Kansai Will See Bright Spots Beyond Hard Times: Kankeiren Head

By Brian Covert
Staff Writer

As perhaps the most powerful business leader today in western Japan, Osamu Uno is a 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., a 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 excerpts from an exclusive interview, Uno share his thoughts on the state of the economy and the Kansai region’s future.

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

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 than in other areas: 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 that will continue up to March 1993. My own view is that the economy in Kansai will begin to hit its lowest point at the end of this year.

MDN: A recent survey among Kansai businesses indicates that most companies are not ready to provide extra money for the Kansai Airport’s two extra runaways. How do you feel about that?

Uno: The tough economic situation at present makes it difficult to build a feasible plan for the second runway. It is also a fact that the private sector is facing tough 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 the second runway has become increasingly recognized, so I think this will be solved in a realistic way.

MDN: Recently you announced July 1994 — the first clear date given since the project began — for completion of the airport. Was that to reassure everybody that the project is moving ahead OK?

Uno: It came about through my own feelings. In my opinion, the announcement was meant to give stimulus to speed up the progress of airport-related projects such as roads, railways and facilities like the Asia and Pacific Trade Center, along with construction of the airport itself. The announcement was to hopefully bring about the effect that all related projects will, once again at this moment, pick up speed toward a common goal — which is an early opening of the airport.

MDN: Kansai has a different relationship with foreign countries than does 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 have other areas of Japan. In the import-export field, the Kansai area’s export record shows a higher ratio compared with other regions of Japan. Almost 30 percent of Japan’s total export was achieved by the Kansai area. 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. ...The Kansai area will continue to maintain its strong connections with Asia. At the same time, those connections will be maintained in a broader scope — the Kansai area as part of the entire Pacific region.

MDN: 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 been steadily improving. Now is the time for all of society to pay much more attention to the way of training those persons so that they can obtain more job opportunities.

MDN: 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.