Sunday, July 8, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Are Japanese Employers Biased Or All Business -- Nintendo, Other Companies Say Discrimination Charges Are Misunderstandings

When Carey Wiggins, 29, an African American, moved to Seattle a year ago with a marketing degree, he expected to find a job with a company where ambition and enthusiasm would be rewarded.

He found disappointment.

Earlier this year, he quit his job as a temporary warehouse worker at Nintendo of America in Redmond.

After nine months, he still was on temporary status with no benefits and no commitment from the company to advance him.

``I've never considered myself an `activist.' But it got to a point where I couldn't live with myself and keep working there. I was passed over so many times. It was like a slap in the face to see everyone hired in front of me,'' said Wiggins.

The last straw for Wiggins came when three white men, all younger than he, became permanent Nintendo employees after less than two months as temporary workers.

In April, Wiggins and 25 other African American Nintendo employees took their complaints to the Seattle Core Group, a watchdog group of African American civic, political and business leaders. The group was involved three years ago in pressuring Frederick & Nelson, The Bon Marche and Nordstrom to improve hiring and promotion practices for African Americans and other ethnic minorities.

The complaints prompted Core to question Nintendo's employment practices and to ask for a meeting with Minoru Arakawa, president of Nintendo of America, to discuss the complaints. The

meeting is set for July 18.

Core's charges mirror criticism of hiring and promotion practices that increasingly is being leveled at Japanese companies nationwide.

As more Japanese companies open subsidiaries in the United States and employ more Americans, allegations of discrimination in hiring and employment practices are being heard nationally with increasing regularity and volume.

Nintendo officials, however, say they resent being painted with the same brush used to color some other Japanese companies.

``The people making those allegations don't know our company,'' said Phil Rogers, vice president of operations for Nintendo of America. ``I can't speak for other companies, but I can say we don't discriminate.''

Evidence for a broad indictment of Japanese companies is incomplete and ambiguous. But Nintendo is not alone in facing criticism.

Honda of America Manufacturing, based in Ohio, two years ago paid $6 million to settle an investigation by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission into allegations of racism and sexism at the company.

Last year, Nissan Motor Corp. in California settled a discrimination investigation by the EEOC for $605,000 and agreed to award management jobs to 68 African Americans, Hispanics, women and workers over age 40 who were passed over for promotions between 1984 and 1987.

Other Japanese companies that have been criticized for discriminatory employment practices in the past five years include Toyota; Nikko Securities, Japan's leading investment house; Sumitomo Corp., a Japanese trading company with many subsidiaries, including a bank; Recruit Co., an employment agency with offices throughout the United States; and C. Itoh, another trading company that is best known in the Northwest for its partnership in office-building developments such as Pacific First Centre.

The EEOC, which collects employment information from every company with more than 100 employees, won't reveal break-downs on minority or female employment at individual companies.

John Montoya, deputy director of the EEOC's Seattle office, said the office doesn't generally investigate a company unless it receives specific complaints. The agency did not file any suits against Japanese-owned companies in 1989 nor has it filed any this year.

Japanese companies, like American companies, often are reluctant to discuss publicly the numbers reported annually to the EEOC on the racial, ethnic and sexual breakdown of their work force.

In Vancouver, Wash., a spokesman for SEH America, a subsidiary of the Japanese chemical company Shin Etsu, said the company receives praise from the community for its employment practices.

Mike Loggins wouldn't reveal the percentage of African American or women workers at SEH, which employs about 1,000. But he says the company has ``a significant number'' of women engineers and has a racially diverse work force, including African Americans, Asians and Hispanics.

Chiyoda International Inc., a Seattle-based construction-engineering company owned by Chiyoda Corp. in Japan, said it employs 10 African Americans in its 100-person Seattle work force.

Westin Hotels and Resorts, based in Seattle, said its hiring and promotion practices haven't changed since the company was purchased in 1988 by Aoki Corp., a huge Japanese construction company. The company, however, declined to release specifics on the number of ethnic minorities employed.

Larry Magnan, Westin's president, draws a distinction between Westin, a U.S. company bought by a Japanese company, vs. a Japanese company that opens a subsidiary in America. Westin already had affirmative-action and minority-hiring procedures in place before the Japanese entered the picture.

Nationally, employment by Japanese companies in the United States more than doubled between 1982 and 1987 to 284,600.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says preliminary figures for 1988 suggest that employment rose another 137,600, to 422,200, a 48 percent increase in one year.

In Washington, employment at Japanese companies increased 130 percent between 1982 and 1987 to 6,200. More than 130 Japanese companies have offices or plants in Washington.

Nintendo's Rogers said the company employs 110 ethnic minorities representing 14.3 percent of its 767-person permanent work force. Of those, 24, or 3.1 percent, are African American. Of Nintendo's 147 managers, three are African American.

Nintendo has an additional 900 temporary workers. Rogers said the company considers the temporaries to be employees of the employment agencies that hire them and doesn't track numbers of minorities among them.

Rogers said the percentage of African American workers in King and Snohomish counties, from which Nintendo draws 96 percent of its work force, is 3.6 percent, according to employment figures supplied by the state.

``If you have basically the same percentage in your work force as the general population, it means you're not discriminating. There is no smell,'' he said.

The state's estimates include only those in the population who are 16 or older and are either employed or are looking for a job. The total African American population in King and Snohomish, however, is larger.

Using 1980 U.S. census data, Donnelly Demographics, a subsidiary of Dun & Bradstreet, estimates the African American population in 1989 at 83,147, or 4.5 percent of the 1.8 million total population.

By 1994, the number is expected to grow to 5 percent out of 1.9 million people, according to Donnelly. The city of Seattle was estimated to have an African American population of 58,704, or 12 percent of the 489,679 total, in 1989. In King County, the percentage of African Americans was estimated at 78,914, or 5.6 percent, out of 1.4 million total population.

Oscar Eason, a spokesman for Core, argues that when allegations of unfair employment practices are reduced to numbers, the real issue is obscured.

``Nintendo's problems aren't about statistics: How are blacks treated at work? Do they get promoted? What training opportunities do they get? A company can play with numbers,'' said Eason.

Don Hellmann, who studies Japanese culture and the economy as a professor at the University of Washington, believes the roots of allegations against Japanese companies can be found in their culture.

``Of all the nations I know, Japan is probably the most racially homogenous and insular,'' said Hellmann.

``A top government official in Japan made a very telling comment in the late 1970s when Vietnamese boat people were looking for places to settle,'' said Hellmann. ``While the United States was admitting about 14,000 refugees a month, Japan accepted a total of 17. A Japanese official apologized for not accepting more refugees and said: `Perhaps no one can become a Japanese.' ''

On the other side, Japanese supporters say complaints of prejudice reflect Americans' own racism.

A widely read book in Japan that was translated surreptitiously into English - neither the book's authors nor publishers intended to distribute it in the United States - argues that American racism is key to understanding political and economic friction between the countries.

The book, called ``The Japan that Can Say No,'' has a section titled ``Racial Prejudice is at the Root of Japan Bashing.'' One of the authors writes: ``American racial prejudice toward Japan is very fundamental and we should always keep it in mind when dealing with the Americans.''

Brian Duff, a Seattle consultant who works with Japanese businesses and individuals wanting to invest in the United States, said Americans should examine themselves.

``Perhaps our actions - an almost gleeful willingness to accuse Japan of racism - is an indicator of our own racism,'' said Duff. ``We should look at our own motivations.''

Yet, another theory suggests discrimination by Japanese companies arises from their unfamiliarity with U.S. laws and customs.

Security is tight at the Japanese consulate in Seattle. The main door is always locked and opens only after visitors identify their reason for being there. In the lobby, a hand-written sign tells parents: ``Out of courtesy to others, please ask your children to sit quietly while in the waiting room.'' To reach the inner office from that waiting room, a visitor must pass through two security doors.

Secrecy spills into the inner office. Officials of the Japanese consulate in Seattle would not comment on the record for this story, although one high-ranking official did agree to talk if he was not identified.

He said he believes Japanese companies need to be more aware of the laws and customs here.

The diplomat said he frequently exhorts Japanese businessmen - with little success - to embrace American anti-discrimination laws.

``The top priority for any Japanese company in the United States is how to increase business. The issue of discrimination is far less important,'' said the official.

``Many Japanese businessmen are ignorant of this issue,'' he said. ``They think they can do a little bit and it will go away. I know it will not.''

Toshihiko Yuge, general manager of the Seattle office of Sumitomo Corp. of America, is also spokesman for the Shunju Club in Seattle, which is a business-and-social club for Japanese nationals.

Yuge believes cultural differences lead to misunderstandings between Americans and Japanese.

The concept of affirmative action is unknown to him, Yuge said. He believes strongly that employers should not discriminate but he's unfamiliar with the idea that companies actively identify and recruit minorities.

``Affirmative action,'' he repeats thoughtfully, ``maybe that's what we should do.'' He thinks for a moment, then asks:

``This is my personal question on affirmative action. If you actively try to promote employment of blacks, aren't you discriminating against other groups?''

But, explains Eason, ``Affirmative action doesn't say you have to hire a black or Hispanic. ``It does say that when you have an opening, you should make an effort to look at all qualified applicants.'' Rogers, from Nintendo, attributes some criticism of Japanese companies to the media's insistence on finding ``negative'' stories.

``If a Japanese company in another part of the country is criticized for illegal practices, suddenly every Japanese company is suspect. Most of the time, I completely forget that I work for a Japanese company,'' he said.

Greg Sadler, an African American who was hired late last year by Nintendo to put on a series of educational seminars for managers, said the company's problems have more to do with its rapid growth than racism.

``I don't really think of Nintendo as a Japanese company,'' said Sadler, who has 16 years of experience dealing with corporate-personnel problems and management training. ``The whole organization is pretty young, which will sometimes lead to personnel problems because people aren't familiar with laws.''

Sadler said fast-growing companies such as Nintendo often have difficulty translating a vision from the top into personnel practices and results at the bottom. That means it's possible to have top executives expressing honest commitment to fair employment practices at one end of the company but suffer discrimination and racism at the other end.

``Nintendo is the classic entrepreneurial company,'' said Sadler. ``It's been making money hand over fist. But it hasn't necessarily had the structure it needs on the people side. By necessity, I think the company is putting its attention on that right now.''

Published Correction Date: 07/17/90 - Sumitomo Group In Japan Is The Parent Company To A Group Of Companines That Carry The Sumitomo Name, Including Sumitomo Corp. And Sumitomo Bank. The Parent Company Was Incorrectly Identified In This Article.

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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