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Saturday, Feb. 10, 2007

FORUM CALLED INWARD-LOOKING

Kansai business titans urge leadership from Abe


Staff writer

KYOTO -- The annual gathering of Kansai business leaders closed Friday with calls for better corporate citizenship, including greater involvement in social and political issues affecting the nation, and for the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to show stronger leadership on a broader range of issues.

During the two-day Kansai Economic Forum, nearly 500 area business leaders discussed a host of topics.

Compared with past conferences, the tone this year was more somber, especially on issues like China and Japan's aging population.

On specific political issues, including revising the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution or social issues like teaching patriotism and traditional Japanese values, there was broad agreement with Abe's policies.

But in other areas, Abe was hit for not doing enough.

"The Abe administration needs to show economic leadership," said Yoshitsugu Fujita, president of Nippon Software Knowledge Corp. For Tsutomu Okuda, chairman of Daimaru Corp., the issue is whether Abe can offer a clear vision on social welfare issues and decentralization.

Much of the focus at Friday's session was on Japan's international relations. Two Osaka-based foreign participants noted there was, at times, a siege mentality among their Japanese counterparts in this area.

"In these discussions, I see a tendency to stress national and traditional values, rather than common values with East Asia," said Dirk Jan Kop, Dutch consul general.

"It seems to me the debate here is characterized by an inward-looking, rather than an outward-looking, perspective. There is lots of talk about the collapse of social traditions, and China and South Korea are mentioned as potential threats," said Stefano Zanini, Italian consul general.

But Japan's rapidly aging population and falling birthrate were foremost in the minds of many. All agreed that to make up for the coming labor shortage, it will be necessary to provide full-time employment to younger people, more women and the elderly. However, when the issue of bringing in immigrant labor was raised, most participants expressed skepticism.

"There is still no consensus on the issue of foreign labor, and there has been little discussion about the social cost to Japan of admitting lots of foreigners," said Yoshiko Ando, an official at the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare at a Friday session on the population decline.

Later in the day, the business leaders called for closer ties with the rest of Asia. They vowed to hold exchanges between the Kansai region and other parts of East Asia, especially in the areas of nonfossil fuel technologies like nuclear and solar power.

Kansai-based firms like Kansai Electric Power Co., in nuclear power, and Sharp Corp., in solar power, have long seen China as a growth market. But there are geopolitical concerns.

"Asian energy was a major issue at this conference, and discussions on this issue focused on ensuring both stable supplies of oil as well as investment in nonfossil fuel technologies," Kansai Economic Federation Chairman Yoshihisa Akiyama said Friday evening.

Additional reporting by Shiho Miyajima



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