TOKYO - When a purchasing agent from Nissan Motor Co. visited a parts supplier outside Tokyo last week, he received the customary - indeed, obligatory - invitation to dinner.
'I can't,' he replied, completely shocking his hosts.
Behind that seemingly simple refusal lies an initiative by Nissan President Yoshikazu Hanawa that has set much of corporate Japan on its ear.
In a new code of conduct drafted by Hanawa and sent to 300 major suppliers two weeks ago, Nissan employees are barred from accepting almost all gifts or entertainment from, or offering them to, business partners and government officials.
The code applies to Nissan operations around the globe, said Nissan spokesman Keiichi Tsuboi.
Depending on one's point of view, the new code will either tear apart Japan's social and business fabric or raise the country up to 'global standards' of business ethics. But one thing everyone agrees on is that Hanawa's action is a stunner.
'This is new in Japan, the idea that you can't do certain things,' said Stuart Picken, a professor of business at Nagoya University of Commerce and Business Administration and a specialist in Japanese business ethics.
'Most Western ethics is couched in negatives - Thou Shalt Not! But most Japanese codes are couched in terms of what a company should do to be socially responsible.'
Nissan's code is reminiscent of General Motors' 'zero tolerance' policy that bars employees from accepting so much as a single drink from outsiders. When GM instituted that policy on Nov. 1, 1996, suppliers grumbled that business would suffer without the opportunity to schmooze.
By now, though, the custom has become ingrained at GM, said spokesman Alan Adler. 'We think it's working,' he said. 'The important thing is, there's a uniformity to it. When you say 'zero tolerance,' it doesn't leave a lot of gray areas.'
Hanawa's code, which grew out of Nissan's increasing globalization and a string of high-profile corruption scandals in Japan, has fanned a national debate over what's known as settai, a tradition of almost compulsory business entertaining and gift-giving.
That custom - which makes it rude to refuse a colleague's invitation to go drinking - supports hundreds of thousands of bars, night spots and restaurants in the Ginza area of Tokyo and across Japan.
NEW GROUND RULES
Already, two auto industry suppliers, electronics concern Hitachi Ltd. and steelmaker NKK Corp., have responded to Nissan's initiative by drafting codes of their own. Reforms of settai are 'inevitable,' said Jiro Ushio, chairman of the Japan Association of Corporate Executives.
However, Shoichiro Toyoda, chairman of both Toyota Motor Corp. and the powerful Federation of Economic Organizations, declined an opportunity to back Nissan. But, he said, spending on entertainment should not be 'lavish.'
The debate is now moving from theory to practice, as Nissan suppliers get used to vastly new ground rules. Several suppliers contacted last week by Automotive News said they were perplexed by Nissan's code, although all said they would comply.
'My personal view is that Nissan, our related companies and ourselves have to make a solid effort to address the task together. Otherwise, it won't work, since such business practices have been set for decades,' said Hiromichi Kawabata, general manager of the general affairs department at Unipres Co., a steelmaker based in southern Japan.
Another supplier, who declined to be named, cautioned that canceling traditional ways of doing business could hurt business in the long run.
'If gift-giving and settai cease to be a tool in doing business, then technology-based business transactions will take over from ties based on personal relationships,' he said.
According to spokesman Tsuboi, Hanawa was motivated in part by recent influence-peddling scandals in Japan involving government officials. But, he added, 'Nissan is a global company ... and Nissan's actions should meet global standards.'
So far, the scandals have centered on Japan's Finance Ministry and central bank and their relationships with banks and firms they regulate.
The Japanese public has been outraged by disclosures that Finance Ministry officials, once viewed as Japan's incorruptible elite, were being wined and dined at expensive restaurants and strip clubs by the very executives they were supposed to be overseeing.
In return, the bureaucrats tipped off banks ahead of government inspections.
In the face of public anger, 'the mood to restrict entertainment is spreading,' said Takaki Nakanishi, auto analyst at Merrill Lynch Japan.
Still, several observers said that more than high-minded ideals may have motivated Hanawa.
'When the perception of Japan around the world is that it's corrupt, an action like this by someone as big as Nissan creates an image of cleaning house. That cannot do anything but good in terms of overall corporate image,' said Picken.
Then, too, there is a direct link to profits, not just image. After several Mitsubishi Motors Corp. managers were indicted last fall in a scandal related to payoffs to extortionists with underworld connections, its sales in Japan promptly nose-dived.
The supplier whose dinner invitation was rebuffed last week previously worked in Detroit, where he said he learned to live with clear rules on entertainment.
But similar limits will not work in Japan, he contended.
'In America, for $20 we could have a really nice meal,' he said. 'In Japan, the equivalent won't buy anything.'