TOKYO — On March 1-2, the APCAC 2012 U.S.-Asia Business Summit will be held at the Prince Park Tower Tokyo. APCAC is the Asia-Pacific Council of American Chambers, comprising roughly 50,000 business executives from 27 chambers in 21 countries. This will be the first time in 28 years for Japan to host the summit.
The speakers themselves are a real draw. Already confirmed are high-level government and industry names such as Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides, Ambassador to Japan John Roos, as well as executives from Nissan, Citigroup, Aflac, GE, Toys “R” Us, MetLife and many more. From the Japanese business side, participants include Rakuten CEO Hiroshi Mikitani and Lawson CEO Takeshi Niinami.
Topics include: U.S. foreign policy shift toward Asia and its implications for business; the role of innovation and entrepreneurship in promoting growth, TPP and future trade architecture of the Asia-Pacific region; supply chain management issues; and the importance of infrastructure as an enabler for regional growth.
In addition to the summit program, delegates will be participating in optional tours in and around Tokyo, as well as an overnight trip to Tohoku to see first-hand the recovery efforts.
Preparations for the summit are keeping Mike Alfant, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ), quite busy. Alfant, who is president and CEO of Fusion Systems Group, will also speak at the summit.
Japan Today editor Chris Betros visits Alfant at the Fusion office in Azabudai to hear more.
What is the objective of the summit?
It brings together business and political leaders from throughout Asia-Pacific in open discussions on topics that are relevant to businesses in the region. It’s an excellent forum for exchanging ideas, making new contacts and relationships, rekindling old relationships, and exposing members of the various American chambers to each other.
We hope to create a framework and lay the foundation for a lot of meaningful work, then motivate and inspire people to move forward on those initiatives.
Can anyone attend?
Yes. You don’t have to be a member of any chamber of commerce. If you wish to attend, you can register at http://www.apcacjapan.com
I see that you are also a speaker. What is your topic?
I’ll be talking on innovation, entrepreneurship, growth.
Are you optimistic about innovation and entrepreneurship in Japan?
I believe there is cause for optimism. Some of the reforms that the Koizumi administration put in place have actually borne fruit. I think the business environment in Japan is conducive to entrepreneurship. Smart young people are seeing opportunities and creating their own enterprises. I have been here 22 years and I feel we are on the upswing. There is energy and dynamism among young Japanese.
What are the impediments? Politics?
To me, there are no impediments to entrepreneurship besides individuals themselves. I don’t think Japan is a more difficult place to be an entrepreneur in than any other country. Certainly, Japan has challenges that are different from the U.S., China, Europe, but I don’t know any entrepreneur who decides not to start a business based on political issues.
Did Fusion have a good year in 2011?
Overall, we had a good year. We have offices in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore and Los Angeles. There is some balance across those markets. So while we had a tough March, April and June, that was offset by other markets. The first quarter has started out very nicely.
Which issues do you expect to draw a lot of interest at the APCAC summit?
The Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade talks (TPP), sustainability, supply chain and entrepreneurship sessions. The TPP framework is clearly going to be one of the drivers for policy and thought leadership in the region. The American Chamber of Commerce in Japan supports Japan’s full participation in a high standard TPP as it would have the potential to put the U.S. and Japan at the center of the growing Asian regional market. Of course, we understand some tough decisions will need to be made by the Japanese administration and others as the TPP aims to be a 21st-century agreement at the highest standard of trade liberalization.
The Tohoku recovery effort will no doubt be a big topic.
Yes, it will. In fact, the day after the conference ends, we will have a trip to Tohoku on March 3-4 and stay in onsen and eat Tohoku food.
Specifically, what issues will the summit discuss regarding Tohoku?
We’ll discuss various options going forward for the region. What can the American business community do to help in the revitalization of the region? There is genuine and sincere interest in continuing the momentum.
The Tohoku Revitalization Task Force, set up by the ACCJ, is scheduled to have fulfilled its mission and be discontinued this March 11. The Task Force was all about supporting the humanitarian efforts and disseminating information. But going forward, I think we will be focused on how to create economic vitality, identify and support business opportunities and work toward commercial sustainability.
You probably get asked by a lot of people overseas if you think Japan is safe.
As far as I am concerned, it is safe. Having said that, it is up to everyone to determine individually what they consider safe. It’s a very subjective question. It depends on your threshold for safety. I have been to Tohoku 20-25 times and I don’t have any concerns.
For disseminating information to our members, the chamber depends on the Japanese and U.S. governments. But we have also hosted sessions at which experts have spoken to our members to give them the best possible information so they can make these personal decisions for themselves.
You’ve been to Tohoku more than 20 times since the March 11 disaster. What have you brought away with you?
What I took away from my visits was an even deeper respect for Japanese culture and the people in terms of just getting on with their lives. There is an incredible wellspring of fortitude and integrity. When I went there the first time, about 10 days after March 11, it was a complete mess. We were walking down the street and I saw this old lady sweeping with a little broom. There must have been 100,000 tons of debris all around her. I asked her what she was doing. She said “I’m cleaning up.” I said, “You are not going to get very far,” and she said, “I have to start somewhere.” That’s the spirit. They weren’t sitting around and waiting. You get on with it.
Another thing I took away was a real respect for the SDF and U.S. military in terms of their capability, proficiency, professionalism and dedication. They are well trained and disciplined and that to me was an eye opener.
What did you think of the U.S. response?
The U.S. government and U.S. business community responded as if it had occurred in the U.S. There was no difference and that was very heartening for me as the president of the ACCJ and as an American who has lived in Japan for over 20 years.
Our members have many offices and facilities in Tohoku and there were a lot of logistics, power and equipment issues. I have to say a lot of them have done incredible work up there with their own people and the local communities.
We’ll keep going to Tohoku this year. We had a board meeting there last year at which we were able to welcome the U.S. ambassador and we hope to do so again. The people I speak to who haven’t been to Tohoku have a very sincere desire to see where they can contribute.
When you get inquiries from people who want to help, where can you point them?
The ACCJ, through the Tohoku Revitalization Task Force and Community Service Advisory Council, has identified a number of organizations and groups of individuals that members are supporting and we have been pointing people to those groups already. In addition to that, there are several web-based initiatives where individuals can invest in helping a small business owner to get back on their feet. One of them (in Japanese) can be found at http://oen.securite.jp/
How do you divide your time these days between Fusion and the ACCJ?
There are 168 hours in a week. I need 8 hours of sleep a night, so I am down to 112 hours. Of those, I allow 60 for Fusion and 35 for the chamber. That leaves me with 17 hours a week to do whatever I want to do. That’s quite a lot, don’t you think?
For further information on the APCAC summit, visit http://www.accj.or.jp
(Original Interview: Japan Today)