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Sunday, Feb. 23, 2003



Going for the least-worst option

CASE STUDIES IN JAPANESE NEGOTIATING BEHAVIOR, by Michael Blaker, Paul Giarra and Ezra Vogel. Washington D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2002, 170 pp., $12.50 (paper).

Mercifully, we are long past the time when a book like this focused on a Japanese exceptionalism that bordered on cultural mumbo-jumbo. Instead, this volume, the third in a series of national negotiating styles by the United States Institute of Peace, examines Japanese negotiating behavior through a narrow lens -- bilateral U.S.-Japan government-to-government talks -- and sticks to the facts as the authors see them. The result is best considered an introduction to the subject -- a prelude to the more comprehensive study, one that relies on Japanese contributors, that has yet to be written.

The authors concede as much, acknowledging that even these cases aren't typical. Negotiations with the U.S. are sui generis for Japan, and these examples are not high profile or the most highly charged. I would even venture that the final example, the renegotiation of the U.S.-Japan security relationship from 1991 to 1996, might not even be a "negotiation." Rather it was a process, with no fixed end point or destination. It is unlikely that the two sides even thought of what they were doing as a single "negotiation." Events obliged both sides to change objectives and course as they proceeded. And, as a final quasi-criticism, it should be pointed out that while the two authors (Ezra Vogel and Paul Giarra) were deeply involved in the effort to recast the relationship, the case study still lacks insight into Japanese thinking. But, as noted, this useful volume is just an introduction.

The other chapters focus on negotiations over orange imports (1977-88), rice imports (1986-93) and the contentious debate over the FSX (Fighter Support Experimental) aircraft that was to be developed by the two countries (1985-89); Blaker, perhaps the pre-eminent U.S. student of Japanese negotiating behavior, wrote each of them.

In the first case, the two countries signed agreements in 1978, 1983 and 1988 (the book only focuses on the first). The third agreement accepted total elimination of Japanese quotas. In the second case, rice, Japan eventually agreed to the removal of all restrictions on rice imports. The third -- "the bitterest U.S.-Japan negotiations in the postwar era," wrote one Japanese analyst -- produced a complicated agreement that has been called "the most unequal treaty since the end of the Edo Period."

That is not a good record. Those outcomes are especially curious since rice has near mythical status in the Japanese mind and the FSX negotiations were "an American assault not only on certain Japanese commercial interests, but also on Japan's strategic core values of technological and political independence and economic prowess . . ."

There isn't an especially good explanation for why the Japanese fared so poorly given the significance of the talks. Perhaps the relationship with the U.S. is too important to jeopardize, or the Japanese position just plain unreasonable: Notions about the centrality of rice to Japanese society and identity evaporate when the country's trade relations are hanging in the balance. Whatever the cause, the authors conclude that "Japanese diplomats have sought to anticipate U.S. demands, to moderate them, and then to satisfy them, albeit at the lowest cost to Japan."

In each of the cases, the Japanese are on the defensive. The U.S. frames the problem, sets the bargaining agenda, issues threats and lays down deadlines. Japan offers counterproposals. Blaker concludes, "no matter at what level negotiations took place -- bilateral, multilateral or bilateral within multilateral -- the policies, approach and behavior of Japanese negotiators were conditioned by Japan's defensive position."

Despite the Japanese "unease" about negotiating with the U.S., the authors identify a distinctive Japanese negotiating behavior. It is, in a word, "coping." When Japan concedes there is no alternative to negotiation, it has done so "cautiously, methodically and slowly and has signed an agreement only after crafting a broad internal consensus and persuading itself that the agreement is the least-worst option available."

All the components of this approach -- defensiveness, consensus building and the slow pace -- are familiar to anyone with much experience in Japan. In the government context, a couple of other characteristics are apparent.

The first is the use of gaiatsu, or foreign pressure. Entire books have been written on the subject, but Blaker's description does the job: It is the "straw that stirs the drink in Japanese-American negotiations." While U.S. pressure may convince the Japanese of the need to negotiate, its real significance is the leverage it gives parties within the negotiations. Japanese groups use gaiatsu to increase their own bargaining position as the Japanese build internal consensus on an issue.

A second characteristic is the use of back channels to test ideas and establish a vision or framework. The authors note that back-room dealing is by no means unique to Japan, but the Japanese use of back channels throughout the entire negotiating process does seem distinctive.

Related to that is the confidentiality or secrecy that accompanies deals. Again, this is not unique, but it is exacerbated by the need for internal consensus building. Negotiating positions can't be debated in the press when such a delicate process is under way. This creates problems of its own, as a "secretive approach to talks may help conduct negotiations, but it leaves Japanese vulnerable when terms become public." If, as noted in these case studies, the initial position is maximalist but Japan usually comes around and makes a deal, then the shock can be severe. Think of this volume as a shock absorber.

Brad Glosserman, a contributing editor to The Japan Times, is director of research of Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based think tank.

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