What would we need to do, what would Japan need to do, to create more opportunities for professional women? And we have had a very good response to that white paper, in fact we were just asked to print a lot more copies, so we’re very pleased that people are reading that and thinking about how our experiences might inform the efforts here in Japan.

Reform corporate governance

Q: What is your assessment of Abenomics so far?

A: We’ve been very impressed by the range of structural and other reforms proposed under Prime Minister Abe. As you know well, the structural reform proposals, the so-called third arrow, have had a number of different elaborations over the past several years. They’ve been constantly refining, expanding and going deeper in the nature of their proposals. We’ve been impressed by the attention and effort the government is making here.

We’ve been impressed by their success in addressing some issues that have been significant challenges for the Japanese economy over the last several decades. Reforming the energy production system here is very important because the cost of energy in Japan is quite high. So the changes that have been proposed to that system are extremely important.

Agriculture is a fundamental part of the economy that has been a very significant problem in the trade area for decades, and I think the effort that the government is making to shift the focus of government policy from supporting domestic production to figuring out how Japan can create a successful and export-oriented agricultural system, I think that’s very impressive, and certainly offers hope for the future in Japan.

Perhaps the most important thing that has been done — and here it’s both the government and the private sector working together — is the reform of corporate governance. The increasing attention that is being paid to how companies structure their leadership, who that leadership is responsible [to], whether the companies are returning adequate returns to the investors in those companies, whether they are performing efficiently — all of those are very significant reforms, and as those move forward I think the impact on Japanese business will be very significant. And I think that it will encourage increasing investment from overseas investors who will now have increasing confidence in the companies that they might invest in here in Japan, whether through stock or through other means. And at the same time I think it will give encouragement to those who [are thinking] about expanding businesses in Japan that they have already, or starting new businesses in Japan because they’ll be increasingly confident that the environment for business in Japan is very efficient, well-managed and focused on business-oriented results, and not necessarily on political or other criteria. That’s very important, I think, to encourage growth going forward.

So in those senses, I think the Abenomics effort has achieved significant results. Now there are many things left to do, and it’s up to the government [as to] what it wishes to do here, but we certainly want to encourage the government to stick with its program, to continue to push forward these reforms, because we think that’s the best way for the Japanese economy to expand going forward.

Q: U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order to withdraw from the negotiating process for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade deal. What has your reaction been to this?

A: President Trump campaigned on this issue and he is proceeding as he proposed to do during the campaign. He won the election and is now the leader of the United States and is following through on what he promised to do. We at the ACCJ were supporting the TPP because we felt that it contained a number of elements that would be beneficial to our businesses both here in Japan and across the Asia-Pacific region. So going forward, we hope that a way will be found to achieve the goals of the TPP through whatever mechanism the president and his new team decide would be best for the United States. We look forward to having a dialogue with [the new administration] about what the content of the TPP was, and what we might be able to do going forward to achieve those objectives.

Q: Is there any possibility of turning his action around?

A: I don’t know. It would be pure speculation on my part. I think what we need to do is take the president and his new team very seriously and look for opportunities to work with them, hopefully providing our best advice, and trust as the new administration develops its policies that those will be beneficial for the United States, and, we hope, for U.S. business here in Japan.

Q: Does the ACCJ have any plan to cooperate with Japanese entities to tackle this issue down the road?

A: In general, we already have a very active dialogue with the major Japanese business institutions. We meet with members of Keidanren(Japan Business Federation), Keizai Doyukai(Association of Corporate Executives), the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and others. We have a variety of opportunities to exchange views with Japanese business leaders, and I’m sure we’ll continue to do that as we go forward. They’re very interested, of course, in what’s going on in the United States, and we’re exchanging views and we look forward to continuing to do that under the new administration.

Q: Do you think there is a huge imbalance in terms of trade between the two countries?

A: There’s still an imbalance of trade that has moderated on a percentage basis significantly in recent years. So that’s one part of the situation that has evolved. And in addition, I would say that over the years the opportunities for U.S. business in Japan have expanded; many of our members have very successful businesses here in Japan. In many cases, those businesses are effectively marketing products — both services and goods — that are made in the United States here in Japan. So if you look at traditional manufacturing products like airliners, or financial services, or the internet economy, you’ll find in all of those cases that American businesses have very successfully managed to establish their role in the Japanese economy as providers of goods and services. And a lot of those goods and services are made in the United States by Americans.

Q: What has been your favorite experience in Japan?

A: I’m not a scholar of traditional Japanese art so in that sense I’m not sure my answer would be all that interesting. But I am a photographer. I enjoy going out and taking photographs in the Japanese landscape, in some of the beautiful national parks in other areas of Japan. Other than my work, that’s my most important interest and passion. I spent some [time] in Nagano and I think the area around Mt. Asama is one of my favorites.

Q: Which season do you like best?

A: Winter. It’s very clean and it offers a lot of opportunity to express ideas in photography cleanly, clearly. When there are many, many things in the landscape, sometimes it’s not easy to focus attention on what you the photographer are trying to convey to your audience. And in winter it’s possible to do that more easily. Of course, there are many other nice seasons in Japan. The fall is very beautiful, but the winter is my favorite time. Maybe because I was in Hokkaido for a bit.

This interview was conducted by Japan News Assistant Editor Takeshi Nagata.

■ ACCJ

Established in 1948 by representatives of 40 American companies, it currently has nearly 3,500 members representing about 1,000 companies with offices in Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka. The ACCJ has more than 60 committees representing a variety of industries and makes policy recommendations through activities such as expressing viewpoints, giving public comment and publishing white papers. It holds about 500 events and seminars a year, many of which focus on government policy and economic trends.

Christopher LaFleur is senior director for Japan at McLarty Associates, an advisory firm headquartered in Washington. During his U.S. government career, LaFleur became one of the U.S. State Department’s leading Japan experts, serving as minister and deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo. He also dealt with a wide variety of issues elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region as U.S. ambassador to Malaysia and other roles. Reelected as president of the ACCJ, he commenced his second term on Jan. 1, 2017. A New Yorker, he studied at Oberlin College and Princeton University.

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