The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

In our past three issues, American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ) President Sachin N. Shah has shared his vision for the chamber. The Board of Governors has been hard at work on developing this vision into an action plan and, on March 13, the leaders gathered for an extended meeting to deep-dive on strategy and advocacy focuses for 2018. The ACCJ Journal sat down with three ACCJ vice presidents—Amy Jackson, Jon Kushner, and Yoshitaka Sugihara—to learn more about the plans.

Why does the ACCJ need a refreshed strategy?

Kushner: It comes down to the chamber’s ability to deliver value to its members and fulfill its mission in a changing environment. You’ve probably heard Sachin Shah talk about some of these changes, such as a growing and increasingly diverse chamber membership, an aging society, and an evolving US–Japan eco­nomic partner­ship. These are challenges, but they are also opportunities. As an organization, we need to ensure we adapt so we can continue to support growth opportunities for US businesses in Japan.

Jackson: The strategy has three parts: member centricity; relevant and strong advocacy; and operational excellence. The first relates to an improved value proposition for all ACCJ members to posi­tion the chamber for sustainable growth. The second is about strength­ening the ACCJ’s advocacy voice. This will help accelerate change in the business environment to benefit the Japanese economy and companies doing business here. The third is about making the chamber more agile and transparent, so that we can react quickly to changes and turn them to our advantage.

Why is advocacy so important?

Sugihara: ACCJ member companies—large and small—share a common commitment to Japan. We employ tens of thousands of people, and our businesses are spread around the country. For many larger companies, Japan is still one of the biggest global markets. So, we are major contributors to Japan’s economy and society, and we have a stake in Japan’s growth and prosperity. That’s why we need a strong voice on policies to continue improving the business environment here.

Jackson: I agree with that. I would also say that many of our member companies joined the ACCJ because of our sustained efforts to resolve “doing business” issues. This focus on advocacy truly differentiates us from other organizations. Networking and information-sharing are key pillars of the chamber’s activities, but we are not the only organization in Japan doing those things. Developing a reputation as an effective advocate takes time and, over the past 70 years, the ACCJ has worked to develop strong partnerships with the US and Japanese governments and other stakeholders that enable us to deliver on this part of our mission for our members.

How will the five themes allow the chamber to better deliver on its mission?

Jackson: The ACCJ has a longstanding reputation for advocacy, but our advocacy today tends to be spread across dozens of committees. This means issues sometimes get siloed and we fail to maximize advocacy projects that involve hundreds of hours of volunteer time by committee members. In addition, many issues facing companies in Japan, such as labor reform, are not neatly categorized by industry. Our positions on these crosscutting issues often lack clarity for external stakeholders, such as govern­ment or media.

Kushner: On that last point, I think it’s clear we have work to do on communicating our advocacy positions more effectively. For example, when members meet senior govern­ment officials, we often share our advocacy documents and statements on multiple issues, which can make it a challenge to understand which issues are most critical to US businesses on the ground. Communications, both internally to members and externally to govern­ment and media, is a major part of the strategy.

Sugihara: I would also say our five priority advocacy themes are aligned very well with the policy priorities of the US and Japanese governments. This is deliberate. In advocacy, we sometimes need to take difficult positions, but usually we want to be swimming in the same direction as the government. Our aim should be to help them achieve their goals. For issues such as workforce productivity or cybersecurity, this often means highlighting best practices that US companies bring to Japan.

What’s on the 2018 advocacy calendar?

Kushner: Committees are still the driving force behind our advocacy. The Healthcare Committee is looking at a project on the sustainability of the healthcare system to potentially include a major event sometime in the fall. In workforce productivity, we are discussing how to build on the Women in Business brand to advocate on labor and workstyle reform more generally. And in US–Japan relations, we are focused on proposals to both governments to make concrete progress in the bilateral Economic Dialogue. With work already under­way in many areas, our task is to coordinate and communicate these initiatives for maximum effect.

Jackson: It is important for the Board of Governors to engage more directly with the advocacy work done at the committee level. For example, today we had leaders of the Healthcare Committee presenting directly to the board on their plans for the year.

What impact have political and economic shifts had on US businesses?

Sugihara: The US–Japan economic partnership is stronger than ever, but there is room to make it stronger. Following the withdrawal by the United States from the Trans-Pacific Parternship (TPP), the United States and Japan established a new mechanism for addressing trade and economic issues: the bilateral Economic Dialogue. The ACCJ has an opportunity to play a role in defining what issues should be brought to the table by both countries.

Jackson: Japan has also successfully pushed ahead with a modified trade deal, commonly known as the TPP 11, which includes 11 of the original 12 TPP countries minus the United States. Against this backdrop, there is talk about whether Japan should enter bilateral free-trade agreement talks with the United States or wait for them to come back to multilateralism. We have been discussing this today at the Board of Governors meeting. Whatever happens, in the short term, we have a chance to move forward to resolve key issues and look for opportunities for both countries. This is the initial focus of the US–Japan Economic Partnership Forum, a group I am co-chairing with Boeing Japan CEO Brett Gerry and GE Japan CEO Eriko Asai. As a business organization, it’s important that we focus on concrete issues to improve commercial ties for both countries and improve the business environment here in Japan.

Any final comments?

Kushner: It’s an exciting time to be involved with the chamber. There’s a lot going on, but I think these changes are going to ultimately make the ACCJ stronger and a more effective advocate for US companies in Japan.

Jackson: Stay tuned because there is more to come in 2018!

Japan Voices

The Board of Governors welcomed three special guests to the March meeting: one representative each from domestic business associations Keidanren and Keizai Doyukai, and a senior official from the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA).

Teiji Hayashi, deputy director-general of the Economic Affairs Bureau, MOFA

Kunio Ishihara, chair of the Committee on US Affairs, Keidanren (counselor, Tokio Marine & Nichido Fire Insurance Co., Ltd.)

Yukio Tada, chair of the Americas–Japan Relations Committee, Keizai Doyukai (senior advisor, Sojitz Research Institute, Ltd.)

MOFA’s Hayashi gave a presentation on trade and economic policy, including Japan’s views on opportunities to strengthen US–Japan commercial ties. The discussion with the two business associations focused on areas of mutual interest, including workforce productivity and the US–Japan relation­ship. The meeting was a step toward enhanced collabo­ration between the ACCJ and domestic stakeholders in areas where interests overlap.

Christopher Bryan Jones is Editor-in-Chief of The ACCJ Journal. Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, he has lived in Japan since 1997.