LOS ANGELES — `YES, I've been to Kyoto and stayed in one of your state-run traditional Japanese inns,'' I said, shaking the hand of Nobuo Kimura, chief executive officer of a Los Angeles-based trade organization. Set on the tables around us were caviar, Brie, and Roquefort, fried shrimp, smoked salmon. ``And you people in southern California have no such inns,'' said Mr. Kimura. ``But such wonderful high-rise hotels so you can see your sunshine all year round.'' Here in the offices of Persona Personnel Services, the crowds were forming around the food, drinks, and - finally - each other. Handshakes, laughter, and conversation followed. And, oh yes, the exchange of business cards.
This is the human face of the gigantic Japan-US trade business, the 501 Club of the Japan America Society of Southern California.
The 19-month-old club is the brainchild of the society's new executive director, Steve Clemons, who is widely credited with rescuing the 80-year-old organization from the jaws of bankruptcy.
What is most surprising is that no one thought of it before: Once a month, in the corporate offices of a different sponsoring organization, about 300 (and growing fast) Japanese, Americans, and Japanese-Americans come to talk. Objective: cross-cultural understanding in an informal setting; business networking; and conversation, both idle and pointed (``Won't you [Japanese] please do something about this [US-Japan] trade imbalance?'').
``I really love this,'' says Darlene Ryan, a partner in an international tax firm who is in charge of tax practices for Japanese firms. ``Eighty percent of my time is spent with Japanese people, but this is the only opportunity I've had to really get to know them.''
``This is a way for us Japanese to break out,'' says Michio Katsumata, the Los Angeles bureau chief of the Nihon Keizai Shimbun (Japan Economic Journal). ``The visiting [Japanese] businessmen work all week with each other, and socialize together at night. Then they play golf together on weekends. ... This is a small, but very important way that all can get a clearer view of each other.''
There are roughly 150,000 Japanese-Americans in Los Angeles County, the largest concentration in the United States. Some 15,000 of those are visiting Japanese businessmen, on three- to five-year stints with local subsidiaries of major Japanese corporations such as Sony, Toyota, Nissan, and Canon. Half of the executives are alone, half with family.
Already a sponsor to weekly seminars, luncheons, conferences, and forums, the Japan Society and Mr. Clemons saw that there was never enough time for attendees to discuss the topics presented in meetings, much less socialize.
`THERE is a very urgent need for the Japanese to adapt to the American scene,'' says Hugh Leonard, vice-president of a nationwide executive search company, who has spent 17 years in Japan. ``Because of their natural reticence, and differences in cultural habits and traditions, they have a hard time feeling comfortable in this region, even though they might be doing well businesswise.''
Some of the Japanese have been here for years ``without straying beyond the once-a-year company baseball game,'' he says. ``In formal situations, they don't know how to let down their hair. It is culturally ingrained for them to feel obligation toward a host that is overtly giving them something. Here, they are free of that because the only obligation is to meet.''
With Los Angeles's burgeoning importance as the American center of Pacific Rim trade, no one is denying the importance of Japanese understanding here. Of nearly $17 billion spent on real estate by the Japanese in the US in 1988 - making them the largest foreign owners of land here - a full third was purchased in California.
``I studied enough psychology of the Japanese mind to know it can't be learned in the classroom theoretically,'' says Mr. Leonard. ``You have to interface in a way that, over time, perhaps imperceptibly you come to have a true sensitivity to what makes them tick.''
The Japan America Society of Southern California is one of 23 nationwide, loosely organized as the Associated Japan-America Societies of the US Inc.