Kansai sizes up ways to work with a Trump administration

In 3½ weeks, Kansai’s business leaders will gather in Kyoto for their annual summit. Some of the world’s most recognizable firms will send their top executives to the two-day retreat. There, they will rub shoulders with local politicians, academics, and “business consultant” types who, like fortune tellers, cult leaders and foreign policy wonks, will provide soothing answers to the flock’s troubled — and troubling — questions.

And they are in particular need of comfort this year. The corporate wizards must figure how, or even if, they can operate under Donald Trump as U.S. president. In a session likely to be standing-room only, the future of Kansai and Japan (meaning, of course, Kansai’s, and Japan’s, largest corporations) in the Trump era is to be discussed.

Their Power Points will no doubt contain the latest media buzzwords (“alt-right,” “fake news,” “anti-elite”) used to describe Trump’s victory. However, there will also be pressure on those in the room to remain upbeat despite the gloomy headlines and dark predictions for life under Trump.

Thus nobody should be surprised if the more cynical attendees feel inclined to sing not “We Shall Overcome” at the closing ceremony but Monty Python’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life!”

The message of don’t worry, be happy may be partially due to a “shikata ga nai” attitude among business leaders who are unsentimental and pride themselves on their hard-headed ability to deal with unpleasant realities. Or it might because in Kansai as a whole, the traditional emphasis of the merchant class is on the Asian region. U.S. politics is not something that worries Kansai businesses as much as, say, possible border taxes against Toyota for building a plant in Mexico worries most of Nagoya.

However, the main reason Kansai’s leaders could decide a Donald Trump presidency is something they can live with, and possibly benefit from, has to do with the make-up of Trump’s administration. So far, it’s, by and large, a collection of hard-core, fundamentalist corporate types from America’s leading financial and oil firms who are hostile to organized labor. Many also have right-wing views on government and society.

That’s music to the ears of the elderly, hard-core fundamentalist types in the Kansai business community, many of whom are from financial or oil firms, have right-wing views on society and are hostile to organized labor. So their hopes for the future, expressed cautiously and with a long string of caveats as they will no doubt be, may rest on the assumption that Trump and his team are, in the end, a collection of fellow business wheeler-dealers whom they, and the Japanese government, can work with. After all, didn’t the president-elect himself write a book called “The Art of the Deal”?

What if it turns out such hopes are misplaced and economic relations with the U.S. worsen? Several Kansai business leaders have already suggested the region should take the lead in pushing the central government to ignore the U.S. on issues such as multilateral trade deals, which are opposed by Trump. Not the kind of thing those outside the business world seeking to maintain good bilateral relations in other areas will see as helpful, and an attitude likely to strain Kansai’s relations with the U.S. government.

The U.S.-Japan relationship is in uncharted territory, and intelligent people on both sides of the Pacific are concerned, if not downright frightened, and desperately searching for ways to handle the Trump era. But a pure business-is-business approach toward the new president of the kind Kansai might be hoping for forgets that countries are not corporations and politicians are not business executives.

Worse, it too often ignores political and social issues business titans often have little patience for, things that cannot be resolved using negotiation tactics learned on the job, in business school or at a seminar taught by some consultant. And especially not in any books on artful deals Trump himself has written.

View from Osaka is a monthly column that examines the latest news from a Kansai perspective.

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