TOKYO -- In the Bush administration's most ambitiou attempt to lead U.S. exporters to success here, Secretary of Commerce Robert S. Mosbacher last week escorted executives of 20 U.S. companies to show them the kind of commitment it takes to "compete more effectively in Japan."
The companies were selected from 128 candidates after passing strict tests of "their commitment to the Japanese market," Mr. Mosbacher said.
The three-day mission was supposed to give the CEOs chances to meet with everyone from Japan's powerful Minister of International Trade and Industry to companies that might be potential customers.
One of its stated purposes was to counter recurring Japanese criticisms that U.S. companies don't have the degree of commitment it takes to succeed in Japan's admittedly difficult market.
Companies were chosen, Mr. Mosbacher said, only if they promised a five-year commitment to the Japanese market, promised to publish product literature in Japanese and agreed to send their CEOs here at least twice a year during the five years.
But by the time the mission ended, a bemused-looking Eiichi Nakao, head of the ministry that has directed Japan's growth into the world's leading export power, showed little sign of believing any more firmly in the commitment of U.S. firms.
"It is a pity that the time has been so short," Mr. Nakao said at a joint news conference with Mr. Mosbacher. He said he hoped that despite the limitations, the delegation had made "a significant beginning."
An elaborately scripted public relations program included a Thursdaymorning press conference at the U.S. Embassy, where Mr. Mosbacher lingered for photographers while he painted in the right eye of a Japanese papier-mache daruma, a good-luck doll used to symbolize auspicious beginnings.
That night, Mr. Mosbacher and Mr. Nakao both sported 5-inch red cloth chrysanthemums in their lapels for the symbolic handshake at their news conference at a high-priced downtown hotel.
But at both news conferences, Mr. Mosbacher found himself explaining how it came about that, of the 20 companies chosen for what he described as their "depth of commitment to the Japanese market," exactly half were actually represented at the two sessions by a CEO, a chairman or a president.
The trip had been billed as a delegation of CEOs, but four of the companies sent vice presidents and six sent no corporate officers from the United States.
The trip had been repeatedly delayed, Mr. Mosbacher explained, first due to the Persian Gulf war and then due to his own scheduling problems, and "it would be a mistake" to interpret the seeming shortage of top executives in the delegation as signifying any lack of commitment.
One CEO who did make the trip was Tim Timken, head of Timken Co., a maker of precision bearings and specialty steel based in Canton, Ohio.
"We'd like to help the Commerce Department and the government of Japan convince the people of the United States that there are opportunities here," Mr. Timken said.
There was little news in his company's commitment to the Japan market. Timken has been active here since just after World War II and has had a full-time office in Japan for 14 years. The company has quietly built a long-term reputation as one of the success stories among U.S. exporters to Japan.