Japanese Ambasador Setsuke Sugiyama speaks virtually with World Affairs Council of Atlanta President Charles Shapiro. Watch the full program here.

Signs point to shift in tone and approach from the Trump administration, but the core tenets of the U.S.-Japan relationship will remain much the same despite the impending U.S. leadership transition in January 2021, Japanese Ambassador Shinsuke Sugiyama said in a virtual call today.

Japan’s top diplomat in the U.S. was careful not to make any specific predictions before inauguration day about how President-elect Joe Biden may work with the 10-week-old government of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, but he aimed to affirm that the relationship is on solid footing. 

“It may sound like a diplomatic nicety to reaffirm the alliance, but there is substance behind such affirmations. Much depends on our alliance, fundamentally peace and stability, of course, but also the economic prosperity of our two nations and the international community as a whole,” he told World Affairs Council of Atlanta President Charles Shapiro in a virtual conversation sponsored by YKK (which also backs Global Atlanta’s Japan coverage). 

The U.S. defense pact remains the “linchpin” for Japan’s foreign policy, even as the countries may approach issues like China’s rise and intra-Asia trade with shared goals but differing tactics, he said.

He added that Mr. Suga, the new prime minister, aims to deepen the reforms begun under former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who stepped aside for health reasons in September.

At the outset, the leaders’ priority will be containing COVID-19 and restoring the world’s largest and third-largest economies, Mr. Sugiyama said, offering some thoughts on the Japanese approach to the pandemic.

While not prescriptive about its relative success, he pointed out that the death total in the country of 120 million is just 2,000, compared with more than a quarter-million in the United States.

He speculated that perhaps Japan’s ingrained trust of its robust health care system, ironically installed by the U.S. after World War II, paired with the longtime cultural habits of mask-wearing and hand-washing, have helped a country with a rapidly aging society avoid the type of runaway surges that overwhelmed places like northern Italy and New York early on.

That said, he cautioned that a new wave of infections and deaths in Japan — the latter increased from 1,300 in early September to more than 2,000 by Nov. 30 — suggests that no country can rest on its laurels and that new restrictions on travel and movement might be necessary to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed.

“We seem to be at the crossroads,” the ambassador said.

While Mr. Biden has warned of a “long winter” ahead, good news has rolled in on the vaccine front, perhaps prompting a more optimistic view from Mr. Sugiyama, who quoted English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley: “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?”

In economic terms, Japan has certainly hoped for the blossoming of a new relationship since Mr. Trump failed to exclude Japan, a staunch ally, from steel tariffs imposed based on national security and then threatened to slap tariffs on imported Japanese cars. Early in Mr. Trump’s tenure, the U.S. pulled out of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, a deal painstakingly negotiated over seven years in which the U.S. and Japan were the driving actors. Japan moved ahead with the remaining 11-country deal, now known as the CPTPP.

Mr. Abe cultivated strong personal ties with Mr. Trump, staving off worst of his threats and securing a limited bilateral trade deal last September focused on agricultural access in certain sectors, some manufactured goods and agreements on intellectual property and e-commerce.

It was not approved through the countries’ legislatures; it’s unclear how a Biden administration would treat it. Mr. Sugiyama signed the agreement with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer a few weeks before he spoke in the October 2019 Southeast U.S.-Japan Alliance conference in Savannah.

As then, he spoke in this week’s talk with Mr. Shapiro about the importance of the automotive sector in bilateral ties. It’s vital not to confuse the Japan of the 1980s with the one of today, he said.

Mr. Sugiyama, who came to Washington to work on trade issues in 1989, said the situation has flipped from the days of hand-wringing over Japan’s export oriented economy.

“When I came here as an envoy in 2018 March, I was really really stunned that the situation seems to have been completely changed,” he said. “Thirty-something years ago, Japan was target No. 1 because of the huge trade surplus.”

At its peak, Japan exported 3.5 million cars to the United States per year. Now, that number stands at 1.7 million, while Japanese-owned auto plants in the U.S. churn out nearly 4 million cars per year. That’s just a bit less of one-fourth of the 17 million new cars purchased in the U.S. annually.

“These of course are done by the name of Toyota, Honda, Nissan or whatever, but these are really American cars manufactured by American labor, American parts and American management,” Mr. Sugiyama said. The Honda Odyssey minivan is said to be the car with the highest proportion of U.S. content out of any made in the U.S.

These companies are key employers in Georgia, home to (by some counts) 600-plus Japanese company facilities employing more than 30,000 people, as well as more than 150 Japanese-owned factories.

Asked about specific initiatives closer to home, the ambassador said Japan under former Prime Minister Abe made some strides in promoting women’s participation in the workforce, but that the country still had a long way to go, especially when it comes to recruiting female leaders.

Less than 10 percent of the legislators in the Japanese Diet are women, compared with 23.7 percent in the U.S. The situation among corporate managers is even worse at 7.8 percent, compared with 40 percent in the U.S.

“We have yet to achieve what we are supposed to achieve, but we are making the utmost effort to change in the near future,” Mr. Sugiyama said.

Asked in the Q&A about the issue of China’s rise, he said the issue whether or not China will be held to the standards set by rules-based economies. The U.S. and Japan have the same overarching goals, though their alliance “doesn’t mean an identical policy agenda” with regard to China, he said.

Mr. Biden has promised to continue a tough tack on China but restore dialogue in a relationship that has broken down on most fronts under Mr. Trump.

“We have our own way to approach the Chinese to let them understand what they should do, and you are doing it in a different way but to try to achieve the same goal,” Mr. Sugiyama said, noting increasing Chinese encroachment on the Senkaku Islands (claimed by China as the Diaoyu islands) while the world is preoccupied with a health crisis.

No mention was made of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a new 16-country trade deal in Asia that includes Japan, China and South Korea, which have had complex historical relations, to say the least, while maintaining strong trade links.

The RCEP is seen as less ambitious than the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which contains stricter rules on intellectual property protection, state-owned enterprises and labor and environmental concerns. With U.S. participation, the TPP was positioned as a counterweight to China’s less responsive vision for intra-Asia trade rules.

Learn more about the World Affairs Council of Atlanta at https://www.wacatlanta.org or subscribe to its YouTube channel here

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...