Japan Must Tell the U.S. What It Wants. But First It Has to Figure Out What That Is

Fellow, RIETI

"Somehow Japanese are waiting for somebody to give them some kind of direction, and they tend to look to the Americans." Mieko NAKABAYASHI Fellow at the Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry This is the second installment of a series of interviews examining the Japan-U.S. relationship and its implications.

In 1992, Mieko Nakabayashi, currently a fellow at the Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry, was given the opportunity to work as a staff member on the U.S. Senate Budget Committee. For nearly a decade until 2002, Nakabayashi found herself in the midst of a clash of values over how the United States should be run.

At the same time, she saw a Japan that was steeped in bureaucratic attitudes and unable to present its own values. Nakabayashi says that Japan's indecisiveness in presenting its own course for the future stymies further development of U.S.-Japan relations.

Question: As a Senate Budget Committee staff member working in turbulent times in U.S.-Japan relations, what kind of negotiations were you involved in?

Answer: While most lawmakers have adopted a mild manner when speaking about diplomatic relations with Japan, when it comes to trade, they have harsh opinions. As can be seen from the various trade disputes that have arisen over the years, from (Eastman) Kodak's claim of market barriers to auto parts, many lawmakers have been openly critical. A common argument is that Japan's distribution system lacks transparency, and that while Tokyo claims to be engaging in free trade, without addressing structural problems, in reality it is protectionist.

But at the same time, many legislators expressed disdain for how the dumping charge by U.S. steel companies was handled. Along with an agricultural appropriations bill, the resulting Byrd amendment, proposed by Senator Robert Byrd, which called for distributing revenues collected from anti-dumping duties to the petitioning U.S. companies, was considered a disgrace by many.

Q: Is it difficult to get people in the U.S. Senate to understand Japan's views?

A: In my opinion, those in the U.S. government and in the legislative branch are willing to listen if Japan speaks up. The staff are well aware of Japan's contribution (to the world), but since the relationship between Japan and the United States is so smooth, Japan's view rarely becomes an issue. However, Washington has always taken notice of Tokyo once a situation arises where Japan is faced with a crisis, or if Japan's economic situation or actions have direct bearing on its own national interests. For example, at the time of the Asian economic crisis in 1997, when concerns about Japan's economy arose, the Senate Budget Committee held a hearing on Japan.

There are many in the Senate, such as Senator Richard Lugar, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, who understand Japan's views. Also in Bush's administration there are many who are willing to lend an ear to what Japan has to say. It's all up to Japan to clearly state what it wants. But I have the feeling that Japan itself is unable to present its own policy or values because it is unable to identify them. And so there's little message coming through to Washington from Tokyo.

Q: Are you saying that the United States is capable of making value judgments, but Japan isn't?

A: President George W. Bush has clearly stated that protecting Americans from terrorism and preventing a recurrence of Sept. 11 is his first priority. The United States is constantly changing in terms of its values and goals, responding to the needs of the times. In the end it is through the election process that the public decides on a direction. The upcoming election will be the opportunity for determining what values the U.S. public embraces.

Of course there is some truth in thinking that Bush is the prime reason the United States acts as it does today, but there are systems of checks and balances working at various levels. People wouldn't be following him if his values were not convincing. If people feel that the United States is becoming isolated in the international community over its policy on Iraq, the U.S. public has a chance to express that in the election.

In Japan, however, much of the decisions are being made before the debate even reaches the Diet floor. Therefore, each candidate's value judgment is not very clear to the constituents. Also, Japanese policymaking relies too much on the bureaucrats, from basic data compiling to law-making. For example, if there is an indicator announced by the government, such as an economic forecast, that figure is assessed by bureaucrats. Another problem is the lack of nonpartisan think tanks that can evaluate policy with impartiality.

Q: A common belief in Japan is that bureaucrats are omnipotent. Are bureaucrats unreliable?

A: One incident that I cannot forget was when a Japanese bureaucrat came to visit our committee staff director's office after the Sept. 11 attacks. This bureaucrat asked his U.S. counterpart: Japan's economy is in the doldrums, what do you think Japan should do?'' The committee staff director was clearly flabbergasted, as he had made so many suggestions, such as simplifying the distribution system or reducing bad loans, in the past. In the end he simply replied that the United States is facing a crisis of its own, and Japanese should think about what Japan should do. Good luck.'' Somehow Japanese are waiting for somebody to give them some kind of direction, and they tend to look to the Americans. In a way, you could say that the whole of Japan has become one large bureaucracy.

Q: The Constitution is one tool through which the people of a nation can express their values, and recently there has been much discussion about revising or re-creating the Constitution.

A: I think it would be good for the entire nation to discuss what shape the Constitution should take. If people decide that the Constitution should be amended, then that is a value judgment. But what is important is that the public be given a chance to make a value judgment. Therefore, the decision must be among the nation's election issues.

Q: If Japanese were to present their own values, isn't there a possibility that those values could come in conflict with U.S. interests, undermining the alliance?

A: There is always that possibility. But at the root of their relationship both the United States and Japan share the common value of democracy. At the same time, one needs to remember that the circumstances and environment Japan faces are different from those faced by the United States. The United States is self-sufficient in terms of natural resources and is not entirely reliant on oil from the Middle East as Japan is, for example. Japan needs to pursue its interests, which are different from those of the United States, wisely.

Behind Japan's affluence is its diplomatic relations with various countries, particularly its alliance with the United States. If Japanese continue leaving value judgments in the hands of bureaucrats, who tend to lack the motivation to educate and inform the people, we will lose touch with the very reason for Japan's affluence. If that happens, there is the danger that Japan will no longer be able to pursue a diplomacy that serves the interest of its people.

Profile: After working as a freelance TV reporter in her native Japan, Mieko Nakabayashi entered graduate school at Washington State University where she received a master's degree in political science in 1992. She was hired by the U.S. Senate Budget Committee and started working for Republican Party committee members in 1993, and she was involved in the U.S. budget process, until leaving in 2002. She is currently a fellow at the Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry.

* The article was reprinted from International Herald Tribune / The Asahi Shimbun on April 5, 2004. No reproduction or republication without written permission of the author and The Asahi Shimbun.

April 5, 2004 International Herald Tribune / The Asahi Shimbun

July 16, 2004

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