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.



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:



 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?



You don’t really swear in Japan.


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:



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.