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The 37th annual Japan-United States Business Conference is being held this week at the Hotel Okura. Top business executives from the two nations who comprise separate, compatible organizations are spending three days discussing important issues that concern commerce between the two most important economies in the world.

This is not just casual chitchat over cocktails. The session has attracted the very top of the U.S. business community — CEOs of the biggest U.S. corporations that do business in Japan. They have come to meet their counterparts — the CEOs of Japan’s top international companies — for a hard-nosed discussion on how to improve business and political relations between the two nations. This week’s discussions will culminate a process of consideration of issues that began last November and have been staffed extensively since that time. Now the top brass are sitting down privately to make decisions on how to make progress on issues that affect the business of both nations and the world.

Under the current leaders, Minoru Makihara of Mitsubishi Corp. and Michael Armstrong of ATT, the business councils have become more action oriented. They reflect the nature of modern business — stressing action and progress rather than simple consideration of problems.

Much of the agenda reflects governmental issues — trade differences between the nations and concerns both business communities have with the commercial governance within and between the U.S. and Japan. The conference cannot solve these issues, but the conferees hope that they can persuade governmental leaders to solve problems that the business leaders see as impeding mutual economic benefits.

I have observed the U.S.-Japan Business Conference for more than 20 years, since the time when one of my Japanese associates staffed the Japanese Council. Fuji Bank Chairman Iwasa was the leader of the Japanese delegation and the top executives in Japan’s business sector supported him. The U.S. delegation was less impressive then, but times have changed. The U.S. delegation to this year’s meeting is the cream of the crop of Yankee business leaders. The heavyweight delegation indicates that U.S. business leaders believe Japan is a key target for their companies and that it is ripe for additional investment.

The sessions in the past were mild, nonconfrontational discussion forums, designed to allow the leaders to get to know each other and forge relationships of mutual trust. The current pattern is more activist. The delegates from both nations know that they really can make a difference in how their governments address disputes and commercial problems that arise and they meet to develop strategies to solve problems.

The meetings of top business leaders can be instructive and informative for the participants. Each participant can be a teacher and a student, taking the best concepts of their national styles and demonstrating them to their counterparts.

The report of the Commission on Japan’s Goals in the 21st Century, formed and fostered by the late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, describes the need for Japan to move away from “governing” and toward “governance.” The Japanese business leaders can observe how their U.S. counterparts interact with government to influence decisions that are in their interest and that of the U.S. economy as a whole. They are involved in “governance” and they do it well.

In this spirit of participative governance, the members of the U.S.-Japan Business Council come to Tokyo prepared to help make things happen. They have staffed the issues with countless hours of discussion and interaction with their Japanese staffing counterparts, but they have also had substantial, direct interaction with their government at its highest levels.

The U.S. delegates do not just want to discuss the importance of renegotiating the 30-year-old U.S.-Japan Income Tax Treaty. They want to join with their Japanese counterparts to lobby their respective governments that a new treaty is in the best interest of both countries. They want to provoke action at the upcoming bilateral discussions between U.S. President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori to begin formal negotiations on a new treaty.

The U.S. delegates believe that Japan, as well as the whole international business community will benefit from greater Internet security and information-technology regulation. They are proposing ideas on how the governments might implement such programs. They want NTT to lower its interconnection rates to boost Japanese Internet use — a boon to every Internet user in the world. They would like to see a more aggressive role for the Fair Trade Commission to level competitive playing fields in Japanese commerce.

In Japan, the distance between public opinion and public policy is vast. The political system has been paternal, “governing” through guidance from experts on every subject — regardless of the will of the people. In the U.S., public opinion is king — many say to a fault. Our political leaders keep their fingers on the pulse of the people with constant public-opinion sampling and they react quickly to voter desires.

Japanese politicians have never followed public opinion. Diet members did not take or read polls. Their constituent organizations could give them all of the voter information they needed. In recent years, the major daily newspapers have become poll conscious and have begun to provoke the interest of the political leaders.

The move to single-seat districts has begun to move the Japanese voter into the policy sector quickly. Diet candidates have to deal directly with the wants and needs of their constituents to convince a majority of them that they have their best interests at heart. The election last month has shown the Diet candidates have had to change. They have to focus on what constituents want, and they have begun to measure their constituents’ opinions more professionally and regularly.

This is a step in the direction of individual empowerment and governance that the Obuchi commission promotes. Individual voters promoting their own opinions to political leaders to make life better for themselves and their families — that is governance and democracy.

Japanese businesses can step up to this challenge, too. They know their industries best and they know what affects their businesses and the welfare of their employees. They have a giant stake in the changes in the old traditions of Japanese employment practices. Their companies will feel the impact of the aging population of Japan. Japan’s business leaders might take a look at how their U.S. counterparts are dealing with their government and how they make good things happen. They are practicing an aggressive business role in “governance” in a manner the Obuchi Commission suggests.

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