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In Mondale, U.S. Firms Found an Adept Envoy

Diplomacy: Ambassador's quick, clear understanding of Japan helped American business, executives say.

November 09, 1996|TERESA WATANABE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — Shortly after Walter F. Mondale arrived here as U.S. ambassador in September 1993, he was so hopeful that reform was about to take hold that he persuaded Washington not to impose trade sanctions over Japan's closed construction market.

After all, the long-dominant Liberal Democratic Party had lost its majority rule for the first time in 38 years. A new administration was spouting rosy reform plans that would open markets, empower consumers and tame obstructive bureaucrats. So when then-Foreign Minister Tsutomu Hata called to appeal for patience, the genial ambassador decided to accommodate the request, according to knowledgeable sources here.

Mondale's indulgence did not last long. Within months, American business people here had detected a hard-edged change. He startled observers with an obscenity-laden outburst against Japanese officials during a Tokyo meeting between a senior U.S. official and several business executives.

Mondale was declining all interview requests Friday after announcing that he would resign in mid-December.

But the education of Walter Mondale, some say, represents the same rite of passage countless other Americans--in business, education, the media--make in coming to Japan. Initially willing to give Japan the benefit of the doubt, many become skeptical after encountering countless roadblocks, pleas for patience and promised changes that never quite materialize, analysts say.

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Mondale "learned very quickly, and quickly formed a pretty realistic understanding of Japan," said Glen S. Fukushima, vice president of international affairs for AT&T Japan Ltd. "I do feel he's the best ambassador we've had out here in recent memory."

But for the same reasons Americans hail him, Japanese officials express disappointment.

"Mondale didn't play the role as expected--he was not able to soften the Clinton administration's harsh trade policy," one Japanese official said.

The official acknowledged that the most popular ambassadors among Japanese are men who indulge Japan, such as Edwin O. Reischauer or Mike Mansfield.

"We expected [Mondale] would be Mansfield II--a man with a good understanding of Japanese culture and the special situation of Japan, who would try to persuade the White House to accommodate the Japanese," the official said.

Fukushima may have been one reason why Mondale quickly wised up.

At the behest of noted Japan scholar Ezra Vogel of Harvard University, Fukushima regularly invited Mondale to meet with a study group of business officials whom he regarded at the time as the most knowledgeable Americans on Japan: Robert Orr of Motorola, Norm Neureiter of Texas Instruments Japan, Richard Dyck of Teradyne Japan and John Stern of the American Electronic Assn.

"There was a lot of telling him to beware of promises that weren't tied down, that Japan doesn't change that fast," Orr said.

Mondale read voraciously, consuming tomes on everything from the Japanese Constitution and prewar history to national security and "Blindside," a book predicting Japan would roar back economically. He also brought in staff from outside the State Department to use as an alternative sounding board.

And Mondale also realized that politicians have little power here and therefore cannot engage in the political horse-trading at which the former U.S. senator and vice president excels.

"I'm used to a system where elected leaders make decisions and bureaucrats implement them, but this place has it turned upside down," he told one American businessman here.

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Japanese and U.S. officials detected Mondale's new skepticism by January 1994, just before the so-called reformist Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa issued his famous "no" to President Clinton on trade concessions. Some Americans here say Mondale felt burned by going out on a limb to intervene against construction sanctions, without reaping any of the reforms the Japanese had promised to deliver.

Soon, Mondale was showing a steely edge in negotiations to open Japan's cellular telephone market. He helped broker what he likes to call a "win-win agreement," which has helped send prices falling by more than 80% and increased the number of users from 300,000 to 13 million.

He also hit hard on what he perceived as Japanese efforts to renege on agreements to open the insurance industry and pushed to improve foreign access to Japan's auto and auto-parts market.

An agreement this year to return some U.S. military bases to Okinawan control gave Mondale a chance to shine in a statesmanlike role.

His deft treatment helped keep a lid on an explosive topic, some say.

Business executives here worry now that whoever replaces Mondale could slip back into "Mansfieldism"--making light of trade complaints to stress the cooperative security and military ties.

Mondale "is the most business-friendly ambassador we've ever had here," Orr said.

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