“The keywords … unquestionably are ‘digital’ and ‘green’”

Making a difference behind the scenes

Masaki Sakuyama, co-chairman of the EU–Japan Business Round Table, chairman of Mitsubishi Electric Corporation


JULY 2021 The Interview / Text by Andrew Howitt / Photos by Benjamin Parks

Masaki Sakuyama joined the manufacturing giant Mitsubishi Electric Corporation as an engineer in 1977. He was appointed president and CEO in 2014, and he has been chairman since 2018. He became vice chair of the Keidanren (Japan Business Federation) in June 2021 and has served as co-chairman of the EU–Japan Business Round Table (BRT) since 2018.

The BRT, which was established in 1999 to foster communication between European and Japanese companies, meets annually to discuss factors affecting trade and investment, and makes recommendations to both EU and Japanese authorities on how to strengthen trade and cooperation between the two economies. It currently comprises 72 member organisations, with 47 on the EU side and 25 on the Japan side.

What are your key responsibilities as co-chairman of the BRT?

My role in the BRT is to act as a liaison between our Japanese members and their European counterparts, engage with Japanese authorities on issues that may be of importance to the Japan-side membership, and facilitate discussion and offer guidance to the BRT’s four working groups and their respective working party leaders. I also collaborate closely with my counterpart, the BRT’s EU-side co-chairman, Mr Philippe Wahl, CEO of La Poste, and work alongside the BRT’s secretariat, the EU–Japan Centre for Industrial Cooperation, which has offices in Tokyo and Brussels. As co-chairmen, Mr Wahl and I also host the BRT Annual Meeting.

What are a couple of examples of important proposals were made at last year’s BRT?

The keywords in last year’s recommendations unquestionably are “digital” and “green”. With regard to “digital”, one notable point would be our discussions about data. It’s been three years since the EPA was signed, but the rules on how to share and distribute digital data need further clarification. So, I believe it was crucial for us to give this issue some attention.

When it comes to “green”, it’s ultimately the government that will make decisions on issues such as carbon border adjustment measures. However, as we are members of the business community, it’s good that the BRT voice our wishes and make suggestions on these topics.

In our discussions at this year’s BRT Annual Meeting, I’m sure we will be discussing how DX [digital transformation] must evolve to achieve GX [green transformation].

How responsive is the Japanese government to the recommendations from the BRT?

After we submit our proposals, the Japanese government always issues a progress report on them. This is very important because it shows that they’re listening to our opinions — and that’s very encouraging for all BRT members.

What is an example of a policy change that has been made in response to a recommendation from the BRT?

A recent example would be the establishment of the Japan–EU Bilateral Aviation Safety Agreement. This eased the rules on documentation and ended the duplication of inspections, to name just a couple changes, when selling certain European aircraft in Japan. I’ve heard that this has made it easier for European firms to sell helicopters, in particular, here. That is one concrete result.

How do you see the BRT changing in the coming years?

To give one example, the BRT reached a consensus to diversify its membership, and to also recruit more SMEs. On the Japan-side, in particular, most of our members are large companies, so this year we’ve been looking for SMEs that are willing to join the BRT. So far, we’ve added a few Japanese startups, such as Veolia Japan, Euglena, and I.C.O.N.

What are your thoughts on the European Business Council in Japan (EBC)?

As an EU-side member of the BRT, the EBC plays a highly visible role. It’s a role that I greatly appreciate and warmly welcome because it illustrates the dedication and commitment of our European colleagues to fostering engagement with the Japanese business community right here in Japan itself.

How is Mitsubishi Electric Corporation investing in European countries and businesses?

We built our first television factory in Edinburgh in 1979, and that was how we started local production in Europe. This plant was later replaced by one that makes air conditioners, which is still in operation today.

Mitsubishi Electric owns 18 companies, including nine manufacturing firms, across Europe and the surrounding region. These include two firms in Italy that produce air conditioning systems and a power semiconductor firm that is headquartered in Germany, which has a factory in Hungary.

For our company to grow, we are also focusing on the areas of green and digital. In addition to our business operations emitting very little CO2, we are making green products that society wants today, including energy-efficient air conditioners. Many new technologies will need to be adopted if we are to continue producing these kinds of products, so we are investing in our factories in order to keep meeting the needs of society.

In what ways is Mitsubishi Electric helping its customers become more sustainable?

One way is our Air-to-Water Heat Pump System, which replaces traditional boilers and is helping households in Europe move towards carbon neutrality. The heat pump uses heat from the air and the ground to warm a home’s rooms and water, which is how it got its name, “Air-to-Water”.

To date, we have been making these units at our Edinburgh plant but, since they have grown so much in popularity, we’re planning to boost capacity through an investment to expand facilities at our air-conditioner plant in Turkey.

There is also an automobile manufacturer in Germany that uses a large number of hybrid systems in its automobiles, including motors made at our Czech factory. This is one way we are contributing to the reduction of automobile exhaust emissions.

Additionally, Mitsubishi Electric Corporation manufactures power semiconductors for power electronics systems. These are incredibly important today and are used in a wide range of applications, including our motors for hybrid cars. Also, Europe has many offshore wind turbines, which use larger capacity power semiconductors. The two major firms producing wind turbines both use our power semiconductors, so we have a large share in this segment of the market.

These are just a few examples of how we are contributing to GX in Europe behind the scenes — hidden beneath car hoods and inside wind turbines. We are determined to continue making a positive contribution to society.

“the Japanese government … [is] listening to our opinions, and that’s very encouraging”