Yves here. I trust you’ll enjoy this long-form account of how President Obama put his foot in mouth and chewed in front of Japan’s Prime Minister Abe when he merely thought he was eating steak. What is appalling about both Obama’s and US Trade Representative Froman’s behavior isn’t merely that they didn’t understand that bullying gets you nowhere in Japan, which is the world leader in bureaucratic stonewalling. It’s that they also couldn’t be bothered to understand the basics about Japanese decision-making. Only in owner-controlled companies do you see anything resembling Western top-down processes. Western impulse, to go to the head man to get things resolved, is a sign of gaijin ignorance and presumption. Decisions are made at the staff level, and the decision-making takes place well below the top executive rank. Trying to short-cut that process is a non-starter. The Japanese are masters of sabotage when nemawashi (the consensus-building process) has been bypassed.
By Clive, a regular Naked Capitalism commenter and self-confessed Japan-o-phile
A brief recap for readers who haven’t been following the story so far: We were skeptical about recent claims that there had been a sudden breakthrough in the US-Japan Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations. This was because the reasons given for an apparent softening in Japan’s position in the negotiations – especially in the area of agricultural tariffs – relied on a scarcely-believable idea that a tough stance by US Trade Representative (USTR) Michael Froman in a Washington committee hearing would have the Japanese cowering before him. We debunked this notion because that is simply not how you do business with the Japanese. Any such approach is more than likely to be counterproductive.
But according to the US playbook, Froman’s roughing up of Japan in public would be followed at the end of April by US President Obama’s visit to Japan where he would then be able to seal a TPP deal, have a photo op and declare his Asian visit a triumph.
What happened instead is that, according to credible reports, is it was the US which had to capitulate on rice and wheat tariffs. Japan is still holding out for the retention of tariffs on other agricultural products such as pork and beef. As Obama left Japan last week without a deal, an agreement seems as far away as ever. But the negotiations continue and the show goes on.
I am not so sure that the Japanese will, however, be so quick to forget the frankly amateurish posturing by the US and crude attempts to stich up a TPP deal. I’ll let readers make up their own minds after reading the following tale of Heads of State joshing.
From the Japanese Gendai Daily News website Gendai.net which I have translated from the origional Japanese:
Obama’s Just Left the Country…And Leaves Prime Minister Abe Bitchin’ about the State Visit
Clive here: Yes, that really is the headline! At least, as far as I can translate it. Now, the Nikkan Gendai is a bit of a scurrilous rag at times and definitely leans towards, ah-hem, the more populist Japanese readership. But Japanese media rarely (never in my experience) just makes stuff up, so there must be at least some truth in this. Back to the Gendai’s story…
(Sub headline): US Given the Brush-off at 500-bucks a Head Steakhouse
What kind of a nerve do you have to go around badmouthing a guest on a State visit the moment theyíve left the country?
On the evening of the 25th April, Prime Minister Abe, Finance Minister Aso and Chief Cabinet Secretary Kan were dining on a steak dinner in a luxury restaurant in Tokyo’s smart Ginza district. Abe was complaining that “Obama was just talking about work” during his attempt at a bit of “sushi diplomacy” earlier in the week (of Obama’s visit to Japan) on the night of the 23rd April.
Apparently, President Obama was said to have told Abe that, with his own approval ratings in the 40% range and Abe’s in the 60% range, it was Abe who should be making TPP concessions. Abe then cracked a joke about how the new US ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, enjoyed even higher approval ratings than he did but Obama just went on about reducing pork and beef tariff reductions (a continuing US demand in the TPP negotiations)
The Japanese Prime Minister reportedly then gossiped to the cabinet members that “It turned into a TPP business dinner. The President didn’t make any jokes of his own. That guy is business-like. It’s difficult to get on his wavelength.” After the dinner, the conversation got leaked to the press and quickly spread like wildfire.
Officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were rumoured to have added “It’s good to be offending the U.S. side but….”
Clive again: Okay, who having got this far isn’t starting to think to themselves, hey, wait a minute, this doesn’t sound at all plausible. We’re supposed to have had the Japanese Prime Minister and two other key cabinet members dining in public in a Tokyo restaurant bad mouthing (albeit mildly) the US President…and this conversation just happens to have been overheard by some mysterious agent who just happened to blab to the press. Really? If you believe that, Iíd love to talk to you about a great deal I can offer you on the Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge… Much more likely of course is that the whole story was a plant by the Japanese government to make clear what it thinks of Obama.
Back to the Gendai Daily News which, if you’ll forgive the pun, adds some flavor to the steakhouse tale…
There’s even more to the steak angle of this story. Right now, Japan is the cause of the impasse in the TPP negotiations (which includes beef tariff elimination which Japan is resisting). But despite Obama’s known fondness for Kobe beef he wasnít served any during his visit to Japan. On the first day of his trip, he was invited to a ritzy sushi place in Tokyo. And at the state banquet in the Imperial Palace on the second day, he was served steamed sheep leg.
But on the same day as Abe treated Obama to sushi (at a moderately upscale place in Tokyo charging about $300 a head, which is pricy but not exceptional by Tokyo’s famously over the top dining sceneís standards), he himself was enjoying beefsteak at the ultra-exclusive Kawamura restaurant charging a minimum of $500 per person before extras. Those in political circles commented “You can see how Obama might gripe that he didn’t get to enjoy such wonderful beefsteak because of Abe, due to a misunderstanding (of Abe’s actions)”
Clive: If it were me, I wouldn’t have taken Obama to McDonald’s. Back to the article, where we leave the scene of the spurned Obama left to chomp on cold fish after being denied the chance to sample the world’s best beefsteak by Prime Minister Abe (I am absolutely not making this up!) and the Gendai’s reporting turns to Japan’s cabinet discussing the TPP….
Earlier in the day, before Abe’s grumbling (about Obama, while having the aforementioned beefsteak dinner), Finance Minister Aso said of the ongoing TPP negotiations that nothing would happen until after the US mid-term elections in November, citing that Obama would not have enough congressional muscle (to get the legislation passed).
Clive – I’ll leave the article there, although it does continue to add that President Obama then departed for Korea where, as if he hadn’t offended the Japanese enough by not using the opportunity presented by Prime Minister Abe to do a bit of friendly get-to-know-you-better talking but instead apparently hustled non-stop for a TPP deal (very short version of what a screw-up that was: this is absolutely not how you do business with the Japanese), Obama then lectured the Japanese on how they need to make better amends for imprisoning Korean women into sex slavery during WWII.
I will take a moment here to explain why, in what is a metaphor for his whole presidency, what Obama tried to do was largely right and necessary, but the way he did it was flat out wrong. The so-called Issue of the Comfort Women (a phrase I hate and refuse to use ordinarily because it sanitises the reality of what happened, which was sexual violence) needs a much more detailed and fulsome apology from Japan than has been made so far. Japan needs to, in modern parlance, own its stuff.
But Japan will not do so until the US is much more honest and forthcoming about the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I am not saying I agree with Japan’s argument here. I don’t. I merely relay it as being what a great many Japanese people think and why they don’t believe they should make any greater recompense for their actions. Obama has in his power the ability to start a much more open discourse with Japan about US conduct during WWII but instead blunders around a complex issue doing more harm than good. Anyhow, that’s a topic for another day.
The Gendai Daily News, whose article I’ve translated above, is no friend of Japan’s current Prime Minister Abe. The piece finishes with the feature’s writer scolding Abe for rubbishing Obamaís business-like approach. I should add that, if we accept the premise that this entire well-telegraphed snub by Abe to Obama was planned and intentional, this is rather unusual and generally not a very Japanese-like thing to do. It seems petty and doesn’t present Japan in a good light internationally. For a lot of Japanese, it would be rather embarrassing. Which makes me think that, if it happened as reported, Abe must be really – really – pee’d off with Obama.
The Gendai though isnít shy of coming to the conclusion that, as things stand today, the TPP is finished as far as Japan is concerned.
While the more mainstream and business-oriented Japanese press is still non-committal about the prospects for a TPP agreement, some of the more populist news outlets in Japan are now blatantly saying that a deal is impossible. Again from Gendai.net the headline of the article reads simply “Breakdown inevitable as U.S. Congress requests Obama make a commitment to a “zero tariffs” TPP”. As there’s already been an apparent acceptance by the US Trade Representaive of Japan’s imposition of tariffs on rice and wheat, if that report is true, then TPP is dead in the water as far as including Japan is concerned.