January 09, 2008; Volume 04, Number 02

of the

Japan Considered Podcast

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Dr. Robert Orr on the Effect of the Incoming Obama Administration on U.S.-Japan Relations
Concluding Comments

Good Morning! From beautiful Spring Valley. In the Midlands of South Carolina. Today is Friday again, January 9th, 2008. And you are listening to Volume 05, Number 02, of the Japan Considered Podcast.


Dreher Island State Park, SC
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Yes, Friday again. I’m just back from three days with the Japan Considered Mobile Studio parked right on the shore of Lake Murray. At  Dreher Island State Park. Another of South Carolina’s incredible state parks. This one in the central part of the State, less than an hour from Columbia. As usual, I took some photos. And will try to remember to put a link in the program transcript to a few of them on-line in a Picasa website. It’s quite a place. And I hope to go back soon. No WiFi service, unfortunately. But you can’t have everything. And being able to launch a kayak right from the campsite shore more than makes up for that.

Thanks for all the e-mails on Jim Auer’s comments about collective self defense on the last program. There’s little disagreement about the facts of this issue. But a wide range of opinion on how Japan’s government should interpret those facts. And how that interpretation will affect Japan’s overall international relations. It seems likely that we’ll be hear about this issue in the weeks and months to come. Maybe we can persuade Jim to come on again to help us understand just what’s going on.

Last week I’d hoped to discuss the timing of Japan’s next general election. Since that topic had dominated the political news coming from Tokyo at the end of 2008 and the first few days of 2009. But we ran out of time. And once again we’ll have to push back that discussion for at least another week.

For a good reason, though. Dr. Robert Orr has agreed to join us again on the program. This time to discuss how the arrival of a new presidential administration in Washington is going to affect U.S.-Japan relations.


Dr. Robert Orr on the Effect of the Incoming Obama Administration on U.S.-Japan Relations

Here on the Japan Considered Podcast we’ve expressed some concern about how Japan will perceive the incoming Obama Administration. And how the incoming Obama Administration will perceive Japan. I’ve asked Dr. Robert Orr, who’s the chairman of the board of the Panasonic Foundation, and a recently retired president of Boeing Japan, to come on the program to help us sort out these issues.

Few people would be more qualified to do this. Skipp now lives in Kamakura part of the time. And in Southwest France part of the time. He’s been involved directly with Japan now for well over 30 years. In fact, we’ve known each other for a little over 30 years. Though was much younger than he is, of course. He’s also one of the very few Americans to get a PhD from Tokyo University. Let’s give Skipp a call.


RMO: Good morning.

RCA: Good morning, Skipp. This is Bob Angel from beautiful Columbia, South Carolina.

RMO: Great! Good to hear from you.

RCA: Thanks for taking the call this morning. Or, tonight, your time. I guess it’s about 10:00 p.m., your time, isn’t it.

RMO: That’s about right.

RCA: I wonder, if as we discussed via e-mail a couple of days ago, if we could talk a little, and get your perceptions of how Japan is perceiving the United States. And how the United States is perceiving Japan. From your unusual perspective. What role did you play in the last U.S. presidential election campaign?

RMO: I became a supporter and participant in the Obama campaign from day one. And actually even prior to his announcement. That entailed really doing everything. I canvassed; I organized the first – I think the first overseas phone bank right here from Kamakura. And also one in  France. I raised money for the campaign. I contributed money. And I was part of two policy teams. Policy advisory teams for the campaign.

RCA: Which policy advisory teams? That’s interesting.

RMO: I was part of the Asia team. Specifically Japan. And also on a team that looked at economic development and foreign aid.

RCA: Well, you sure should know something about that. Didn’t I first meet you, or soon after meeting you, remember you from a Reagan Administration?

RMO: That’s right. I was a Democratic staffer on the Hill for several years. And then I received what’s called a Schedule C appointment in the Reagan Administration in USAID. So I spent several years in USAID as a Reagan appointee. A terrific experience. I was able to meet a lot of people from across the political spectrum.

RCA: You certainly have an interesting academic, political, and professional background. I’ll put a link in the transcript of this interview to your interview on the Japan Considered Project website. That’s still getting a lot of hits, by the way.

Since your time is short here, let’s move right over to this question of how the election of Senator Obama will affect U.S.-Japan relations. If at all. Do you really expect to see much change, given the change in administration and parties, in Washington?

RMO: Well, Bob, I think that U.S.-Japan relations is not a very partisan issue. That there’s a great deal of continuity. If you look from administration to administration to administration over the past 60 years or so. There really hasn’t been a great deal of change. I suspect that there’ll be change, certainly in nuance. Maybe a little more focus on environmental or energy conservation issues, under an Obama Administration with respect to Japan. Maybe a little bit less emphasis on the military relationship. But not to the extent that it would eliminate anything that had gone on before. So I don’t see any great changes.

RCA: What about Japan’s current domestic political problems? Will they have any effect on the U.S.-Japan relationship in the next weeks and months to come?

RMO: They could. I think that Japan has been in sort of an inertia mode for quite some time. With the possible exception of a couple years under Koizumi. But Japan right now, I think, is a country with rather intractable internal political dynamics. It could pose a problem when we’re trying to cooperate on issues, perhaps, related to terrorism, or elsewhere. And Japan is not able to work with us.

I think it’s very important for the Japanese side, rather than simply reacting to American ‘gai-atsu’ all of the time, to place themselves in a position where if there are proposals from the United States side, that if they’re not able to go along with those proposals, at least they’re able to have something as an alternative. Rather than simply saying, no, we can’t go there.

RCA: I’ve said for years that Japan justifies taking actions that might be publicly unpopular by saying that the U.S. forced them to do it. And there seems to be some evidence of that these days.

RMO: Yeah.

RCA: You’ve got an unusual number of high-level contacts in Japan’s political world. How do you find those folks talking about the change in administration in Washington? What are they asking you? Or what are they saying to you?

RMO: I think there’s an inordinate amount of hand-wringing going on in the high-ranking political sectors. And in the media it may even be worse. You almost get the impression … Well, first of all you get a situation where they’re projecting, or trying to predict …. Everyone does that. But to an extent that who’s going to be where? When? And if this person’s going to be friendly to Japan or not. You almost get the impression of a shaman in a remote jungle throwing bones on the ground, trying to see if their configuration lines up with a possible prognosis.

I don’t think that’s a very healthy situation for the Japanese side to be in. I read the German, French, and British press every day. I see none of the handwringing there that I see in the Japanese media, or dealing with the Japanese leadership. So, they’re really worried about it. They’re worried about the new regime. I think that it’s improving a little bit. They’re beginning to get used to it.

The contrast here, Bob, is the grass-roots have, from the beginning, overwhelmingly welcomed the concept of a change in regime. They’ve been intrigued by President-Elect Barak Obama from the very beginning. So I see this fascinating dichotomy between the grass roots and the Kasumigaseki/Nagatacho crowd in Japan.

RCA: Which is more concerned? Japan’s bureaucrats or politicians?

RMO: Well, on the politicians’ side, it’s the LDP. And in Kasumigaseki, I’d say the Gaimusho, or Foreign Ministry, is more worried. I get the impression that METI is a little more flexible. If you look at the Minshuto, the Democratic Party of Japan, they’re trying to line themselves up now as sort of a counterpart of the Democratic Party in the United States. In my discussions with them, I’ve tried to emphasize to all of the Japanese side that the wrong answer is to drop the Republicans and rush to the Democrats. Just as before the wrong answer was to drop the Democrats and rush to the Republicans. They need to have a healthy balance. In the United States power swings. One group of bums in for eight years or so. And then the next group of bums comes in. That’s just the way the system work. So that’s what I try to emphasize to my friends here.

RCA: You mentioned an interesting point a moment ago. You said that the general public in Japan, or the attentive public in Japan, doesn’t share the concerns of Kasumigaseki and Nagatacho.

RMO: They don’t. They were really excited by Obama. What he represented in terms of this idea of an African-American …. An ethnic change in the United States, for example, that frankly would be unimaginable in Japan. I think that in a general sense the elites in Japan don’t like change in any form. Change to them is a challenge. It’s something they’re uncomfortable with. And I think that’s what this represents.

RCA: Whereas the general population recognizes the need for change and adaptation, and are more flexible.

RMO: Yes. And I think the general population …. Frankly, I think there’s a big disconnect between the general population in Japan and the elites.

RCA: Absolutely! Absolutely. That’s a critical point that people even in Japan seem to miss.

RMO: I think it’s clear. Two different worlds. When you get outside of Tokyo …. Get outside that little Kasumigaseki, Nagatacho, Otemachi quadrant, and it’s quite a different world.

RCA: You’re one of the very few American academic Japan specialists who’s had executive-level business experience in Japan. Which undoubtedly gives you a lot of business-level contacts. What’s Japan’s business community saying about all of this?

RMO: That’s quite interesting, Bob. I find the Japanese business community to be – among the triumvirate there – the most liberal. The Japanese business community …. They’re business guys. I think they’re able to turn on a dime more easily than the bureaucrats and the politicians. At least, the conservative politicians. I had lunch just the other day with a senior CEO in Japan who’s a huge Obama fan. He’s young. My feeling is that they’re a little more flexible.

RCA: People, including me, accuse Japan of rigidity when it comes to change. But Japan really does have a long-term record of adaptation to incredible changes in their international and domestic environments. Maybe we should keep that in mind. What you say seems to suggest that.

RMO: I think that change takes time. But once it comes, it comes with a rush. So once all the ducks are in a row, the Japanese systems – I don’t want to say ‘system,’ because I don’t think there is one ‘system’ – ‘systems!’ within the country are able to move pretty rapidly once they identify what they need to do. It just takes them a long time to get there.

RCA: That fits with observations. Also, what about the other side of the thing. How do you see the Obama Administration understanding Asia? Or understanding Japan? I don’t read the German and French news like you do. I focus mainly on the Japanese press. But what’s your view on how Washington is going to change in its perception of Japan?

RMO: First of all, there’s a misconception on the part of the Japanese that they need one or two “go-to” persons in Washington. A sort of Rich Armitage or Mike Greene. Who are fine and distinguished fellows. But it strikes me that a great nation like Japan doesn’t need one or two handlers. I can’t imagine for a second the Germans or the French or the British coming back and asking “Where is your person who does Germany?” Or your person who does France? Or your person who does Britain. It’s not going to happen! But the Japanese keep looking for that. I keep telling them that there’s not going to be one “go-to” or two “go-to” persons. This is a relationship between two great nations.

In terms of perception of Japan, I think we have – as far as I know; this is a work in progress. We don’t know who’s going to be appointed to what. There’s only speculation out there. Part of the speculation relates to Kurt Campbell, who’d be assistant secretary of State for East Asia. He’s got a lot of experience related to Japan. He’s known here. Jeff Bader, speculated to become head of Asia in the NSC. He’s not a Japan Hand. He’s a China Hand. But he’s got loads of friends and contacts in Japan. He would be sympathetic. So I think that you’re going to find as this rolls out, you’ll see a lot of people who are knowledgeable about China and Japan.

I might point out one thing. Japan was the first foreign country that Barak Obama ever visited.

RCA: Is that right? When?

RMO: When he was about six. He told me this himself. He came to Kamakura. He was on his way to Indonesia with his Mother. He visited the Great Buddha. It had a big impression on him. A couple of times when I’ve talked to him, because he knew I was living in Kamakura, he mentioned that. So, Japan, in terms of his consciousness, it started early.

RCA: That’s all very helpful. Especially your notion that the time has passed when Japan needs a rabbi, so to speak, in Washington in order to handle relations. It just isn’t done that way anymore by other countries, is it?

RMO: Exactly! Germany …. France …. I talk to Berlin all the time. That’s my other hat. In Berlin nobody’s hand-wringing about who’s going to be the next ambassador to Berlin. It’s not something they do. Maybe Burma would want a specialist involved. But if you’re Japan? Do you really need a hand-holder? I don’t think so.

RCA: We didn’t talk about this in our e-mail exchanges. But could I ask you about your views on the current Japanese political situation, just briefly?

RMO: Surely.

RCA: We’ve passed the time I promised to keep. So I apologize. But what in the world is going on in Japanese politics today?

RMO: I think it’s stagnation. You have a situation where the DPJ controls the Upper House. And the prime minister of Japan, Taro Aso, has got very low public opinion support, which translates into … as in any democratic political system … it translates into a lack of support within his own Party within the Diet. I had lunch with several leading LDP figures this week. They think that we will see an election. Probably by the summer.

A lot of this is being dictated by how the Obama Administration is going to roll out. They’re very concerned that Obama in any way might make an overture to the DPJ. In any way or form. Speak with anybody in the DPJ. Or anything like that. So, they’re seeing the U.S.-Japan relationship under the new regime, in my view, not in terms of Japanese interests. But in terms how it affects the Japanese domestic political scene.

RCA: My goodness! We’re right back in the early days of the Cold War, aren’t we?

RMO: Almost. I think that’s how they’re dealing with this.

RCA: I’ve talked for a few years now on this program about the distinction between the Traditionalists in the LDP and the Reformists in the LDP. And even the Reformists don’t seem to be able to get their act together and decide who’s going to head anything. If something else were created! What’s your view on all that?

RMO: I think that’s a struggle that’s still very much in play. The younger crowd within the LDP are still, I think, trying to make headway into changing their own Party. Ironically, the DPJ can help them in that, in the sense they can put pressure externally on it that will make them change. The best thing that could happen to the LDP, in my view, is that they would lose. Get kicked out.

RCA: Why is that?

RMO: Because I think that losing an election has a purifying effect on political parties. They really need to get out of power. I actually think that losing for the Republicans in this election in the United States does not necessarily have to be a negative thing. Political parties in power too long make for an unhealthy situation. No matter what the political system is. I’m a believer in the idea that power corrupts, and that absolute power corrupts absolutely. And I think the LDP has been in that latter category for far, far too long. It would help them if they got out of power.

RCA: Is the DPJ up to taking up the slack should the LDP commit suicide here?

RMO: Probably not. But what political party usually is? I don’t think they are. You’ve got about half of them who are former LDP members. However, most of those who are in leadership roles in the DPJ who are from the LDP never served in a leadership capacity in the LDP. I’m not saying none of them did, just most of them have not. So, there is concern in Japan about whether or not the DPJ guys have the experience, for example, to run a ministry, or something like that. But to me, the experience issue is sort of a canard. People develop experience. They usually fall on their faces a few times in the beginning. I thing the broader picture is more important. That is, the political system having an enema.

RCA: There’s also the question not only of experience on the DPJ side. But the various political perspectives and points of view there. They’re almost as diverse as the LDP!

RMO: That’s true. In fact, I would say, more diverse in the sense that they have to entertain some on the Left, who are further left. To the extent that a real left wing exists in Japan anymore. And, by the way, I do think a left wing does exist. Except that it’s not in the national capital. It’s out in the prefectures. That’s where the Left really still sits.

Certainly it’s more diverse in the DPJ. No question about that. But it would be a good thing if they could get in. What is it? Let 100 flowers flourish?

RCA: Oh dear. Don’t say that. Those flowers got weed-eatered!

RMO: That didn’t work out too well.

RCA: What else should we talk about here that would be useful for our listeners?

RMO: I think it’s important to understand that for the United States, Japan is going to remain the “madoguchi” [window] for Asia. I don’t think that’s going to change. That’s very important Remember, we have a relationship with China, and everyone’s worried about Japan Passing. But the fact is that we have a relationship with China; we have a relationship with Japan. But our relationship with Japan is very wide. And our relationship with China is very narrow. I think that everyone needs to understand that. We have a wide relationship that’s been built over 60 years. Our relationship with China is new. There are a lot of things we can do with Japan. Almost everything. Things we can almost never do with China. I hope that is factored in any thinking about Asia. Japan has to remain the “madoguchi.”

Anything we do with China is not a zero-sum game for Japan. In fact, the better relationship we have with China, the better the relationship will be with Japan. You don’t want things falling apart in this part of the world.

RCA: I’ve kept you far longer than we agreed on. Thanks again coming on the program when I understand you’re headed to Washington for the Inauguration before long.

RMO: That’s right.

RCA: Once again, I appreciate your support for the Japan Considered Project.

RMO: Well, thank you. I really appreciate being on.

Concluding Comments

Well, there you have it. It would be hard to find someone more qualified to opine on that important subject. Thanks again, Skipp, for the time. I know you’re busy as a one-armed paper-hanger over there at the moment. It was a valuable contribution. We’ll be back again asking about how things are going once President-Elect Obama has been in office for a while.

Please continue to send your comments and suggestions for the program to me directly at RobertCAngel@gmail.com. I read them all. And take each one into consideration when planning future programs. Next week I hope we will be able to consider the fascinating subject of the LDP’s current problems. And the timing of the next election. So,

Goodbye all. Until next time.