A Japanophile Dutch Banker’s Disillusionment, 1970s

From The Magatama Doodle: One Man’s Affair with Japan, 1950–2004, by Hans Brinckmann (Global Oriental, 2005), pp. 210-211:

My ‘Magatama Doodle’ metaphor was inspired by the whimsical linking of an observed physical habit (the doodling of comma-shapes on tabletops and chair arms) of certain functionaries, when confronted with a problem or pressed for an answer, to their assumed preference for evasion and procrastination. Japan’s leaders, I had always felt, were fully capable of taking decisions, and if they did not, that was because they chose not to.

I still believed this analysis to hold good for the corporate sector, but I no longer could credit the government and the bureaucracy with similar ability. After all, the cabinet members, from the prime minister on down, were beholden to their party colleagues waiting in the wings for their turn at government. And all politicians lived at the mercy of the business establishment, which financed their election campaigns. They were also constrained by the bureaucratic elite, which provided continuity and expertise for the government of the day. Some bureaucrats in turn were rumoured to be supplementing their income with donations from the major corporations, to whom they also looked for their eventual amakudari on their retirement from the civil service in their early fifties. Few senior civil servants could afford to retire at that age, so they were all interested in a second career as adviser or senior director at a major bank or corporation. The result of these cosy relationships was a woeful lack of discretionary power on the political level, and even a prime minister travelling overseas had to weigh every word and frequently backtrack on his public statements in the face of opposition at home.

I could now see that it was the stasis in Japan’s body politic that had bedevilled its relations with other countries, most of all the US, for decades. Earlier on I had, like probably almost every Japanese, habitually blamed the periodic strains in Japan-US ties largely on American impatience or intransigence. American leaders and negotiators, I was convinced, did not understand Japan, and their patronizing attitude only managed to infuriate their Japanese counterparts and thus stall progress in the talks. But without exculpating pushy American negotiators altogether I had come to suspect that the cause of the recurring tensions, especially in matters of trade and investment, lay mostly with the Japanese.

Through my Investment Committee at the American Chamber of Commerce and other sources I had heard stories about the ‘impossibility’ of dealing with Japanese negotiators on issues such as regulating the flow of car exports and improving access to Japan’s still heavily protected consumer market. The negotiators had no mandate and had to refer to Tokyo on every detail without in the end coming up with any kind of helpful response or compromise. The US side would be kept waiting interminably while their counterparts tried to placate them with pleas for understanding Japan’s slow-moving consensus system and promises of an eventual satisfactory outcome. More often than not, no such outcome ensued, and the Americans either had to back off with gritted teeth or threaten unilateral action to force an agreement. On several occasions the US Congress stepped in with mandated sanctions when negotiations stalled, to the consternation of the Japanese, whose own parliament had no such power.

All this would not have been so bad if the Japanese had put their cards on the table. But they seldom did. To the home audience they usually played the victim card, blaming the heavy-handed Americans for bullying them into concessions, and asking the public to accept these ‘sacrifices’ in the interest of preserving good relations with the American ally. In this way they not only shifted the blame for any unwelcome outcome to the Americans, but they also obfuscated the system’s structural inability to produce effective and timely decisions, actually turning this shortcoming into an advantage.

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Filed under economics, Japan, Netherlands, U.S.

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