featured in American Ambassadors Review, Fall 2019
by Ambassador Shinsuke J. Sugiyama
When I was appointed as Japan’s Ambassador to the United States in early 2018, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other political leaders had very clear instructions to me: they told me to go outside of the Capital Beltway as often as possible to explore the many communities that make up the United States of America.
Following this instruction, I have visited nearly 30 states so far. As a diplomat who has frequently interacted with the United States during my career, even I was surprised by the depth of my feelings during these visits. I am finding that this is truly the “United” States of America!
In city after city, even as people express worries about the current state of the world, they also mention that the Japan-U.S. alliance and the ties between our people have become a stable constant in these unsettled times. I believe that this full maturation of the Japan-U.S. relationship into a global partnership will allow us to build a more peaceful and prosperous world together.
Japanese Investment, American Jobs
This feeling is very different from what I felt about 30 years ago when I first arrived in Washington, D.C., as a young First Secretary working primarily on economic relations and trade issues. During that turbulent period, Japan’s portion of the U.S. trade deficit was hovering around 50 percent, making it the number-one contributor to the U.S. trade deficit at that time.
Thanks to decades of active investment by Japanese companies, the basic structure of the Japan-U.S. economic relationship has changed considerably since then. As of 2018, Japan’s share of the U.S. trade deficit has fallen to 7.7 percent.
During my travels across the United States as Japan’s envoy, I have been able to witness this change firsthand countless times. For example, my recent visit to North Carolina gave me a chance to visit the Honda Aircraft Company facility, where the HondaJet aircraft is produced. This successful venture by a Japanese company to manufacture small jet planes in the United States is the result of the leadership of a single Japanese engineer.
About 30 years ago, a Japanese engineer at Honda, a Japanese car company, had a dream to produce jet planes. The cooperation and collaboration with American partners enabled him to realize his dream. This is just one living piece of evidence that the American dream is open to Japanese entrepreneurs. At factory after factory, I have seen similar success stories, where the combination of Japanese and American talent is creating new and exciting outcomes: jobs, new local collaborations and, indeed, a new partnership between the United States and Japan.
Unlike 30 years ago, many Japanese companies now have American CEOs and rely on the talents of American workers. They also use American suppliers and have become completely integrated with the American economy. These companies are more than just “good neighbors;” they are a significant part of the American business landscape—and the social landscape as well.
The auto industry is a typical example reflecting this change. Thirty years ago, Japan exported slightly less than 4 million finished cars to the United States, while Japanese automakers produced only about 600,000 vehicles inside the United States. Now, these Japanese automakers produce nearly 4 million cars in the United States, creating thousands of additional American jobs. Currently, only around 1.75 million finished cars are being sent from Japan to the United States each year. This means that Japanese automakers make twice as many cars here in America than they export from Japan.
Of course, the auto industry is only one example of the expanding economic ties between Japan and the United States, as the overall numbers demonstrate. As of 2018, in addition to the small jet plane example mentioned above, Japan’s cumulative foreign direct investment in the United States topped $484 billion, making Japan one of the top foreign investors in this country. Japanese companies have invested $25.7 billion and created over 50,000 jobs in the United States since President Donald Trump took office.
Of course, both Japan and the United States are not satisfied to stop there, and both governments are working hard to create the conditions to further deepen economic ties, as demonstrated by the recently signed Japan-U.S. Trade Agreement and Japan-U.S. Digital Trade Agreement.
I was personally involved in most of the bilateral negotiations that took place after Prime Minister Abe and President Trump issued a joint statement in September 2018. One year later, the two leaders, together with two chief negotiators, Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Ambassador Robert Lighthizer, met and signed the joint statement announcing they came to an agreement. On October 7, U.S. Trade Representative Lighthizer and I signed the agreements in the White House alongside President Trump. I have joined in many trade negotiations in my career, and frankly, I have never seen such a constructive, though sometimes tough, and, indeed, speedy negotiation.
As the Japanese Ambassador to the United States, I found it was a great honor to be part of this negotiation process. I can report that while Minister Motegi and Ambassador Lighthizer are tough negotiators, their personal relationship of mutual trust helped us to create a tangible result in a short period. I truly believe that the result will be mutually beneficial for both counties and will further strengthen our economic relationship.
Working Together for a Peaceful World
The recent trade agreements are only the latest outcome of the strong relations between the two countries. President Trump and the First Lady were the first state guests in Japan’s new Reiwa era, and the two leaders met five times within six months this year. I’ve also been in many of these meetings, and every conversation has advanced an understanding that focuses on some of the world’s most pressing issues.
The Japan-U.S. alliance is the cornerstone of Japan’s diplomacy and security, and it plays a significant role in regional and international peace and prosperity. In particular, we are working closely together to maintain and promote a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” a goal that is important to both nation’s leaders, as well as to the political, business and military leaders I have met across the country.
As for the United States, how to deal with China is one of the most challenging foreign policy issues Japan faces. From a broad perspective, it is extremely important for Japan to build a stable relationship with China, given geographic proximity and economic interdependence. 2018 was an important year for the improvement of the bilateral political relationship, which was marked by mutual visits by the Prime Ministers of both countries after a seven-year interval.
At the same time, the stable improvement of relations with China requires substantive progress in outstanding issues, including the ones related to the East China Sea, as well as the South China Sea. Both Japan and the United States share serious concerns about, and strong opposition to, unilateral coercive attempts to alter the status quo in the East China Sea and the South China Sea. We are grateful that the United States has reiterated multiple times that Article V of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands and that the United States opposes any unilateral action that seeks to undermine Japan’s administration of these islands. We also share deep concerns with regard to Hong Kong, where we see injuries from violence between the protesters and the police. We hope the parties will reach solutions through peaceful dialogue.
Another priority issue for both Japan and the United States is naturally North Korea. In June 2018, the United States and North Korea convened a historic summit meeting in Singapore and agreed on the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, followed by a second summit in Vietnam. Japan believes that it is important for the international community to remain united to support the process between the United States and North Korea towards the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
From this perspective, Japan will continue to cooperate with the United States, the Republic of Korea and other members of the international community in addressing the issues of concern, such as abductions, weapons of mass destruction (including nuclear weapons), and issues of ballistic missiles of all kinds of ranges.
The abductions of Japanese citizens by North Korea is a critical issue concerning the sovereignty of Japan and the lives and safety of Japanese citizens. My country greatly appreciates the fact that President Trump has repeatedly raised this issue to North Korea, and Japan will continue to count on support from the United States in its efforts to solve the abductions issue.
Achieving peace and stability in the Middle East is of great importance for the world as a whole, and Japan is working closely with the United States and other relevant countries to resolve various issues in this region such as ISIL, Iran, the prolonged crisis in Syria, and the Middle East peace process.
Efforts to counter ISIL have provided a good example of what cooperation between Japan and the United States can achieve in this region. Although the area controlled by ISIL has been liberated, the Syrian crisis remains unresolved and has become even more tense after Turkey’s military operation.
Japan has been closely following the situation of Iran. Sharing a mutual objective with the United States—namely, to ensure that Iran has no nuclear weapons—Japan is actively engaging with Iran and urging it to return to full compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and even to go beyond, for a more stable regional situation.
The recent escalation of tensions around the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf region is of grave concern. Japan is calling on Iran to play a constructive role in stabilizing the situation. The bilateral Summit Meetings that were held in New York in September between Japan and the United States, and between Japan and Iran, were a part of Japan’s efforts to deescalate the tensions.
Even before I officially delivered my credentials to President Trump, I delivered my first words as Ambassador-Designate on-stage during the Opening Ceremony of the National Cherry Blossom Festival. It was a fitting place to start my journey, as the strength of our countries’ alliance is found in the people-to-people ties that the cherry blossoms have come to represent.
Washington, D.C.’s cherry trees were originally a gift from Tokyo’s City Mayor in 1912, and in the 107 years since they were planted, an entire festival has flourished around the pink and white blossoms at the Tidal Basin. Every year, over 1.5 million visitors come to the national capital to see the iconic trees and to join local residents in enjoying Japanese food, performances, traditions and culture.
I have represented Japan during this monthlong celebration of the Japan-U.S. friendship twice, and the feeling of walking among Americans who have deep passion for Japanese culture is always special.
This special feeling is also experienced at Cherry Blossom Festivals in other U.S. cities, as well as during the countless cultural performances, pop-culture conventions and exchange programs that give people a chance to build lasting bonds of friendship. The friendship at the grassroots level cultivates and creates a foundation for our bilateral relationship.
Thirty years ago, when I was a young First Secretary, the National Cherry Blossom Festival was popular, but the festival today has reached a completely different level of success. This growth parallels the growth in the relationships and mutual understanding that are essential foundations of the connection between our two countries. With continued investment and wise leadership, I am confident that the strong economic, political and cultural bonds between Japan and the United States will bloom for many generations to come.
AMBASSADOR SHINSUKE J. SUGIYMA has served as the Ambassador of Japan to the United States since 2018. His diplomatic career with the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spans over 40 years, including his most recent role as Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs. He has served in multiple positions at Embassies of Japan in Washington, D.C., Korea and Egypt.