BUSINESS WATCH

Becoming aware of the Japanese reality

Peter C. Newman April 19 1993
BUSINESS WATCH

Becoming aware of the Japanese reality

Peter C. Newman April 19 1993

Becoming aware of the Japanese reality

BUSINESS WATCH

PETER C. NEWMAN

I’ve always had the suspicion that our economy went off the rails when we made the free trade deal with the wrong country. It should have been with Japan instead of the United States. And the treaty should have had only one paragraph: for every engineer they send us, we send them ten lawyers.

It didn’t happen quite that way, but it’s still true that we pay far too little attention to our closest neighbor across the Pacific. The real problem is that most Canadians tend to view Japan as a far, distant country on the other side of Europe, instead of realizing that it’s our second largest trading partner and that expanding our ties with that Oriental giant would help lighten our dangerously fragile trading dependence on the United States.

It’s a true but little recognized fact that Canada’s transpacific trade surpassed our transatlantic trade in 1983—a full decade ago, and that it has been expanding ever since. It’s also true that our relations with Japan—economic, social and cultural—are badly in need of repair, and that what happens in this essential area will have a great deal to do with our future.

On May 17, at the Banff Springs Hotel, former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed will be the keynote speaker at the Canada-Japan Business Council Conference, attempting to substitute hard doses of reality for the traditional (and false) image the countries have of one another. “For most Japanese,” I was told by Lougheed, who heads the Canadian team in the talks, “Canadians have not always been visible, with their distinctive identity obscured behind the overwhelming image of the United States, while for most Canadians, Japan has remained distant and often misunderstood.” According to Lougheed, “Both countries must recognize that the drastic adjustments to industrial structures and lifestyles they’re undergoing could open up special new opportunities for valuable bilateral links.”

For the past 18 months, Lougheed has

Our relations with Japan are badly in need of repair—what happens there will have a great deal to do with our future

headed a mini-royal commission, called Partnership Across the Pacific, consisting of a dozen leading Canadian thinkers and animators, including such luminaries as Sylvia Ostry (chairman of the University of Toronto’s Centre for International Studies); Jacques Bougie (president of Alcan Aluminium Ltd.); Geraldine Kenney-Wallace (president of McMaster University) ; Peter Bentley (chairman and CEO of Canfor Corp.); Joyce Zemans (former director of the Canada Council) ; Raymond Royer (president of Bombardier Ltd.) and Rhys Eyton (chairman of PWA Corp.). At the request of Ottawa, Lougheed’s commission, which is dealing with a similar group of Japanese, has already come up with some practical recommendations on how to improve relations between the two countries.

The seriousness that the Japanese have placed on the exercise is evident from the weighty A-team delegation they chose for the talks. Among the participants are the chairman of Honda Motor Co., the head of Mitsui & Co., the president of the Industrial Bank of Japan, the chairman of Japan Airlines Co., two former vice-ministers of the famed ministry of international trade & industry, as well

as one of the country’s leading novelists and one of its best fashion designers.

“I’m excited about the possibilities,” says Lougheed. “In British Columbia and Alberta, there’s a much higher awareness of what’s going on, but we’ve got to get Central Canadians also clued in to the importance of not tying our future just to North America, with all the volatility and vulnerability that implies.” He adds: “More by inertia than by choice, we’re being pulled into a hemispheric trading bloc, and in my opinion it’s a big mistake. If we’re going to look at a new part of the world, it should be Asia.”

Recommendations of the blue-ribbon panels have included new initiatives in political co-operation, enhanced economic ties, closer cultural ties and joint ventures in deep-sea research and environmental monitoring. Hiroshki Kitamura, the former Japanese ambassador to Canada, (now serving in the same capacity to the Court of St. James’s) summed it up best when he pointed out that dealings between the two countries constitute one of the best bilateral relationships in the world, but they must receive a higher priority.

One of the most practical recommendations the binational group has made is that the two countries jointly sponsor a Centre for Conflict Prevention and Conflict Resolution that would train civilian and military personnel in specialized aspects of peacekeeping. (The Japanese Diet recently for the first time approved the dispatch of troops to a UNsponsored peacekeeping initiative, to Cambodia.) The new facility would be built beside the campus of Pearson College of the Pacific near Victoria—an appropriate choice since the former prime minister invented the idea of peacekeeping.

Another of the group’s suggestions, contained in its December, 1992, report, is that the two countries immediately launch a bilateral program to protect the fish resources and guard against pollution in the north Pacific Ocean. The idea would be to collaborate in building a satellite (to be launched in the year 2000) and other information technologies that would keep track of exactly how the Pacific is being treated—and mistreated. (One agency that could be helpful in this essential endeavor is the Deep Sea Research Institute currently being formed by Vancouver architect Gerald Hamilton.) This report has occupied the valuable energies of its authors who joined the project genuinely believing that only by outlining forward-looking notions was there a chance to break the logjam that has immobilized our evolution in this potentially beneficial area. To allow such a valuable document to join the stacks of similar studies now gathering dust on some bureaucrat’s shelf, would amount to something close to a criminal act.

Only by following the kind of intuitive leaps suggested in this document can we hope to make a start in dealing with the stubborn structural and cultural roadblocks we’ve placed in our own way, on the road to economic salvation.