The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

On August 24, 1948, representatives of 40 US companies came together to form what would become the most influential foreign business organization in Japan as a means to further develop commerce between the United States and Japan, promote the interests of US companies and members, and improve the international business environment.

Seventy years later, there is no doubt that the Tokyo-based American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ) is succeeding in this mission. The seven-decade road has been full of challenges, but the resilience of the ACCJ and the business leaders who guide it has created—and continues to nurture—wonderful opportunities for US companies in the world’s third-largest economy.

In celebration of this milestone, let’s look back at the chamber’s journey.

Following World War II, those doing business in Japan had difficulty making their voice heard. As former Director of turbine maker Williams International, Vernon R. Stolle, a founding member of the ACCJ, explained: “In the very early days, we lived with the Occupation as our only final voice. We had only a nominal relationship with the Japanese government, and the name ‘foreign trader’ was likely to close more doors than it would open. We all lived on the defensive. We were not asking for illegal or unusual measures, just reasonable freedom and a bonfire for all the red tape. Consequently, a group of us decided that we must band together for strength and that a chamber of commerce was the type of organization we needed. This would be our community voice.”

Thus, the ACCJ was born.

The chamber’s advocacy efforts paid off right out of the gate when, in 1949, conversations with advisors to the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP) led to the lifting of taxes on electricity and gas that only applied to foreign nationals. According to the 1949 ACCJ Report of Executive Secretary, the chamber began to act as a guiding factor in the formation of SCAP and Japanese policy, and a prominent force in the promotion of US–Japan trade.

THE 1950s
The first full decade was marked by the Japanese economy’s shift from textiles and sundry items to heavy industrial goods. The ACCJ grew steadily and established the Yokohama chapter in 1951 and the Kansai chapter in 1953. Sandwiched between these charters was the restoration of Japanese independence.

The 1950s also saw the establishment of the chamber’s familiar committee-based framework. As The ACCJ Journal reported in 1967: “By 1960, the ACCJ had expanded consi­derably. Committee functions were outlined specifically and restated every year. The Treaties and Trade Developments Committee maintained a close liaison with American Embassy officials concerning treaties and trade development matters. The Programs Committee was active . . . in arranging meetings with interesting speakers. They also handle the annual Inaugural Dinner and Ball, which has become the largest foreign social event of its kind in Tokyo.”

US Minister-Counselor Laurence C. Vass (center) receives an ACCJ Honorary Membership certificate from ACCJ President A. Lewis Burridge in December 1964, in the office of US Ambassador Edwin O. Reischauer (left).

THE 1960s
Steady growth continued as the ACCJ entered its teens. The membership stood at 316 people in 1963, but had nearly doubled to 623 by 1966—the same year that the constitution and bylaws were revised to allow non-Americans to join.

“Non-Americans may not have voting privileges, but they may hold the representative membership of a firm. Therefore, companies with key men of other nationalities may be fully represented in the ACCJ and retain their privileges by giving their proxy to any voting representative from another company. [The] 1966 ACCJ meetings reveal [participants representing] a dozen different nationalities—all ACCJ members.”

Even if this wording from a 1967 article in The ACCJ Journal might feel off key to modern readers, it indicates progress at the time and symbolizes the ACCJ’s efforts to recognize the diversity of the business community through its membership.

The ACCJ Journal, by the way, was founded during this period. When Carl H. Boehringer took over as executive director in 1963, one of his primary goals was to grow membership. He felt that a publication was an important tool in this effort, and in March 1964 the first issue of this magazine was published.

Another important event during this time was the establish­ment in 1968 of the Asia Pacific Council of American Chambers of Commerce (APCAC). The ACCJ played a key role in the creation of APCAC, helping organize all the chambers in the region and unifying their voices to more effectively address regional issues. That role continues in 2018 as ACCJ Vice President Marie Kissel serves as chair of APCAC, which today comprises 28 chambers that represent 15,000 companies, 50,000 overseas American employees, and 10 million workers.

THE 1970s
As the ACCJ continued to take on a more global role, its voice was amplified by one of its most important annual advocacy events: meetings with lawmakers in Washington, DC.

“The ACCJ was a small outfit compared with the organization that operates today,” says former ACCJ President Edwin W. Beeby, who led the organization in 1974. “A Washington Doorknock was a major event for us, a chance to rub elbows with ‘bigwigs,’—something we had not done before.”

From left: George Purdy, US Ambassador James D. Hodgson, and James Adachi at a 1976 ACCJ briefing breakfast

The establishment of this annual advocacy effort—now known as the DC Doorknock—came at a time when Americans were growing concerned about foreign ownership of vital US assets, and it once again positioned the ACCJ as a proactive and influential voice in US–Japan trade.

Back home, the chamber was increasingly becoming the center of activity for the foreign business community, with events at the Hotel Okura, Imperial Hotel, and various Hilton properties offering the networking opportunities that drive business.

THE 1980s
This decade is characterized by Japanese government initiatives to open markets. After the 1985 Plaza Accord, a pro-growth agreement signed by France, Japan, the United States, the United Kingdom, and West Germany—then known as the G5—foreign direct investment into Japan increased and more non-Americans began to take on top management positions in ACCJ member companies. Following the accord, the yen was allowed to appreciate strongly and, in 1986, the strengthening economy entered the now-famous bubble years. US–Japan relations entered their most active period ever, and the ACCJ was at the center, establishing two clear roles for itself: as the voice of mediation to encourage understanding; and as a technical adviser, often in the area of regulations.

The June 1977 issue of The ACCJ Journal features US Ambassador Michael J. Mansfield

In 1987, the chamber’s by­laws were changed to permit non-Americans to serve on the board of governors, a move that reflected the globali­za­tion of the Japanese market and increasing diversity of member companies.

Six ACCJ members used the 1988 APCAC Doorknock—remembered as one of the most productive and welcoming sessions with US lawmakers—as an opportunity to further the ACCJ’s messages on issues key to the US–Japan economic relationship. Besides discussing trade legislation, the delegates conveyed views on issues such as additional funding for the US and Foreign Commercial Service, restrictions on agricultural trade, and limits on investment.

Social events also grew during this decade. What had been known as the ACCJ Ball was renamed Crystal Ball, and attendance grew from 500 to more than 1,000.

THE 1990s
With more than four decades of experience under its belt, the ACCJ began positioning itself as an expert on US–Japan trade through the now familiar white papers, viewpoints, and public comments. As a result, it became increasingly relied upon as a reference by both US and Japanese officials, and, in 1994, the first Diet Doorknock—a domestic counterpart of the annual Washington event—took place.

These years, commonly referred to today as the Lost Decade, presented a great challenge for the Japanese economy. As the bubble of the late 1980s burst, the ACCJ assumed a leadership position. Many new external activities were established, such as an active role in the US–Japan Business Council, participation in the monthly meetings of the Japan Ombudsman, and retreats with members of Keidanren, the Japan Business Federation. The chamber also saw more and more smaller companies entering the Japanese market.

This was a shift that would shape the chamber into what it is today. Dr. Thomas F. Jordan, ACCJ president in 1994–1995, explained: “The early 1990s brought, what I believe to be, the most important fundamental change in direction. That was when we switched from a mostly internal focus to a more even balance between internal and external issues. Previously, most ACCJ committee activities and lectures had focused on the how to—for example, how to be successful in Japan or how to overcome the many obstacles, such as the frustrating issue of hiring and retention of qualified personnel. The new focus on advocacy begun during those years has since continued to develop very successfully.”

THE 2000s
Expansion of the ACCJ’s influence continued in 2000 with the esta­blish­ment of a chapter in Nagoya, giving stronger representation to businesses operating in the Chubu region of central Japan.

The ACCJ continued to expand its proactive approach to analysis and recommendations in 2007 by issuing two reports on privatization in Japan. This came on the heels of the Japanese government’s decision to privatize Japan Post, the world’s largest financial institution.

This was the same year that events leading to the collapse of investment bank Lehman Brothers began, precipitating a global financial crisis that brought new challenges to economies around the world. The Japanese economy shrunk 3.3 percent in fiscal 2008 and gross domestic product declined 12.1 percent for the quarter from October to December—the biggest contraction since 1974. In the midst of this turmoil, the ACCJ’s leadership took on even greater importance in helping businesses navi­gate the rough waters. Even policymakers took note of recom­men­dations coming from the chamber.

With more and more advocacy material being produced, the ACCJ began looking for ways to make its positions more easily accessible to the business community and the public. In 2008, a new bilingual website was launched, which RGA Reinsurance Company Vice President & Assistant General Counsel Allan Smith, ACCJ president at the time, described as “part of our continuing efforts to bring US and Japanese businesses together and to enhance our ability to communicate and to share our ideas, policy recommendations, and aspirations with our stakeholders and the general public in ways we have not been able to in the past.”

The ACCJ welcomed William F. Hagerty IV (center left) as the new US Ambassador at a special luncheon in the Grand Hyatt Tokyo in September 2017.

As we near the end of the current decade, with the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games rapidly approaching, Japan is evolving at a quickened pace. Under the leadership of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the government is promoting its growth strategy, which includes many of the key issues featured in the ACCJ’s 2010 white paper Charting a New Course for Growth: Recommendations for Japan’s Leaders.

Gender equality is a cornerstone of Abe’s efforts to guide Japan out of its long-running economic woes, and the ACCJ has been a fervent supporter of workplace diversity and what Goldman Sachs Managing Director Kathy Matsui first called “Womenomics” in 1999.

In 2013, the ACCJ held the first Women in Business Summit—now an annual event with gatherings in Tokyo, Kansai, and Chubu—and in 2016 the Women in Business Committee published the expansive white paper Untapped Potential: A Collaborative Blueprint for Achieving the Japanese Government’s “2020/30” Overall Target of Women Holding 30 Percent of Management and Leadership Positions by 2020.

Today, the ACCJ’s diversity has become a key resource as the chamber, on behalf of its members, navigates new challenges brought on by increased globalization, the pace of digitization, and the impact of shifting global politics on international commerce. With women making up half of the members of the ACCJ board of governors, more Japanese members than ever, and both small and large member companies, the chamber is positioned to leverage diverse inputs and approaches to global business.

The ACCJ’s original six committees have grown to more than 60 member-led committees that drive engagement on issues and initiatives that are critical to US and global businesses in Japan.

The chamber has also become a hub of global best practices—a place where global businesses send employees to gain exposure to the conversations taking place in workplaces across the United States and to get up to speed on the latest business trends.

With 3,500 members and 1,000 companies representing 40 countries, the voice of the ACCJ has never been stronger. Across Japan, in Washington, and across the Asia–Pacific region—thanks to the commitment of our members—the chamber has become known for its specialized knowledge and objectivity regarding bilateral economic issues, and for its many special publications on trade, invest­ment, and other related subjects. And, as Japan faces a future shaped by an aging society and a shrinking workforce, that expertise, initiative, and ingenuity will be called upon more than ever.

Christopher Bryan Jones is Editor-in-Chief of The ACCJ Journal. Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, he has lived in Japan since 1997. Kana Ono is an intern at the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan Tokyo office.