iStock photo/Zolga_F

Yesterday, I was watching a special TV program in which President Bill Clinton took part in a dialogue with the citizens of Japan. The depth of his insight as a president, as well as his open and frank responses, really left a positive impression.

The program reminded me of a breakfast gathering I attended with UK Prime Minister Tony Blair when he came to Japan at the beginning of the year. Mr. Blair is also incredibly open and frank. To be honest, I was very surprised when I received an invitation to the breakfast gathering. It read: “We would like to hold an occasion where a frank exchange of opinions can take place with the emerging managers of the 21st century, regarding politics, economics, and the Japan-UK relationship.”

I had been afforded an opportunity to participate in an open exchange of ideas with the top leader of another country. There were some big names present:

Participants from the UK Side
Prime Minister Tony Blair
UK Ambassador to Japan
President of British Airways (representative of the financial sector)
Chairman of Rolls Royce and three other people

There were also some familiar faces:

Participants from the Japan Side
Mr. Son from Softbank
Mr. Sawada from H.I.S.
Mr. Nishi from ASCII
Ms. Kimata from Body Shop
Mr. Iino from Warp, and five other people

The event took place on Tuesday, January 13.

The gathering was scheduled to start at 8:15, so I arrived at 8:05. Surrounded by dignitaries from the British Embassy, I introduced myself to the UK participants, one at a time. I did the rounds, shaking hands and chatting with everyone, and then at 8:28 Prime Minister Blair arrived. A person from the embassy introduced each participant and their business as they shook hands with Mr. Blair. For some reason, I was introduced as a venture capitalist.

When the round of handshakes finished, we took our seats. The seating arrangement (pre-determined) was an inverted U-shape, with the Prime Minister right in the middle, flanked on each side by the UK contingent. The Japanese representatives sat down along the two sides. I sat between Mr. Son and Ms. Kimata.

The UK Ambassador broke the ice by introducing himself and briefly outlining the purpose of the gathering.

“The Prime Minister has the opportunity to meet the Japanese Prime Minister, people from the political and financial worlds, and His Majesty, the Emperor, but evidently this isn’t enough for him. [laughter] In order to gain further insight into the direction the UK is heading, he is keen to exchange opinions with young entrepreneurs about how they see the current situation and what their vision might be.”

Prime Minister Blair then spoke for a few minutes about his stay in Japan (the typical pleasantries).

After this, and without introducing the other participants, the Ambassador suddenly asked us a question. (This caught me by surprise. I naturally thought we would introduce ourselves, but instead we went straight into the discussion.

“So, I want to get straight to the point. What do all of you think about Japan’s economic situation, and what needs to happen for Japan to move forward in the right direction?”

For about 15 seconds, you could have heard a pin drop. (Not surprisingly, as no arrangements had been made, no one felt very confident about replying in English to such an abrupt question.) I could see the Ambassador was looking a little uncomfortable. No longer able to stand the silence, I raised my hand.

The Ambassador pointed to me, looking relieved.

I had the chance to be first up to give my opinion to the Prime Minister. Nervous as hell, I began talking. Essentially, I said the following:

· Currently, the structure of industry is in a period of transformation (from a capital-intensive industry to a knowledge-intensive industry). Japan’s strength can be demonstrated in a capital-intensive industry, but a new knowledge-intensive industry is yet to be nurtured.

· A chain of events (the collapse of the bubble and deflating assets, the Asian currency crisis, and financial bankruptcy) are occurring amid changing competitive conditions. However, I am not pessimistic.

· Strong effort and will on the part of individuals is required to address this situation. Concretely, if we exercise entrepreneurship and bring out the creation of new value and innovation, we can break out of this situation. The important thing is to create an environment to make it possible.”

I explained all this in three minutes.

Then the debate got going, but with most of the opinions coming from the UK side. Those from the Japan side were not yet trying to comment.

After a while, the Ambassador read out his next question. “How do you think the UK and Japan can cooperate with each another?”

Mr. Nishi from ASCII said that Japan needs to import UK culture, so I raised my hand again and in a few minutes offered the following:

“GLOBIS is actually importing an approach to education from the UK. After we launched a private business school using materials from Harvard Business School (here I was engaging in a little promotion), we established a tie-up with Leicester University, and we are now offering a UK MBA program in Japan.”

On hearing this, Tony Blair remarked, “Oh! Leicester…” (Yes!)

I continued, “The students are pleased to be receiving a UK education, and we predict a solid increase going forward.” I closed my comment by adding, “It is most desirable that UK-Japan cultural exchange can take place through education.”

This was very well received by the UK side.

By this point I thought that I had spoken out a bit too much and decided to keep quiet. Mr. Son and Mr. Mokuzen stepped in with their own comments.

The Ambassador changed his tack. “What do you think about the current state of Japanese politics, and what needs to be done to improve the situation?”

Recognizing another great opportunity, I raised my hand and answered: “The easiest way to answer your question is to import Prime Minister (Tony Blair) into Japan.”

This response elicited laughter from everyone present, and afterward the breakfast gathering went along without a hitch.

After the Prime Minister’s closing remarks and everyone rose to their feet, Mr. Blair first approached me to shake hands. The Ambassador thanked me for breaking the ice, and I also received some kind words from the other UK participants. The ambassadorial officials seemed relieved that it was all over.

It wasn’t until then that I realized four people from the Japan side had not opened their mouths even once during the entire discussion.

I was so happy at having done a good job in this discussion in front of the Prime Minister, and in English. I attribute this success to the fact that I often have to display leadership by speaking in English at YEO functions, and I also aggressively take the initiative to make speeches in English or participate in English panel discussions. Of course, while this may have been a little different from GLOBIS teaching situations, repeated practice in case study discussions makes you really good at it.

I felt there was a common element in the way that Prime Minister Blair and President Clinton spoke. Both of them had been very frank, open and friendly. With leaders like this, countries will prosper.

Japan is gradually changing, and maybe in a decade there will be someone of this caliber at the top. Of course, it may take a little longer, but at the very least we must not back away from demanding these qualities in our leadership. I get the feeling that if each of us maintains hope and works hard ourselves to be worthy of leading, then the 21st century will be better than the current one.

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