Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has come and gone from Washington, honored with one of President Obama's rare state dinners and an address to a joint meeting of Congress. He bills himself as a reformer, in a country where tradition generally trumps reform. And tradition is what foreign visitors to Japan find intriguing and attractive.
I first set foot in Japan in 1967. I had an extra-long vacation that year from the ABC News Washington bureau, and my wife and I decided on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Far East, never expecting that a few years later, I would be a Tokyo-based news correspondent. (We also toured Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand and Cambodia.)
The dollar bought 360 yen, three times as much as it does today. Our hotel room cost a fraction of what a similar hotel would charge in Washington, and the recorded music in the elevator lobby the next morning included the sound of birds chirping. The hotel had a lovely Japanese garden. For lunch, a bowl of rice with bits of meat and egg cost 35 U.S. cents. A super-efficient subway system took us to the shrines and temples and museums that make Japan exotic. At the same time, ultra-modern office buildings had doors that opened automatically and plumbing that flushed automatically long before we in the States had them.
We went on to Kyoto, Nara, and the Inland Sea. Restaurant meals were inexpensive, as long as we enjoyed Japanese meals and Japanese beer and avoided imported beef and imported wine. We bought Japanese woodblock prints, and a set of lacquer bowls, and printed cloth squares, and woven silk from a kimono, and our first piece of Imari porcelain -- all remarkably affordable.
When we returned to Tokyo to live and work five years later, the yen was 308 to the dollar, but prosperity fueled roaring inflation. We found a small (by U.S. standards) apartment with monthly rent well above what it would have been in the States. Tokyo was still characterized by neighborhoods with mom-and-pop shops gleaming with artfully-arranged fruits and vegetables. We again enjoyed Japanese dining, mostly in still-inexpensive hole-in-the-wall restaurants that served just one traditional specialty, be it yakitori chicken on skewers, or tempura seafood and vegetables battered and delicately fried, or ramen or soba noodles, or the chanko-nabe stew that sumo wrestlers favored. Since the Japanese traditionally made everything for the kitchen in sets of five, if we wanted a dozen cups or plates or chopstick rests, we had to buy 15.
The barriers against meat and wine and manufactured goods imports, which we noted as visitors, now became a story to cover. The U.S. and Australian governments railed against Japan's unwillingness to import beef in order to protect domestic beef that cost four or six times as much. We ate steak dinners when we travelled to other countries. As to foreign cars, the Japanese required imported vehicles to be modified, one by one, from windshield to tailpipe, in enough ways to double the cost.
I took a camera crew all over the country (in fact, all over Asia) to film stories. Working in Japan was comparatively easy, since the country was saturated with its own media. If we put a camera in Ginza to do street scenes, Japanese pedestrians kept going; unlike many other places, they did not stop and wave at the camera. If we needed to film at a car factory and one company was slow to give the go-ahead, we could call a competitor and be invited in. We travelled all over the country on the super-efficient high-speed bullet train network, supplemented by regional trains and buses and local transit systems with frequent service.
I returned for a month-long assignment in 1995. Working then for CNN, I replaced the Tokyo correspondent who was on vacation when the U.S. Trade Representative for the Bill Clinton administration, Mickey Kantor, negotiated the latest of a series of agreements intended to open the Japanese market. Ironically, all of the complaints now directed against China were then the sore points of economic relations with Japan -- currency manipulation, protectionism enforced by non-tariff bureaucratic barriers to imports, channelling of foreign direct investment to joint ventures that didn't safeguard proprietary technology.
Kantor famously posed crossing traditional Kendo swords with his Japanese counterpart, as they made a deal to promote the sale of American cars and car parts. It was so successful that President Obama, advocating for his Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, recently pointed to the scarcity of GM/Ford/Chrysler cars on Tokyo streets.
We have revisited Japan twice more since working there. After previously watching Japanese teamwork and traditional consensus thinking create a world-beating economy, we were dumbfounded when the economic miracle I covered in the 1970s stalled. Two decades of stagnation were characterized by see-through office buildings. That is, from an upper story of a building, you could see that the same floors of nearby buildings were empty. However, on our most recent visit we were again amazed by the new construction, the new subway lines, the new vest-pocket park in the Marunouchi business district where musicians performed on the weekend.
Prime Minister Abe has tried to shake up Japan's dormant economy. He says he is counting on the Trans-Pacific agreement to help him push through significant reforms that would make his country more entrepreneurial and get it growing again. Abe also wants Japan to carry its weight internationally, notably in its alliance with the United States, as China treats the nearby seas as its private lake.
The Obama administration has a rooting interest in helping him succeed, and in promoting U.S. exports to Japan and all of Asia. When we first visited decades ago, the peoples of Asia were dirt poor. We watched them rise to prosperity by making products the world, led by the United States, was willing to buy. That's a strong validation of the goal of continually expanded world trade, which Europe now shares. And we wish America's legislators would also note how much the successful Asians have benefited from great transportation systems, modern airports, and roads as smooth as glass.
P.S. I recently appeared at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington on a panel recalling the fortieth anniversary of the fall of Saigon. I wrote an essay on this subject. Check out the transcript and video recording at: