May 1987 / TOKYO Business Today

Isn't it about time the rest of us got our act together a bit better on the business of doing business with Japan?

For the past few months U.S. officials and others have been telling us how wrong it is for U.S. companies to be excluded from the bidding for the New Kansai International Airport. And on the face of things the indignation seems very reasonable. Japanese construction companies operate freely in the U.S. They steal valuable business from U.S. companies. Why can't US. companies be allowed to try to do the same thing in reverse?

That at least is what I used to think. Now I discover, thanks to the English-language press here, that the U.S. has just built for itself a new consulate in Kobe and that the contract for the building went to a Japanese company. U.S. companies were effectively excluded from the bidding.

No doubt there were good reasons for doing this U.S. companies lack building experience in Japan; the U.S. wants to keep good relations with Japanese companies, etc. But it makes the fuss over the airport look rather hollow. Come to think of it, why weren't U.S.companies invited to build the U.S. Embassy staff apartments in Roppongi? Any U.S. company could have built something better than the monstrosity so carefully and expensively put up by a certain Japanese company.

Surely the time has come for a bit more honesty on this question of Japan's barriers to foreign trade and business. Some barriers do exist, and some of them are terribly unfair. But doesn't a lot of the blame lie with our side of the fence too?

Hands up the foreign businessmen in Japan who can read, write and speak Japanese to the point of being able to handle complex negotiations in the Japanese language. If the total exceeds the number of fingers on one hand of a Shinjuku gangster, I would be surprised. But there is no shortage of fast-track types willing to use every trick in the book to convince themselves and the head office about what a good job they are doing here. In the process they do enormous damage. If the Japanese had behaved in the same facile way when they were trying to crack our markets we would have been most contemptuous.

True, in their efforts to penetrate Western markets the Japanese have also been less than fair. Adversarial trade - the word that is currently causing so much trauma in Japan - is an understatement. Predatory, ruthless and scheming would all be closer to the mark. But who just stood by mouthing empty platitudes about free trade while all this was happening? Why, none other than the same Western governments who complain so bitterly today. To solve the problem they demand Japan buy more alcohol, tobacco and large cars for the Shinjuku gangsters.

The government of my own beloved country is equally at fault. Despite the immense importance of its trade relations with Japan it has never got round to appointing someone with even a smattering of Japanese or business experience in Japan as its senior trade representative here. Rather than face the hard work of training people and grubbing around in the distribution system, it too prefers to rely on windy hectoring, meaningless exhibitions and useless so- called 'high level' trade missions to solve its trade problems with Japan.

What we are seeing in all this is really an extension of the same slickness that is undermining the work and business ethic in the West. Today only a fool relies on hard work to make money if he can do just as well or better by using lawyers, lobbyists, manipulation or PR. Maybe that's the aim of our current trade pressure on Japan - export the slickness ethic to Japan and undermine Japanese productivity in the process.

If you can't beat them, corrupt them.


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