23 June 1995
This 1987 CONFIDENTIAL briefing memo on the U.S.-Japan economic relationship is particularly appropriate this month, when the national newspapers are stuffed with full-page ads and op-eds arguing for and against President Clinton's threatened tariff on luxury Japanese cars (deadline for action: June 28). Headline: Trade War!
What's most remarkable to me about this eight-year-old description of the situation is how little has changed. In one of many examples, the document notes on page 3 the 42% appreciation of the yen against the dollar in 1985-86 (to the level of 160 yen per dollar) while Japan's trade surplus with the U.S. remained about the same. Unsaid is how such an outcome violates all the hypotheses of neoclassical economic theory about trade. Given the structural impediments, perhaps it should be no surprise that Japan still runs a trade surplus with the U.S., despite the yen's further appreciation to about 80-per-dollar today.
This document is only one of the hundreds of fascinating declassified items obtained over the past year and a half by our project on U.S.-Japan relations since 1960, directed by Dr. Robert Wampler. Bob and I had the pleasure of taking this document and a package of others with us to Tokyo earlier this month. In those cables and briefing memos, our Japanese colleagues read for the first time the internal presentations made by Japanese negotiators in a variety of trade talks and summits with U.S. officials. We created what the Japanese call a "shokku" with this strategy -- common to all our multinational projects to encourage foreign governments to open their files -- an implied threat that if they don't document their own history, American documents will tell it for them, without them.
Our venue in Tokyo came courtesy of the world's largest newspaper (10 million daily circulation), The Yomiuri Shimbun, which sponsored a public symposium on the need for more open government in Japan. Among others, a retired vice-minister of MITI, a member of the upper house of the Diet, and the head of the prime minister's Administrative Reform Committee participated in what Chalmers Johnson (who should know) called "the most interesting collection of Japanese liberals I've ever seen in one room." By "liberal" he meant not the opposite of "conservative" (remember the conservative Liberal Democratic Party), but "internationalist" and "reformer." Partly as the result of the symposium, an official advisory committee is now engaged in drafting a freedom of information law for Japan, but I suspect whatever system they come up with will feature an ombudsperson or mediation function rather than litigation as its remedy for inappropriate withholding. We shall see.
Two final notes: I particularly enjoyed page 2's euphemism of "federal dissaving" -- a.k.a. the budget deficit. Also, the brackets on the first three pages mark sections that were censored when this document was first declassified in April 1994, but released after our appeal this year. Please call me if you can figure out exactly what was damaging to U.S. national security in these passages.
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