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JUL 27, 2010

My Trip to Tanzania – Part 5: Increasing Japan’s Presence in Africa

By Yoshito Hori

I arrived at the venue for the World Economic Forum on Africa. After having gone through the security check point, I stopped at the reception. I presented my passport and picked up my name tag, a program and a list of participants there.

I went in partway through a session on African Economic Growth. Following a break, I joined another session on Electric Power Infrastructure. I skimmed through the program and the list of participants with my eyes, while listening to the panelists with my ears. I studied the outlines of discussions that I missed, and confirmed the timetable of subsequent events. I noticed my brain started to function properly, as I began to understand the circumstances. 

Recesses are the best time for networking. As I was dipping a tea bag into a cup filled with hot water, I talked to an attractive African lady who happened to be standing next to me by saying; “Your dress is beautiful.” Then, I told her that I had just returned from safari. This delighted her. We had a lively conversation afterward, which was only natural. We, too, would feel happy when foreign visitors say that they went to Kyoto or Nara before a conference, and that they had fallen in love with Japan. My safari tour was beginning to prove effective already. She turned out to be a top official of a Tanzanian economic organization.

After taking part in two breakout sessions, I attended my last session for the day – a plenary session on agriculture in Africa. I entered a big conference room early on to secure my seat, and began talking to a young businessman sitting next to me as soon as I sat down. He was running a bank in Tanzania. My safari experience again proved effective and we had a lively conversation before the session.

All session participants got up from their seats when the president of Tanzania took the platform. It was a scene unthinkable at other Davos conferences. In a low voice, I asked the banker next to me, “Do you always stand up like this?” He said, “Yes. We do this to show our respect.” Other panelists included the prime minister of Ethiopia.

I had a look around during a panel discussion. Judging from the atmosphere of the room and the thick list of participants, close to 2,000 people were in attendance. I confirmed five to six Japanese names on the list. I was the only participant from Japan in the conference other than those on Young Global Leaders Program who are 40 years or younger. The only other proper Japanese participant had come from Dubai who was General Manager in charge of the Middle East and Africa regions at the trading house Sojitz Corporation.

I later found out that South Korea had sent more than 10 delegates to the forum, including a Vice-Minister of Government Policy. Two of Korean served as panelists, compared to the one from Japan. I also met journalists from Seoul. This lets us know that South Korea takes Africa very seriously. I think Japan should also make strategic use of this event. Our Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada was in Dar es Salaam two days earlier but didn’t take part in the Forum. I wonder how much he might have increased Japan’s presence in Africa, if he had given a speech on the first day of the forum.

Another point that gave me concern was the small number of business leaders from Japan who participated. I believe trading companies and manufacturers in Japan should send General Managers or Directors in charge of Africa. North American and European companies made better use of conferences like this. I also found no Japanese company on the list of forum sponsors.

Japan’s presence is said to be on the decline, but I think it’s not Japan’s presence but the presence of Japanese people at international conferences that is weakening. Presence naturally increases when people from Japan speak out at international meetings and contribute to the discussions. Each of us can increase presence simply by making contributions to international conferences. Put another way, the aggregate of total Japanese contribution, including their individual attractiveness and ability to disseminate information, shapes the country’s presence.

I think it meaningless just to be well known in Japan. Our activities generate value only when they gain international acceptance. We can say the same about actors. Famous actors in Japan who are unknown overseas are meaningless outside of Japan. I don’t give high personal ratings to people who make a good showing only in Japan. I encourage these people to try to be on the global stage, if they think they have the ability to succeed.

Japan’s presence in Major League Baseball went up when Hideki Matsui and Ichiro Suzuki had succeeded there. People would have continued to think little of Japanese baseball unless its players chose to try their luck abroad. Japan’s presence rises further when many Japanese cheer on Matsui and Ichiro as spectators and make their presence known. In the same way, we must increase the number of Japanese speakers and panelists at international conferences. Japan’s presence at such meetings depends on the numbers and quality of Japanese speakers and panelists as well as the numbers and quality of opinions expressed by Japanese participants from the floor. Nothing is to be created from silence. Non-participation is the worst choice. It’s best for all people to participate, speak and network at all meetings, including those organized by academic circles, industry groups and/or business managers’ organizations. Achieving this will result in Japanese people being held in higher regard with increased presence of Japan. We must all step out of Japan and confidently state our personal opinions. A greater Japanese presence begins with such small actions of each individual.

Organizers of the African Forum asked me to speak on the topic of “Corporate Strategies for Producing Fortune 500 Companies from Africa” on the panel. This is neither a strong area for me nor a place of which I have much knowledge; but I took the offer. Everything starts from a challenge and flinching gets me nowhere. I had to perform comprehensive research to join a panel in an unknown field. It was also a chance for me to build up my knowledge in an unfamiliar area. If my speech was well received, I would be invited back to the next forum. And such a result would boost Japan’s presence, too. I could kill two or three birds with one stone.

With that line of thinking, I traveled all the way to Tanzania. I checked the program and found I was the only panelist giving a speech from Japan. I felt I had to do my best as a participant representing Japan.

A get-together hosted by the president of Tanzania was scheduled that night, but I decided to go back to my hotel to be well prepared for my speech at the Forum.

May 8, 2010
Yoshito Hori
On a plane to Doha