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Going with the flow in the trade office for Japan

by Hiroaki Sato

Leaving the New York office of the Japanese trade agency JETRO after 44 years of employment is an occasion to look back.

I arrived here in the fateful 1968. The year started with Martin Luther King Jr. shot dead, and ended with three American astronauts flying around the moon and returning to Earth. In between, Robert F. Kennedy, running for president, was shot dead, and Chicago police violence at the Democratic Party Convention was televised.

Next spring I was hired by JETRO. A young American couple had sponsored me, and I’d come here on a tourist visa. But the rules on such things were not as uptight as they are today. The immigration act that abolished racial and ethnic preferences and has since transformed America’s demographic contour had become law just four years earlier.

The raging Vietnam War created an oppressive air, but Americans were laid back and kind. The Civil Rights Movement and Sexual Revolution were cresting.

When it comes to my employer’s business, the U.S. sales of small cars “made in Japan” had just started to skyrocket, easily overtaking the top import car till then, the Volkswagen Beetle. One thing I remember in that regard is what my sponsor’s mother said.

“Hiro, the name Toyota is unfortunate,” she told me. “It reminds us of Japanese Christmas toys. A few days after you open the boxes, they break down and have to be thrown away.”

The U.S. trade deficit with Japan quickly came to the fore. Congress held hearings in 1970. In retrospect, the funny thing is the size of the deficit at the time: $1 billion. Today, it’s $60 billion, $70 billion. Even taking into account inflation, the amount around 1970 was small.

And think of all the reasons thought up to explain the trade imbalance: cheap labor, cheap capital, dumping, predatory trade practices, Japanese refusal to buy foreign products, Japanese inability to understand consumerism.

Another funny thing: The Japanese product at the center of contention was textiles, not autos. It produced one of the more famous episodes in the annals of translation/interpretation.

When Prime Minister Eisaku Sato came to Washington and met President Richard Nixon to discuss various matters, Nixon pressed him on textiles: Control your (expletive deleted) textiles.

In response, Sato apparently said what a Japanese politician under similar duress would: Zensho shimasu.

A year or so later Nixon expressed his (expletive deleted) displeasure. He told U.S. textile manufacturers that Sato had lied. The Japanese had promised him, “I’ll take care of it,” Nixon insisted.

Exactly how Sato’s interpreter rendered the prime minister’s response remains unknown. He kept his mouth shut until his death. The guess is “I’ll do my best.”

Two decades on, Japanese imports of U.S. textile products exceeded Japanese exports to the U.S. in the same category. The top item was used jeans.

In August 1971, Nixon removed the fixed exchange rates, the main part of the 1944 Bretton Woods Accord, and embargoed shipments of soybeans en route to Japan, throwing my office into turmoil: Japan as a trading nation was finished!

I learned later that Nixon’s embargo forced Japan to seek other sources for soybeans, including Brazil, which was eager to help. One result: further destruction of Amazon rain forests — later, U.S. environmentalists’ big concern.

It is remarkable to reflect on how U.S. pressure on Japanese trade did not let up until some years after the summer of 1995 when President Bill Clinton reached an auto agreement with Japan with great fanfare. In between Nixon and Clinton, there was Ronald Reagan, who clamped down on Japanese auto imports as soon as he became president, in 1981.

During Reagan’s campaign against Jimmy Carter, he had put himself forward as an ardent free trader. His numerical limits on Japanese cars would lead Japanese automakers to switch from small, cheap cars to big, expensive ones.

Four years later, there was Reagan’s Treasury Secretary Jim Baker. He worked out the Plaza Accord, in 1985. He meant to rein in Japanese exports by forcing a sharp appreciation of the yen against the dollar. That purpose failed. Instead, the measure directly led to the Japanese Bubble — or so some have argued.

Fortunately or unfortunately, for more than a dozen years now, most of U.S. attention has been on China. Many may no longer remember the Japanese plaint in the 1990s: Japan “bashing” turned into Japan “passing.” The U.S. now runs a trade deficit with China of $300 billion.

If you take a larger historical perspective, you may say that most of U.S. attention has been on China since Richard Nixon, following Henry Kissinger’s Machiavellian machinations, flew to Beijing and met Mao Zedong, in the summer of 1972.

Or since 1949. The communist takeover of China that year spawned the harmful “Who Lost China?” recriminations in this country. Or since long before then. The Pacific War started because of the U.S. insistence that Japan move out of China.

The year of Clinton’s auto accord, 1995, was the 50th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in the Pacific War. To mark the occasion, I invited a couple of people to speak to the monthly lunch meetings I ran in my office at the time.

One was Faubion Bowers, Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s aide-de-camp and personal interpreter. A year before the war started, Bowers, a fresh Julliard-trained pianist, went to Japan, accidentally saw kabuki and fell in love with it.

After returning to this country, he studied Japanese at the Military Intelligence Service Language School. His mastery of Japanese was such that he received two citations during the war. That’s how, I imagine, he became MacArthur’s personal interpreter.

He was later called “the Savior of Kabuki” because he liberated kabuki from Occupation censorship. The Japanese government decorated him for it years later.

At the lunch meeting, Bowers discussed, among others, how he had agreed to the idea of “the Greater Far East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere,” how he could not stomach furious racial misconceptions of all the combatants involved, and how little the war that had killed 3 percent of the Japanese population had accomplished.

He ended his talk by citing a haiku of his Japanese friend, the playwright, stage director and novelist Mantaro Kubota. The haiku described how Kubota felt when the war was over.

Nani mo kamo akkerakan to

nishibi-naka.

All gone, nothing left to say,

in the westerly sun.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and writer in New York. His most recent book is “Snow in a Silver Bowl: A Quest for the World of Yugen.”