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Japan visit inspires dreaming.

Tokyo is filled with gleaming office towers. One tower looks like a pile of ice cubes that the builder tossed in the air and let land at random. The asymmetrical design teases eyes accustomed to a world of mostly right angles.

Another tower has elevators with a moving hologram of a Japanese garden. Lighting is subdued to help relax passengers in momentary Zenlike repose.

Japan is dreaming about what the future will look and feel like. And Japan can afford to dream.

Another building houses the Center for Global Partnership, a branch of the Japanese government that opened its doors last April. The University of Alaska Anchorage was one of the center's first grant recipients. That grant enabled six Alaska teachers to travel to Japan in November to search for ideas on how to teach about Japan and its relationship with Alaska, and what this means for the future.

The name Center for Global Partnership says a lot about the new Japan. No longer content to live in America's shadow, the Japanese government sees Japan as a partner with the United States in a quest to manage the global economy. Having trade surpluses with almost every nation and mountains of cash with which to buy everything from fish-processing plants in Alaska to superstar recordings in Hollywood, the Japanese are reaping the fruits of their labor and good fortune.

It also may be generous of them to think of Americans as partners, since we owe them so much money. It's like the big winner at a poker game referring to the big loser as "partner." But we need to get away from macho, confrontational metaphors such as "winners" and "losers," "trade wars" and "level playing fields." Our metaphors influence the way we think -- and maybe the way we act.

Many Japanese believe that Japan should act as a "facilitator" of economic growth and development around the world. In this scenario, the United States will continue to provide the geopolitical guidance, while Japan pays a big chunk of the bills. All 50 states stand in line waiting to be "facilitated." Thirty states have offices in Tokyo; Alaska was the first.

At the Alaska state office, I learned from U.S. Embassy fisheries officer, Tomohiro Asakawa, that prices for Alaska salmon should be up a bit this year. His analysis is based on these factors:

* Chilean producers of pen-raised coho salmon, which reportedly helped drive down prices for Alaskan product last year, are losing their competitive position because of skyrocketing costs and, therefore, are reducing production.

* Japanese buyers have not been as receptive to Chile's salmon as had been anticipated.

* Fifty coho salmon farming companies in Japan went bankrupt last year.

* Inventories in Japan of frozen Alaska sockeye salmon, especially those from Bristol Bay, are lower than expected, and the wholesale price is up substantially.

* Bankruptcies in the Norwegian farmed salmon industry may stunt, at least temporarily, further gains by that farmed product.

Offering advice to Alaskans, Asakawa sounded these familiar refrains:

* Get serious about producing more value-added products.

* Develop underutilized fisheries such as abalones, sea cucumbers and urchin roe.

* Address the frequent complaint from the Japanese about the Alaska fishing industry's "lack of reliability" by improving quality, grading standards and packing.

* Look at development of new market channels by, for example, taking advantage of the new Kansai International Airport near Osaka to reach this thriving region's changing retail market structure.

Later in the trip, during visits with families in the Kansai region, the teachers surprised their hosts with samples of paper-thin slices of smoked salmon from the entrepreneurship program at Sitka's Mt. Edgecumbe High School. The Japanese family members ravenously consumed the stuff, grabbing it with chopsticks or rolling it into a kind of sushi with rice and seaweed. They also combined it with raw octopus and raw sea bream to form their own seafood surprise. One old, frail-looking granny shoveled in enough to put a sumo wrestler to shame.

All of the Japanese families said they'd buy this product in a Tokyo minute if it were available in their local stores. But it isn't. Why? Asakawa thinks the big fish companies that buy Alaska salmon and other fish are good at selling in Japan but are not good at marketing.

There's a big difference between the two. Marketing involves selling, but also takes into account the entire process involved in satisfying consumer needs. Sellers -- the Alaska producers, who aren't involved in marketing -- are missing opportunities to claim greater shares of the profit made on their fish by not participating fully in the process of determining and satisfying consumer needs. So huge quantities of fish get shoved from here to there, perhaps without enough attention paid to development of alternative channels -- specialty products or the nuances of changing consumer tastes.

When asked whether the real problem is the mobs of Japanese middlemen who shun participation in their channels by outside suppliers, Asakawa replied that circumstances are changing rapidly. "Besides, if you're convinced Japan will never change, and you do nothing as a result, you'll ensure that Japan never will change," he adds. This also can be said of the whole system of producing, catching and selling fish.

Asakawa points out that a Japanese department store has bought the salmon jerky product of Trapper's Creek Smoking Co. of Anchorage. "Salmon jerky is a new product in Japan, and people here like it very much," he says.

While having breakfasts with Japanese families around the country, the teachers also learned about a product called fish flakes. It was a surprise to learn that most Japanese kids don't eat the sugar-frosted wheat or corn variety of flakes. Fish flakes are cooked bits of lightly salted fish, which are then chopsticked out of a small glass container into a bowl of steaming rice.

Salmon flakes made from pinks and cohos are among the most popular breakfast flakes. The visiting Alaskans found the Kyoto-style salmon flakes delicious. The brand sells for about $9 for a six-ounce bottle. Cheaper brands are available, but we saw none for less than $4 for a similar size.

The flakes could be Alaskanized, maybe even smoked a bit, and sold worldwide. Halibut and cod are possible candidates. They'd be great in this form for making sandwiches, dips and fancy hors d'oeuvres.

We learned later that Jong Lee of the University of Alaska's Fisheries Technology Center in Kodiak knows the recipe for the Kyoto-style salmon flakes. He's prepared to teach people how to make it for free.

It doesn't stretch the imagination too much to believe that this and other similar products could one day bear the "Made in Alaska" logo. And whoever makes this product probably could afford to pay fishermen more money for their fish. Fishermen might make a living off pink salmon again.

A final impression from the Japan trip: In one of the southern prefectures, Japanese scientists are teaching fish how to catch themselves. Every day a loud speaker is dropped into the water of a local bay. The sound of a temple bell is played through the speaker. Hundreds of sea bream, attracted by the sound, swim into waiting nets. The fish are trained to respond to the sound. Fishing is changing in Japan.

With Japan dreaming about the future, how can Alaska afford not to?

Doug Barry is deputy director of the Alaska Center for International Business.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Alaska Business Publishing Company, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:how Japanese fisheries should inspire Alaska's fish industry
Author:Barry, Doug
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Feb 1, 1992
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