Japan Inc. Seeks to Recover Influence in Brazil

In the 1950s, Japan helped Brazil establish industries such as steelmaking and initiated key purchases of Brazilian iron ore. Now the Asian nation is seeking to regain influence in Latin America’s largest economy, where China is the No. 1 trading partner.

Japan has signed deals from energy to food and health care during Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the country, the first by a Japanese leader in a decade. Abe wants to strengthen ties with Brazil, where about 1.6 million people of Japanese descent live, as he urges his country’s companies to seek more business outside their domestic market.

Top representatives from Toyota Motor Corp., Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. and Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group Inc. were among the business people accompanying Abe in Brasilia and Sao Paulo, the last destinations of a nine-day tour through Latin American and the Caribbean. Brazil is important for Japan because it has industries such as infrastructure and is a safe jurisdiction, said Yutaka Kase, the chairman of Tokyo-based commodity supplier Sojitz Corp.

“There are the conditions” to invest, he said during an interview in Sao Paulo, where he was part of the business delegation traveling with Abe. “Of course there are so many things to solve, but this is a country with more potential.”

Sojitz, which in 2011 teamed up with Japanese and South Korean steelmakers to buy a 15 percent stake in niobium producer Cia. Brasileira de Metalurgia & Mineracao for $1.95 billion, is now pursuing opportunities in agriculture and logistics in Brazil, Kase said.

‘Lost Time’

Japan has in recent years lost ground in Brazil compared with European and South Korean companies in industries such as carmaking and electronics, said Luiz Fernando Furlan, Brazil’s former trade minister and board member of food processor BRF SA. The four Japanese automakers operating in Brazil combined produce fewer cars than Fiat SpA, Volkswagen AG or General Motors Co., he said.

“Japan not only lost time in relation to China but also others,” he said. “Korean and Chinese companies are leading the electronics markets in the region.”

The Asian nation is Brazil’s sixth-largest investor with $31 billion, or 5.1 percent of the country’s total foreign direct investment, according to 2012 data by the Brazilian Central Bank. It was the third-largest between 1950 and 1985.

Japan has a renewed business interest for Brazil and the region as Abe’s economic policies revitalize the country, according to Kuni Sato, a Japan foreign ministry spokeswoman.

Toyota’s Stance

“It is true that there were lost decades in Japanese investment,” Sato said in an e-mailed statement. “The Abenomics is getting Japan out of the deflationary spiral, and is renewing Japanese business interest in Brazil and Latin America, as can be seen in the high profiles of the business leaders accompanying Prime Minister Abe.”

Abe’s first visit to Brazil coincides with a slowdown of the economy and a deterioration of investors’ confidence. Economists surveyed by Bloomberg forecast the South American nation’s gross domestic product to grow 1.3 percent this year after an expansion of 2.5 percent in 2013. Japan’s economy is expected to increase 1.5 percent.

Brazilian costs including energy are too high, and the country needs to accomplish an urgent tax reform to regain competitiveness amid slower growth, according to Toyota’s Chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada.

Technology Transfers

“Although I just said we believe Brazil is a market that should grow, it would be difficult for our business to keep investing if the economy stays stagnant, so we will be closely watching its growth,” he said in an interview in Sao Paulo.

While trade between Brazil and Japan was twice that of the Latin American nation and China in 2000, it was less than a fifth of the record $83 billion that the latter pair posted last year. Purchases of iron ore and soybeans helped China become Brazil’s biggest export destination.

Brazil can still profit from the “enormous” capacity of the Japanese companies to transfer technology, said Wilson Brumer, the former chief executive officer of steelmaker Usinas Siderurgicas de Minas Gerais SA. Usiminas, as the Belo Horizonte-based company is known, was established in 1958 after Brazil agreed to create a joint venture with Japan.

“Japan and China are two partners where Brazil can have different approaches,” Brumer said in an interview. “There is still a big space to be explored between Brazil and Japan, mainly among medium-size companies.”

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