‘Quiet’ PM Japan trip could presage big business deals

The Japanese want to work with Israel, but without fanfare, says an Israeli expert on Japan-Israel business relations

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) shakes hands with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe after they exchange documents during a signing ceremony at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo on May 12, 2014 (Photo credit: AFP PHOTO/POOL /Toru Hanai)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) shakes hands with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe after they exchange documents during a signing ceremony at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo on May 12, 2014 (Photo credit: AFP PHOTO/POOL /Toru Hanai)

There is remarkably little fanfare in Japan over the visit of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the country, according to Kenneth Grossberg, an Israeli professor living in Tokyo. While Netanyahu and Japanese PM Shinzo Abe issued a joint statement discussing general security and regional cooperation issues, there has been no word on the trade agreements, cooperative ventures and business deals that usually accompany such trips, especially when the countries involved are both economic powerhouses.

An expert on Israel-Japan business ties, Grossberg said that silence before a major announcement is the Japanese way. “The Japanese are very interested in growing their trade and business relations with Israel, but prefer to keep it quiet, partially because they still fear the Arab boycott.”

Netanyahu on Tuesday visited the Tokyo headquarters of electronics giant Panasonic and, at a business luncheon, praised Israel-Japan relations, saying that activity by the Israel-Japan Chamber of Commerce’s has been “significant and important.” No major announcements followed that meeting, but it is likely that news of a big deal with Panasonic or another company will come only after Netanyahu returns to Israel Thursday night “in a measured and controlled manner that allays the nervousness of the Japanese,” Grossberg said. “In fact, I have no doubt that such deals and agreements are being signed by the two leaders.”

If Japanese corporate executives still fear the Arab boycott, they may be the last people in Asia who fear economic damage because of ties with Israel. India, China, South Korea, Singapore and Vietnam have a thriving and ever-growing relationship with the Start-Up Nation. According to a recent Economics Ministry report, Israel will, for what is said to be the first time, export more to East Asian countries than they will to the US. The Israel Trade Mission in China lists nearly 300 Israeli companies doing business there, and, according to the Israel Export Institute, Israel’s business presence in India will grow significantly in the coming years as a free trade agreement between the two countries is implemented.

Japan has seemingly been left out of Israel’s “Asia party,” or at least politely declined its invitation. The fault lies more in Tokyo than in Jerusalem, said Grossberg, an American oleh to Israel who worked in Israeli companies for years, before becoming the first non-Japanese professor to be granted tenure at the International Management MBA program at Tokyo’s Waseda University, known as the “Yale of Japan.” “Japan is a very conservative society, and the viewpoints and prejudices that have prevailed for decades are very hard to break. Israel was seen as a ‘dangerous’ place to do business in the past, and many Japanese still hold onto that belief, even if times have really changed.’

The cracks in the wall dividing the two countries are growing, said Grossberg. “In April, a Tokyo venture capital fund and incubator called Samurai Incubate announced that it will act as a bridge between Israeli start-ups and Japanese firms, helping the latter find Israeli technology that can help them with their businesses.” Grossberg has brought dozens of top-level Japanese businesspeople to Israel as part of his annual Start-Up Nation tour. The tour brings participants to some of Israel’s top companies and multinational R&D centers, such as Given Imaging, Mind CTI, Nanometrics, IBM, Google, Philips and Microsoft, as well as to the hot start-up areas, such as Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard, where dozens of start-ups have offices and facilities.

Japanese businesspeople who join Grossberg on the tour, such as those behind Samurai Incubate, begin to understand the value of Israeli innovation for Japanese business. The conservative Japanese culture emphasizes respect for traditional ways of life, deference to seniority and not standing out in the group, in direct contrast to the Israeli start-up culture, which encourages questioning, exploring, and youthful ideas and styles. “Those Japanese who are familiar with Israel see it as a very advanced society, but most don’t know much about it,” said Grossberg. “When you sit them down and tell them, they begin to understand what Israel is all about. In the coming days I am sure we will hear more about the deals that came out of this trip, but I have a strong feeling that something big in Israel-Japan business relations is set to take place.”

Click below for a video of Netanyahu’s visit to Panasonic headquarters:

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