An Interview with Osamu Uno

As the most influential business leader in the Kansai region, Osamu Uno is a typical product of the entrepreneurial spirit that has nurtured centuries of merchants in this traditional center of Japanese business, culture and government.

The outspoken 75-year-old Uno chairs the Kansai Economic Federation (Kankeiren) consisting of 690 regional firms, as well as serving as honorary chairman of the Osaka-based Toyobo Co. Ltd. textile manufacturer, where he has worked since 1966.

Uno also has a hand in the massive Kansai International Airport project, scheduled to open in Osaka in 1994, serving as advisor to the airport company. Not one to shy away from political issues, Uno also serves as deputy chairman of the prime minister’s Provisional Council for the Promotion of Administrative Reform to help change what Uno considers a lack of “international sensitivity” in Japanese politics.

In the following interview by Osaka-based journalist
Brian Covert, Uno shares his frank thoughts with JAMM readers on the state of the economy, political reform and the Kansai region’s future.

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BRIAN COVERT: First of all, what is your forecast or feeling about the future of the Kansai economy in these tough times?

OSAMU UNO: In the economic boom two or three years ago, the Kansai economy flourished much more than in other areas of Japan. So much so that the reaction to economic decline has been tougher in Osaka: larger drops in land prices, department store sales, employment and investment.

Regarding future prospects, however, Kansai is now carrying out many projects, totaling 40 trillion yen, that will produce far-reaching effects three times that amount. This is a kind of bright spot beyond the hard times we are now going through. …Generally speaking, the Kansai economy will begin to rise from a bottoming-out early this year.

BC: About the Kansai International Airport: A recent survey among Kansai businesses indicates that most companies are not ready to provide extra money for the airport’s two additional runways. What is your opinion about that?

UNO: The tough economic situation does make it difficult to build a feasible plan for a second runway. It is also a fact that the private sector is facing severe conditions in raising such funds. However, there is also the opinion that apart from the amount itself, the shareholders should bear such costs since the airport company started out as a private entity. This point has not yet been made clear enough. But the necessity of a second runway has become increasingly recognized, so I think this will be solved in a realistic way.

BC: There are some critics, even in Japan, about the airport, such as Kenichi Ohmae (chairman of the McKinsey & Co. consulting firm). How do you assure these critics that the Kansai Airport will be the best project for this region?

UNO: I think Mr. Ohmae’s opinions (questioning the airport’s capability to handle transportation needs throughout Asia) were instructive for us. The true customers of an airport are indeed the airline companies. Therefore, the airport should offer attractive features like top-quality facilities, competitive landing fees and so on, to airlines like JAL and ANA in Japan, and to overseas companies like British Airways, United Airlines, Northwest and others. I think his opinions come straight to the point. Mr. Ohmae has given very good suggestions that we can use in our ongoing airport sales activities.

BC: Kansai has a different relationship with foreign countries compared to Tokyo. How do you see the Kansai’s overseas ties developing in the future?

UNO: The Kansai area has been more closely connected with Asian countries than other areas of Japan. In the import-export field, the Kansai’s export record shows a higher ratio; almost 30 percent of Japan’s total export has been achieved by the Kansai area alone. In particular, the ratio of exports to China is remarkable, reaching 30 to 40 percent. The Kansai is an area that deals in a great amount of trade in Asia, including with Asian NIES, the six ASEAN nations and China. Trade with them will continue and expand further.

BC: Moving back to the domestic front: You recently stated publicly your wish to introduce a single-seat constituency system, and you criticized the slow pace of political reform in Japan. How do you feel about the present situation?

UNO: In a word, I am very dissatisfied. However, the present multiple-seat constituency system is not entirely bad; neither is the single-seat constituency system absolutely perfect. The point about the present electoral system with which I am most dissatisfied is that candidates from the same party have no political opinions. They merely fight for a seat by denouncing each other. To avoid this kind of problem, the single-seat constituency system, now at issue, may be preferable. At least it would offer a change over the current system.

BC: In the past few years, there have been several scandals involving business and government. Do you think it is possible now to clean up that relationship and gain the public’s trust?

UNO: It might be possible to some extent, but it would be futile to expect any more than that. As long as moral degeneracy continues, we cannot begin to clean it up even if we change various regulations.

BC: How can Big Business in Kansai contribute to that change in morals?

UNO: I would rather ask if you have any good ideas! (laughs) What I can say clearly is that it is important for us to cherish the community we live in. For that, all members of the community should have the spirit of self-governance that sometimes requires us to make sacrifices. This kind of spirit will help companies improve their own moral standards.

BC: How can Kansai businesses promote or give more opportunities to those who tend to get left out, such as women and disabled persons?

UNO: It has been pointed out that large-sized companies should offer more job opportunities to disabled persons. In general, it seems that those companies are not yet prepared to handle that issue. The employment of women workers, however, has steadily been improving. Now is the time for all of society to pay much more attention to the way of training disabled persons so that they can obtain more job opportunities.

BC: Kansai is known for inspiring business creativity, as seen in Kyocera and other top businesses. Why do these kinds of companies consistently come from Kansai?

UNO: The first factor is the capability of the companies’ owners. Another is the environment where they are doing business: Since the Kansai area is less bound by politics, there is an atmosphere here that allows them to act freely, express themselves and operate with an entrepreneurial spirit.

Brian Covert is an American journalist, currently working as staff writer for the Mainichi Daily News newspaper in Osaka and as regional correspondent for the Tokyo bureau of UPI news service. He is devoted to Osaka and promoting its internationalization.