With the date set a year in advance, the organizers of this year’s SEUS-Japan alliance meeting couldn’t have seen this coincidence coming.
As influential business leaders from the South converge in Greenville, S.C., with counterparts from Japan next weekend, Japanese voters will be headed to the polls Oct. 22 for a pivotal election that could affect the economic recovery of the world’s third largest economy.
In late September, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called a snap election to bolster the hand of his Liberal Democratic Party amid flagging approval ratings and an oncoming challenge from a rising political rival. The Democratic Party of Japan, the traditional center-left challenger, stepped aside to give Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike and her new Party of Hope a try at unseating Mr. Abe.
Speaking during a Global Atlanta Consular Conversation at the law firm of Miller & Martin PLLC Oct. 12, Japanese Consul General Takashi Shinozuka highlighted two key issues that will hinge on the election’s outcome: plans for economic reform and a potential rewrite of Japan’s pacifist constitution.
Amid a moderate recovery that has seen Japan come out of its “lost decade” of the 1990s and a post-2008 slump, the government has set a nominal GDP goal of 600 trillion yen (about $5.3 trillion) by 2020.
Some see this as an impossible dream. Mr. Abe believes he simply needs more time. In power since 2012, the prime minister has already fired two of the three policy “arrows” that make up his economic recovery plan, aptly dubbed “Abenomics.” Fiscal stimulus and monetary easing were the easy ones; structural reform remains elusive.
The government is now aiming to boost productivity, drive innovation and initiate reform of its hulking corporate sector, says Mr. Shinozuka.
“It’s easy to say, but not so easy to be done,” the consul general said.
Without taking sides in the election, Mr. Shinozuka added that some are advocating for continuity. Mr. Abe is expected to win another majority, but a key metric will be whether he can come away with two-thirds of seats in the Diet, Japan’s parliament.
That’s crucial for plowing ahead with a second long-held goal: amending Japan’s constitution to allow for a more robust national defense.
Since World War II, the country has relied mainly on its alliance with the U.S. for security, but it has also built up its own so-called “self-defense force” of more than 220,000 troops. The amendment to Article 9, the prime minister has said, would remove any ambiguity about the constitutionality of operating a military.
Mr. Shinozuka said any such amendment would have to go through the Diet with a two-thirds vote, then pass a referendum by a deeply divided public. It would also alarm Asian nations leery of Japan’s imperialistic history.
What is certain is that Japan faces new security challenges, as evidenced by disputes over islands in the East China Sea and, more recently and gravely, provocations by North Korea.
Embroiled in a war of words with the U.S.,North Korea has conducted repeated nuclear tests and has fired ballistic missiles over Japan and into the Pacific in recent months, causing alert sirens to go off in the northern island of Hokkaido.
Mr. Shinozuka says that Japanese citizens have remained calm despite the heightened rhetoric and action.
“We try to keep our heads cool, but it depends on the circumstances,” he said.
When moderator and Global Atlanta Publisher Phil Bolton intimated that Americans were concerned as well, Mr. Shinozuka quipped: “We have more concern, because the missiles go beyond our heads.”
Still, the alliance with the U.S., shored up in 2015, is the appropriate way to handle the crisis, he added.
“To deal with the situation with North Korea, I think it’s the only thing we can do,” Mr. Shinozuka said.
“America is great because America is good, and Georgia represents all that is good in the United States.”
He praised the toughness of Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, whom Mr. Shinozuka knew in her former capacity as governor of South Carolina. It’s one of the four states he covers as consul general to the Southeast, along with Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina.
South Carolina will be this year’s host for this year’s 40th annual joint meeting of the SEUS-Japan alliance, which is themed around “Success Through Tradition, Innovation and Partnerships.”
After two days of activities, Oct. 23 will see speeches from Japanese Ambassador Konichiro Sasae, Japan External Trade Organization Chairman and CEO Hiroyuki Ishige (who will also speak in Atlanta at an investment forum Oct. 20).
They’ll be followed by General Electric Co. Chairman Jeff Immelt, a keynote speaker, then a panel on labor force trends featuring executives from companies like Japan Airlines, Komatsu, Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi and Bridgestone.
In between, Mr. Shinozuka says he will give a vote of confidence in the region’s ties with his country.
“I will express once again my gratitude and I will express my hope to see more Japanese companies coming and more Southeastern companies going to Japan because investment should be both ways,” he said.
With about half (640) of the 1,300 Japan-affiliated companies in the consulate’s four-state area, Georgia has certainly gotten its fair share of investment.
Mr. Shinozuka expressed disappointment that many of these subsidiaries are now operating without the promise of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would have reduced tariffs, enhanced market access and created standards that would spurred reforms around Asia. President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal earlier this year.
Companies like TDK, which makes capacitors and other electronic components at a Peachtree City plant, would have had access to cheaper raw materials, Mr. Shinozuka said.
Even without the deal, the U.S. market is still of paramount importance for Japanese firms, and Georgia will continue to play a key role in attracting them.
“For us Japanese in general, America is great because America is good, and I think that Georgia represents in some sense all that is good in the United States,” he added.
Beyond investments, the state and the country have a variety of other linkages, from sister-city ties to language studies in public schools and the JET teaching program for Americans.
These steady people-to-people links were on display at the recent Grassroots Summit held in Atlanta late 2016, and the arrival of more than 2,000 Rotarians from Japan for the Rotary International convention in Atlanta in June.
“I’m very optimistic about the future of Japan-Georgia relations,” said Mr. Shinozuka.
The consul general arrived in Atlanta early last year after a stint as vice grand master of ceremonies in the Imperial Household Agency, the office that coordinates the various duties of the emperor. Akihito, now in his 80s, is preparing to abdicate for the first time in history.
In that role, Mr. Shinozuka was often sent with the imperial car to collect visiting dignitaries. For him, that meant about 20 minutes alone with heads of state. It’s one of the many perks of a diplomatic career birthed thanks in part to an international upbringing.
Mr. Shinozuka spent his early years in Vietnam and Cambodia, where his father was a businessman. Later in Georgia, he was able to meet American veterans of the Vietnam War, whose paths intersected with him during this trying for Southeast Asia and for families living in Saigon at the time.
“I’m very happy and touched to meet them because these are people who shared the time time and same place with us and protected our daily life.”
Read more Japan coverage at GlobalAtlanta.com/japan.