The Russian Diplomat

Mid-August 2014. I had now been the U.N. reporter for The Yomiuri Shimbun for well over a year. My reputation at the U.N. had grown in scope – I was now actively asking questions at press conferences that were considered hard and to the point by many diplomats and U.N. officers. From asking about the awareness of U.N. Security Council resolutions regarding North Korea among the import/export community towards the Head of the North Korean Sanctions Committee to pointed questions at Ambassador Sergeyev of Ukraine regarding Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Ukraine’s response – people were noticing.

Standing at the U.N. Security Council Stakeout area reserved for journalists, one day in that August a high-ranking Russian diplomat walked up to me.

“I hear you’re an American born and raised in Japan. I find that very interesting…and I’d like to be your friend. Let’s go out for dinner, on me.”

Around this time French U.N. Ambassador Araud and others notables in the U.N. world began following me on Twitter…the reality hit that members of the Security Council were now paying attention to me.

August 30th – Russia invades Eastern Ukraine. The following Tuesday I have dinner scheduled with that high-ranking Russian diplomat at a Russian restaurant where he insists I have vodka with him. This invite was after an outing to an upscale Japanese restaurant where he let me order whatever I wanted, all on him. He paid in cash.

“Let’s keep this meeting of ours secret. Don’t tell anyone…you seem to have a good grasp of world affairs and I want to hear what you have to say.”

Our conversation on international politics began with the promise of secrecy.

The Russian diplomat began explaining in his opinion Russia always does better “with a strong leader.”

I interrupted: “you’re right, not all societies are fit to be democracies.” He perked up at this comment.

“Even the democracy we have here today, we went through the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Women’s Liberation Movement. You can’t impose democracies from the top.”

We began talking history. I explained to him in my view the U.S. played more of an assisting role in defeating the Axis powers, and the Soviets took on the brunt of the fighting in WWII as reflected in Soviet casualty rates and German casualty rates on the Eastern Front.

We began talking about Cold War dynamics, how the U.S. inherited the British Empire structurally and financially and created an alliance system to contain the Soviets, and due to nuclear deterrence things were relatively stable excluding Korea and Vietnam until Perestroika. I also told him in my view, as the U.S. is a young country compared to Eurasian societies and lacks institutional memory of international politics, this inexperience is reflected in our foreign policy decisions.

The Russian diplomat, who up to now was maintaining a reserved, stoic posture and attitude, widened his arms, leaned in, and with open eyes and an expression of amazement exclaimed “I can’t believe an American is saying this!”

From there we began meeting every two weeks, always at a restaurant some distance from the U.N. He always paid, in cash, bringing an occasional gift such as bottles of expensive whiskey. 

After three months passed, he took our conversation to another level. “I like your ideas of the world. I want to have meaningful conversations about them with you…write me an essay on your ideas of Japan-Chinese relations. Three pages. I’ll read it over and we’ll talk about it in depth.”

Though the Russian diplomat stressed not to tell anyone about our meetings, I had confided to my senior colleague Mizuno-san about our restaurant rendezvous. I brought up this request with him.

“Did you write it?

“No I haven’t, wanted to see what you think.”

“Don’t write it. He’s got an ulterior motive, and it’s not appropriate for a Yomiuri journalist to be writing about that topic for a Russian diplomat anyway.”

Early December, me and the Russian diplomat met at another upscale Japanese restaurant downtown. He brought with him another expensive bottle of whiskey.

Our conversation started on the world, as usual. “So, the Russians were conducting military drills near northern Japan recently…”

Toward the end of the dinner, he says, “so, the three-page pager on Japan-Chinese relations…”

“Nah I didn’t write it! Talked it over with my boss, it’s not appropriate for a Japanese journalist to be writing about that to a Russian diplomat.”

 His expression turned sour. We quietly finished eating, he paid, but did not schedule another time for dinner. His last words were “I told you not to tell anyone, there’s a saying in Russia if you tell one person everyone will hear about it…”

 That was the last time I had dinner with that high-ranking Russian diplomat. We maintained cordial relations at the U.N. onwards. I ran into him and his family at the Museum of Natural History in New York months after I left the U.N. He ran up to me “Matthew Matthew! You remember me?” He seemed happier to see me than me him – I at least had made a good impression.

 I to this day do not know what he wanted from me via that paper. Maybe I don’t want to know.

Democracy or Autocracy: Political Philosophy, International Affairs, and a Japanese Anime

Japanese anime is now internationally mainstream, including In the United States. At one-point anime was watched by only a small “geeky” segment of the population here but is now consumed by many, of all ages. Americans of all types, from jocks and business professionals to military personnel, frequently tell me they watch anime.

Favorites many point to include Dragon Ball, Naruto, and Death Note, among a host of others. You see people with Goku t-shirts in NYC all the time.

One anime no one brings up as their favorite to me, however, is the Legend of the Galactic Heroes.

This is my favorite. I watched my share of anime growing up in Japan. Out of all the ones I watched, this series particularly stands out in my mind.

Based on a science fiction novel series by Yoshiki Tanaka, the anime version debuted in 1988. The final episodes were published in 2000, totaling 110. During my adolescence this show was almost an obsession with me, and it cemented my interest in international affairs and geopolitics.

Americans have never heard of this series for the most part, even the ones who consume anime on a regular basis. Described as a “Space Opera,” it is science fiction. But this is not your typical science fiction.

There are no aliens. Only humans who spread out throughout the galaxy. There is nothing supernatural, like “the Force” in Star Wars. The main characters are not on a galactic adventure, as in Star Trek.

The series is about politics and war. Age-old questions humanity face set hundreds of years in the future.

The series begins over 800 years in the future with humanity having colonized much of the galaxy. However, war as a societal phenomenon continues despite technological progress.

The galaxy is split in two opposing sides: the democratic Free Planet Alliance and the autocratic Galactic Empire have been at perpetual war for over 150 years with no end in sight. You follow two protagonist geopolitical and military geniuses, Yang Wen-li and Reinhard von Lohengramm, who quickly rise up the ranks to fame and power and alter the dynamic of the stalemate. The two become mortal rivals who at a deep level respect one another.

When admirals are not directing battles involving hundreds of thousands of ships and millions of military personnel utilizing cunning strategies reminiscent of my favorite Chinese geopolitical historical fiction The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, political intrigue runs amok as Machiavellian players strive to outmaneuver one other.

The central philosophical question that threads the entire series together is which is superior: a corrupt democracy, or an efficient autocracy.

Which is one reason I believe this series never took off in the States. Democracy is an unquestioned ideal in America. Many here would not favor a show that does not put on a pedestal what Americans consider a political system that represents an universal ideal and an answer to much of the world’s political problems (as seen in the Democratic Peace theory taught in American universities that declares democracies are hesitant to engage in armed conflict with other democracies). 

Many Americas would also consider this series boring. There are entire episodes where only two, three key characters are in conversation with no movement or action, only the animated discussion of ideas. Americans are used to Marvel Comic type shows where strong individuals are in perpetual action. Many would probably rather not watch 30 minutes of political philosophy being discussed as an entire episode.

But this is why I love this series. Intelligence, teamwork, strategy, and talent are valued. Rash actions by individuals not so much. The series, despite being a science fiction anime, is steeped in realism. Millions die in battle, and in the galaxy only the fittest--the most cunning--can survive.

This series reflects our current world. Russia and China, dominant autocracies, have allied and are making formidable gains throughout the world, from Ukraine and Syria to throughout Eurasia and Latin America. The Mueller Report confirms that Russia did indeed conduct a “a social media campaign designed to provoke and amplify political and social discord in the United States…[that] by early 2016 favored candidate Trump and disparaged candidate Clinton,” taking advantage of our democratic process for political gain. As of the writing of this blog the Trump administration seems outmaneuvered by Iran (more of a theocracy than an autocracy, but still the government wields rigid control) in the Persian Gulf, though to be fair events have yet to be played through to the end. President Obama faced challenges by a Republican-dominated Congress that tied his hands in both domestic and foreign policies. Putin and Xi face no such hurdles as autocratic leaders.

A remake of the Legend of the Galactic Heroes was released last year for those interested. Though developers are not going to remake the entire 110 episodes, you will get a flavor of the series by watching the first season rereleased 2018.

I do not watch anime anymore. During my free time I read or am engaged in other constructive activities, like writing, networking, or briefing myself with current events and the world’s top minds’ analysis of it. Still, my life and career would have been fundamentally different if it weren’t for the Legend of the Galactic Heroes. I would not have pursued a career in international affairs otherwise. I owe my life to this series.

Beyond Sushi: The Best Japanese Restaurants in NYC

Most Americans have no clue what good Japanese food is.

How would they? Your average Japanese restaurant in the U.S. serves food you don’t even see in Japan: teriyaki chicken and sushi rolls, for example. American inventions. And they’re not great cuisine items either.

People frequently ask me about sushi in Japan. Like I spent my entire childhood eating nothing but sushi. That’s like saying Americans eat nothing but steak, or the French subsist on croissants.

There’s a whole ocean of Japanese food that goes beyond sushi, much of which is unavailable at your typical Japanese restaurant in the United States. Japanese style hamburger-steaks, gyu-don (beef over rice), and sōmen noodles are popular everyday meals.  There’s a whole world of pickles, from radish to alliums. Dishes also include okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake made with cabbage, usually eaten for lunch/dinner), sukiyaki (beef hotpot cooked with sugar), and hayashi rice (Western-style stew and rice with red wine and tomato sauce).

For those who live in or are visiting NYC – fear not! This bicultural International Relations Consultant is here to recommend you some of my favorite Japanese restaurants in the city. These establishments not only serve good food, but they’re authentic, frequented by many from the Japanese community in NYC and beyond.

 

Riki – Izakaya Style Restaurant

Riki is an Izakaya, or a Japanese tapas restaurant, located on 45th St. between 3rd and Lex. I frequented this establishment when I was the U.N. reporter for The Yomiuri Shimbun – I would take my journalist colleagues and diplomat sources here for an authentic Japanese culinary experience.

Izakaya are a common style of restaurant in Japan. The idea is you go with a group, order a few beers (or sake and shochu, Japanese-style vodka) with an assortment of small plate meals. Riki’s menu is…long. Multiple pages, with a long list of selections on every page. You would have to visit Riki multiple times before you tried every item, and they’re always switching it up. They have everything from okonomiyaki to goya-chample (an Okinawan style fry dish with tofu and the vegetable goya) to an assortment of skewers, noodles, and stir-fry dishes, all exceptional and authentic. My favorites there include tako-wasa (raw octopus pieces marinated with wasabi), goya-chample, and buta-bara (pork belly skewers), among many others.

Riki is frequently packed so I recommend getting a reservation.

And yes, they have excellent sushi, if you must! Prices are affordable here also.

 

Misoya – Ramen

You can’t talk food in Japan without talking ramen, Chinese noodles Japanese style. Misoya is excellent at, you guessed it, miso broth ramen. Located on 129 2nd Ave, and a favorite haunt of mine. My good Japanese friend Taka swears by this place, and I agree: it’s one of the best ramen shops in the city.

Ramen is the working person’s dish in Japan – you eat it on the run during lunch, for example. Drinking with your colleagues is a big part of life in Japan, and if you go out all night with your work buddies for beers and songs at karaoke, you usually end up stopping by a ramen place around 4:00 am (then you hit the office!). 

No need for a reservation here, and ramen you could enjoy alone or with a group. Try their chicken karaage (deep-fried chicken Japanese style) and other assortment of small dishes available here – all great to eat.

 

Hakubai – Kaiseki Cuisine

For those who want to splurge on high class Japanese food, this is your spot. Located in the basement of Kitano Hotel on 66 Park Ave, in terms of quality, Hakubai offers the best Japanese food I’ve had in NYC. Prices here are higher than the first two restaurants I introduced – and for good reason. Expect to spend at least $100 minimum per person for their multicourse meals, but more likely it will be $150-$200.

Hakubai serves Kaiseki Ryori, or Japanese haute cuisine. This establishment lives up to the highest expectations.

And it’s not just the food – it’s the experience. Kaiseki Ryori is about the ambiance and superb service, Japan style.  The décor matches the elegance of the cuisine, and both are carefully chosen to reflect the season. Hakubai will allow you to savor an authentic culinary cultural experience far removed from the ordinary.

Reservation recommended, and their dress code is “elegant casual.”

There are other notable Japanese restaurants in NYC – feel free to contact me for further recommendations!

The Future of Japan

“Despite Rising Economic Confidence, Japanese See Best Days Behind Them and Say Children Face a Bleak Future.”

 

So goes the headline of a November 12, 2018 PEW Research Center report on the Japanese population’s feelings of their future. Gloom and doom, indeed.

 

I had a conversation with Dan Suzuki recently, a portfolio strategist at Richard Bernstein Advisors LLC. Dan is a senior member of the RBA Investment Committee and is responsible for portfolio strategy, asset allocation, investment management and marketing to major wirehouses and other financial professionals. He also happens to be a former classmate of mine from Osaka International School.

 

He seems to agree with the sentiment expressed in the PEW report. Dan made the following points as reasons for the overall pessimistic outlook on Japan’s future:

 

  • As immigration continues, crime in Japan will increase. Japan has one of the lowest crime rates in the world – it is inevitable that as populations from countries with higher crime rates immigrate to Japan, this will have an impact.

 

  • The near homogeneous population is what makes Japan unique, but that will cease to be the same.

 

 

  • Dan personally is trying to convince his mother to spend her retirement years out of Japan.

 

It’s true there are several structural challenges that Japan faces, a significant one being its decline in population. Less talent, less growth, and also an increasing number of the up and coming generation must take on careers supporting the elderly, who are among the longest living in the world, diverting income and energy from domestic investment.

 

Dan makes some good points. In response to Dan’s points, I say the following:

 

  • Dan may be right when he predicts an increase in Japan’s crime rate. However, Japan has not always been the crimeless utopia that many in the world think it is. In fact, it has experienced anarchy on multiple occasions for prolonged periods. Japan has experienced and dealt with crime and turmoil in the past and is capable of handling any potential rise in crime.

 

 

  • Yes, Japan’s economic dominance will most likely recede, but so will America’s. No society historically has perpetually maintained dominance, militarily or economic. Japan is no exception. That does not mean Japan will no longer be significant on the world stage.

 

  • If Dan wishes his mother near him for personal reasons, that’s fine, but if he wants her to leave due to his fear of Japan’s future, that is not a valid reason.

 

What about this declining population?

 

Japan is experiencing the “’Herbivore’ or ‘Grass Eating’ Male” phenomenon, as generally described in that country. For example, Japanese young people are not dating as much in recent years.

 

Population decline is also the saga of industrialization and the modern day market economy, not just Japan. Korea, Russia, and even China face a declining population, as children go from necessity of survival to a luxury, coupled with advances in birth control technology, which is available ever more cheaply and abundantly.

 

Japan isn’t the only country facing this dilemma then: changes in demographics and immigration have socio-economic, geopolitical, and cultural implications for Japan and a plethora of other countries, from Germany, Great Britain, and also the United States.

 

Japan is an island country with a robust history of isolationism and strict immigration control, while other countries have already experienced much immigration. Japan will, as Dan predicts, change as its population declines, economic dominance continues to recede, and immigrants from the developing world go on to take low skilled work in Japan.

 

But I do not write Japan off. In spite of Dan’s points and the survey of the Japanese public’s sentiment. Here are the reasons I believe the Japanese can look forward to their future:

 

  • Japan is one of the most well-educated societies on the planet maintaining a competitive edge in technological and scientific research.

 

  • Cultures change, and there are no guarantees that current trends are permanent. For example, if Prime Minister Abe continues on his path of remilitarizing Japan, that will have an impact on Japan’s culture.

 

  • Japan’s economic ranking may shift some in the coming years, but will retain its ability to have a global impact and take on leadership roles, as it is doing now with initiatives like the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership which replaced the old TPP after the US withdrawal under President Trump.

 

  • Japan is not the only country with domestic structural problems that have macroeconomic consequences for the nation at whole. The world is in flux, especially as the effects of climate change continue to become worse. Many of the challenges Japan faces are global in nature, shared by the international community at large, not just Japan. Japan has the capacity to be taking on a leadership role globally as the world faces 21st century challenges.

 

  • Women are rising in influence in Japan to a degree unparalleled in its history because of both choice and necessity. Women in Japan up to now have been an untapped talent source. This development will be sure to have a constructive impact on Japan’s society and economy.

 

  • Japan tends to be reluctant to change, but when change is presented, they adopt it efficiently. This has happened on a number of occasions: the Meiji Restoration of 1868 and the resulting fundamental shifts in Japan’s social structure; Japan, one of the few uncolonized countries left on the planet, was effectively competing with rival Imperial powers in the early 20th century; the adaptation to the social engineering initiated by Douglas MacArthur after the Second World War; corporate Japan effectively coordinating business policy with the long term planning of the Japanese Federal Government, among others.

 

Japan has been consistently underestimated by the West ever since it opened its ports to the outside world in 1853, but it has proved the international community wrong multiple times. The Japanese public and the international community should keep this in mind and realize that no country ever remains the same. Japan has experienced rapid change before, it is currently experiencing change, and it will continue to do so. That is also true for the world at large. The Japanese have what it takes to make this inevitable change work for them constructively.