The Chrysanthemum Revealed: Probing the Japanese Market

Article excerpt

It's clear why Chief Executive chose the chrysanthemum as a metaphor for this month's roundtable. The colorful flower is the quasi-official symbol of Japanese art and culture. Its attractive petals are complex, layered, and tightly wrapped--much like the Japanese economy. Recent turmoil has erased most of the speculative gains chalked up by Japan during the 1980s. Nonetheless, the flower also represents the blooming of a $3.39 trillion market that rivals Germany's as a model of postwar success.

That success, however, has fueled a resolve among countries and companies worldwide to gain greater access to the giant Japanese market--much of which, although not protected formally, has remained elusive to gaijin. Japan has long argued that trade imbalances are largely determined by the macroeconomic structure of nations, not by differences in market access. It also has criticized foreign companies for failing to customize their products and services to meet the needs of Japanese consumers. Nonetheless, criticism of Japan has accelerated. "Japan-bashing" is discernible today in Western business, advertising, and legislation.

Thus, a fresh, more flexible response by Keidanren to the market-access problem: kyosei. Loosely defined, the expression means economic symbiosis, or "living together." On the international level, notes the 1991 annual report of diversified semiconductor component manufacturer Kyocera, the concept underscores the compelling need for the "harmonious coexistence" of entities in an increasingly global marketplace. On the domestic level, the theme trumpets a striving toward consumer satisfaction. Perhaps the most tangible representation of kyosei is a package of reforms--designed by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry and recently passed by the Diet--to promote imports and investments into Japan, and to increase local purchases abroad. Described by roundtable participant Yuji Tanahashi, a MITI vice minister, the plan establishes maquiladora-like promotion zones, modifies the Customs Law, and provides debt guarantees and other investment subsidies. Tokyo is also aiming to make near-inscrutable legislation and regulation more accessible and intelligible, Tanahashi says. These days, in a dramatic shift in tone, "transparency" and "fairness" are ministry buzzwords.

Of course, the driving force behind kyosei isn't philanthropic--despite the guileful, portentious language used to describe it by Japanese companies and government officials. Pounded by economic conditions at home, the Japanese have been driven to seek closer links with their fellow global citizens. The speculative real estate bubble has burst, and a plunge in the Tokyo Stock Market--once a cornucopia of cheap capital--has wiped out $2.6 trillion in value. According to some estimates, Japan's once mighty banks are sagging under the weight of up to $300 billion in bad loans. During the six months ended in September, corporate pre-tax profits plunged 36 percent, and even giant Matsushita--the world's largest manufacturer of consumer electronics and an anchor of the Japanese economy--is cutting back on production and working hours. Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa has responded with an $87 billion economic stimulus package.

Some Japan watchers argue that consumers will escape relatively unscathed, because few are exposed directly to the crippled stock market. But if the banking sector's troubles escalate, into a full-blown credit crunch, that situation could change quickly. In any case, the U.S. and other global players will be monitoring Japan's vital signs closely: A sluggish economy would doubtless leave Tokyo in no mood to slash its considerable global trade surplus. In 1991, Japan 's bilateral surplus with the U.S. totaled $44 billion. In the first nine months of 1992, the surplus amounted to $33.96 billion. Flashpoints remain, particularly in such high-technology sectors as semiconductors, cellular telephones, super computers, and wireless communications. …