Mondale Forgotten at Home, Celebrity in Japan

April 24, 1994|By THOMAS EASTON

Tokyo -- Walter F. Mondale may be a forgotten vice president in the United States. But in this country, the U.S. ambassador is a major celebrity.

When trade negotiations between Japan and the United States blew up last month, Mr. Mondale looked as if he were back on the stump, speaking before a local chamber of commerce, joking in a relaxed sort of way about holding top office and gravely opining on matters of state before a bank of network cameras.

As U.S ambassador to Japan, he fills a position that may have no equivalent elsewhere in the world. It is a result of America's role providing Japan with its defense and largest export market. And, it is a result of an historic legacy of famous U.S. representatives dating back to Gen. Douglas A. MacArthur after World War II.

"I guarantee you the British public would not know the name of the U.S. ambassador to Britain," said Roger Buckley, a professor of diplomatic history at International Christian University in Tokyo, "but many Japanese on the [Tokyo] subway are able to list the more prominent ones who have come to Japan."

Although there is a growing feeling among Japanese officials that Mr. Mondale is irrelevant to the ideological thrust of Clinton administration policy, upon arrival he effectively used his prior titles of vice president and senator, and his long career in Washington, to adroitly appeal to a prestige-obsessed officialdom desperately eager to believe it has been provided with a powerful statesman as emissary.

That, however, has not resulted in diplomatic victories. Aside from a few well-publicized photo opportunities to applaud narrow Japanese concessions in construction and to Motorola, Mr. Mondale seems to have become a messenger of bad tidings. After last month's slaying of two Japanese students in Los Angeles, his avuncular face could be seen on televisions and in newspapers throughout the country, presenting a Japanese-style collective apology.

During a well-covered appearance last month before the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan, the message was almost as somber -- a resounding rejection of a much trumpeted plan by Japan to voluntarily open up its markets.

"I'm disappointed," Mr. Mondale said gravely, to hundreds of U.S. business executives as cameras whirred away. The key economic stimulus facet of the plan contains "virtually nothing," the centerpiece proposals for deregulation are "vague, they're delayed, and what they mean or might not mean is very difficult to determine."

The downbeat tone of the comments reflects a transformation from this fall, when, upon arrival, Mr. Mondale spoke optimistically about the prospects of change offered by a new Japanese government. Trade problems seemed resolvable and other issues beckoned.

A half-year later, trade debates have been characterized by more intransigence, and an initial discouragement has evolved into a more broad-based moral indignation.

"Japan's closed markets and current account deficits are not just a matter of domestic concern," he said in a recent interview."They are affecting everyone . . . reducing demand around the world, causing unemployment and threatening protectionism."

"However they [the Japanese] calculate this," he continued, "they are part of the international world trading system . . . and all of that is based on open market principles, and the rest of us have a right to press them to respond to those principles."

The harsh appraisal, while hardly novel, reverberates widely as the Japanese attempt to understand how a bilateral relationship, recently described as "mature" by the respective leaders, could continue to be so fractious.

Mr. Mondale began addressing this with the collapse of the so-called "framework" talks in February. In a news conference widely attended by foreign reporters, he accused the Japanese government of breaking promises, of lying, actually. "We have to deal with the bottom line here," he said. "There are things that they [the Japanese government] said they would do. They've done none of them."

That kicked off a round of interviews with the Japanese media. A long discussion with a prominent television personality was subsequently reduced to one primary idea: the number of times Mr. Mondale used the word "frustration" (more than 10).

In an interview with Japan's primary financial newspaper, the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, the writer suggested any moderation displayed by Mr. Mondale was merely the display of his "politician's face" to the Japanese, with the more genuine anger reserved for the foreign press. The newspaper, reflecting a similar tendency, deleted its skeptical characterizations in a weekly edition printed in English.

Official Japan is groping to revise an initial enthusiasm premised on a simplistic notion about what benefits a former elected U.S. official could provide, or would even want to provide. The question is not about Mr. Mondale's truculence but rather the depth of his power and influence. In the official halls of Nagatacho and Kasumigaseki, Japan's Capitol Hill, the idea has been broached that maybe the ambassador isn't really that powerful after all. Outgoing Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa is said to have been making inquiries about U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor, the pivotal figure in trade talks, wondering if that's where all the authority lies and not in the State Department and its attendant embassies. Celebrity-hood aside, the status of a position that retains almost colonial overtones may finally be revised.

L Thomas Easton is The Baltimore Sun's correspondent in Tokyo.

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