The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

As the United States and Japan negotiate a new bilateral trade agreement, one of the most visible faces of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ) has been Chairman and President Emeritus Christopher J. LaFleur. He has appeared on CNBC and Bloomberg TV, in the Nikkan Kogyo Shimbun newspaper, and taken part in the ACCJ’s DC Doorknock visits to Washington—all in support of US businesses in Japan and a stronger US–Japan relationship.

A longtime member of the State Department posted to Japan and former US Ambassador to Malaysia, LaFleur has been part of US relations with Asia for 45 years and an ACCJ member and leader for more than 20.

On November 1, the Government of Japan announced that he would be awarded the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon, in the 2019 Autumn Conferment of Decorations on Foreign Nationals, in recognition of his decades of service to the relationship and friendship between Japan and the United States.

Created in 1875 by Emperor Meiji and first awarded to non-Japanese in 1981, the Order of the Rising Sun is bestowed upon those who have made distinguished achievements in international relations, promotion of Japanese culture, advancements in their field, development in welfare, or preservation of the environment.

Before his trip to Washington to receive the honor in a December 6 ceremony at the Embassy of Japan in the United States of America, The ACCJ Journal sat down with Ambassador LaFleur to reflect on his career and the work of the chamber.

How did you feel on hearing about this award?

I was, of course, humbled because it’s a recognition from the Government of Japan to individuals who’ve contributed, in the case of foreigners, to relations between Japan and other countries. Having spent a good part of my adult life in various positions working on US–Japan relations, it is certainly won­derful recognition for that work. Many people have contributed over the decades to the strong relationship between the United States and Japan. I’m very lucky to have had the opportunity to make a small contribution.

Why did you choose to focus your career on Japan?

I didn’t. Actually, shall we say at the start I didn’t. What happened was, I joined the State Department having spent some time as a student studying Chinese. I assumed that, naturally, the State Department would send me to some place where I could make use of that background. Instead, they assigned me to be the vice-consul in Sapporo as my first assignment. So, I arrived in 1974, after six months of Japanese language study, to start my work in Japan for the first time.

After I had been in Sapporo for a couple of years, the State Department decided to reassign me to Tokyo. I spent a little more time in language training in Yokohama, at the State Department’s language school, and then moved up to Tokyo for another couple of years to work on political and labor affairs. And then I spent yet another year as the consul and the head of the office at the consulate in Sapporo.

So, I spent, essentially, the first six and a half years of my career in Japan, which is something that almost never happens—in fact, I don’t think it can happen anymore. In that sense, I was very, very fortunate that my career path permitted me to develop a certain level of understanding and knowledge of Japan that then positioned me to return twice in other positions of increasing responsibility. Altogether, I spent about 16 years of my 34 years in the State Department working in Japan. And, during many of the years spent elsewhere, I was working on various aspects of US relations with Asia.

What skills were essential in the early years? What did you have to learn along the way?

The obvious one, of course, is language. Without a certain level of fluency, it’s very challenging to do business in Japan—although I will say it has become a lot easier than it used to be. If one is living in a large metropolitan area—particularly in Tokyo—it’s possible to do quite a bit even if you don’t have Japanese skills. That said, Japanese language clearly is a key condition for being as effective as possible, whether it’s in diplomacy or business.

Beyond that, I would say having some affinity for the culture is also rather important, because US and Japanese cultural norms are rather different in some important ways.

Whether it’s something as minor, perhaps, as showing up for meetings well before they begin or it’s having some appreciation for the way decisions are made within organizations in Japan, the ability to operate within those norms becomes very important to being successful. 

I look around the ACCJ and I see many models for success at many levels of corporate size, and in many industries. So, beyond those sorts of general things, I think a lot of different people find opportunities to make an impact here. And, sometimes, bringing something different to the game can also have some benefit.

Did you have any career-changing difficulties?

That’s a good question. I have to say, I’ve been very fortunate in my career over the years in that, most of the things that I set out to do, I had an opportunity to at least try to do, even if I didn’t totally succeed.

I can recall when I was in my second stint at the US embassy in Tokyo, I was in charge of the political-military affairs that are a key aspect of the US–Japan relationship. We were looking to negotiate on some issues—including some that are back in the news recently—with respect to Japanese support for US military facilities in Japan. We were also working on getting Japanese support for some of the things the United States wanted to do at the time, with respect to space-based or missile-based defense systems. Then, a little bit later, both here and in Washington, we were looking at how Japan could be supportive of the Allied operations in the First Gulf War.

In all these areas, what we found, from the US perspective, was that Japan had very severe constitutional and policy constraints. It was a good lesson, relatively early in my career, on the rather different ways that Japan—given its history and culture—might look at issues which Americans tended to view as rather open-and-shut cases.

Who would you say was your mentor?

I had several. As a career person, two key role models for me were the deputy chiefs of mission (DCM) under whom I served early in my career. One was William Sherman, who was the first DCM who served Ambassador Mike Mansfield, and then later came Desaix Anderson, who was the last DCM to serve under Mansfield.

The Tokyo embassy is one of the largest that the US maintains anywhere in the world, and we have not only a number of people who come directly from the State Department, but representatives from multiple US government agencies. One of your challenges when you’re the DCM and, effectively, the chief of staff on behalf of the ambassador, is how you try to coordinate among those various offices and individuals to try to support what the ambassador and, ultimately, the US government is trying to accomplish vis-à-vis Japan. Both of those individuals provided me great role models, both in how they manage people and the inevitable challenges you have with personalities and different organizational perspectives, as well as how to deal with the Japanese government in an effective way.

Moving to a different level, in the US diplomatic system, we have as ambassadors both career civil servants and political appointees but the ambassadors that I served under during my entire career in Japan were all political appointees. Collectively, I served under Mansfield for seven of his 12 years here. He had a tremendous impact on my view of the relationship and, also, I would say, my view of my country. He had a decades-long period of service as a US senator and, ultimately, as majority leader.

Early on, for me as a relatively junior officer, one thing I learned very clearly from him, which I wouldn’t necessarily have otherwise, was the importance of all branches of the US government. He was well positioned, of course, to speak to the importance of the legis­lative branch. The US Congress, he reminded us frequently, is a co-equal branch of government with the executive branch, as well as, of course, the judicial branch, and it was important that all of us out in the field always keep that in mind.

He had a physical way of demonstrating that, which was by putting up the photographs of the Congressional leadership of both chambers in his office and pointing that out, from time to time, to us all so that we would always keep that point in mind as we were doing our work. In US embassies, you’ll always see the pictures of the president, vice president, and secretary of state displayed up there somewhere, but you rarely see those other pictures. Perhaps that’s the established practice, given that we all are, at embassies, part of the executive branch and the ambassador serves at the pleasure of the president. But, at the same time, you’re executing your oath of office, which is to the Constitution and the American people, and it’s important that you have clearly in your mind at all times that all three branches are critical to our democracy. So that was one key point.

The other point, of course, and Mansfield is famous for this, is that he would always insist on being the one to serve the coffee. I helped him many times do this for Japanese visitors. He would go back, by himself, to a little room he had in the back of his office where there was a hot water heater and some instant coffee. He would pour a little Taster’s Choice into the cup, put some hot water into it, and carry it out to his Japanese visitors.

This made a real impact on our visitors, to see that the ambas­sador would serve the coffee. The message about what constitutes civil service and how a servant of the people should comport himself or herself was, I think, an important one to convey.

I was also very fortunate to serve as deputy chief of mission to Ambassador Tom Foley. Like Mansfield, Foley also had a distinguished career in the US Congress, eventually becoming the speaker of the House of Representatives, the third most senior official in the US Government. But where Mansfield was a man of few words, Foley was a great storyteller, and I watched him regale many a Japanese audience with tales about colorful figures in America’s political past, many of whom he knew well. I learned how useful this skill could be in helping put counterparts at ease even when we needed to discuss difficult issues of that time, such as the Asian financial crisis. Foley was also a master at delegating to staff and, by extending both trust and support when needed, bringing out the best in his staff. These are lessons on which I leaned heavily when I became an ambassador some years later.

Given how much I owe Mansfield and Foley, I am pleased that I am on the board of the Mansfield Foundation, which every year brings a group of US government mid-career officials to work in Japan for a year, and which also organizes the Foley Foundation.

How do you feel your experience led to this honor?

Well, I served for a number of years in various positions that had some role in the US–Japan relationship, spanning a whole variety of circumstances—from issuing the visas in Sapporo to being involved in the US–Japan discussions and collaborations with respect to what occurred during the time of the 1997 Asian financial crisis and the Gulf Wars. So, I’ve been involved in a variety of aspects of the relationship. Although I don’t want at all to suggest that I necessarily had a defining role in any of that, I was able to contribute to what has been a very broad team effort by many people over the years, in both the United States and Japan, to try to strengthen the relationship to bridge the various differences and gaps in understanding that are inevitable—given the history and cultures we have—and to try to find ways to cooperate more effectively and to achieve our goals.

If you look at it from the perspective that I do, from having worked on this for about 45 years—a little bit more at this point—you see that there really has been a very clear and very positive evolution. So, from that point of view, I hope that those in Japan who look at this feel the same way and also see this as yet another affirmation of the strong bonds between our two countries.

Did your work in the financial sector play into your perspectives on the relationship?

My work in the US Foreign Service was principally in non-economic areas. When I was the DCM and, later on, when I was deputy assistant secretary in Washington charged with overseeing work on Japan, I was involved in some other aspects. But, when I left the government after Malaysia and came back to Japan and entered the private sector for the first time, literally in my life, I certainly had a lot to learn about how business operates, as well as the different position that the private sector—and certainly foreign companies in Japan—find themselves versus arriving as the representative for our government and all that goes with that.

So, there was a great deal to learn about how regulation ope­rates in Japan vis-à-vis the private sector, and the very different rules and expectations that government and regulators sometimes have vis-à-vis business—certainly in the financial sector.

And, operating more recently as a consultant, being part of a Japanese board of governors for a private company helping an American company set up a new subsidiary in Japan—all of these are experiences which I learned a lot from and, hopefully, that ultimately gave me better tools to work with in the ACCJ for trying to strengthen the chamber as well as attempt to improve the position of US business in general here in Japan.

How has the role of the ACCJ changed over the years?
Why is it important at the moment?

The role of the chamber, I think, has been important pretty consistently throughout its history because of the very large role that the United States and the US economy have played in Japan’s growth and development as an economy. So, in that sense, it is almost inevitable that the chamber, as the voice of US business in Japan, is going to be a significant one.

Having said that, over the years, I think there has been evolution. Clearly, at its beginnings, more than 70 years ago, those who were in the chamber represented much smaller businesses for the most part—not always, but significantly—and, over time, through the 1950s and ’60s, that scale grew. But it didn’t necessarily keep pace with the growth of the Japanese corporate presence in the United States. And, certainly, other macro things were going on at the same time with respect to bilateral trade.

When we arrived in the 1980s, there were very significant trade frictions between the two countries, reflecting the very substantial size of Japanese exports to the United States—and the prominence of those exports—at the time when Japanese financial strength was at its zenith. Those two factors together created a lot of anxiety in the United States that, in retrospect, seems misplaced. But, at the time—operating within the US government and being on the receiving end of a lot of complaints and concerns from the US side and from people in the govern­ment who were concerned about the US economy—I can tell you they were very, very keenly felt concerns.

The chamber, during that period, also reflected the concern that foreign business in general—but certainly US business specifically—didn’t have access to the Japanese economy on anything like the scale that Japanese companies enjoyed in the United States. The playing field wasn’t as level, access to information was not sufficient, participation in decision-making simply wasn’t there. So, there were a lot of concerns, and I know the chamber was very vocal about many of them. But, over time, I think you’ve seen that change significantly to the point where, today, US companies have very significant investments in Japan, very significant presences in the Japanese economy, and are big participants, in many ways, in Japan as a society and an economy. And that has really changed the dynamic fundamentally.

For the chamber, too, I think the role has shifted fairly signi­ficantly. Today, as an organization that represents companies within the Japanese economy, our role is more to look at how our members and how we­—as US companies as a group— might contribute more effectively to the growth of the Japanese econ­omy and the Japanese market. So, it’s a much more collaborative discussion we have today with Japan—one in which, sometimes, Japanese government officials are coming to us and saying, What have you got? That would not have happened 20 or 30 years ago. I think that represents a very positive evolution in the relationship.

We see in some particular areas, such as the US–Japan Internet Economy Dialogue, a collaborative effort by the governments and businesses in these critical sectors of the economy to maintain an open dialogue to try to harmonize policies and approaches. Again, that’s something that you wouldn’t have seen happen in the past. So, overall, the role of the chamber has evolved, but I think it remains important and, in some ways, is perhaps more important than it’s ever been, because I think we are now in a position, hopefully, to have even more positive impact on Japanese economic progress and growth. And, ultimately, that’s going to be to the benefit of US companies as well as to Japanese companies.

How can the next generation strengthen the relationship?

There’s a lot still to do here, I think, in terms of bilateral trade. We’ve just seen completion of phase one of what is expected to be a two-phase trade agreement between the United States and Japan. It covers some key areas in agriculture, certain industrial products, and the IT sector—the digital trade sector—and those are all very important ones to the US economy, to US business, and the chamber is very pleased to see that this first phase has been completed.

Having said that, there remain a variety of other issues that we raised with the US government when we went to testify in Washington last December. We would certainly like to see, in phase two, the two governments address those issues as well and, hopefully, further open the way for additional growth in the Japanese economy. This, we think, will benefit both US and Japanese companies. So, that’s sort of the key immediate challenge. 

Looking at it from a slightly broader perspective, overall growth in the economy—both in the United States and Japan—is going to be an increasing focus of discussion as we go forward, given where the two countries are in terms of their growth cycles, given where we are in terms of monetary policy. The sources of sustainable growth for both economies, I think, are going to be critical issues here that business is going to have to help government address.

We see with the rapid expansion of the digital economy that there is tremendous potential for growth, greater effi­ciency, and greater productivity coming out of the digital sector. And that’s going to have an increasing effect across all industrial fields. We can see that happening. How that happens, how quickly it happens, whether we can make that happen at the lowest cost possible to customers—keep it as efficient as possible—all those are issues out there that the two governments and businesses, hopefully working collaboratively, can address so that, ultimately, our citizens and our customers reap the greatest benefit.

With respect to younger leaders coming forward, it’s probably, in some ways, more to ask them than to ask someone like me. My sense is that the experiences that younger people bring to business reflect a generation that has been exposed—essentially from birth—to a whole new level of technology that has altered their lives and is going to alter everyone’s lives to a greater degree going forward.

Clearly, for younger people coming up, having an appreciation not just for what technology per se means but what change means—and how to manage that going forward—will, I think, become one of the most important skills, whether you’re in business or in government or whatever field. Because, what­ever we’re doing today is going to look very different 10 years from now, and we had better be prepared to manage change effectively—not only in terms of how we operate whatever organizations, or parts of organizations, we might have responsibility for, but also how those changes are going to impact the people we’re responsible to.

At an ultimate level, whether it’s the citizens of our countries or our customers, we had better be thinking about what these changes are going to mean for them from a practical day-to-day point of view—and how we’re going to deal with that, and adjust for that, and help them adjust. That’s what I would see as the key change.

Other American recipients of 2019 Order of the Rising Sun

Davis Begay

Honorary consul of Japan in Albuquerque

Heidi Honecker Grant

Deputy Under Secretary of the US Air Force, International Affairs

Donald C. Hellmann

Professor emeritus, University of Washington

Kenneth Toyohiko Ito

Former member of the Hawaii House of Representatives; Chairman of Asia Pacific Exchange and Development

Lizann Kesse

Former employee, Consulate General of Japan in Kansas City

John William Matthews

Former employee, Consulate General of Japan in Kansas City

Sandy Ouye Mori

President, Board of Directors, Japantown Task Force

Gary Shunichi Moriwaki

Former president of the Japanese American Association of New York; Former vice-chairman of the US–Japan Council

Mark Mullins

Former professor, Faculty of Sociology & Social Work, Meiji Gakuin University; Former professor, Faculty of Comparative Culture, Sophia University

Debra Nakatomi

Former board president of Little Tokyo Service Center

Robert Blake Neller

Former commandant of the US Marine Corps

Leon E. Panetta

Former US secretary of defense; Former chief of staff
to President Bill Clinton

Earl A. Powell III

Director emeritus, National Gallery of Art

Richard R. Silverman

Netsuke collector

Richard J. K. Stratford

Former director of Office of Nuclear Energy, Safety & Security and Former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Technology Affairs at the US Department of State

William M. Turner

President of Japan Society of New Orleans

James P. Zumwalt

Former deputy chief of mission, Embassy of the United States in Tokyo; Former director of the Office of Japanese Affairs, US Department of State