Interview: Yoshihiro Sakamoto, APIC Director (CISTEC Chief Director, previous MITI Deputy Director-General)
Q. What were some of your thoughts at the time you were conducting trade talks with the United States when working for MITI?
When I was working for MITI I felt that this work could easily become political. For example, although it’s not certain to what degree the US-Japan Textiles Negotiations were connected to the reversion of Okinawa to Japan, but I believe that both parties had the perception that the talks were important for a smooth handing over. From my perspective as the person in charge of the US-Japan Textile Negotiations, I thought “Why does Japan have to accept such unfair demands from America?”. But looking back, I realize that those talks were decisively important for a post-war Japan and the return of Okinawa.
International relations in the 1990s when the Clinton Administration had come into power was right after the end of the Cold War where the United States had taken many years to undo the Soviet Union until its collapse. The U.S.’s stance at that time was a fear of Japan, who had not paid for the costs of the Cold War, who they suspicious of trying to create an economic hegemony. In 1993 the Japan-U.S. Framework Talks began, and I believe that America was aiming to take apart the source of Japanese economic force, the unity of the public and private sectors. Japanese automobiles and their parts were under threat from the Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974, but thanks to the newly formed WTO which deemed Section 301 unlawful, for the first time Japan was able to say to the U.S. “If you want to go ahead and enact Section 301, go ahead. We will take you and fight this at the WTO.” We directed our stance towards global opinion, working hard against the United States and competing EU in the Japanese market. This was the 1995 U.S.-Japanese Auto Trade Talks.
The following year was the Japan-U.S. Semiconductor Agreement. There was friction between the U.S. which wanted to put the talks on hold, and Japan, which wanted to end government intervention in the market. The Agreement came to an end in July 1996. This coincided with the timing of the reversion of Futenma Base in Okinawa, but with the decision of the Prime Minister’s Office the two problems were separated. Like this, even though they’re called trade talks, negotiations with America were on the political level and not as simple as they appeared.
Q. Please tell us what you strived for when conducing diplomatic negotiations.
I was once told by an American acquaintance of mine that “You can criticize the policies of the other country as much as you want. However, you must not criticize individuals or the organization.”, and I held these words to heart. After completing a number of negotiations, it starts to become apparent who is honest and making public comments in the interest of the nation versus who is only trying to make the talks successful so as to get themselves promoted. In these types of cases, I could feel that the American counterpart had political pressure bearing down on him, and I thought to myself how hard it must be to be in his position.
During talks I tried my best to negotiate with honest counterparts, on the grounds of America’s national interest, and with people who love their country. Japan also thought on the basis of national interest, and while in the mist of deciding which parts could be handed over, which aspects couldn’t, rivalries were made but also relationships based on mutual trust were formed. I have come to think this is why I based negotiations on feelings of trust and kept the following in mind when in talks: provide information once understanding my counterpart; and come through even when compromising.
It seems that my Western counterparts were able to separate politics and personal relations and process events in a cool-headed manner. No matter how much we would butt heads during talks, after the negotiations ended, he acted as an easy-going close friend. I believe that they distinctly separated their work life and their personal life.
When the word patriotism is mentioned, many people tend to have a slightly antiquated impression, but when engaged in bilateral negotiations I felt a strong, growing sense of love and attachment to the industries and their workers who are behind the scenes. There were times when it was tough and I thought it was better to compromise, but the thought of damaging Japan and our people’s pride helped keep me going.
There were many opportunities for me to consider my identity as a Japanese, partaking in negotiations with the simple sentiment of wishing Japan prosperity and for Japan to be a nation respected by others.
Q. When you were a student, what did you imagine about your future?
I didn’t have any particular dream, but I was told I wasn’t good at making money, so I became a government official.
But while I was working for the government, I naturally started to think that I have to treasure my country and must start thinking that Japan is a great country with a sense of pride. I guess another word for these feelings is called professionalism.
Q. Please give some advice to students who will lead Japan in the future.
In the 20th century Japan was engaged in the Great East Asian War where the Japanese empire was invading countries in South East Asia. We cannot forget how this aggression disturbed the once-peaceful lives of these people, but we must not be overly self-critical.
On the other hand, it is a historical fact that the southward advance eventually turned out to be an opportunity to prompt nations such as India and other Asian countries that were colonized by European empires to fight for independence. Also, in the context of raising the standard so that South East Asia could rank among the West, Japan is respected for quickly industrializing and developing a production system in the region. I believe that Asian nations have an expectation of Japan to try and fulfill a similar international role.
Personally, on a domestic level, I hope the region can build a fair society without any disparity. I feel that the idea of neoliberalism is starting to see the end of its run in the West. Japan is a country where originally people were equal. In this regard, I don’t think Japan will become a societal model with a huge disparity of wealth such as countries like the U.S.
Unlike when I was younger, it seems that it’s harder to have a bright outlook on what the future has to hold, which is why we must secure a firm foothold and build a fair and equal society.
When foreigners come to Japan, one of the things that they say surprises them is how great the Japanese people are. The traditional Japanese culture has built an attitude of kindness and importance around guests, which is being positively received. I have met foreigners who have said to me “even if a disaster comes upon the earth, I hope that only Japanese people live through it”. I pray that Japanese students will be proud of their nationality.
(During the interview)
1962: Entered Ministry of International Trade and Industry
1980: Director, Machinery and Information Industries Bureau Aircraft Weapons Department
1982: Counselor, Minister’s Secretariat
1984: Director, Industrial Policy Bureau, Industrial Finance
1985: General Director, Machinery and Information Industries Bureau
1986: Director, Minister’s Secretariat
1987: Leader, International Economic Affairs Department, Trade Policy Bureau
1988: Leader, Petroleum Department, Agency of Natural Resources and Energy
1990: Director General for Commerce and Distribution Policy
1991: Director, Basic Industries Bureau
1992: Director, Machinery and Information Industries Bureau
1993: Director, Trade Policy Bureau
1994: Councilor, Trade and Industry Bureau (until 1996)
1996: Advisor, MUFG Bank, Ltd. (until 1998)
1998: President, The Institute of Energy Economics, Japan (until 2003)
2000: Director, Osaka Gas
2000: Director, Research Institute for Peace and Security
2001: Trustee, Nakasone Peace Institute
2003: Trustee, Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Economy
2003: Advisor, The Institute of Energy Economics, Japan
2003: President, CEO, Arabian Oil Company Ltd. (until 2006)
2004: President, CEO, AOC Holdings (until 2006)
2007: Advisor, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd.
2007: Senior Advisor, UBS Securities
2007: Chairman, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries
2010: Advisory Board, Accenture
*As of February, 2016
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