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Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2002
ATTENDANCE SEEN DROPPING
USJ's problems may stem from a cultural divide
OSAKA -- The Universal Studios Japan theme park is in the throes of a cultural divide over the handling of negative publicity generated by a recent slew of scandals, with some local media outlets accusing American officials of dodging the issue.
One recent newspaper headline read, "American [USJ] Officials With Authority Don't Even Participate in Press Conferences."
Other newspapers reported, meanwhile, that American USJ officials initially opposed the utterance of any form of apology by USJ President Akira Sakata in his responses to a flurry of damaging revelations about the park, including that it was serving outdated food and untreated water was going to a drinking fountain.
Sakata issued an apology for the latter and other incidents in late July.
Although USJ officials were unavailable for comment on this matter, outside experts claim that the reported tension in the USJ ranks partially reflects fundamental cultural differences with regard to corporate responsibility.
"In Japan, an apology is not necessarily a legal declaration of responsibility, so it was right that Sakata apologized, while in America, an apology may be used against you in court," said Kenji Inoue, an Osaka-based international consultant who has three decades of experience in dealing with U.S-Japan business issues.
While the publicity aspect has received a lot of recent attention, others point out that there are fundamental problems with the management structure of the park itself.
USJ is a so-called third-sector project in which Osaka city is the largest investor -- not America's Universal Studios or its French parent Vivendi Universal SA.
The American side is responsible for the attractions, while the city is responsible for maintaining the facilities, such as water fountains, and food safety.
"Americans at USJ are not in control of the day-to-day general operations, and probably felt it was best not to make statements about park operations," said Tom Flippen, an Osaka-based American attorney who is an expert on Japanese law and Japanese-American business ventures.
Flippen, whose views are shared by several local Americans familiar with USJ, believes former city bureaucrats now working for USJ are primarily at fault in terms of how the theme park's problems have been dealt with in the public domain.
Many of these officials have minimal public relations skills, he said.
He added, however, that the American side should do more to encourage the city to handle its PR affairs in a proper fashion.
Flippen's views were echoed by Inoue.
"No matter what the third-sector agreement is, people in Osaka perceive the Americans as having the real power at USJ, and, therefore, as ultimately being responsible for the park's safety," he said. "The American USJ representatives should be more visible."
This is not the first time the two sides have been at odds over damage control.
In 1997, following revelations that 700,000 tons of industrial waste was buried at the USJ site, the American side forced reluctant Osaka officials to order an additional environmental inspection by outside experts -- and to make the details public.
At the time, the Americans were praised by the local media for applying behind-the-scenes pressure on the city.
While American and Japanese officials of USJ argue behind the scenes about what should be said, both sides insist the park's public relations faux pas have had little impact on business.
Yet, there is mounting evidence this is not the case.
Attendance figures logged a year-on-year decline of nearly 40 percent in July, while JTB Corp., which handles nearly 20 percent of USJ's group tour business, has revealed that reservations for September are down by nearly 50 percent from last year.
"The American side has a business interest to find out what's going on at the park, and publicly deal with the issue so they can clear their name as quickly as possible," Flippen said.