The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

COVER STORY | REGION FOCUS

NOVEMBER 2014

Driving Change in Chubu
Leaders weigh in on progress and obstacles

Photos by Andy Boone

Last year, the Chubu chapter of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ) wrote its first position paper, outlining several suggestions to make the region a better place in which foreign businesses can operate. Steve Burson, vice president of the ACCJ Chubu chapter, recently sat down with members of the chapter’s executive committee to discuss the topics addressed in the paper.

On a practical level, all panelists were in agreement that infrastructure is a huge asset for doing business in Chubu. The region already possesses a vast and successful industrial foundation, accounting for 10 percent of the national economy and 1 percent of global GDP. However, several panelists felt that the role of small businesses has traditionally been undervalued.

Burson: What are the advantages of being an ACCJ member and doing business here?

Jonathan Hobbs: The ACCJ believes in people—that each and every one of us has something valuable to contribute to the economy in Chubu. Whether your business is selling pastries or manufacturing wings for a 787, your contribution is valid, and it should have a voice.

Erin Sakakibara: One of the biggest advantages of being an ACCJ member and doing business in Chubu is the close-knit and supportive group here, always eager to help you make the right connections and going out of their way to see you succeed.

Jeff Genet: There is definitely a strong sense of camaraderie and mutual support in Chubu.

Andy Boone: The general view of Nagoya and the Chubu region is that it is provincial and conservative. However, practical would be a more appropriate adjective to describe the business environment.

Yuji Suzuki: I agree with the conservative label, but I choose to consider it more in the context of being traditional, where trust might be built slowly, but then becomes vital in growing a business. Being an ACCJ member is instrumental in building that trust.

In which areas do you see the most growth potential here?

Suzuki: By the year 2040, nearly 35 percent of Chubu citizens will be over 65 years old, so service-oriented businesses targeting this demographic should experience strong growth.

Sakakibara: With anticipated changes to the child daycare laws, I see a great need for businesses that are distinctive and creative. This might include tie-ups with workplaces to provide onsite childcare, and bilingual or English daycare centers taking advantage of the language learning potential of small children. After-school programs will also be needed.

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Which sectors of business require more attention?

Genet: The hottest topics recently have been diversity (or lack thereof), language (need for increased skill), and cross-cultural issues (understanding for better business opportunities). There are 99 countries where English is the predominant language, meaning 99 international business opportunities that most Japanese companies will never be able to take advantage of.

Some of Japan’s leading companies are located right here in Chubu, but have yet to step up and lead on any of the key issues, namely the systemic failure of the language training curriculum and the lack of cultural awareness at all levels of society. China churns out 20 million English speakers per year, roughly double the total number of English speakers in Japan.

Hobbs: The areas that need improvement in the workplace are well documented. In a country where the demographic is so homogeneous (only 2 percent of the population is non-Japanese), language and cross-cultural training are necessary for Japanese companies that want to globalize. Even at the national level, how will Japanese businesses capitalize on the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games when fewer than 10 percent of Japanese speak English?

Suzuki: Tourism is definitely an underdeveloped industry in the region, though some movement has been seen recently. Currently all economic organizations in the region are promoting tourism in Chubu with a campaign called Shoryudo (昇龍道), using the image of a rising dragon. Much still needs to be done to promote the area,s rich history and traditional culture, due in no small part to its excellent position for launching travel to both eastern and western Japan.

What are your thoughts on education in Chubu?

Sakakibara: Education options are growing, but mostly for the preschool and elementary set. More options are needed for non-traditional education at the upper levels. To my knowledge, Chubu doesn’t have even one bilingual immersion school that serves junior and senior high school students.

Having four girls in school both here and in the United States, I can say—and they do, too—that the Japanese elementary system is superb. It encourages creativity and inquisitive learning, while giving ample opportunity for research and presenting in front of others.

All of this comes to a screeching halt in junior high, where creativity is suddenly scarce, and analytical reasoning is abandoned in place of learning for standardized testing. At the end of junior high, students are faced with having to choose a course of study for high school, namely, either the humanities or the math/science route. It is discouraging that girls are often encouraged to choose humanities but, beyond that, it is limiting when students have to make a decision about their future at such a young age.

Suzuki: At the tertiary level, I think universities need to reach out to the community more, offering seminars and learning opportunities for local residents. Also, they need to cooperate with local businesses to create internship programs. This might be an area where the ACCJ can show leadership.

Genet: The Japanese school system needs to emphasize the benefits of risk-taking. In my line of work I see so many young people who absolutely cannot communicate [in English], even on a basic level, despite at least six years of English learning. The current system of focusing on grammar isn’t working. ALTs aren’t being used effectively, and there is very little technology utilized in the classroom, something that other countries have already embraced. Japan will be left further behind unless the education system keeps pace.

THE PANELISTS

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Jeff Genet

Genet serves as chair of the Business Programs Committee for the ACCJ Chubu chapter and is the president of Power Communications K.K., which provides cross-cultural and business English training using a powerful combination of e-learning and live lessons. In addition, he is the recently appointed chair of the ACCJ Chubu Community Service Committee, as well as the board chair for Community Works Japan, which is affiliated with the HOPE International Development Agency Japan and oversees the HOPE Café social enterprise.

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Jonathan Hobbs Ph.D. 

Hobbs practices US patent law in Japan, helping Japanese companies acquire US patents. His area of specialty is electronics, and his role as vice chair of the ACCJ External Affairs Committee has provided many networking opportunities. In his role with the committee, Hobbs facilitates the coordination of members’ business goals with the objectives of policymakers in government, to further international economic investment and trade in the region.

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Erin Sakakibara

Sakakibara teaches in a variety of local schools and universities, does freelance editing, and is currently working in curriculum development for Power Communications K.K. She also devotes considerable time to volunteer roles in fundraising, event planning, and leadership for the HOPE International Development Agency Japan and the Cross-Cultural Exchange Association. She is the secretary of the Women in Business Committee in Chubu.

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Yuji Suzuki

Suzuki is a US tax accountant particularly devoted to advising ACCJ members on their international tax needs. He co-chairs the External Affairs Committee and enjoys being a bridge between the ACCJ and the local economy by creating links between members and other local organizations, such as the Chubu Economic Federation, the Nagoya Chamber of Commerce, and the Chubu Bureau of Economy, Trade and Industry.

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Andy Boone

Boone serves as a vice chair of the ACCJ Business Programs Committee. As a professional photographer, he also contributes to the chamber by taking pictures at events. Boone has lived in Chubu for 32 years, mostly working in various aspects of communications: primarily photography, but also writing, translating, and graphic design.