The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

On March 25, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike asked residents to avoid non-essential outings to help reduce the spread of the lethal Covid-19 coronavirus. Almost two weeks later, on April 7, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared a state of emergency under a law revised and passed by the Diet in March.

With Abe’s declaration, the governors of Tokyo and six prefec­tures—Chiba, Fukuoka, Hyogo, Kanagawa, Osaka, and Saitama—gained the authority to extend requests and set rules on social distancing. This includes the power to call for teleworking, shorter office hours, the closure of businesses, and the cance­lation of events.

The Young Professionals Forum Mentorship Series

But even before the announcements by Koike and Abe, the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic were already being felt across the country. Many members of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ) have experienced business disruptions, and their social lives—an important part of networking—have been upended as well. Despite this, they remain optimistic and have found ways not only to maintain connections but to grow them. To learn more, The ACCJ Journal spoke with chamber leaders.

For many ACCJ leaders, one of the first areas impacted was their event planning. Even before government recommendations for social distancing, the chamber began to postpone or cancel scheduled events out of caution.

These steps were in line with the ACCJ’s own events contin­gency plan, implemented at the beginning of March.

“Events scheduled between now and March 31 are being postponed or canceled,” the chamber noted on its website.

Events planned between the end of March and mid-April, such as working committee meetings, have been held remo­tely—a plan that will be extended given the declaration of a state of emergency that will last until May 6.

The chamber also activated its Business Continuity Network “to facilitate sharing of knowledge and best practices among member companies.” Part of this is a regular series of webinars covering a wide range of topics for business leaders worried about the operational, financial, health, and legal impact of the pandemic, among other concerns.

Participation in these sessions has been high, and registration is on par with in-person events for the same period last year. More than 250 people joined the Understanding & Coping in a State of Emergency webinar on April 7.

Speaking to The ACCJ Journal, Frank Packard, an ACCJ governor and chair of the Alternative Investment Committee, noted that his group had a robust calendar of activities planned for the first half of the year, including seven events and two committee meetings. “From March, we decided to postpone all live events and to rethink our formats,” he explained.

Jenifer Rogers, an ACCJ gover­nor and member of the Election Governance Task Force agrees. “From a leadership perspective, we’ve all gone virtual pretty seam­lessly, and there has been more efficiency around board meetings—because they have been more compact than before.”

The traditionally face-to-face monthly breakfast meetings of the ACCJ Executive Committee, she added, have also transi­tioned to online.

ACCJ-Chubu’s annual Champagne Ball

John Carlson and Andrew Silberman’s committees have suffered a similar fate. Their events have been canceled or held virtually.

In Carlson’s case, it was in part because members were worried about the safety of meeting in person. He is chair of the Healthcare Committee and co-chair of the Young Professionals Forum.

Silberman, meanwhile, co-chairs the Membership Relations and Constitutional Membership Committees.

“We immediately went to virtual introductions of the chamber. It was very easy to go through a slideshow, with people coming in on the video to ask questions,” he said.

That being said, Silberman expressed concern that virtual events—including those such as nomunication (gathering over drinks)—cannot be a long-term solution to in-person, face-to-face networking, which is a key purpose of the chamber.

But keeping connections strong through virtual channels will help these events be even more successful when face-to-face gatherings resume.

Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted not just immediate events, but also those scheduled for much later in the year. Typically held in December, the ACCJ Charity Ball is a popular fixture that offers a chance to network, have fun, and support important social causes.

And yet Charity Ball Committee Chair Barbara Hancock and Co-Chairs Lori Hewlett and Kevin Naylor feel that this year’s fundraising for the ball will be challenging due to the disruption caused by coronavirus.

“While we hope that a large event can be held in December, we don’t know at this point. And with the current global economic situation, it’s hard to ask our members for the usual contributions in addition to attending a large gala,” Hancock said.

The annual Charity Ball is one of the ACCJ’s biggest charity fundraisers.

But it’s not just Tokyo-centric events that have been affected. Across Japan, including in the Kansai and Chubu regions, the ACCJ’s events calendar is up in the air.

“We are currently in the middle of our annual five-session Leadership Series. It was originally scheduled to wrap up by April 16, but we have postponed three of the speakers until May or June, and we’ll see what the situation looks like then,” explained MaryAnne Jorgensen, chair of the ACCJ-Kansai Women in Business (WIB) Committee.

For her, there is already concern growing over organizing the annual Women in Business Summit, which is scheduled for September.

And Yuka Nakamura, who is vice-chair of the ACCJ-Kansai Diversity & Inclusion Committee (formerly Women in Business), also has concerns.

“If we really want to have it in September, now is the time to identify speakers and start discussions about topics and speeches; but it’s difficult to do so due to the Covid-19 situation.”

In the Chubu region, the activities landscape is equally overcast. ACCJ-Chubu Programs Committee Co-Chair Mark Hosang explained: “Covid-19 has had a pretty big effect on the events we had planned. We initially asked our speakers for March and April if they would be willing to do an online event, or to postpone. Both opted to postpone.

“Another concern is that many companies have reduced their budget for attending ACCJ events for the remainder of the year. While that may lead to low attendance numbers, the success of virtual events shows that demand remains high.

While the pandemic has clearly caused major disruptions to the chamber’s events calendar, the strong engagement being seen right now is cause for great optimism.

Business leaders have seized the opportunity, and the remote seminars, webinars, and online meetings are making a difference in the Covid-19 response.

In Chubu, Hosang’s committee hosted a Young Professional Luncheon Series—planned as in-person events for March and April—online.

Similarly, the Young Professionals Forum and the Alternative Investment Committee transitioned to online events, with the latter holding a webinar that “created strong interaction and engagement with the more than 50 members who joined,” Packard said.

Jorgensen shared similar sentiments from Kansai: “Per ACCJ guidelines, the committee is meeting virtually. Regarding postponed events, we will watch how the situation unfolds. If it is still difficult in June to hold face-to-face events, we will likely take some or all of the remaining Leadership Series sessions online via Zoom.”

Steve Iwamura agreed: “Thanks to ACCJ-Kansai Executive Director Keizo Yamada, the ACCJ External Affairs Committee has been including Zoom participation in our monthly com­mittee meetings. Since the Covid-19 outbreak occurred, we have gone to full Zoom meetings.” Iwamura is the committee chair.

He and Jorgensen are referring to the remote video conferencing services provided by California-based Zoom Video Communications Inc.

A number of leaders noted that, previously, when people talked about business continuity planning in Japan, they usually meant planning for disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, or typhoons.

“But what the pandemic has done is to flip the script on that: What do you do when you can’t meet at all?” Rogers asked.

“For this generation, it’s going to be about life before and after the coronavirus. But, as a lawyer, I’ve learned that the worst crisis creates the biggest opportunity to learn—because that’s when people are really focused.”

Thomas Shockley, who chairs the Independent Business Committee, holds a similar view. “Those SMEs with the wherewithal to have an emergency fund—and the flexibility to invest in the change—will arrive on the other side by preparing to take on new challenges.”

Packard agrees: “One of the ways we will prepare for future crises will be to reinforce each member’s personal and team resilience during the current situation. By acting with mindfulness about what is working and what is not working right now, solutions for the future will present themselves.”

John Amari is a writer and editor from the UK who specializes in articles on startups, entrepreneurs, science, tech, and business.
The worst crisis creates the biggest opportunity to learn—because that’s when people are really focused.