Japan Yes, Japan No

April 14, 1993

On April Fool's Day, President Clinton said: "This is Japan's turn to lead." He must have been joking. As Mr. Clinton suspects, and will soon confirm when he meets Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa Friday, Japan is incapable of leading. If our new president had any doubts on the subject, he could tune in on Mr. Miyazawa's pre-summit conversation with American reporters. The wily old pol explained it's all a matter of gaiatsu, which, roughly translated, means Japan needs U.S. pressure to embarrass it into adopting prudent policies that its government detests and its people oppose.

"It's like a [Japanese] mother telling her child to do this or not to do it, otherwise your neighbor will laugh at you," he explained. Put in the context of his meeting with an American president 26 years his junior, this would suggest Mr. Clinton would be in the position of the scolding mother and Mr. Miyazawa the hectored child.

But as Mr. Clinton recently observed to Russian President Boris Yeltsin, "When the Japanese say yes to us, they often mean no." Though this remark caused a furor in Japan, Mr. Miyazawa took it in stride. "I think this yes or no thing is something I myself might say," he remarked, adding: "That's the way we converse, we Japanese."

In trade negotiations, the Japanese have been saying yes when they mean no for years. With numbing regularity, Washington has gotten Japan's assent to market-opening moves to end a chronic trade deficit only to see it persist. In his March 23 press conference, Mr. Clinton declared: "If you look at the history of American trade relationships, the one that never seems to change very much is the one with Japan. . . The persistence of the surplus the Japanese enjoy with the United States can only lead one to the conclusion that the possibility of obtaining real equal access to the Japanese market is somewhat remote."

Mr. Clinton's comments suggest his ear is closely tuned for negatives -- direct, indirect or couched in polite positives -- when he receives Mr. Miyazawa. The prime minister is unlikely to disappoint. He has announced a $117 billion domestic stimulus package that may (or may not) spur imports. He has stated bluntly that he wants no more of the "managed trade" deals that have allowed foreigners to capture 20 percent of the Japanese semi-conductor market. He has said there is no reason to believe the U.S. and Japan can solve their trade imbalance "overnight." And while Japan will provide some new aid for Russia, it will be limited so long as Moscow keeps hold of the Kurile Islands it seized at the end of the World War II.

Japan's reluctant appearance in the limelight this week as host of a Russia aid conference in Tokyo and as guest at the White House will expose Mr. Clinton to a putative ally in a security relationship of diminishing importance and a commercial rival whose pursuit of competitive advantage could inhibit an American recovery. The president's own ability to say no may well be tested.

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