When Japan's newly elected prime minister Noboru Takeshita visited the United States recently, he stopped by the Hancock Park residence of Taizo Watanabe, the consul general of Japan in Los Angeles. The two friends spent the evening over bowls of soba--Japanese noodles--discussing U.S.-Japanese relations.
The delicate nature of Japan's relationship with the United States is a primary concern for Watanabe, who is leaving Los Angeles to assume the No. 2 position at the Japanese Embassy in Washington.
Watanabe's assignment to Washington comes as U.S.-Japanese relations head into uncertain waters. Japan faces continued protectionist sentiment on Capitol Hill amid a volatile world economy and changing political scene with a new Japanese prime minister and a new U.S. administration in 1989.
"It is an uncertain time mainly because of so many frustrations on both parts of the Pacific," Watanabe explained during a recent interview. "On this part of the Pacific, people are so frustrated by the stagnation of the economy, the sudden fall in stock market prices and uncertainty about the prospects for the economy.
"Japan is such a big and powerful country, many look up to Japan for some solution, which Japan, in their eyes, is not giving," Watanabe said. "On the other hand, in Japan the requests from Capitol Hill are regarded as unreasonable while Japan is trying to comply as best as it can. That has really frustrated Japan.
"Japan's economy is going through fluctuations because of the rapid rise of the yen and rising prices for land and food. It has put the Japanese people into uncertainty, and frustrations are growing, mainly because the U.S. pressure is so widely reported. The United States is becoming the target of criticism by many Japanese people. The increased and mutual frustration is something we have to deal with."
Watanabe will assume his new post of deputy chief of mission Nov. 23, succeeding Naohiro Kumagai, who has returned to Tokyo as director general of the immigration bureau of the Department of Justice. A successor to Watanabe will be named shortly.
The assignment will take Watanabe back to Washington for a third tour of duty in his 30-year career as a diplomat. He first served at the embassy in Washington after earning a masters degree in international relations at Yale University in 1959. He returned in the mid-1970s as director of the embassy's information and cultural affairs section.
Watanabe has gained a reputation as an eloquent and articulate spokesman for Japan. He has presented Japan's views on ABC's Nightline program, and he served as a spokesman during the first meeting between President Reagan and Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone in 1983. He also made newspaper headlines in 1982, when as deputy director of the Foreign Ministry's cultural and information bureau he took the highly unusual step of publicly criticizing a top official of the Ministry of Trade and Industry.
He said Takeshita will inherit the programs of Nakasone, who, Watanabe said, "was very effective in letting American people, and other people, know that Japan is willing to assume the responsibility proportionate to its own economic power and position. Nakasone has started many things . . . such as the disbanding of the national railway and privatization" of Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp.
Takeshita has a reputation as a man of action within Japanese political circles, according to Watanabe. He is most effective in quietly working behind the scenes to pull together different groups to get things done. "Once he decides on something, he is very effective in getting it done," Watanabe explained.
Watanabe says his primary official duties will be to assist Ambassador Nobuo Matsunaga within and outside the embassy. "The ambassador is busy dealing with the White House and State Department. I'll be assisting with that. At the same time, I'll be meeting with Capitol Hill members and the mass media," he said.
Watanabe says he will try to promote the recognition among Americans as well as the Japanese that "our two economies as well as other economies, are increasingly interdependent on each other. We will try to share the kind of concerns on how to promote this interdependence, overcoming some cultural and other differences. Everybody knows by logic that we are interdependent, but because of cultural differences, we can't pull together. We have to really share this concern."
He believes that his 9 1/2 years in the United States has given him a familiarity with the American way of thinking. "I'll be able to answer the questions on differences in customs, habits and language. I'll be able to fill the gap through answering questions and giving more information to those eager to ask about Japan. I may be also moving around within in the country, making speeches and doing local and national TV and radio interviews. Those are things that are expected of me."
In Los Angeles, Watanabe has been able to meld local and national interests. He has been a popular and high-profile consul general who has championed local interests such as encouraging Japanese firms to become more involved in community activities and helping to raise funds for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's pavilion for Japanese art.