From the Archives: Walter Mondale Reflects on Japan Ambassadorship

In a 1997 interview, Mondale talks about the Japanese economy and culture, and his plans for the future
Walter Mondale in his downtown Minneapolis office

Photo by Thomas Strand

The Big Cheese Is Back

Note: This interview with Walter Mondale originally appeared in the March 1997 issue of Minnesota Monthly. Mondale died on April 19 at the age of 93.

Last December, Minnesota’s most illustrious politician since Hubert Humphrey returned to his home state after serving as the U.S. ambassador to Japan for three years. The ambassadorship will probably be the final chapter of Walter “Fritz” Mondale’s public service career, which stretches back to his stint as state attorney general in the early 1960s, and includes 12 years in the U.S. Senate and 4 years as Jimmy Carter’s vice president.

Mondale’s term in Japan started off on a high note. Many Japanese were thrilled to have an ambassador of his stature; news accounts of his appointment frequently referred to him as Ohmono, or “big cheese.” But his tenure was not without its rough spots. For one thing, the trade imbalance was a recurring source of strain in U.S.-Japan relations. Then there was the 1995 rape of a 12-year-old girl by U.S. military servicemen stationed in Okinawa, a crime that called into question the United States’ continuing military presence in Japan. Although Mondale quickly responded to the incident with a sincere public apology—an apology that was deeply appreciated by the Japanese and served to defuse a potentially explosive situation—tensions remained.

Now back in the private sector, Mondale has rejoined Minneapolis’s Dorsey & Whitney law firm, where he worked for several years before undertaking his ambassadorship. We talked with him in his office as he was juggling incoming business calls and arranging to attend the presidential inauguration.

Welcome back. How are you adjusting to normal life, after living in a $100 million mansion with a large household staff?

Very easily. I’m glad to be back. Both Joan and I were glad to have that assignment—we were there about the standard time—but we’re happy to be home. This is where our roots are to be found, and our friends are here, most of our family’s here—everything’s pretty familiar to us. So we’re having no trouble adjusting.

Trade has been at the forefront of the U.S.-Japan relationship for some time now. Early on in your ambassadorship you expressed frustration over Japan’s resistance to easing trade restrictions. How do you feel about that now, three years later?

Japan is the second largest economy in the world. It has the largest reserves of any nation. It has been running huge current account and trade surpluses—not only with us, but with the world—for many, many years. Japan has as much or more at stake in an open trading system as any country in the world.

And yet, despite the fact that some parts of their economy are largely open—a lot of Minnesotans are doing very well over there—other parts are too closed. Their economy is over-regulated. So we were pressing to get them to open up more of their markets to foreign products, to make it easier for foreign direct investment, to open up their financial markets, and so on. The biggest reason for this is that it’s in their interest: they’ll do better if they deregulate. But also, the United States, which affords Japan its largest open market, is entitled to some decent equivalent in their market.

I think we’ve made some progress. Some of it may be fairly significant. But the market is still too closed.

You seemed to strike a conciliatory tone when you first went to Japan. Did you feel that you had to harden your stance on trade issues during the time you were there?

I still can’t answer that. It seemed to vary from day to day. You try to maintain respectful relationships. I don’t think screaming and losing your temper does any good. You try to understand what their problems are, as well as your own, to see if you can find ways to resolve them. Occasionally it was necessary to build pressure through threatened sanctions, as we did in the auto talks. But at the same time you have to maintain the kind of relations with them that permit you to make progress and allow them to make progress without being humiliated  And that‘s what I tried to do.

You mentioned the need to be respectful. Did your heritage of Scandinavian reserve stand you in good stead in Japan?

When I first arrived in Japan, a journalist from Minnesota who was working there said I was the perfect ambassador because the Japanese and Minnesotans share “a quiet arrogance.I dont know whether that‘s it. But first of all, Japan and the Japanese leaders are entitled to respect; it ‘s a democracy, it ‘s certainly an impressive society. There are a lot of differences between our societies, but they re just as entitled to be respected in their ways as we demand to be respected in ours.

Secondly, even though we may be arguing very hard over transmissions in the auto talks, there are a lot of other things about the United States and Japan that have to go forward. Our security relationship has a lot to do with whether we live in peace, whether we’ve got a stable region, whether business and other things can go forward. And as the ambassador you’ve got to be careful to avoid getting so involved in one issue that you forget the broader purposes that flow from a good relationship.

Do you think Japan’s economic star will continue to rise?

I think Japan will grow and continue to be one of the most impressive economies in the world. The question is whether Japan will find the strength to deregulate and open up their markets. There are a lot of Japanese voices saying, We’ve got to deregulate, weve got to open up, we’ve got to let the discipline of the market force us to do things that will make us more competitive. But whether they will do that, whether they can do that using their unique decisionmaking process, is not yet clear. And if they dont do it,  I think Japan will continue to perform under her potential.

For the last five years now they’ve had sluggish growth; for a couple of years, almost recessions. And it looks like they’re going to have another very slow year, which is different from the estimates a few months ago. The Nikkei stock market is starting to crater. So I believe they cant delay much longer those long overdue steps to open up their economy to the world.

What accomplishment are you most proud of from your time in Japan?

Can I be immodest enough to mention two or three things? Number one, I think we were able to restore some strength to the security relationship. Two, we were able to make significant progress in the trade agenda. And by the time I left, we were able to see a way that we could work out this Okinawa crisis.

The thing I privately worked on so hard was student exchanges—trying to get more Americans over there to study. I think we made significant progress on that. I guess the bottom line is that in both the United States and Japan opinion polls are showing that the public is becoming more favorable toward the other nation. I was one of many who worked on that, but I hope that they were good years for our relationship.

What are the most common misperceptions Japanese people have about the United States or Americans?

I wouldnt call it a misperception exactly, but the Japanese constantly read about violence in the United States, about Japanese students who’ve been killed here, about murder, wanton use of guns, and the rest. And it astonishes them because Japan, whatever else may be wrong with it, tends to be a very safe place. I think [their perceptions of the violence here] are exaggerated. Nevertheless, they do have a point.

Another thing that many of them believe is that our idea of individualism, which is basic to our culture, leads to license. They will often, in my opinion, take examples of Americans who act in an irresponsible way as reflecting the inevitable results of an open, more individualistic society. Again, its a misperception with some truth to it.

I often tell American audiences that the wanton violence and physical danger on the streets of America is no longer just a domestic issue. It’s also an international issue because it strikes at the moral authority of our country in the world.

Walter Mondale in his downtown Minneapolis apartment

Photo by Thomas Strand

Were there any aspects of Japanese culture that you found particularly frustrating or irksome?

Japan has a consensus system for deciding things. When a difficult decision must be made dealing with international concerns, the effort to sustain harmony within the group means the holdouts in that group can paralyze progress. So when you want to deregulate, you go to the companies that are protected by regulation, and if they don’t want to deregulate—that’s it. The idea of a sharp executive decision, or a steamroller majority riding over people, or a crisp legal process that decides these things, that is not Japan. Japan would consider those strategies to be inconsistent with their culture. They’ve got a word, nemawashi, which means talk and talk and talk. I once said that I hope the next ambassador has a lower metabolism rate than I do, because that process is very central to their society.

What lessons—economic, political, or cultural—could Americans learn from the Japanese?

Our culture puts a tremendous emphasis on the individual. The Japanese system goes at it in almost the exact opposite way—they emphasize the group, harmony, responsibility, deference to each other, and so on. If we could somehow balance those two—the emphasis on the individual and the responsibility toward the group—I think our society would benefit from it.

Another thing I noticed is that in Japan you don’t see many people falling between the cracks. You do see some street people once in a while, but you don’t see the kind of subculture of lost and forgotten people there that you do in the United States.

Also, the spread between top executives’ pay and average workers’ pay is much less wide than it is in the United States. That bothers me. It’s not that there can’t be rewards and profits and a margin for risk—that’s essential to our society. But at the same time, we’ve got to think about these millions of people who just fall through the cracks, who are here but not part of society. In Japan, they are very mindful of that. The idea of harmony and stability presumes that everyone will have some kind of stake in the society.

The rate of violent crime in the Twin Cities has soared since you left for Japan. But in Japan, a much more densely populated country, violence remains relatively rare. What do you think accounts for that?

It’s very distressing to me as an old Minnesotan to see these levels of violence. When I grew up, nobody locked their car or their house; you rarely ever heard of a crime. That seems to be changing now and I deeply regret it. I think part of the reason [for the low level of violence in Japan] is that they’re a fairly homogeneous people. They have some gaijin, or foreigners, in Japan, but not many. In the United States, one of our great strengths is that we represent everybody. But trying to make a society that is this heterogeneous work, and to give everyone a fair chance is, I believe, the challenge of our time. We’ve got a lot of work to do.

You’ve spoken frequently about the need for American education to focus more on Japan. Why do you think that’s so important?

Because that part of the world is so important to us. We do almost 70 percent more trade with that region than we do with Europe. Yet if you asked on the street, everyone would say it’s the other way around. Young Minnesotans will increasingly find that their economic lives will be entwined in that part of the world. Because not only are they great markets, they are also increasingly the source of huge world reserves. And with reserves go influence and power.

We are not yet a safe world. I don’t know if we ever will be. But if you’d say where are the dangers that could blow this place up, one of the places that you’d have to look to is Asia. And I don’t think enough Minnesotans understand that. Asia has come on so fast that we dont quite understand it yet. The wealth, the dynamism, the newfound confidence, and the influence of these countries—I don’t think American education has caught up with it.

Will the ambassadorship be your last public office?

l’m sure it will be. I’ve had enough. I feel very good about my years in public life. It certainly wasn’t boring, and I wouldn’t change a second of it. So it’s not something I’m glad to have over, but it’s that time in my life when I think I’ve done enough.

Other Minnesotans who’ve gone to Washington to hold public office have stayed on there. But you keep coming back. Why?

It always surprises me to see people whove spent their lives representing a state or congressional district retire somewhere else—Washington, Palm Beach, or wherever. That never appealed to me. I would rather live here with my friends and my family, where all my traditions are, than go someplace new and try to change my life.

What do you plan to do now, other than practice law? Do you hope to write a book?

I’m working on sorting that out now. I want to do my part in the private sector. In addition to being a lawyer here, I hope to be engaged in several other things. I’ve already joined the Mayo Foundation Board. [Editor’s note: Mondale has also taken a seat on the board of Northwest Airlines.] I will be joining some other civic associations. I will be giving a series of speeches about what I’ve been through. I’m going to be urging Minnesota educational institutions to work on this problem of educating young Minnesotans and Americans [about Japan]. And I also want to do something else. When I last lived here I had what was called a Mondale Forum at the university where I’d bring people out to lecture on the key issues. I’m not there yet, but I’m thinking about what that will be.

I probably won’t write a book. That’s an awful way to ruin your life for two years.

Do you plan to go on the stump for your son Ted’s gubernatorial campaign?

He’s got a difficult challenge. I don’t think he’d want to add that burden. I’ll obviously support him, but he knows a lot more about Minnesota government than I do. He has to do this on his own and he knows that. I’ll help him where I can, but I don’t think the spectacle of a father going around telling everyone to vote for his son is very attractive for me or the audience.