NEW YORK — These days, many people have ideas about how to shrink the U.S. trade deficit. Some want sanctions. Others believe in a stronger Japanese yen.
Kiichirou Ayano tried bagels.
Ayano, a Japanese trade representative, scoured his country on behalf of two American bagel entrepreneurs who thought the Japanese were ready for something more adventurous than raw fish.
"I tried six or seven months for these people, but no success," Ayano said, looking crestfallen. "There is no Japanese market at present."
Ayano is part of a team that may go down as the oddest byproduct of the trade dispute between the United States and Japan.
Nearly four decades ago, a booming Japan posted trade representatives such as Ayano to the United States to promote its exports. Recently, though, as the U.S. trade deficit with Japan has soared, the 21 senior trade advisers were ordered to do an about-face and promote U.S. exports to Japan.
That means crisscrossing the United States, exhorting Americans to manufacture bigger hats for the Japanese head and smaller teacups for the Japanese home. It also means persuading the Japanese that they really do need kayaks made in Seattle, glow-in-the-dark dogs from New York and log cabins built in Michigan.
"One of my callings is to export good products from the U.S., even if it's a very little bit," Ayano said. "That is my duty."
A day spent with Ayano shows it's no easy task. First stop on the rainy, cold day was an unheated ceramics studio in Brooklyn. There, Jamaican-born artist Noel Copeland was painting pink and blue Rastafarian characters with flowing dreadlocks onto platters and sushi plates.
Never mind Japan's ancient tradition of exquisite china. Rasta is on the way. "These kind of products are a different taste," said Ayano, who's helping Copeland sell to a Japanese boutique. "Very funky."
On to a tiny Harlem fur shop, where Steven Cottman hopes to export mink baseball caps to Japan. Ayano urges him to make his hats bigger and rounder, for Japanese heads.
Next was Kate Kennedy in lower Manhattan. Like Copeland and Cottman, the ebullient Kennedy met the Japanese representative through a government export program, this one run by the regional Port Authority.
Kennedy was beaming. Thanks to Ayano, her glow-in-the-dark plastic dog necklaces were featured in a Japanese import magazine. She's gotten several orders. Now, Ayano said, a Japanese entrepreneur wants to license the design for Glow Dogs.
Kennedy said she'd like to shift all her production to the Far East.
"I think it would be more cost-effective," she said, but added, "I don't know if I'm betraying my country."
"We are helping only made-in-America," Ayano later told a reporter.
The Japan External Trade Organization, which employs the advisers, estimates it was responsible for $150 million of U.S. exports to Japan last year. That's a small sum compared to the $59 billion U.S. merchandise trade deficit with Japan.
Still, Ayano defends his mission to assist small businesses.
If General Motors or Ford wants to export to Japan, Ayano said, "they have the resources. The small or mid-size company has no such resources."
For all his efforts, Ayano said, fewer than 10% of the companies he assists succeed in exporting. Some just have the wrong products, he said. Others run up against government regulations.
Ayano admits that Glow Dogs and Rastafarian pottery won't match Japan's prodigious exports of cars and fax machines. But he hopes the number of small U.S. exporters will continue to grow.