From Perry to Pritzker: U.S.-Japan Commercial Relations in a New Era

By David A. Parker

Skyscrapers of the Shinjuku business district in Tokyo, Japan. Prospects for mutual benefit in U.S.-Japan commercial ties have increased in recent months.

Skyscrapers of the Shinjuku business district in Tokyo, Japan. Prospects for mutual benefit in U.S.-Japan commercial ties have increased considerably on the eve of Secretary Pritzker’s visit. Source: Wikimedia user Morio, used under a creative commons license.

At a casual glance, that Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker is currently in Tokyo on her first trade mission to Asia might seem routine. After all, Japan is one of America’s largest commercial partners, with nearly $400 billion in goods and services traded between the two countries annually, and a key participant in ongoing Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations. But far from simply a commercial sideshow in advance of President Obama’s visit to the region next month, Pritzker’s first official trip to the land of the rising sun highlights a quiet transformation of U.S.-Japan economic relations currently underway. After years of “Japan bashing,” followed by years more of “Japan passing,” mutual reinforcement between America’s commercial rebalance and Japan’s economic revitalization is bringing Washington and Tokyo closer than ever to sharing a genuine joint vision for their economic relationship.

Beyond the effect of bringing representatives from twenty American healthcare and energy firms on further “embedding” U.S. commercial interests in Asia, this visit also has special historical significance. The last major U.S. trade mission to Japan was in January 1992, under the leadership of then-president George H. W. Bush, who memorably succumbed to a bout of intestinal flu and during dinner vomited on his host, then-prime minister Kiichi Miyazawa. This was in the midst of the trade wars between the United States and Japan over automobiles, and White House claims of “clear and measurable gains” from the trip did little to dampen cries from Detroit for retaliation against Tokyo’s alleged unfair trade practices upon Bush’s return. That year also marked the onset of Japan’s “lost decades,” during which the country averaged roughly one percent GDP growth per year – and one prime minister every two.

The political and economic environment surrounding this latest trade mission could hardly be more different. In the two months prior to former president Bush’s ill-fated visit, the U.S. economy had lost more than half a million jobs; today the United States is in the midst of the longest streak of continuous job growth on record. Japan was at the time just entering its long stagnation; under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the economy has arguably its best shot at genuine revival in more than twenty years. And while old disputes over automobiles and agriculture remain significant obstacles to the completion of ongoing TPP negotiations, the dominant tone of U.S.-Japan economic relations has clearly shifted away from the acrid competition of the 1990s and in the direction of increasingly close cooperation.

From Tokyo’s perspective, Secretary Pritzker’s trade mission provides important validation of the Abe administration’s economic reform agenda. Not only does it highlight how stronger domestic growth prospects have translated into renewed interest in the Japanese market from U.S. firms, but the choice of healthcare and energy as areas of focus is seen as a positive reflection of Prime Minister Abe’s efforts to advance foreign firm-friendly structural reforms in these key areas. Measures have included the government’s November 2013 decision to embark on an ambitious liberalization agenda for Japan’s $60 billion electrical power market and several recently passed amendments to domestic healthcare laws aimed at boosting efficiency, lowering costs, and strengthening competition through allowing greater participation by foreign firms.

For the United States, the trip is an opportunity to help American businesses expand their presence in the world’s third-largest economy in two key growth sectors. As the Department of Commerce points out, the $150 billion Japanese drug and medical device market “represents the silver lining of the dark cloud of Japan’s aging population” for U.S. firms. And with the absolute number of Japanese over 65 projected to continue growing for the next 30 years (even as the overall population shrinks), this is an opportunity that will persist for the long term. In the energy sector, the shutdown of Japan’s nuclear facilities following the 2011 Fukushima disaster has forced a major rethink of Japanese energy policy. The result is a new willingness to experiment and a hunger for advanced technologies and creative solutions that can help Japan meet its energy needs – technologies and solutions that American companies are well-placed to supply.

In June 1990, the United States and Japan jointly presented a list of actions for each government to undertake that they agreed would lead to “more efficient, competitive, and open markets, promote sustained economic growth, and enhance the quality of life in both Japan and the United States.” Unfortunately, the positive agenda put forward in this Structural Impediments Initiative (SII) failed to stem the downward spiral in economic relations that would doom Bush’s Tokyo trade mission only 18 months later.

But fast-forward twenty years and the United States and Japan are closer than ever before to sharing a joint vision for realizing the objectives set out in SII. The Abe administration is actively pursuing an ambitious economic agenda centered on boosting domestic demand, realizing structural reform, and, critically, enhancing international openness. Despite troubles in Washington, through the TPP negotiations the Obama administration has laid the groundwork for realizing an ambitious trade agenda that has the potential to shape the rules of global commerce for a generation. Each is looking to the other for help.

Mr. David A. Parker is a Research Associate with the William E. Simon Chair in Political Economy at CSIS.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *