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Japan Expo Coming Into Its Own in L.A. : Trade: Launched in late 1980, the event has attracted ever-widening interest in Japanese culture and products. And founder Nagao Masuda, who made it a success, is expanding his small empire by producing other promotional shows.

November 20, 1989|JUBE SHIVER Jr. | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Nagao Masuda sought support for a Japanese trade and cultural exhibit in Los Angeles in 1980, officials of the Japan External Trade Organization tried to talk him out of the idea for fear that the event would exacerbate the already chilly trade relations between the United States and Japan.

But Masuda, a Japanese banker's son and one-time TV cameraman who has a reputation as a creative promoter, pursued his project with stunning results. Launched just after the September, 1980, airing of the NBC-TV mini-series "Shogun" fueled wider interest in Japanese culture, Japan Expo became a huge event that drew Japanese TV coverage as well as appearances from dignitaries such as Mayor Tom Bradley. During its Nov. 24-26 run this year at the downtown Los Angeles Convention Center, the exhibit of Japanese consumer goods, food and artists is expected to draw about 90,000 visitors, employ 55 people and gross about $500,000.

"I guess I was lucky to think of the idea," said Masuda, 47, who in true promoter's spirit, recalled that he donned a Samurai warrior's suit of armor to greet visitors at the first expo in 1980. "It was a big hit. I was in the right place at the right time."

As interest in Japan has grown in the wake of the country's increased economic clout, many have tried to capitalize on Americans' curiosity about the nation as well as cater to the cultural needs of the growing Japanese-American community in the United States.

Meanwhile, U.S. festivals centering on Japan have become popular. In September, for example, Beverly Hills paid tribute to Japan in connection with the city's 75th anniversary.

But Masuda, who emigrated to the United States from Japan 18 years ago, has become something of a Los Angeles institution in trying to bridge the cultural gap between the two countries. And although his maverick style bucks Japanese business tradition and draws criticism from some colleagues who call him boastful, Masuda has found a lucrative niche promoting his homeland to tens of thousands of Southern Californians.

"The biggest problem of the Japanese is that they are so misunderstood," said Holmes Stoner, head of the Los Angeles firm Artesa Inc., which specializes in advertising to Latinos and Asian-Americans. "Nagao has become a conduit for greater understanding. He tries to join Japan to the U.S. in so many ways. . . . Japan needs more like him."

Yet Masuda's business ethics appear unseemly to one acquaintance, who used the Japanese term applied to the nightclub or entertainment world-- mizu shobai , or literally "water trade," to describe the promoter.

"I think Mr. Masuda is very creative," said the associate, who declined to be identified. "But he exaggerates a lot of things."

Water does seem to leak from some of Masuda's claims.

Japan Expo promotional literature boasts that the event has drawn as many as 93,000 people. But many observers put the total much lower. Convention spokeswoman Kris Morita, who predicts that Japan Expo could draw about 90,000 people this year because organizers are using two exhibition halls for the first time, estimated that attendance since the mid-1980s--although growing--has not topped 75,000 for all three days.

Masuda also tells media outlets that Japan Expo is "produced by" the Japan America Friendship Foundation Inc. The foundation, also housed in Masuda's Gardena offices, describes itself in brochures as a "nonprofit cultural and educational organization." As a result, Masuda often secures lower, non-commercial ad rates and other financial breaks to promote Japan Expo, a colleague said. However, Masuda--who is chairman of both Japan Expo and the nonprofit foundation--said in an interview that the Japan Expo event is a profit-seeking venture.

When asked about the discrepancies, Masuda would say only, "We don't really care about the money. . . . We just want to bring Japanese culture to the American people."

Billed as a "trade and cultural exhibition," Japan Expo resembles a car show, consumer electronics exhibit, food fair and arts festival--all rolled into one.

The expo--which lost money during its first four years--is now bigger than any other ethnic festival held at the convention center, including past events pegged to the Soviet Union, Mexico and China, said convention spokeswoman Morita. Although Japan Expo draws about half as many people as the center's largest annual event--the auto show--it has "good strong promotion and marketing," said Morita.

For U.S. companies, Japan Expo offers a chance to introduce their products and services to the Japanese-American community. At past shows, for instance, American Telephone & Telegraph Co. has offered event-goers three minutes of free long-distance calls to Japan from its booth at the convention center.

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