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Allies and Access

19th annual doorknock reflects government’s trust in ACCJ ideas and advocates

The American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ) has been knocking on the doors of Japan’s most influential politicians for 19 years. According to members of the ACCJ’s Government Relations Committee, this year continued the trend of strong engagement with officials and legislators throughout the government. 

The ACCJ met with lawmakers and officials over three days in late October.

Even more importantly, committee leaders pointed out, ideas and proposals that had been put forward in earlier doorknock campaigns are now being reflected in legislation being drawn up by the Japanese government.

“It is clear to me that they are far more open to ideas compared with six years ago, when I first started doing these events,” Arthur M. Mitchell, chair of the committee, told the ACCJ Journal.

“They know the domestic economy is stagnating, they are looking for fresh ideas, and they no longer see us as the barbarians at the gates,” said Mitchell, who is senior counselor for White & Case LLP.

“We really do have the best interests of both Japanese and US firms at heart, because a strong Japanese economy benefits our members as well. We are absolutely committed to making constructive suggestions to improve the environment for all of us,” he added.

Lawrence Greenwood, vice chairman of the committee, agreed that the chamber’s connection with the Japanese politicians appeared to be better this year than ever before, and said positive outcomes were visible just days after the doorknock had concluded.

“We have already received reports from two Diet members that they were raising issues that we had put to them on the floor of the House [of Representatives],” he said.

“And they are using our information in their interactions in committees. So essentially they’re taking our ideas directly into the Diet, and that has not happened before.”

Mitchell added that he found it particularly pleasing that sections of a white paper the chamber produced about growth strategies two years ago were “embedded verbatim” into papers drawn up by both the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the government.

About 60 members of the chamber, led by ACCJ President Jay Ponazecki, took part in this year’s doorknock, holding discussions with some 60 Japanese legislators, including two ministers and a number of vice-ministers.

The event was designed to continue engagement with senior government officials here, to advocate policies, and to share global best practices designed to achieve long-term economic growth, particularly in the run-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Driving Home TPP
The three principal themes that the chamber sought to promote were: concluding the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, implementing labor mobility reforms and “womenomics,” as well as promoting innovation and entrepreneurship in Japan.

When the TPP issue was broached, Mitchell said, there were fewer voices this year indicating their opposition to an agreement or claiming it is “too hard.” The biggest concern from the Japanese side was whether the United States can deliver on its promises.

The chamber’s position is that a clear demonstration of political will is required to bring the negotiations to a conclusion, and that both sides need to clarify their positions on all the issues at stake.

Japan’s participation in the deal would be a “game-changer,” as TPP would cover countries accounting for 40 percent of global GDP and create a high-quality platform for promoting rules-based trade and investment among all the economies of Asia, and even globally.

And while studies suggest that Japan would enjoy the biggest income gains of any TPP member country, excluding goods and services from the deal would impact those benefits.

The delegates also emphasized that time is running short for the deal to be struck.

Failure to have an agreement to put before Congress for approval by next summer could mean it would have to wait for a new US administration in early 2017.

Labor mobility
Turning to labor mobility and women in the workforce—an area of focus by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe—the chamber applauded ongoing efforts to create a society in which women can “shine” in more prominent positions of leadership.

This will increase productivity, critical to ensuring Japan’s economic growth as the population continues to decline.

Greenwood pointed out that Japan’s two-tier employment market splits society here between “regular” and “non-regular” employees, with no flexible alternatives.

That labor market is becoming increasingly inequitable because it provides job security to the shrinking sector of the workforce, while the remainder—some 40 percent of the total, of whom 70 percent are women—have less security and lower pay.

The chamber recommends more flexibility in both work contracts and working arrangements, additional after-school care for children of working mothers, and changes to immigration regulations that would permit working mothers, for example, to hire non-Japanese domestic helpers.

“We got a lot of good reactions in our interviews on this subject,” Greenwood said.

“Everyone agreed on the benefits of changing regulations to make it easier to work in different ways, like working from home and increasing day-care centers. And it’s not just about women, as men also care for children.”

Innovation and entrepreneurship
The third area of focus was innovation and entrepreneurship.

While the chamber approves of government attention to policies and budget allocation in priority research areas, such as healthcare, robotics, and other leading-edge technologies, more needs to be done to “set the tone at the top.”

One way in which the government can encourage entrepreneurship, Mitchell suggested, would be to set aside a percentage of its annual procurement budget for purchases from new start-up ventures.

The paperwork required by companies applying for government grants should also be streamlined, while administrative fees for routine procedures—such as changing an address—should be reduced, and taxes should be reformed to assist new firms in their precarious early years.

Ultimately, if the government is serious about boosting entrepreneurs, then a Cabinet-level position should be created to champion and support this sector of the economy.

“Our pitch to the people that we met was very much that we as an organization are very much in touch with our own government through the embassy and directly through Washington,” Mitchell said.

“They should see us as a go-between, because what we were telling them in those meetings is exactly the same as we’re telling our own government.”