Did Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Serve Obama Beefsteak-Flavored Revenge for US Trade Representative Froman’s TPP Rudeness?

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.

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  1. D12345

    You might check the meaning of fulsome. I don’t think that is the sort of apology that is desired for crimes against Korean women.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      While I was focused on formatting issues and didn’t edit the copy otherwise, this isn’t as clear cut as you indicate. And Clive is British, so they may lean toward the older usage of fulsome:

      The earliest recorded use of fulsome, in the 13th century, had the meaning ‘abundant,’ but in modern use this is held by many to be incorrect. The correct current meaning is ‘disgusting because overdone, excessive.’ The word is still often used to mean ‘abundant, copious,’ but this use can give rise to ambiguity: for one speaker, fulsome praise may be a genuine compliment; for others, it will be interpreted as an insult. For this reason alone, it is best to avoid the word altogether if the context is likely to be sensitive.

      I agree it might not be the best formulation given the ambiguity of usage, but it’s not wrong. In fact, it’s perversely apt since it’s not clear that a belated and presumably reluctant apology by the Japanese would ever be seen as sincere.

      1. maff

        Its rather peculiar for you to explain, quite accurately, that there are two interpretations of this word only to argue that just one of them is “correct”. Does the equivalence between “american” and “correct” here only apply to our language or does it have a more universal interpretation?

        1. Clive

          When I write, my intention is to communicate to an audience clearly and convey whichever message I am trying to convey. If I use a word correctly idiomatically or grammatically but a proportion of readers still don’t understand the point I am trying to make then I’ve used the wrong word. That’s the rule I use anyway in determining if my vocabulary is “right” or “wrong”.

          Even in today’s much more interconnected world, it’s still true to say that the US and the UK are “two nations divided by a common language” !

          I always recall the following anecdote when this sort of thing comes up. A while back where I work employed, at considerable expense, a US executive in a C-level post. The lady began instigating some changes which, I guessed, were her off-the-shelf methods of operational controls, fresh (or perhaps a bit stale) from where the buffalo roam and the corn grows high and nobody fences anybody in.

          Projects were divided up into classifications which included what were called “signature” pieces. Well, US readers will understand that word in that context and what our imported exec meant to say. But most Brits had absolutely no idea what she was on about. I did suggest that her vocabulary was modified and the classification criteria anglicised, but no. The lady knew what the word meant and, in short, us stuffy old Brits would just have to jolly well learn her lingo.

          The snag was, there simply isn’t an easy way to translate what the a US speaker means when they say “signature”. If you know that the word can be attached to the model description of a fully loaded Lincoln Town Car, then you can kind-a piece it together. Even then, you’re still not fully there. It would have been far better for her to have come up with another expression that was both language- and culture- neutral. But no. The bone-headed insistence — and the collective confusion — remained.

          It would have been better for her — and it’s better for NC’s readers and therefore better for me — to change the word. If ever I get to the point where I start claiming I’m infallible and my words are inviolable, please form an orderly lynch mob and set sail for England with all haste !

          1. craazyman

            oh man I thought you were gonna say signature is British slang for a dude’s junk or something like that. I was preparing to crack up laughing

            If it makes you feel any better I must be completely out of it, even more than even I realize, because the 13th century usage is what I thought the word fulsome meant. However I have heard of it used in relation to describing the female anatomy that goes inside a brassiere.

            I personally wouldn’t use the word “fulsome” in writing — not out of narrative inability or any overwrought sense of moral fastidiousness — but only because I think it sounds sort of British and erudite, like somebody is sipping sherry by a fireplace looking out through a window while their garden keeper, in an ascot, surveys the rose bushes while the butler prepares the library for an evening of reading classical literature in the original language, or at the very least a translation from the 1700s. Certainly not one from the 20th century and certainly not the 21st century. As if anybody left on earth can translate Latin or Greek anymore anyway.

            I bet Obama forgot all about Japan and vice versa. Money talks and bullSh*t waks and these politiicians only think about the money That’s my belief anyway. I bet it’s like trying to remember a dream after about 7 minutes.

            1. allcoppedout

              Sue and I are waiting for a prog called ‘The Magic of Mushrooms’ to come on tonight. I can tell you we’re going to be very disappointed if it turns out to be another episode of Masterchef! Nothing to add really Craazy. Plato said somewhere he didn’t think language lasted a generation. I have not heard of the fulsome tit amongst the bird population; though on reflection in a different language-game, I have. Clarity is over-rated by those who can’t see the wood of their own construction from the trees.

            2. Clive

              Oh craazyman, you really are, despite your protestations, eminently erudite. At a pinch, you could pass for an Oxbridge don. Albeit after he’s had a few.

            1. Clive

              I’d have to fall back on that old standby, profuse

              But of course, have blathered on about it, it’ll screw everything up if it was changed :-)

                1. Clive

                  Don’t worry Lambert, I think we’ve all suffered enough ! I, for one, will never write anything, ever again ;-)

    2. Clive

      Ah ! I used the word within the British English idiomatic. Here the word has much stronger connotations of “complete” and “generous”. Using the term “a fulsome apology” is almost a stock-phrase in UK writing and speech.

      http://wordsmith.org/words/fulsome.html shows the chequered history of this word.



      1. Effusive; lavish.
      2. Excessive to the point of being offensive.

      Does the word fulsome have a positive connotation or negative? Depends on whom you ask. The word started out in mid 13th century as a straightforward, unambiguous word to describe abundance. By the 17th century, it had acquired a deprecatory sense, as in the second sense listed above. Then, again, it went around the bend and in the 20th century the positive sense of the word became more common. Language purists continue to stick with the second sense, while others use the word in its first sense. What to do? Avoid it, unless context is clear…

      Hopefully the context in my origional use was clear, but safest to change it !

      1. Propertius

        That’s okay, Clive, I can recall our illustrious President once referring to “the enormity of his task” without (apparently) being aware of what the term “enormity” has historically meant.

        1. ScottB

          Had to look up “enormity”, which I always understood as a synonym for “enormous.” I now see the enormity of my error.

  2. Ken Ward

    Clive is using ‘fulsome’ in the normal British way. One shouldn’t assume that British English usage is older than American. Often, it is American usage that represents British usage of a few centuries ago. Another example is the American fondness for using prepositions following verbs, such as ‘meet with’ rather than simply ‘meet’, an obsolete English practice. The recent announcement of a Naked Capitalism ‘meet-up’ in Washington is a brilliant example. I doubt if anybody in the UK advertises meet-ups these days but, who knows, maybe it was common parlance during the English Civil War

  3. Working Class Nero

    The fact that the Japanese Prime Minister leaked the fact that he dissed Obama may just be an attempt to gain the political capital necessary to make a big concession. If he had been planning to take a hard line on TPP then he would have gone out of his way to be nice to Obama so as to minimize the damage this decision would have. But by emphasizing how seriously Obama takes this will help Abe in the future defend his ultimate capitulation.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Erm, Abe can’t capitulate. You are applying the Western Big Man model to Japan. It doesn’t work that way. Abe is not a principal the way a President is a principal here. He is hostage to the workings of the relevant bureaucracies and can’t do more than nudge a bit from the top.

      And by going public, through a plausibly deniable channel (a paper that is down market and not on his side), he’s giving more grist to the opposition.

      1. OpenThePodBayDoorsHAL

        Especially when it’s rice we’re talking about, that’s the equivalent of the “third rail” in US politics. A very fulsome third rail.

      2. Jimbo

        LDP power base is farm and rural area. agreeing to TPP term as Obama wants it would be political suicide and instant election. Why should Abe bother with his approval rating very high and enjoying good staying power. As far as he is concern Obama will be gone after November mid term. He will be entangled with republican controlled congress, investigation and scandals every single days.

        Is not like the rest of asia doesn’t understand what TPP, mid term election or Obama political prospect are.

        In the meantime, anybody realize that the trilateral FTA talk, part of larger RCEP negotiation are moving at full speed? (That would be China – Korea – Japan, trilateral talk) Funny eh?

    2. diptherio

      Repeat after me: “different cultures exist”

      Ever done any international travel? I think you might find it enlightening (hint: Canada and the UK don’t count)

      1. Working Class Nero

        I’ve lived out of the US for most of the past 25 years in non- English speaking countries where even a working class loser like myself was able to learn the local languages. For example my 14 year old son started on his sixth language this year. So you are barking up the wrong tree here if you think I am the average USian. Not only that but the projects I work on are multicultural to the extreme so I do have just a experience on this subject. So repeat after me: “Different cultures exist but the way politicians in civilized cultures manipulate and are manipulated by power is largely universal”.

        In both cases, Obama and Abe, they are but figureheads to powerful interests behind the scenes. So when I said Abe will capitulate I mean he will own the coming capitulation politically; not that he himself will necessarily make the decision. The decision has already been made the the marionette’s manipulator. In the same vein Obama is hardly a “Big Man” who personally cares whether TPP passes. His handlers have given him a job to do and he is going to use all his considerable talents to get it done. In both cases they representatives of hidden power structures. In any case, and mark my words, the TPP agreement will pass but it may have to wait after the mid-term elections in the US this November.

        1. Chauncey Gardiner

          Working Class Nero,
          I agree. Is this a “deal killer”… Is the impasse permanent? Although I hope Clive is correct in his concluding paragraph, I think not. Just perceived as a fixable cultural faux pas, another marker alongside the road to Transnational Corporate and Too Big To Fail replacement of the democratic nation-state and their desire for absolute control IMO.

          Obama and Froman et al have done us all an unintentional favor. But are we now to assume the oligarchs who control the TBTFs, Transnational Corporations, and arguably many of our elected officials, are just going to give up and roll over in their pursuit of this “Agreement”?

          Instead, I think it is likely that we will be treated to a few months of “safety defects” in Japanese products, more Senkaku issues, and other oblique pressure measures followed by an entrance of the culturally sensitive “Good Guy” and his culturally sensitive staff in a traditional American “Good Guy-Tough Guy” negotiating scenario. But perhaps we will have gained sufficient time from this charade to take us beyond the post-2014 mid-term congressional lame duck session also noted by diptherio below.

          1. Synopticist

            I reckon this will be a deal killer. Japan won’t open up it’s agricultural market to foreign competition, because it would get destroyed, and Japanese strategic considerations about food security (which go back to memories of starvation during WW2) are too pertinent.

            The last Doha free trade round collapsed with no agreement. Congress isn’t happy to fast-track, and Japan, unlike the likes of New Zealand and Chile, is big enough not to get bullied. I don’t thing it will happen, except perhaps, as has been suggested here many times, as a Potempkin TPP.

            It may be that Obama ISN’T just going through the motions, and he thinks that a deal is still possible, but then when were his ideas grounded in genuine political reality?

            1. Yves Smith Post author

              And after WWII too, the period till 1947 was called “the starving times”.

        2. theinhibitor

          Well said, working class hero

          And diptherio, not only is your response insulting, but very very inaccurate. If your speaking of rural areas around the world (and yes this varies of course) then yes, cultures and very different. But most modern societies are unfortunately quite similar (you know, due to the whole internet, pervasive media thing, international travel, etc), and the way you speak of Japanese politics as being so very different than those in the US, you are sadly quite mistaken. They are ruled by the elite, just as they are here.

          The only difference exists in the formalities and the masks the politicians wear.

          In fact, one of the biggest problems of today, perhaps highlighted by the TPP, is that the wealthy are finally realizing that they have more in common with each other than with their nations.

          1. Synopticist

            “In fact, one of the biggest problems of today, perhaps highlighted by the TPP, is that the wealthy are finally realizing that they have more in common with each other than with their nations.”

            I totally agree with this, but you’re wrong on how it works in Japan. Big organisations over there are “ruled” by middle and senior level managers reaching a broad consensus, often over boozy get-togethers.
            Crucially it’s always been like that. Before WW2 it was mid to senor-ranking army officers and defence bureaucrats who decided on Japanese foreign policy, and that confused western diplomats at the time, who were thinking in conventional terms.

        3. diptherio

          Sorry for the inappropriate assumption. Too early in the morning to be making snarky comments, perhaps. But still, your assumption that politicians everywhere use mostly the same tactics doesn’t fit with my experience at all, and seems to be refuted by people with lots of experience in the ways of this particular culture (alas, I’ve only worked in a Japanese restaurant, never been there myself).

          We should both probably repeat, every morning, before commenting on NC:
          “When you assume, you make an ass out of u and me.”

    3. Worker-Owner

      Erm, in general, the Great Man theory is a cover story. The Great Men are generally only loosely in control of even general direction. Witness the various bureaucracies of the UK, EU (individually and collectively), and US lurching out of control of their Great Leaders and forcing said Leaders into all kinds of dissembling to try to make the lurching look intentional. Japan is different (each is), especially in the extent to which such insubordinate autonomy is expected. I once had the CEO of a major US corporation counsel me that he could not institute a much needed corporate cultural correction, even over a period of years. He just didn’t have the power. The Great “Men” are creations of their minions and the seemingly successful ones mostly got lucky.

  4. brazza

    Wonderful insights … thanks for the perspective, Clive!
    Ultimately I’m left wondering … was it always the case that US Presidents were rain-maker/VP Sales for US Inc? Somehow I grew up thinking they were way busy saving the free world … *sigh*

    1. susan the other

      I know. I grew up thinking that too. Yes, they have always been salesmen for USA Inc; like Abe is for Japan Inc, and Tony Blair et.al. have always been for the UK’s weapons industry. And on and on. The thing Clive said that really upset me is actually a reference to this special-interest filtering system: that the “US Congress has requested zero tariffs.” Man, those sneaks. They have been playing cat and mouse with tariffs because tariffs are good for social stability but bad for corporations. So you can only conclude that in Japan social stability is far more deeply woven into their corporate system than it is here. But we already knew that – and we already knew that almost everyone in the US Congress is a sneak.

  5. Mariane Jones

    Shout out to EX-KSF (http://ex-skf.blogspot.com/) for highlighting this story. His initial summary on the Gendai article was included in this blog’s daily links article yesterday. The gentleman (woman?) has been doing a real service for the world since 3/11.

  6. YY

    Yves, on the top down business for this particular set of circumstances I would disagree. Obama is proving to be, and in a very disappointing fashion, much less top down and much more bottom up staff level decision making man than Abe. How else would one explain the extent of neo-con driven foreign policies and national security hack driven strategies that are are in direct contradictions to his recent stated positions and expectations one would have? TPP in Japan is driven top down by Abe, for reasons that befuddle me but resemble that of blind adherence to what is perceived to be in interest of progress, whereas it is precisely the likes of Froman and more importantly the private interest groups, (this is equivalent to what would be in normal countries the bureaucracy) as a bottom up exercise in rent seeking for the United States. There would be some consensus in the leaders of LDP in the reactionary view about the war and such, but even in the cabinet there were people complaining of Abe not consulting about such matters as his visit to Yasukuni. The outcome of TPP vis a vis Japan/US is pretty predictable. No significant concessions on pork (recent Aus/Jpn agreement more or less define the parameters for meat) and “concessions” on autos (this is the don’t throw me in the briar patch issue) which will not help US manufacturers since they haven’t a clue what they really want, and they are not really driving TPP.

    All the pig in the poke issues of TPP (IT, GM, finance, Big tobacco) are strangely not at issue and will bite every participant country in the ass should the agreement ever proceed to fruition. If only free trade were about more efficient widgets and cheaper produce.

    Abe’s complaint about Obama being all business at the Sushi dinner is more indication of absence of things to talk about otherwise and probably of Obama not actually being such a good negotiator and not much company with people who share very little in interests/outlook. But as dinners go, the venue for the occasion could not have been better thought through. There is something to be said for dining at a counter in a place that seats at most a dozen people.

    1. Worker-Owner

      YY, I agree with your assessment of Obama. You might go judge the last few Presidents by the same standard. A case can be made that they are all, like Abe and Obama, herding collections of big and nasty cats … and being only moderately successful.

      1. NotTimothyGeithner

        Abe is PM, not President. Harry Reid would be a better comparison. Obama could wield power because his path came from the voters, not horsetrading. An activist President would just go to the districts of hesitant congressman, thank them for the I leadership and support of the President’s decision and dare them to challenge the President directly. They won’t because 10% of their voters might be able to identify their reps, but the voters do know the President.

        The rep. from Hoboken can’t do this to the rep. from the greater Walla Walla area no matter popularity in the caucus.

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      You are missing my point completely.

      His dealmaking approach with Japan is classic Western: “let’s sort out the critical details top mano-a-mano” first with Froman and his counterpart, and then with Obama trying to push Abe to break what Obama and Froman perceive to be key logjams. That IS a top-down, “Big Man” approach.

      1. Propertius

        I agree wholeheartedly – anyone who has spent even a little time in Japan (I think you and I were actually in Tokyo at about the same time, Yves) knows that’s just not how things are done there. At least he didn’t raise his voice and pound on the table in classic “winning through intimidation” style. WelI hope he didn’t.

        A big part of Obama’s problem with relationship-building seems to be that he just isn’t very interested in other people, only in their immediate utility to him.

  7. John

    It is not clear what Obama’s state of mind is when dealing with the Japanese at any negotiating level, it is clear though he has failed or chosen to ignore the many decades of trade negotiating with Japan. It is still a managed economy with industrial policies designed to prop up businesses the government (MITI) deems as strategically important.

    Obama brings a 900-strong brigade of specialists on each of his overseas trips, equipped with armored cars, specialized vans, and exclusive travel routes to each of his venues. I suppose he thought his grotesquely large traveling team would somehow persuade the Japanese to cave on the negotiating table. On the contrary, people are not impressed by the armada and see it as a huge waste, especially for a country that leads in the industrial world in inequality.

    Peeling back Japanese red tape is like peeling an onion one layer at a time. As such, Obama should have saved himself the embarrassment and not let Japan into the TPP.

    1. NotTimothyGeithner

      “It is not clear what Obama’s state of mind is when”

      One could start any relevant post with this since the re-election.

      I think the Obama Administration and Versailles as a whole is exceptionally shallow and believes their own myths, and one shouldn’t expect diplomacy or even politeness from American elites when they are abroad. Kerry’s constant lecturing about invasions in the 21st century is a clear sign of the problem. Despite the world and many Americans seeing the Iraq invasion as outright naked aggression, the U.S. has a supporter of the same war lecturing other countries as our top diplomat. Giving the Russians this warning is particularly offensive especially when Putin’s government encouraged us not to go into Iraq.

      We see behavior from the American political elite across all spectrums which is designed to impress the American elite who are shallow and ignorant. Obama’s attempt to be “all business” is designed to impress the factions who see the Japanese as insane workaholics and the faction who thought Dubya’s personal style was beneath the office of the President. Do you remember the puff pieces about the Japanese company loyalty rallies from the weeklies such as Time and Newsweek in the 90’s? The President serving sandwiches he made from the White House kitchen or pretending to be a cowboy? Outrageous.

    2. Jimbo

      Obama is a lightweight as a world leader and intellectually lazy. He has no experience whatsoever. He has only one trick, senate floor meat market style negotiation. He deals with everything and everybody that way. He things he has the whip and control negotiation. But the rest of the world simply fed up with him, and giving him smoke and mirror. (observe natanyahu.)

      Watch Putin playing Obama on central europe. if I have to make a bet, By this christmas, US will enter energy price hike and the beginning of next economic crisis. This will happen while Obama get tangled with republican house/senate.

    3. Propertius

      And, by Japanese standards (hell, by *American* standards), he was incredibly brusque and rude.

      That’s *always* a winning combination.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Haha, what a wimp!

      I’ve never had fugu but it’s considered a real delicacy and very pricey.

      Yes, some fugu-holics die from it every year (fugu is poisonous, the whole point of eating fugu is the momentary tingling of the poison in your mouth) but more people die from drinking.

      And the Japanese LOVE making gaijin eat Japanese food they are pretty sure we will consider unpalatable. The usual “make the gaijin squirm” food is natto, which has a really slimy mouth feel and a nasty fermented taste (you can see I still fail the test on that one, but I eat it and give the Japanese their amusement of “miserable gaijin makes funny faces”). So Obama was tested, and if he turned it down or complained about the offer, he failed.

    2. Propertius

      “Have the liver, Obama-san, it’s the *best* part!”

      When I worked in Tokyo, my Japanese colleagues seemed to consider it their solemn duty to prevent me from ever trying fugu.

  8. diptherio

    Pretty sure the following paragraph needs to be blockquoted:

    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).

    1. Clive

      Yes, unfortunately I gave Yves loads of problems with formatting (shaggy dog story, but even so-called “plain text” (ASCII) files are not quite so plain as the name implies).

  9. JIm A.

    I wonder….ISTM that the Japanese have been signaling in their typically polite and indirect fashion for quite some time that the TPP in it’s current form is DOA. To what extant is the Obama administration’s continued statements that a deal is just around the corner because they are tin-eared to the subtleties of Japanese culture, and to what extant are they being INTENTIONALLY dense. Surely some of the staff realize that “This is an interesting proposal,” and “We’ll have our staff look through this,” mean “shut up about this already.” Perhaps Abe was driven to what is to him seems unpardonable rudeness by our inability or unwillingness to get the message.

    1. Clive

      Agreed — that’s exactly how I read the situation.

      I do wish I understood the American psyche better. Perhaps US readers can enlighten me a bit. I am pretty sure (like, 99% certain) that the Japanese are nearly psychic in intuiting when one party to a discussion isn’t happy and will — almost pre-emptively — withdraw or at the very least revise a proposal rather than propose it and produce discord. As for the British, we seem to do a lot of blustering but it’s so formulaic that a discerning counterparty realises it for what it is and doesn’t take much notice so there’s usually little offence given. And it is rare we dig our heels in, normally a compromise is soon reached for.

      Americans, on the other hand, certainly lack the Japanese ability to foresee conflict and avoid it by rumination. Nor do they possess the British ability to have a pantomime hissy fit then quickly seek a middle ground. The US culture seems to place heavy emphasis on full-on head-butting and resolution of disagreements through toughness. Acting mean on both sides is expected and even welcomed. The final position is reached through a sometimes fierce squabble, but everyone ends up as friends (mostly). This though exasperates your typical Brit (who will quickly tire of the chest-thumping performance and soon want to move on to discussing a “reasonable compromise”). And a typical Japanese person will simply not know how to handle it and feel very uncomfortable.

      What I don’t understand at all is, why Americans don’t seem to get that not everyone appreciates their typical style of negotiation ?

      Apologies, lots of stereotypes and generalisations in that lot, unavoidable for the sake of brevity. But the whole subject is a real mystery to me.

      1. ambrit

        Could it be the relative ages of the cultures involved? Both Japan and Britain have had to deal with failures and losses to the extent that cultural adaptations have occurred to deal with such. America is just now going through the process of “Loss of Empire” that Japan and Britain have already experienced. In short, America is young, and callow. Japan and Britain are older and wiser. (How’s that for “stereotypes and generalizations!”)

        1. NotTimothyGeithner

          I doubt its a race memory as much as the U.S. has functioned in a unipolar world with its former rival in tatters for over a decade. The American elite have been unchallenged and rose to power in an uncompetitive environment with little electoral accountability.

          A 50 year old was 23 during Reagan’s “Tear down this wall” speech, and unlike previous eras when losers left DC to return home, we made it into a latterday Versailles. Losers and those forced into retirement don’t return home, but show up in other jobs to wreak havoc on America.

          U.S. arms sales have been astronomical under Obama. The USSR after the yard sale in the 90’s hasn’t been supplying arms or a number of other international activities for years, but Russian, China, and other BRIICS are beginning to reenter the unipolar world. Since our elite have never been threatened with irrelevancy and have always been able to rely on being seen as “tough guys,” they lack the skills to function.

          The Japanese seem more deft because they have to deal with the simple reality that they tried to conquer and brutalized their largest trading partners in living memory while dealing with the problem which led them to go about conquering in the first place which is they depend on trade and don’t offer anything which can’t be replicated around the world. The Japanese can’t rely on another U.S. war in South East Asia to keep their factories turning out replacement parts for the war machine.

          1. Synopticist

            There has been a definite decline in the intellectual standard amongst the foreign policy elites of the anglo-sphere in the last decade and a half or so. The brains are becoming increasingly threadbare. They’re having a big problem adjusting to the gradual end of the uni-polar world they’ve grown used to. Unfortunately, the big jump in smartness and reality based analysis everyone had a right to expect after Bush left didn’t happen.

            And it’s could get even worse, if this is anything to go by…

      2. OpenThePodBayDoorsHAL

        Well, I could reply that Americans are bigoted, xenophobic Philistines, who through accidents of geography and geology won WWII, which gave them a huge economic head start and the exorbitant privilege of having the world’s reserve currency, and their subsequent prosperity imbued them with completely unfounded but unshakable delusions of moral certitude and superiority that are utterly unchecked by the modesty and humility that comes from an understanding of the long scope of history. The worst kinds of spoiled, egotistical rich brat kids with a very strong penchant for bullying.

        1. grayslady

          Remarkably concise and accurate description of the majority of Americans–even well-traveled and ostensibly well-educated Americans.
          American icons are John Wayne, The Marlboro Man, and just about anyone else who doesn’t appear to care about the sensitivities and concerns of others. If an American president resigned over an incident viewed as a national catastrophe, such as we’ve just witnessed in South Korea, he would be viewed as weak rather than humble.

          1. mark


            “As Japan makes a push to join the U.N. Security Council, it is getting some unwelcome news. An independent investigator from the U.N. Commission on Human Rights says he will report that discrimination in Japan is “deep and profound.”

            After nine days traveling across Japan, visiting with officials, non-governmental organizations and minorities, the special rapporteur of the U.N. Human Rights Commission says he is troubled by what he heard.

            Mr. Doudou Diene told reporters in Tokyo he found no strong political will to combat racism and discrimination. He also noted what he called a strong xenophobic drive among the Japanese public. “This xenophobic drive is expressed by associating minorities, certain minorities, to crime, to violence, to dirt,” he said.

            Mr. Diene said the worst discrimination appears to be the problems a Japanese social outcast group, known as “burakumin” face with finding housing and employment. He called their condition “shocking and terrible,” and said their plight would be included in his preliminary report.”


      3. Yves Smith Post author

        The simple reason is hardly any Americans at top levels have had meaningful foreign work experience. Only 15% of Americans have passports. Apparently at Andersen Consulting (mind you, a supposedly global firm) it was only 30%.

        And in the US, taking an overseas post, unless it is at a very international firm like McKinsey (where even in the early 1980s had over 50% of its partners outside the US), taking a foreign posting is generally NOT a career-advancing move. You lose your contact with the people who have the best connections with the C-Level execs and their influencers, who are all based State-side.

        So it literally does not occur to most American that foreign cultures are really foreign. They are just America with different languages and food.

        1. allcoppedout

          It’s probably even worse Yves. With English as the lingua franca and so-called international cuisine, you can do the travel and hardly notice you’ve left home other than for the jet-lag. How many cultures will we find village-hopping in Papua New Guinea? And what is the cultural language of diplomacy? Hard to understand, even if in English.

        2. Propertius

          Oftentimes not even different food. You can subsist on bad American food pretty much anywhere on the planet these days.

      4. Jim A

        In defense of the American way of doing things, having to negotiate with somebody who won’t tell you what they actually WANT can slow the process down and be supremely irritating. I think that Americans would rather be TOLD that “x” is non-negotiable if it is indeed non-negotiable. It allows one to figure out if agreement is possible or not. The problem is that people want to get as much as possible in return for the concessions that they ARE wiling to make so that they often make a big deal of the before the trade them away. So the Americans tend to see anything short of “no, absoloutely not.” as a negotiating ploy rather than as a polite way of saying “no.”

        1. NotTimothyGeithner

          It’s one thing to not understand an arcane matter. It’s another thing to be a jerk. This isn’t the case of meeting a culture on the other side of the mountain when fire is brand spankin’ new. We know the Japanese. We’ve blown them to kingdom come. We now there are language barriers. Japanese isn’t French.

          If Americans, the top dog, pushing the deal aren’t willing to concede to minimal codes of behavior we clearly are demonstrating that TPP is not any kind of partnership and is based in contempt. We have a whole department which has the cash to ferment rebellion in the Ukraine to tell the President how to behave to a code of decency. The beauty is flattery works. Their dolts (they exist everywhere not just here) will be impressed by a modicum of decency that they will sign all kinds of crazy stuff.

    2. Propertius

      In my experience, the real kiss of death was always “that will take a little time.”

  10. Qufuness

    I appreciate Yves and Clive highlighting the TPP in general and Japan’s position in particular, but I would like to know your thoughts about what Japan’s long-term interests might be. Are Japan and America really joined at the hip? Japan and China have continued talks on “coordination” of macroeconomic policy, in spite of drama and sabre-rattling on both sides about the islands. Might Japan be considering the possibility of moving away from the U$ and it$ orbit? To use a Japanese metaphor, is it thinkable that at the right time Japan might reverse oars and opt for an Asian currency, an Asia-first orientation? If such a strategy is feasible–and a Japan that desires more autonomy and clout could be thinking along such lines–wouldn’t it make sense to string the U$ along for years with vain hopes that a TPP will eventually be signed and sealed?

    Obama’s crude insistence on talking tariffs over dinner is evidence that America basically regards its relationship with Japan in terms of “business as usual,” a dangerous mistake. Japan is stuck and restive, and earnestly searching for new ways out of its long impasse.

    In large Japanese companies “the decision-making takes place well below the top executive rank,” but in terms of national strategy it’s much more top down. Once a very small group of former top bureaucrats and leaders pinpoints a problem in a certain field, the issue is freely researched by public and private entities from every angle. The results of such investigations are sent up to the top, which then comes to a consensus decision and redirects the supertanker, so to speak. A time-consuming process that shouldn’t be interrupted by Oval Office upstarts, it’s great when it works, difficult to correct when it isn’t.

    Though the report about Abe bitching sounds as if it has some factual basis, Gendai often makes stuff up out of whole cloth. Aren’t there more reliable sources talking about this?

    1. Clive

      I’ve not been able to find any follow-up on this story to add coroboration apart from re-treads of the Gendai origional. And the Gendai is, as you say, not exactly an infallible source. But to make somthing up that’s completely baseless, that’s a bit of a stretch even for the Gendai. My take on it is, as I wrote, it has all the hallmarks of an officially planted story.

  11. human

    Certainly Japan’s “Comfort Women” issue needs to see the light of day and be properly admonished, however, the tone deaf, look forward not backward, monarch of a country with as many skeletons in the closet such as the USSA is not the one to be bringing this up. Those who live in glass houses and such…

    “Foreign Policy” is a complete disaster for this adminstration, unless of course you use another definition of “foreign.”

  12. Doug Terpstra

    Sweet. Thanks, Clive, and Yves. It’s hard to believe the consummate con, the master bullshitter himself could be quite so daft as to offend the face-saving Japanese into ripping his face off in public. Seems he could’ve at least come up with a couple of drone jokes to levitate things, or failing that, a subtle reminder “I’m good at killing people.” It would seem that the Great Deceiver is losing his Machiavellian charm.

    1. Synopticist

      Weird isn’t it? He shows new levels of ineptness with every crisis.
      Just how the F*ck did this guy get to be president?(please don’t bother answering).

      1. NotTimothyGeithner

        Sorry, I can’t resist. O’s Senate nomination was cleared because no one wanted to run against Mr. 7 of 9, and when it was learned that finding out that Jeri Ryan was an actual born drone would be less outrageous than her husband’s behavior, the path to winning state wide was easy. Since his victory was assured, he was matched with Teddy at the DNC. There was a nostalgia for Camelot and the dreams of a RFK who wasn’t too closely linked to the red hunts of the 1950’s.

        Combined with widespread dissatisfaction, Obama grabbed the anti-war/establishment vote along with his hipster cult and won the Team Blue nomination.

        O’s opponents were Hillary and Bill’s idiot friends and Incontinence/Imcompetence ’84. As far as Hillary’s political acumen, she used celebrity to win in a state where the costs of entry are very high. Hillary, an unelected spouse, of the first President in over a century to win with less than 50% of the popular vote during an election with a viable third party candidate thought she could be the public face of major policy without the hard, gritty organizing work of Eleanor Roosevelt or a Betty Ford. Versailles has become so static an outsider with little ability can look like world beaters next to the other clowns.

        1. Clive

          Oh, I’m so glad that some people do actually know the “how Obama got his senate seat” story. Yes, Jerry “ST:VOY” Ryan’s swinging husband ousted for … Yep, Obama. Being (I hope) nicely circular, anyone who might doubt this fishy tale of thwarted beefsteak might wish to ponder on Obama’s rise and political history — truth is sometimes far, far stranger than anyone could possible make up.

          1. Lambert Strether

            I remember Jack Ryan well! It was the first (Republican) sex scandal I ever blogged about. Little did I know that I was helping grease the skids for Barack Obama. IIRC, we don’t actually know what prompted the press to get the paper unsealed. Adding…. The Republicans aren’t the only ones who can do oppo.

            1. Propertius

              Obama’s campaign organization was always brutally effective and totally unprincipled. It’s amazing to see how well they cultivated his “nice guy” image while concealing just how nasty things were behind the scenes.

              1. NotTimothyGeithner

                Bill’s loser friends ran the campaign, not Bill who was out to pasture. Hillary suffered from not having policy positions in early states despite running for President for 8 years by this time. They had no message, routinely had to take up the position of Edwards or Dodd, and ran their operation like a coronation.

                Even then Bill won in 92 with the aid of Perot and an opponent who no love in the electorate (the outsider Reagan beat it’s brains in back in 80) and rapidly declining numbers. He finished under 50%, lost both houses in 94, and couldn’t deliver the white house for his VP of banality.

                Combined with the state of the media who only report on briefing memos and the dope of hope, Obama could get away with anything. No one brings up Goosblee’s remarks on NAFTA or when Hillary voted for the resolution supporting move on over the Betrayus ad while Obama skipped town.

                Much of the problem is people didn’t want to see it because Obama assuaged white guilt and would end racism and it’s effects.

                As far as Hillary, she hooked up with a hick from Arkansas, worked for Wal-Mart and played Stand by Your Man. Other than that, It Takes A Village has been forgotten because it’s as interesting as nbc’s the more you know ads. She was a celebrity candidate who projected a sense of solidarity with lady folk who are often and historically have been second class citizens. How many books are being written with Bill and Hillary quotes as intros? In many ways, they are celebrities who were tolerated partially because of Atwater’s changes to the GOP and America’s hyperpower status.

                Yes, the dynamic duo might look like world beaters next to Obama, but what are their accomplishments? The unfinished bridge library is a perfect metaphor. There wasn’t much oxygen for anything to develop with Hillary in a race. There was Iraq and Hillary in 2007/08, and Edwards betrayed us in 02 despite his national oped piece. Dodd and Biden are lovers from insignificant states where they know everyone. Richardson was a Clinton associate. Kucinich had some women issues which are a problem in the Democratic Party nationally no matter when you come to Jesus.

                McCain hugged W. after Rove’s whispering campaign in SC in 00 and Katrina. He never demanded accountability in Iraq and Afghanistan despite his maverickiness.

                Dean had reinvigorated Team D with the help of a boom-let ignored and somewhat too young in 04, so a 3rd party was going no where. Obama’s faults had to b en overlooked because Hillary had revealed that the 98 pnac letter wasn’t a meaningless gesture.

  13. Chauncey Gardiner

    Might U.S. negotiators resolve the thorny tariff issues with the Japanese over agricultural products and commodities by modifying the language in that particular segment of the agreement? Of course. But, if they accommodate the Japanese on this issue (and prospectively some others), wouldn’t that open up other segments of this very extensive, modular “Agreement” to reneg-otiation with other nations?

    Setting aside concerns about the profoundly counterproductive nature of this agreement, I believe this administration, true to form, has been overly ambitious and has overreached in this undertaking. The sheer complexity, both respect to the number of parties involved in the negotiations both directly and indirectly, and the scope and breadth of the agreement itself, are mind boggling. However, it is highly likely their involvement in the negotiations has been very lucrative for many of the individual U.S. negotiators, lobbyists, and those at various ‘white shoe’ law firms involved in drafting related legal documents. Accordingly, I suspect it’s a gravy train that won’t die for some time.

    1. Jim A

      I just don’t think that there is enough basic agreement to for the TPP negotiations to succeed in anything like their current form. At some level this may be a necessary failure. Failure just may be what it takes to convince the US negotiators that the “everything AND kitchen sink” approach won’t work. There may be enough agreement for a much, much more modest agreement, but of course the kitchen sinks were thrown in there in the first place because of domestic politics….If everybody is going to hate part of the agreement, they there’d better be something in there that they like.

  14. OpenThePodBayDoorsHAL

    Here’s a very partial list of what the US is opposing in the TPP “negotiations”:
    New Zealand’s popular health programs to control medicine costs, an Australian law to prevent the offshoring of consumers’ private health data, Japan’s pricing system that reduces the cost of medical devices, Vietnam’s post-crisis regulations requiring banks to hold adequate capital, Peru’s policies favoring generic versions of expensive biologic medicines, Canada’s patent standards requiring that a medicine’s utility should be demonstrated to obtain monopoly patent rights, and Mexico’s “sugary beverage tax” and “junk food tax.”

    The Obama administration also targets seven of the 11 TPP partners, including majority-Muslim countries like Malaysia and Brunei, for restricting the importation or sale of alcohol, takes issue with several TPP countries’ restrictions on the importation of tobacco, and laments Vietnam’s restriction on the importation of “a variety of hazardous waste items.”


    Can I suggest that Americans withdraw for a period of introspection, apology, and atonement for what their country has become to the rest of the world.

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