Ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki

When Japanese voters went to the polls in August to elect a new government, they followed Americans‘ lead and chose “change,” said Ichiro Fujisaki, Japan’s ambassador to the U.S.

In 2008, the election of President Obama, whose campaign branded him as the candidate of change, swung control of the White House back to the Democratic Party after eight years of Republican leadership. 

The Democratic Party of Japan had a more desperate political drought to overcome. Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party had ruled the country nearly continuously for half a century before this year’s landslide victory handed the opposition DPJ a legislative majority. 

The win led to the appointment of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, and despite uncertainty over how the newly minted leadership will govern, one thing remains concrete: the U.S. and Japan remain unwaveringly committed to working together on social, economic and political issues, Mr. Fujisaki said.

“What’s important to note about the U.S. and Japan is that governmental changes do not affect U.S.-Japan relations,” he added in a wide-ranging interview in Atlanta.  The ambassador was in town for a celebration marking the renovated Carter Presidential Center‘s reopening.

Having attended Stanford University graduate school with Mr. Hatoyama, Mr. Fujisaki said he can vouch for the prime minister’s dedication to the bilateral relationship, which is all the more vital as the world’s two biggest economies battle economic woes. 

“Japan was under stagnation since early ’90s but the last few years it was getting back to a growth path. Its (gross national product) growth was more than 2 percent for some time, until last year, when world finance faced a stumble, and Japan was no exception,” Mr. Fujisaki said. 

Japan came out of a year-long recession when it posted 0.6 percent gross domestic product growth for the second quarter of this year. The U.S. economy contracted at a rate of 0.7 percent during that period.

Mr. Hatoyama was elected largely because the populace was dissatisfied with the economic trajectory of the country, Mr. Fujisaki added, citing news reports at home. The prime minister’s plan for recovery focuses on boosting domestic consumer demand in an economy that is heavily reliant on exports like automobiles and technology.

To do so, the government will work on a variety of initiatives that amount to financial help for small- to medium-sized companies, farms, green-energy projects and households.

Only two weeks officially into his term, Mr. Hatoyama has already outlined some ambitious goals.  He has pledged that Japan would reduce carbon emissions by 25 percent from 1990 levels by 2020, a move ostensibly aimed at spurring growth in energy-efficient technologies, a future driver for the economy.

The business community in Japan is split on the proposal, which could lead to taxes on emissions or the development of a carbon trading system, said Mr. Fujisaki. “The prime minister is saying that he is ready to use all policy tools to realize this.”

Another proposed program would pay parents who have children.  They would get monthly government stipend of up to $260 per month per child until the children reach high school. The goal is to boost birthrates and diminish the drag the aging population places on the economy.  With high price tag, though, legislators are trying to find money to make the plan a reality, Mr. Fujisaki said.

The focus on the domestic economy shouldn’t hurt Japanese firms doing business overseas, like more than 350 companies in Georgia and some 900 in the Southeast.  Placing the country’s economy on a firmer footing would hasten recovery, which would help all, the ambassador added.

The Japanese government will continue efforts to attract foreign investment and build regional trade ties. Japan has started free-trade negotiations with many Southeast Asian countries, as well as Australia, India and South Korea

A strong recovery in Japan would have significant implications for the U.S. Japan is already the second-largest investor here behind the United Kingdom.  Georgia has been able to attract its fair share of that cash through its friendly people, favorable labor environment and strong financial and tax incentives, Mr. Fujisaki said. 

Along with economics, Mr. Fujisaki also addressed U.S.-Japan security interests. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talked with Japan’s foreign minister recently about the status of U.S. bases in Japan. The countries are working jointly on a variety of security initiatives in Asia, which includes encouraging a denuclearized Korean peninsula.

“As for North Korea, we have to solve three issues: nuclear weapons, missiles and abduction, comprehensively,” Mr. Fujisaki said. “In order to deal with North Korea, the most realistic framework is six-party talks.  We hope that North Korea will come back to the six-party talks as soon as possible, and we will coordinate and cooperate with the United States and others to this end.”

As the No. 2 and No. 3 contributor, respectively, to reconstruction projects in Afghanistan and Iraq, Japan is supporting U.S. efforts in both war-torn countries, a fact that Mr. Fujisaki said is little known by the American public and in general is “not that well appreciated.”

Despite the partnerships, the countries were competitors this week.  Both Mr. Hatoyama and Mr. Obama traveled to Copenhagen, Denmark, this week to stump for the Olympic bids of cities in their respective countries.  Mr. Hatoyama was cheering on Tokyo, while Mr. Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama threw their support behind Chicago, where they lived for 25 years.  The International Olympic Committee awarded the Games to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Mr. Fujisaki first visited Atlanta during the Olympics in 1996. 

This year, he’s twice experienced what he called “the charm of Georgia.”  In March, he went to Macon for the annual Macon Cherry Blossom Festival.  Zipper maker YKK USA and other Japanese companies have operations in the middle Georgia city.

Japan’s relationship with Georgia will continue to be a strong example of the friendship between his country and the U.S., Mr. Fujisaki said. 

“We like each other. More than 70 to 80 percent of Japanese like the United States and vice versa, according to polls. There are not too many countries like that in the world.”

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...