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Profile : The Tough Cop of Japan Trade Has Resurfaced : But this time Makoto Kuroda is in the private sector. His 'descent from heaven' is unprecedented.

December 04, 1990|KARL SCHOENBERGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — It looked as though Makoto Kuroda, Japan's notoriously abrasive top trade negotiator, would give new meaning to the term "descent from heaven" when he ended his career at the Ministry of International Trade and Industry two years ago.

Kuroda signed on as an adviser to an American company--a move unheard of in the tradition of amakudari, the "celestial plunge" of mighty bureaucrats who retire into lucrative jobs in Japan's private sector. It was particularly noteworthy in the case of Kuroda, the sharp-tongued former vice trade minister who made an art out of humbling U.S. officials with his tough-cop tactics.

And it was widely acclaimed as a coup for Kuroda's new employer, Salomon Brothers, the New York-based investment bank that had been making steady inroads into Japan's coveted financial markets.

At the time, critical scrutiny was starting to focus on former U.S. officials working as lobbyists and consultants for Japanese interests in Washington. Kuroda's case was held out as an example of how Americans can have similar access to the power elite in Tokyo.

But look again. Salomon's influential agent has since returned to the bosom of corporate Japan. In June, Kuroda, 58, joined Mitsubishi Corp., the giant trading house at the core of the powerful Mitsubishi industrial group. In October, the company made him a managing director.

"I wanted to do some real work," Kuroda confided before making a recent luncheon speech to the America-Japan Society in Tokyo on the topic of economic "interdependence" between the two nations. "I need to earn money, just like anybody else."

Kuroda perhaps personifies the tight web of relationships between government and business in Japan. Although his brief stint with Salomon raised hopes of new access for Americans fighting on Japanese economic turf, his ultimate choice of career demonstrates how fundamentally incongruous the two countries' systems remain.

Fair or unfair, ethical or not, it has in fact become common for former U.S. government officials to work for foreign firms--especially the Japanese--soon after leaving office. But in Japan the domestic firms are the ones paying a premium for the insider's savvy that former bureaucrats like Kuroda have to offer. It may be many years before foreign companies can plug in.

Kuroda's deal with Salomon Brothers, for example, was no more than a temporary arrangement during his two-year "drying out period"--the length of time when top Japanese government officials are barred from taking full-time jobs in industry. During that transition he also advised the Long-Term Credit Bank of Japan and the Japan Economic Foundation.

"I accepted the advisory role at Salomon because I thought helping Americans do business in this country would be good for Japan," Kuroda told The Times in an interview the other day. "If it sets some precedent I'll be very happy."

Ironically, Kuroda has been an outspoken critic of Pat Choate, a political economist who sounded an alarm about the practice of selling knowledge and clout to outsiders in Washington. Choate outlines Japan's formidable lobbying efforts in a controversial book, "Agents of Influence," and alleges that Japanese interests spend $400 million a year on hired guns--many of them former government officials. Kuroda denounces Choate as "dangerous" to U.S.-Japan relations.

Kuroda's new position at Mitsubishi brings his career full circle. He started out 35 years ago at the trade ministry, popularly known as MITI, working in the division that was pushing for the relaxation of tough anti-monopoly statutes imposed on Japan by the postwar American occupation.

The Mitsubishi group--descended from one of the prewar zaibatsu combines that were broken up by occupation authorities--is now attracting attention for its aggressive moves overseas and its bent for increasing economic concentration at home. The group's real estate arm bought a conspicuous 51% stake in Rockefeller Center last year; in April the group reunited two metal and mining affiliates that had been split apart during the days of trust-busting zeal.

What the straight-talking Kuroda will do for Mitsubishi is not yet clear, but the persona he developed over years of confrontational negotiations with Washington is certain to be a public relations asset, if for no other reason than its shock value.

Kuroda, then MITI's vice minister for international affairs, gained such notoriety during the heyday of U.S.-Japan trade friction in the late 1980s that he was mentioned in the Doonesbury comic strip--no small distinction in a country where few people could name the Japanese prime minister.

"I always try to respond to the questions we face," Kuroda said. "The traditional Japanese way, unfortunately, is to try to avoid debate, not to face the problem in a square manner. It may be the Japanese wisdom on keeping good relations . . . but it clearly has not worked in negotiations."

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