Japan and the Trade War

“China’s ripping us off. Japan’s ripping us off. Mexico’s ripping us off. Canada’s ripping us off. The whole world is ripping us off. There’s nobody that’s not ripping us off.” – President Donald J. Trump, at a 2018 campaign fund raiser.

 

In the face of the escalating trade war initiated by President Trump against China, Japan is pursuing a strategy of building bilateral trade relationships to mitigate harmful effects of this war on the Japanese economy. As he has done with China, the EU, and now, the United States: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed on September 27, 2018, after years of hesitation, to enter into a bilateral trade agreement with America.

 

Kiuchi Takahide, the executive economist at the Nomura Research Institute, in his September 20, 2018 article reports that “focusing on the impact of the trade war on Japanese industry, it is anticipated that its auto industry will take the biggest hit.” As the US economy takes a hit from the trade war, he argues, Japan’s auto industry, due to its “heavy reliance on exports to the U.S. market…would mean a tremendous loss for the future prospects of the Japanese economy.” In addition, facing the threat of possible tariffs to Japan’s key industrial export, it seems Abe relented.

 

Japanese business leaders are worried about the progression of the U.S.-China trade war. Nikkan Kogyo Shimbun on September 28th, 2018 reported that 76% of business leaders in a survey feared the trade war will have a negative impact on Japan’s industries, especially on “iron, steel, fabrics, automobiles, and electronics.”

 

In response, Japanese manufacturers, according to an article published in Nippon Keizai Shimbun on September 22nd, 2018, are shifting their manufacturing bases and area of imports with a “long term perspective” in mind. Firms such as Honda, Mitsui, Sumitomo, Marubeni, and Uniqlo, among many others, are moving operations to places like Thailand, Vietnam, and Brazil from both China and the U.S.

 

Japan is building relations with other countries. Along with the free trade agreement Japan signed with the EU on July 17th, 2018 covering almost a third of the world’s economy, it seems the Abe administration, emboldened by a recent electoral victory, is warming up politically to China and other countries as well.

 

In an interview with Sankei Shimbun on September 2nd, 2018, Prime Minister Abe stated that relations between Japan and China have “completely returned to a normal trajectory.” As the trade war progresses, Japan is considering taking part in a China-backed free trade deal that would incorporate 16-nations, 10 Asean members, as well as China, Australia, India, New Zealand and South Korea, covering about half the world’s population and a third of its GDP. It is reported Japan is “proactive” to this proposal. On September 22nd there were calls for a free trade deal between China, Japan, and South Korea.

 

Thus we see that Japan is not sitting idly by as the destructive effects of the U.S.-China trade war continue to manifest themselves. As seen in the examples above, Japan under Abe is indeed proactive: signing or initiating negotiations of free trade deals with global players while shifting its business operations to other parts of the world under a long-term perspective. Japan is making bilateral trade agreements, and has decided to pursue such an agreement with the U.S. In addition, it has taken robust foreign policy initiatives such as the Trans Pacific Partnership plus 11 and the strengthening of ties with India.

 

U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres describes the current global reality as an “increasingly chaotic world order.” Japan is getting ready to take on this new world order with full force.

History is Written by Victors

At a recent networking event I attended, an executive of an investment firm challenged me on history. He insisted the Japanese are out to “rewrite history from what actually happened.”

What came to my mind was: how do you know what happened? Were you there?

None of us were. History is elusive: you take evidence from the past and reconstruct a narrative, which changes over time. Even in America, new books constantly being published on the American Revolution, Civil War, and Feminist and Minority Right movements are ever challenging the narrative of the status quo.

The Japanese are no different. Yes, they are out to challenge the historical narrative in their favor. Why? Because, as occupiers, Americans had significant influence in how their history and post-war narrative were written.

We wrote Japanese history.

The constitution. War guilt through class A war crime trials. Pacifism.

There is a recent movie where Tommy Lee Jones plays General MacArthur overseeing the American occupation of Japan, with a focus on the question of the Emperor’s Role in the decision of Japan to attack Pearl Harbor. The movie ends without a definitive conclusion, and the movie incorporates the Japanese perspective. Which shows there is a shift in the narrative even on the American side: we are willing to contemplate the Japanese view.

As a US-Japan Relations professional, there are many hot button topics that I will be forced to address eventually. The Rape of Nanking. Comfort Women. Pearl Harbor. The Atomic Bombs. The US occupation. The 9th Article in the Japanese Constitution. Okinawa and the US bases. Rape of Japanese civilians by American servicemen. The future of the US-Japan alliance. Japan-Korean Relations. North Korea and Japan’s role in the 6 party talks. Japanese re-militarization. The role of the Self-Defense Force in Japanese Foreign Policy. ODA and Japan’s corporate strategy and its relationship to Japan’s foreign policy: the list goes on and on.

I will address NONE OF THEM here. Someday!

My point is this: history usually is written by victors (though Nietzsche in his The Genealogy of Morals argues the existence of Slave Morality constructed by the weak). As victors and occupiers, the US had a strong say in how history, international norms, laws, and institutions were written and formed post-WWII.

It should not be a surprise to anyone this was done so in American favor.

Does that make them wrong? No.

In an ever-changing international environment, where American power is in decline, we are entering a multipolar world. It is natural the post-war American narrative and global structure will be challenged by various players. Unavoidable.

Does this mean Japan is rewriting history in a way that is a lie? No. It means they are seeking a narrative in their favor. None of us were the decision makers of those horrific events that took place in the 1930s and 1940s. Narratives come and go, and what is adopted has material consequences for societies, governments, and even alliances.

The investment executive who stated Japan is rewriting history is true. It is unavoidable as Japan seeks to assert itself in an international climate abundant with threats and the US seeming less and less reliable. Japan seeks an empowering narrative.

Japanese decision makers know the West could not stop Russia from invading and annexing Crimea from Ukraine. The US-Japan alliance is yet to be tested. Will the US spill American blood if Japan is attacked? We claim so, but words are cheaper than action.

History is not fact. Narratives come and go and reflect interests of power. As a US-Japan Relations professional, it is not my role to say which competing narratives are correct, at least at this juncture in my career. I am aware of these narratives, and further changes will come.

That I can say, with confidence, is inevitable.

Silence, Humor, and Swearing: Modes of Communication

I just wrote a blog piece on the common pitfalls of cultural miscommunication between Americans and Japanese.

Ah. But there’s so much more to this topic. Not just miscommunication, but differences in modes of communication.

I will write on three: silence, humor, and swearing. However, to do this topic justice I would have to write a book.

 

SILENCE

In Japan, silence is permissible.

Frequently, Japanese TV dramas and movies, when portraying affection between a married couple (especially if they’ve been together for years), the two will sit together in silence.

For hours.

In real life, this is actually common. In Japan, you feel the energy of affection. In the US, you have to verbally express it.

In international marriages this difference in expectations of communication often can become an issue.

 

Japanese Wife: “I’m home.”

American Husband: “Hi honey! How was your day? Did that appointment at work go well?

Wife: Silently walks into another room without saying a word.

Husband: “Ah…”

 

A married couple not talking to each other in America would mean their relationship is a bad one. In Japan, not necessairly. They enjoy each other’s company without unnecessary fluff banter.

Also in the US family members will frequently say “I love you” to each other. This would be considered strange in Japan.

When I first came to the United States, I would spend entire conversations without opening my mouth. This bewildered many here. In America you HAVE to talk to make sure the group is maintaining healthy communication.

To this day, sometimes I will sit silently while the American group is actively bantering to build rapport. I have to make an effort to take part, not that I can’t do it, but because unnecessary banter wasn’t required from me as a kid in Japan.

Except there are times in Japan where you banter like there’s no tomorrow. Thus to my next topic:

 

HUMOR

 Japanese have a sense of humor? Yes!

Americans sometimes think Japanese are stiff, but Japan has a robust history and culture of humor.

Except you don’t always crack jokes.

Humor in America is like water. You serve it at every occasion, and it’s culturally appropriate to drink healthy levels of it.

In Japan, humor is alcohol. If you drink it, in, let’s say, a job interview, you may not get the job. In the US, the employer may actually interpret humor during the interview positively as a sign of confidence and social finesse. Some situations it’s ok to have a little. A parent-teacher conference, for example. A bit of bantering may happen there. And in certain situations, like a drinking party after work, you drink humor in copious amounts and get “drunk.”

Topics of humor are different as well. The US has a robust Judeo-Christian tradition with many socially sensitive vernacular and issues. Comedians, for example, love using these sensitive issues, topics, and words for jokes at comedy clubs in America.

Japanese comedians like to build stories, point out absurdities in situations, and self-mocking jokes are common also.

I’m funny, in the Kansai sense. I sometimes can make people laugh to tears. Kansai is the region of Japan I grew up in.

My humor is influenced by the Kansai culture. During my cultural assimilation process, people did realize I was funny. But, differently. I would get comments like, “You’re a weird guy, but you sure say some funny sh@t sometimes!”

My sharp wit was honed from years of Kansai banter. But how about swearing with this banter?

 

SWEARING

You don’t really swear in Japan.

What?!

This many times boggles the mind of Americans, who bleep swear words on TV that I myself just wrote as “sh@t” above with the “i” missing.

Americans love to, for the most part, swear.

Japan lacks a strict Judeo-Christian culture. Many of the words that are bleeped on TV in America have to do with defecation, sex, incest, and other topics sins to God.

Japanese people just don’t care. These words do not generate the reactions you get in the US. Or in the West, for that matter.

Japan is about tone of voice. You convey dominance, hostility, and aggression by not what you say, but how you say it. A seemly mild mannered Japanese man, if triggered, can turn into an emotional ball of anger and aggression, all conveyed through tonality (and body language).

So, who wants to go to Japan with me, sit stoically without cracking jokes for some time, and then suddenly explode emotionally?

These things can happen in Japan. In the US this would be a sign of someone crazy.

Cultural Miscommunication

In the history of US-Japan relations, what has been the greatest cultural miscommunication?

Good question. Perhaps the United States’ failure to anticipate a well-organized, successful military attack on Pearl Harbor when placing an oil embargo on Japan? Or, maybe the United States not anticipating Japan’s economic rise from the ashes after the war?

That’s history though. There are plenty of controversies that I won’t touch here (were the atomic bombs really the determining factor leading to Japan’s surrender…Wait, no, I’m not writing on this!).

Here are a few problematic areas that come mind:

 

Apologies

People in Japan apologize to maintain group and hierarchical harmony. Sometimes a Japanese will apologize even if all parties know he or she was not in the wrong. Americans, on the other had, tend not to apologize even if they are obviously in the wrong: it may be considered unnecessary, many times it’s not expected, and it can even come across as a sign of weakness. As a result, Japanese people will apologize to Americans, not realizing it may be used again them.

 

Group consensus building versus individualized self-assertion

The Japanese cooperate much more than Americans, who enjoy competition and even rule breaking. In the 80s Japanese companies were many times sued for antitrust when they brought to America their practice of coordination between rival companies, common in Japan, but illegal here.

A Japanese proverb says, “The nail that sticks out will get hammered.” This tradition leads to seemingly stronger societal harmony, but qualities such as leadership and constructive change, valued in the US, are less salient. Differences in expectations of societal and institutional change often can lead to disagreement between Americans and Japanese.

In Japan, you sacrifice yourself to the group. In the US, the group exists to benefit the individual. Americans are far more willing to leave work on time even if things are unfinished, but this could be a career ender in Japan.

 

Stating the obvious about people and other social values

“You’re fat.” “You’re ugly.” “You’re stupid.” People in Japan say these things bluntly to others. In America, it’s not polite to do so. Americans get offended when they go to Japan and people repeatedly tell them they’re overweight, for example. Likewise, Japanese can get in trouble in the US if they don’t realize such comments are frowned upon here. In Japan, such comments may in fact be a sign of affection.

It’s not just a different concept of politeness. Social norms such as hierarchy, gender relations, and national identity are ingrained into Japan institutionally through language and other means. American society is more flexible: it’s young and consists of immigrants. Japanese culture is over 2000 years old with limited immigration. Cultural momentum is ingrained: change is harder to achieve, let alone initiate.

 

National Pride

You can’t separate nationalism from international relations and business. Mistrust and resentment precipitating from differences in interpretations of culture and history amplify feelings of nationalism, and fuel the flames of discord.

Patriotism is being proud of your country and the virtues it offers the world. Nationalism is thinking your country is better than all other countries.

Cultural misunderstandings, both at the individual and organizational level, can take on nationalistic tones without an effective mediator.

“What, I can’t believe they did this! We Americans/Japanese would never do such a thing, this is outrageous…”

“I can’t believe they sent us this message. Those Americans/Japanese are sure crazy, how can I work with them…”

I’ve heard comments such as these arising in both cultures. Both behave, think, and act differently, and the inability to understand each other can lead to blame, name-calling, and even ill will if unchecked.

I am a patriot: US citizen born in Japan. I am loyal to both cultures, but not nationalist to either. Having been surrounded by citizens from around the world since early childhood, my worldview is more objective. My mind can often see through the fog generated by the passions of nationalism. Including US-Japan relations.

The potential for cultural misunderstanding will always be there. However, recognizing the sources of these misunderstandings, you also have the prospect of genuine intercultural communication.

Cracking the Concrete Open: Creating Networks from Scratch

Early June 2012, I arrived at JFK airport after having taking a one-way ticket there from Seattle. I had just graduated with my MA in International Policy, not your most practical degree. I had with me only two duffle bags and a suitcase, and my computer.

I knew no one in NYC.

I had neither a job lined up nor a place to live.

Insane? Maybe. Naïve? A little. Crazy? Definitely. Still, I was confident I would pull off an amazing life and career in NYC – I knew I had it in me.

In 10 months, I would land a job as the United Nations reporter for Japan’s largest and most influential newspaper The Yomirui Shimbun while making ends meet taking on temporary jobs wherever I could.

To make this happen, I didn’t hit the pavement – I cracked it open while networking with some of the most influential in the US-Japan Relations world, and beyond.

Why was I confident? I had done it before. In Japan, in Seattle, in Monterey: building powerful, fun, and supporting social networks from scratch in an environment I knew nothing about with no contacts.

I am the Ambassador Between Worlds: networking is my bread and butter. I know how to navigate and build connections from scratch with diverse people and communities, as I’ve been doing it since early childhood. The results of my career up to now speak for themselves.

So how did I do it?

The first thing I did in NYC was to find a place to live that had as many housemates as I could find. I ended up in Bushwick, Brooklyn in a complex with 8-10 housemates, all near my age.

Me: “Yeah I have no job now, but I have savings…”

Manager: “We’ll sign a two month contract then. And you’re from where? Japan?”

The place was phenomenal. Surrounded by students and professionals all in their late 20s to early 30s with a large backyard where we threw awesome parties. I’d like to say I quickly made friends with all of them, but only after I overheard them gossiping:

“What’s this Japan guy?”

“Yeah I bet he made it up!”

I joined them (I was napping in my room) and showed the skeptics my passport with Japanese documents. It wasn’t always smooth sailing, but I made friends with many of them.

I joined professional support organizations.

I joined Meetup.com groups for social support.

And I put myself out there. I began meeting professionals in the US-Japan Relations world, along with UN Ambassadors, top bankers, government employees, and my personal/professional circles quickly increased in number and width. I sent emails. And follow up emails. I leveraged LinkedIn. I attended networking events.

I eventually landed a meeting with Sheila Smith, senior fellow of Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in DC. The meeting went well. She introduced me to David Boling, who at the time was the Vice President of The Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation, a US-Asia Relations foundation founded by former Senator and Ambassador to Japan Mike Mansfield.

A tall man with presence, I met him at the foundation’s office.

“Thank you for meeting me…”

He bluntly blurted “I do what Sheila asks me to do.”

It was just he and I in the office conference room.

After going over my resume, we began talking about the state of law, lawyers, and law schools between the US and Japan. David at one point in his career was a lawyer working at the Capital Hill, which I had picked up on from reading his bio before the meeting.

David: “There is an excess number of lawyers in the US and not enough in Japan.”

Me: “So, the obvious solution here is to ship the excess lawyers in the States to Japan…”

David burst out laughing. He then looked at me and said, “You’re the real deal. I will make some introductions for you today. We don’t have an opening at the moment, but keep in touch. Visit me again next time in DC.”

I began visiting DC at least twice a month, along with my networking I continued with in NYC. I visited David Boling sometime later. I outlined to him my accomplishments since last meeting him.

He was impressed, and offered to write me a recommendation to The Yomiuri Shimbun for their opening of UN reporter. The rest is history.

Why Matthew Edwin

Matthew Edwin International, LLC.

The name I have chosen for this company comes from my full name, Matthew Edwin Carpenter. There is history and meaning packed in my two given names. 

My parents are Asia specialists. My father, Bruce Carpenter, is an expert on Chinese poetry and art history. My mother, Juliet Winters Carpenter, is an internationally recognized literary translator.

I was their first child.  My name is a nod to Matthew Perry and Edwin Reischauer, two men who made signal contributions to Japanese-American relations. Among other associations.

Matthew Perry the naval officer (not the actor) led a fleet to Edo (the old name for Tokyo) in 1853 and forced the Tokugawa government to abandon Japan’s centuries- old policy of isolationism. 

The arrival of Perry and his "black ships" was a wakeup call to people in Japan, especially the youth: if they did not get their act together they would be colonized by the West. China had just lost the Opium Wars and its people were being taken advantage of by colonial oppressors. The result in Japan was a revolutionary movement led by inspired youth, culminating in the Meiji Restoration of 1868 which toppled the Tokugawa government that had been in power for around 300 years.

Edwin Reischauer was a Japan born American like me, born to Presbyterian missionaries stationed in Tokyo in 1910. He led an exemplary career as an academic in Harvard. He originated East Asian Studies in the US and trained the first generation of Asia experts in this country. 

President John F. Kennedy chose him to be the ambassador to Japan, and he served in that capacity from 1961 to 1966. Harvard’s Japanese studies program is named after him.

In short, I’m named after two American giants who were key players in the history of US-Japan relations. That’s a lot to live up to, as I myself pursue a career in US-Japan and international relations.

This is why I have chosen these two names for my company. I have entered a new phase of my career and hope to make a contribution to communication between fundamentally different cultures separated by language, customs, history, even ways of thinking. 

Matthew Perry issued a necessary wakeup call to Japan at a critical juncture, forcing a long-isolated nation to enter the treacherous waters of international relations while surrounded by powerful colonial powers. He opened the gate between Japan and the world.

Reischauer cultivated much needed awareness and dialogue in the US regarding not just Japan but all of Asia. He facilitated better US-Japan relations. In fact, he gave his life for this work: a Japanese man attacked him in Japan, leading to the illness that eventually cost him his life. 

International relations is becoming more and more treacherous again, for Japan and the US, and for all the world. The threat is not only from North Korea; in a globalized world, regional instability has worldwide repercussions. What happens in Syria, Ukraine, Sudan, Latin America, and other areas impact Japan, the US, and the relations between them.

Leaders of Japan and the US know this. There is a reason why one of President Barack Obama’s last acts as sitting president was to visit Hiroshima, the site of the world's first nuclear holocaust. There is a reason why Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Pearl Harbor before Donald Trump’s inauguration. There is a reason why the Trump administration, despite its rhetoric on economic nationalism and isolationism, is maintaining strong ties with Japan. 

I am here to contribute what I can to the process. I will do my best to live up to the proud legacy of the giants Matthew Perry and Edwin Reischauer.

On the US-Japan Relations Court as a Manager

Having just written “Delivering the World to The Yomiuri Shimbun,” realistically speaking I tell myself that my position at the U.N. was not a real-world job. Yes, there was competition. There were many obstacles to success. However, I was protected by two large, powerful organizations--the U.N. and The Yomirui Shimbun--and I operated in an insular environment. In that sense, I consider my two years at the U.N. to have been an internship of sorts.

My first real-world job in New York, with the accompaning challenges and professional development, was at the company I joined next: Fresco International,  with offices in Manhattan (Fresco onwards).

On June 2015, I was hired as manager of an import/export trading company called Fresco, the parent company being Strategic Device, with its offices in Tokyo. Our main client was the Japanese Air Force. Compared to what I had encountered at the U.N., the workload was overwhelming.  I often was at the office till midnight and spent frequent weekends there as well. The work content and office atmosphere were far more rigorous than what I was used to at the U.N., where I would attend daily “networking” coffee breaks with diplomats, along with frequent parties and dinner outings.

I was Fresco’s sole complete bilingual American employee, and I worked surrounded by Japanese personnel. I gained valuable experience, and also it was the first time in my life I was ever manager of an organization.

At Fresco, I observed firsthand how US-Japan relations operate at the ground level, and I was able to take part in and contribute to this process. Since childhood it's been my desire to contribute to US-Japan relations, and this desire led me to found Matthew Edwin International, LLC. Fresco was my first taste of making a contribution in a very direct fashion.

Let me give you specific examples.

Fresco’s main task was to purchase military-grade equipment the Japanese Self Defense Force required and deliver it to the offices of Strategic Device in Tokyo. Along with manufacturing companies, Fresco had established relationships with the US State Department, Japanese and US Customs, and delivery organizations from multiple countries. As the manager, I would facilitate the flow of information, money, and equipment between all these organizations and negotiate solutions as problems arose. It was also my duty to  develop relationships and negotiate contracts with new manufacturing companies.

Immediately after I joined Fresco, word came in from a delivery company at JFK airport. Expensive equipment was stuck there, as US Customs was not allowing its delivery to Tokyo. The Japanese military made it clear that if the equipment was not delivered within a week, they would not make the payment. Fresco was facing the prospect of a significant monetary blow.

Phone calls alone were no help in shedding light on what the problem was. I made my way to JFK alone to see what could be done.

Upon arrival at the airport, I went around to introduce myself at the delivery company and at Customs. Representatives did not hide their amazement and relief to see an American manager with high Japanese skills from a Japanese company that had previously been hard to communicate with; they were glad  that communication would now be smooth. Finally, by going back and forth between Customs and the delivery company while maintaining communication with the main office in Japan, I was able to cut through the red tape and solve the problem.

It turned out the paperwork had been improperly done.  I rewrote it to specifications and resubmitted it. After Customs approved the corrected paperwork, the equipment was delivered to the Japanese military on time.

This all may sound easy, but it was actually harder than it sounds. First of all, time was limited. With a looming deadline, I had to pinpoint the source of the breakdown in communication. I then had to solve the problem while engaging and maintaining the flow of communication between the two sides. Next, I composed paperwork satisfactory to both the shipping company and US Customs and got it approved, then verified that the shipment was safely sent to Tokyo. Throughout this process, I had to accurately convey the content of my discussions with the American organizations to my Japanese colleagues in Japanese. I also had to deliver requests from Japan to the US organizations in English.

Here is another example. The previous manager could not understand instructions provided by the US State Department on how to deliver a specific type of expensive  equipment to Japan. The equipment had been collecting dust in a warehouse for nearly two years. Negotiations with the State Department was going nowhere.

To resolve the issue, I read through the email exchange between Fresco and the State Department going back two years. Much of the English writing done by Fresco’s Japanese staff was garbled and clearly hard for the State Department to understand. I called the State Department  and asked for instructions on how to proceed. I then forwarded these instructions to Fresco and Strategic Device personnel in Japanese. As a result, the expensive equipment was finally released and delivered to Japan.

I contributed to the flow of daily operations as well. I not only intervened when communication broke down, but I worked to prevent problems by doing everything from correcting grammar to representing the Japanese side in phone negotiations with Western private and governmental organizations. I leveraged my bicultural skill set to maintain the flow of communication, goods, and money amongst multiple organizations.

I left Fresco after six months, primarily due to issues related to health insurance. However, the experience I acquired during the six months was priceless. It was the first work environment where I made continual active use of my bilingual, bicultural skills.  At the same time, I saw firsthand at the ground level, and through the business side, how US-Japan relations work.

Just as I contributed to this business during my stay there, it is my sincere wish to make a useful contribution to various organizations and further the development of harmonious relations between Japan and the US onwards in my career.

Delivering the World to The Yomiuri Shimbun

I was surrounded by three Yomiuri staff at the interview in midtown Manhattan – including Kato-san, my future senior colleague. The interview, initially in English, was now taking place in Japanese.

“We’re always skeptical when people put on their resume they’re fluent in Japanese. Most of the time they’re exaggerating.” I was obviously an exception as they jolted when I began speaking to them; even veteran journalists for an elite Japanese organization like Yomiuri were unaccustomed to an American this fluent.

As the interview wound down, Kato-san, who had thrown several challenging questions at me, asked if I had been nervous. Without missing a beat I said, “Of course! Couldn’t you tell?” 

“Brilliant. Yes I could.” He liked my answer.

After submitting my references, several days later I received a call from Yomiuri’s Council. I got the job as their UN reporter.

I began work the following Monday. Kato-san took me to the conference room and made it clear what the expectation was.

“Your main job is to get your hands on the confidential annual report on North Korea. It’s one of the hardest to get at the UN. Your predecessor failed. Kyodo and Asahi"--Yomiuri’s main competitors--"have been consistently beating us the past several years, and this can’t go on. Their entrenched institutional sources at the UN give them the upper hand. I hired you because you’re likable and you’ve done well in sales before. And you speak Japanese. 

“We’re counting on you.”

So began my two-year adventure at the UN. I was single-handedly representing the newspaper with the world’s widest circulation: 13 million subscribers, with an estimated readership of 26 million. Nearly a quarter of Japan was now depending on my work.

The first year did not go well.

On my first day, Kato-san took me to the UN headquarters. After securing my UN pass, he dropped me off at my new office and left me there. I knew no one at the UN and had no experience in journalism. I had, however, read "Tokyo Vice," a book by Yomiuri’s first western journalist, who was assigned the Yakuza (Japanese mafia) beat in Tokyo. It was a great read, although Yomiuri staff later told me he took some creative liberties.

I began introducing myself to UN officers and diplomats from the UK, France, the US, Lebanon…anyone willing to meet me. I quickly realized there was a hierarchy of media at the UN. At the top you had organizations like The New York Times and Reuters, whose representatives didn’t hide their awareness of their top status.

Japanese media, with nearly a dozen companies—the most of any member state—was lower mid-tier. Though in Japan Yomiuri was the most influential, diplomats and UN staff couldn’t give a damn. I was given short shrift: doors slammed in my face and people hung up when I called. Western diplomats lumped us all together as “the Japanese media.”

I also received advice ill-suited for the UN.

In Japan, Yomiuri journalists are known to call people every 10 minutes until they relent, or to walk into people’s offices demanding attention and information.

Such persistence works well in Japan, where Yomiuri has the name and status to pull it off. However, it was not suited to the UN. Nevertheless, Kato-san insisted I follow in Yomiuri’s tradition. I called diplomats over and over, and I walked uninvited into the offices of high-ranking UN staff. My reputation at the UN did not get off to a good start.

One night, he called me at 11:00 pm. The annual report of the North Korean Sanctions Committee was out, and our competitors had got their hands on it. He was desperate: “Call everyone.”

I did. To no avail. I failed to get my hands on a copy of the report that first year. Asahi and Kyodo scooped us yet again.

However, I was not quitting.

Later on, after the report was made public, the South Korean mission organized a press conference based on it. Kato-san called me beforehand with a terse order: “Read it.” The report was dense, 100s of pages long. I took the time to read it cover to cover.

Along with the South Korean UN ambassador, the head of the North Korean Sanctions Committee and the Korean Peninsula expert from the Council on Foreign Relations spoke. Media and high-ranking diplomats from around the world attended the event, and who knows how many people were watching via television and the internet.

The speakers finished, and it was time for questions. Determined, I raised my hand, but wasn’t picked. Kato-san, sitting next to me, was visibly nervous.

I raised my hand again. And again. Finally, I was picked.

“Hi, my name is Matthew Carpenter, a reporter for Yomiuri Shimbun, a Japanese newspaper. Earlier you said cooperation from the international community towards your work has been increasing the past 15 months. Now, in the report, it says there is a general lack of awareness among the import/export community regarding the Security Council sanctions against North Korea. My question is, if cooperation from the international community has been increasing the past 15 months, is the awareness among the import/export community regarding the sanctions increasing also, and if not, what are you doing about it? Thank you.”

Kato-san’s head bowed low and deep. Momentarily, I panicked. “Was that a bad question?!”  However, I knew something different had happened as the head of the Sanctions Committee began speaking. His voice sounded nervous and his body language showed a loss of confidence.

Afterward I asked Kato-san if he liked the question I asked. He just nodded.

At the reception, veteran journalists walked up to me and congratulated me for having asked the best question at the press conference. When I introduced myself to the Council on Foreign Relations Korea expert, he glared at me: “That was a hard question!”

My reputation at the UN changed overnight. I began asking more questions.

Word began getting around the UN that I asked good, tough questions.

I knew there had been a shift in the attitude the international community showed me when the Ambassador of the League of Arab States invited me to a luncheon. As it turned out, I was the only Japanese media representative there.

I arrived 15 minutes early. The ambassador walked up to me, looked me in the eye, and without preamble asked, “What is the difference between US foreign policy in the Middle East and East Asia since WWII, and what generates the difference?”

I was being tested.

Nervously, I answered, “Well, we incorporated East Asia into our alliance structure and industrialized those nations to protect our sea lanes of communication, while in the Middle East we play balance-of-power politics to keep a dominant power from emerging. What generates the difference is the presence of the Soviet, or Russian, threat.” He nodded, and without another word returned to his seat. Without my knowing if I had passed the test or not, the luncheon commenced.

By this time Yomiuri management had replaced Kato-san with Mizuno-san, my new boss. My performance for Yomiuri was accelerating. I was producing results, including several front-page scoops. With the one on the Russian resolution against ISIS funding, I even beat The New York Times and Reuters.

I was having fun, and at times the answers I extracted generated headlines around the world. Here is an example.

The chief architect of the General Assembly gave a tour for international media after reconstruction finished. With the coming Scottish vote of independence in mind, I asked if he had left seats open for possible new member states.

“Hey, good question!” The New York Times correspondent was impressed. The architect smiled hesitantly and after a pause informed us that while there were 193 current member states, the new General Assembly hall could accommodate 206. Journalists pulled out their cell phones and began spreading the news around the world: the UN had room for 13 more new member states.

Journalists from international media began seeking my opinions. For example, the writer and founder of PassBlue interviewed me on why I thought US Ambassador Samantha Power was not appearing at press conferences despite her background as a journalist. Not only were my quotes heavily incorporated into her article, but the writer included that the USUN Mission had told me “we’ll always take your phone call.”

These quotes hit a nerve with the Deputy Spokesperson of the USUN Mission. My analysis was that Ambassador Power probably was under White House orders to keep her interaction with the press minimal. He ran up to me at the UN, shoved his finger into my face, and yelled “Interesting quotes!” However, after he gathered himself, he did acknowledge I was the fairest in my analysis of Ambassador Power. I asked if my analysis was correct. He was silent, then declined to answer. His body language told me that I probably did hit the nail.

Then the crucial moment came again: the annual report on North Korea was out. Reuters got their hands on it and wired about it. Mizuno-san called me with a trace of urgency in his voice.

I called my best source. He sent me a document we both knew was not the one I was looking for. Undeterred, I called him again. This time, he gave me the holy grail of the Japanese media. At long last I was able to acquire the report on North Korea that had eluded Yomiuri's grasp for several years.

My two years at the UN were perhaps not the best years of my life, but certainly they were the most thrilling. A novice surrounded by diplomats, UN staff, and journalists representing countries from around the world that dislike each other to the point of many killing each other through wars and genocides, I was scooping not only my Japanese competitors but, on occasion, top Western organizations like the New York Time and Reuters.

My competitors at the UN all had entrenched institutional sources and/or status that Yomiuri as an organization lacked.  At the same time, my work ethic and enthusiasm became respected by the international community at the UN. Working from scratch, I not only cultivated strong, trusted sources but built friendships that will last a lifetime. I was treated by the international community's best and the brightest as their intellectual equal. Not all journalists at the UN were. I had off the record conversations with representatives from, but not limited to, the US, Russia, UK, France, China, Japan, Germany, Lithuania, Jordan, Israel, Iraq, Pakistan, and more.

In my career onwards, doubtless I will encounter environments and challenges where what worked for me at the UN will not apply. However, I know I can generate rapport with Japanese, American, and international professionals no matter where I am. I have the tenacity and flexibility to learn the rules of the game in varying environments.

I have, can, and will, deliver the world to you.

Why Google Translate Will Not Replace Me Anytime Soon

Why is quality translation and interpretation rare?

Take “human relationships.”

The Japanese language has the exact same phrase: ningen kankei. Ningen means human, and kankei means relationships.

Brilliant. Translating/interpreting this phrase between Japanese and English is a no brainer, right?

Wrong.

In English, “human relationships” has a positive connotation: friendship, romance, family…the stuff that makes life worth living.

In Japanese, “ningen kankei” is negative: office politics, gossip, friendships betrayed…the stuff that makes life a challenge.

The English sentence “encouraging human relationships in a diverse work environment” would therefore have an entirely different meaning if literally translated into Japanese.

This is just one example. Literal translations/interpretations more often than not botch the meaning behind the words. An effective translator/interpreter must be aware of these nuances in a plethora of environments that utilizes vernacular and phrases with hidden connotations.

Take translation, the process of converting written text between languages. An effective translator doesn’t just translate words, but grasps the essence of the text and recreates it into the target language. That is why when you read the words of some of the top translators in the world, it would seem they took their creative liberties too far. They did. Which is why they’re top translators.

This is also why, for example, different translators will publish their work on literature already translated: there are multiple translations of the Tale of Genji, Japan’s ancient novel, for example. There’re multiple ways to fry a translating fish, especially if the original work is rich in literary quality.

It is easier to produce quality with fewer errors while translating than interpreting. You have all the time in the world (unless you’re facing a tight deadline!) to ponder the meanings behind words in different languages.

Interpreting (oral translation) is a whole different ball game. You have nanoseconds to make judgments on the true meaning of what is being said to properly express it into the target language.

As a professional interpreter, power, reputations, money, and even lives are at stake. Whether interpreting in legal settings, or for medical professionals, or between two business organizations. A botched interpretation can and will ruin deals. Even lives.

What if during a business negotiation you accidentally interpreted $100,000 as ¥100,000? One hundred thousand yen is around one thousand US dollars.

What if at a hospital you misinterpreted the dosage of a medication with a low therapeutic threshold with strong side effects?

These are just some obvious examples.

An interpreter must maintain focus. Conversations may get bogged down in technical jargon, or become confrontational and emotional: you maintain your role as a linguistic conduit and keep focused on every word all parties blurt out without missing a beat in getting the meaning across in the target language.

A good translator/interpreter must know the cultural context of the languages as well: cultural references are thrown around in language that if you literally translate would lose its meaning. A good translator and interpreter conveys the cultural differences, not just that of language. For example, a Japanese person would be hard pressed to understand "if you're under 30 and a Republican you have no heart, but if you're over 30 and you're a Democrat, you have no brain."

In short: Google has a ways to go before they program Google Translate to encompass all these roles into software that can replace someone born and raised simultaneously for 21 years in two fundamentally different languages and cultures. With AI, maybe someday? We’ll see!

Japan and America: How Exactly Different?

America and Japan are, well...different. 

Stating the obvious is the easiest part. How exactly? Now that’s harder, and way, way more interesting!

In a sentence: America is a low-context, individualistic society based on self- assertion, while Japan is a high-context, consensus building society.

You’re thinking, what does that mean?

Sociologists define societies as either low- or high-context. High-context societies include places such as Japan, Thailand, and Russia. Rules are important, traditions valued, and timeliness stressed. Low-context societies include countries like the US, Israel, and New Zealand. Rules are followed more flexibly, people are more willing to break with traditions, and being late tend to be not considered as big of a deal, for example.

Japan is considered one of the most high-context societies in this world. People will not cross streets at red lights even if no cars are in sight. Japanese tend to always show up to parties on time. Contracts are not as valued, as players within the society desire tacit agreements. One is expected to know and follow unspoken societal rules without being told.

Much of the US is low-context. Jaywalking is common, Americans consider it fashionable to be late to parties, and contracts are a must to put agreements into legally binding physical forms, as Americans more than Japanese are willing to break societal rules and promises.

Japan is consensus building – what groups you belong to is way more important than in the US. As a result, you see less entrepreneurship, and job seekers are eager to be employed by large, established, what people in Japan call “big hand” companies. Entrance ceremonies for schools and organizations are must-attend events, including coming-of-age ceremonies many Japanese 20-year olds attend nationwide on the second Monday of January called “Seijin-shiki.”

Japanese society respects and follows precedence and established protocols diligently. Rules, along with cemented group and organizational consensus, are harder to change than in the US. This practice works well when the consensus is effective – corporate Japan’s success in the 70s and 80s led by governmental leadership comes to mind. However, needed reforms were also slow to be implemented in the 90s after the bubble burst in ’89 due to this institutional momentum.

The US is not only individualistic, but you have to assert yourself. Not only is there a deep desire for one’s voice to be heard in America, but for it to be an impact that produces results and change. Entrepreneurship is not just common, but is encouraged and respected. Free-speech and democracy allow for marginal groups to make their voices heard, resulting in the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Liberation Movement, and other protests demanding influence and a voice within society.

Individualism in the US can be seen in the way graduation and retirement are celebrated with rigor. US society as a whole tends to not trust authority much compared to Japan.

The result in the US is a divisive society within America’s melting pot framework – from politics, ideologies, to race and gender relations, all vying to assert their voices.

This difference manifests itself in how the two countries select their Heads of State. In the US, American people vote for their President in contentious elections directly through the Electoral College system. In Japan, on the other hand, Prime Ministers are elected by the Diet, based on consensus.

You can also see these differences in how organizations operate. American governmental policies and corporate models are flexible compared to Japan – pitfalls are US organizations tend to lack long-term vision, operate with shortsightedness, and are unpredictable. Just look at how the switch from Obama to Trump is having global consequences.

Japan, though less flexible than the US both at the societal and organizational level, is better than the US at adhering to established structures put in place by consensus, generated under leadership operating with a long-term vision. The pitfall is Japanese people stick to plans even when they obviously aren’t working.

Which is better? That I can’t say. However, I can function in and navigate both worlds with freedom and ease.

For example, I asserted myself effectively in the competitive, contentious environment at the United Nations and forged robust relationships with member states from low-context countries, including the United States. I also cultivated rapport with representatives and U.N. officers from high-context member states, not only Japan but countries such as China, Russia, and Vietnam. I achieved top sales numbers at Wells Fargo Bank while navigating the individualistic milieu of the US, and I also effectively took part in the consensus building process at Japan International Food for the Hungry while working in Sendai for tsunami refugee relief.

Both models of how the two cultures operate have their strengths and weaknesses – I can bring the best of both to the table.

You also have differences such as institutionalized hierarchy reflected in language, definitions of masculinity and femininity, and the role of humor in daily living, but I won’t touch on these topics this time.

Feel free to contact me if you want to discuss the differences between these two very different societies.