Three days after the European Community's Apr. 30 disclosure of its secret proposal to limit Japanese car sales, Takayuki Imajo and Takashi Osawa huddled over lunch in Brussels to compare notes.
"What do you hear?" asked Imajo, head of the European office of the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Assn. (JAMA). "I had a call from my Tokyo office asking me what's going on."
"I got one too," said Osawa, external affairs manager for Nissan Europe. Imajo and Osawa hardly fit the stereotype of formidable Japanese lobbyists pulling strings and spreading largesse the way they do in Washington. Their primary job is to assess the EC bureaucracy's mountains of information and funnel key documents back to companies and trade associations. "They're walking telefaxes," says Nagayo Taniguchi, a reporter for Mainichi Shimbun.
VANTAGE POINT. But don't underestimate them. Japan's EC watchers are showing up in the Brussels area in record numbers, from 50 a decade ago to more than 220 now. In fax after fax, they provide reams of on-the-ground economic intelligence that assists home-office executives in making vital decisions. They also send home political analysis that helps pinpoint investment opportunities in areas crying for capital.
A careful reading of EC politics and economic statistics, for example, helped bolster Mitsubishi's decision to forge a joint venture with Volvo in the Netherlands. The Dutch government was keen on Japanese investment: The country's largest employer, Philips Electronics, was set to lay off 50,000 workers, many in the Netherlands.
As the powerful Ministry of International Trade & Industry (MITI) fine-tunes its negotiating stance on the controversial issue of EC quotas for Japanese carmakers, Imajo sends his EC car data to JAMA's home office in Tokyo. Meantime, Osawa sends studies on the EC car market to superiors in Amsterdam, where experts help the company determine what the competition is up to.
Japan's EC watchers have come a long way. Back in 1982, the Japanese were worried about an EC proposal--which eventually died--requiring Japanese subsidiaries in Europe to put workers on local boards. So the Keidanren, the leading industrial group, naively descended on Strasbourg, home of the European Parliament. Millions of yen in campaign contributions later, the Japanese figured out that the Parliament is only an advisory body. Instead, they should have gone to Brussels, home of the European Commission, which proposes EC laws.
HIGHER PROFILE. Six years later, older but wiser Keidanren lobbyists headed straight for Brussels when faced with another thorny proposal that would have subjected Japan's "screwdriver plant" products to antidumping duties if they didn't have a minimum local content. They eventually won.
Although the Japanese use their own representatives to monitor EC affairs, they often farm out heavy-duty analyses to U. S. consulting firms such as Price Waterhouse. Japanese companies are also signing up top American law firms in Brussels to smooth over their myriad trade problems. Not all of the refined lobbying skills the Japanese learned in Washington can be carried over to Brussels. Trying to win friends with hefty political contributions or lavish gifts is bad form in Brussels. If they offer a draft law on a hot issue, the way they might in Washington, "it just wouldn't be considered proper here," says Leon Brittan, EC competition commissioner.
In the U. S., Japanese lobbyists work comfortably behind the scenes, but in Brussels they operate out in the open. "We're not trained to express ourselves publicly," says Imajo. But even he has learned to slug it out. Imajo recently clashed with Raymond H. Levy, chairman of French carmaker Renault, in an EC hearing on protectionism. One thing the sparring proves: Japan's lobbyists are learning fast.