Don't expect Hiroyuki Saito of Mitsui & Co. to say yes when he means no, a perceived characteristic of Japanese communication. When he was tapped to initiate corporate citizenship in the Japanese business community in Los Angeles in 1986, he said yes--and meant yes.
"I want to act. I do not want to listen, promise and do nothing. When someone asks me a question, I respond. When I cannot do it, I tell them," said Saito, who served as general manager of the trading firm's Los Angeles office until last August, when he was reassigned to Tokyo.
That direct, forceful style, combined with his personal charisma and mastery of English, helped create unprecedented bridges between the American and Japanese business communities.
Three months after arriving in Los Angeles, Japanese Consul General Taizo Watanabe called. He wanted Saito to help raise $3 million from the Japanese business community for the Los Angeles County Museum--and persuade the chairman of Mitsui to be the fund-raising head for the Japanese side.
Though the Japanese business community balked at the fund-raising request because of its size, Saito agreed--and helped raise a record $4 million.
In 1987, he became president of the Japan Business Assn. of Southern California (JBA) and his role as a cultural bridge greatly expanded.
"I felt tremendous pressure from the American side to get better acquainted with the Japanese community, and rightly so," Saito said. "There were a lot of trade-friction talks, misunderstandings of Japanese attitudes among the American community. I felt a pressing need to speak up and let them understand our positions."
The first thing he did was try to open up the JBA. By tradition, the presidency rotated among the four trading companies, but Saito broadened the leadership base to include all industries. That way, a greater diversity of executives could be exposed to Americans.
Then he created an American advisory board to counsel the Japanese business group on such delicate issues as minority employment. Many of his initiatives remain tradition today, such as an annual golf tournament between the JBA and Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.
Saito also sat on the boards of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, California Chamber of Commerce, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Pepperdine University. He was one of the first Japanese to do so.
For his efforts, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs gave him an award for international service, the first person to receive the honor. Usually, the award goes to corporations or business groups.
Saito, who spent eight years in Mitsui's New York office, said he believes that personal involvement is far more important than money in the long run. "Money is fine, but money won't solve the misunderstandings," he said. "We must get more people involved."