The glaring media attention and intimations of scandal focused on National Security Advisor Richard Allen after he accepted gifts from a Japanese magazine were an embarrassment to the Reagan White House, but caused even more distress among the many image-conscious Japanese businesses that routinely employ Washington representatives.
Most Japanese interests are not represented in Washington by well-connected, high-positioned Americans who attract publicity.
Although the names of Japanese businesses are sprinkled among the client lists of the area's top lobbying and public relations firms, two Japanese-American firms have enjoyed unusual success in attracting such clients.
Masaoka-Ishikawa, a consulting firm, and Tanaka, Walders, Ritger, a law firm, provide a vast array of services to Japanese clients. With relatively small staffs, both are low-key and obscure, by choice.
Albert Yamada, executive vice president of Masaoka-Ishikawa, acknowledges his firm has the "largest concentration of blue chip Japanese businesses of any firm in Washington."
The Richard Allen affair was seen as distasteful to many of his clients, who believe in the stoic Asian way of working quietly in the background to get things done, Yamada says.
"It was embarrassing to them because Richard Allen had become so closely identified with Japanese interests. The Japanese do not like to have attention called to gift-giving, a normal part of Japanese society. For them to get caught up in that kind of situation while acting in the normal course of business was quite an embarrassment."
Yamada doubted that the gifts to Allen of a watch and $1,000 cash were evidence of influence-peddling.
"I am not defending anyone in this affair but you have to put these gifts in perspective. Allen was a man of very high stature and a gift of a watch to a man in such a position is not considered that unusual a gift by a Japanese businessman.
"Plus, you have to remember that we are talking about a Japanese watch, not a Swiss watch or a Rolex which can cost about $4,000. A Japanese electronic watch is not all that expensive anymore. You can get them at a discount in Japan for a couple of hundred dollars.
"As far as the $1,000 cash is concerned, I do think Allen mishandled it by simply leaving it in the safe, and this action calls into question his judgment as a presidential appointee."
Although Yamada speaks openly and at length about his firm's clients, H. William Tanaka is reluctant to talk about his work either on or off the record. When Tanaka was called for an interview, he pooh-poohed the thought and belittled his importance.
"Who me? You want to interview me? I don't think you should want to do that. An article on us will be perceived by some as our seeking publicity, and we are not. There are many more firms that would like to be interviewed because business is bad for many of them right now. So, why don't you call some of them?" said Tanaka.
Reminded that other firms don't have his impressive list of clients and are not quite comparable, he lets out another burst of laughter. "Well, I have been practicing since 1955 and, over here, we try to maintain a low profile. We don't really want anyone to know we're over here. And, anyway, I'm too dumb for you to interview. It is against our company policy to give interviews to anyone, and, with me, I really don't think you would be missing anything."
Tanaka's list of clients reads like Who's Who on the Tokyo Stock Exchange: Sony Corporation of America; Electronic Industries of Japan, Japan Trade Center; Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association; the United States-Japan Trade Council.
His firm also handles legal affairs for the government of Japan, the Embassy of Japan and the Bridgestone Tire Co., Ltd. The 1981 Directory of Washington Representatives and Organizations credits Tanaka with bringing in this lucrative business to the seven-attorney law firm. Tanaka also laughs off any queries about the size of the retainers he can command from his clients.
Masaoka-Ishikawa and Tanaka, Walders are most often involved in trade issues before regulatory agencies, and in pending or threatened legislation before Congress affecting Japanese trade.
Albert Yamada doubts that new trade legislation will be passed soon. "With the American economic situation, I don't think this is a good political atmosphere for enacting trade legislation," he said. However, with increasing concern about the relationship of U.S. unemployment to imports from Japan, clients of both William Tanaka and Masaoka-Ishikawa are starting to take notice.
While charges of dumping selling products in the United States below what they sell for in Japan to undercut U.S. competitors against Japanese businesses take up a lot of Tanaka's time, many of Yamada's clients at Masaoka-Ishikawa are more concerned about trade "reciprocity" and similar issues.
Many Masaoka-Ishikawa clients are product manufacturers, such as Panasonic/Matsushita, Toyota Motor Sales, Sumitomo Shoji America, Suntory International Ltd., and Bank of Tokyo Trust Co.
When politicians, editorial writers, and pro-American trade groups start talking about "reciprocity," Yamada claims that it is often a code word for "let's get Japan."
"Reciprocity is a way to force the other side to deal with you," Yamada said. "The problem with screams of reciprocity for every product coming to America from Japan is that it does not take into consideration the lack of competitiveness--or comparable reciprocalness--in a given industry, the degree of effort expended by American companies to sell their product in certain foreign markets, the quality in workmanship in a product and the simple reality of 'Is the country selling what the reciprocal country needs?'
"There is a tendency to believe the American car should be easily salable anywhere in the world because the American car is quite good. This may be true, but that doesn't mean that it meets the special needs of a Japanese businessman, a Frenchman or someone in South America. The Japanese seem to be better able to adapt to accommodate their needs."
Yamada continues: "Food is another example. The Japanese enjoy eating a lot of citrus. Grapefruit imports are fairly open but oranges in Japan the equivalent of American tangerines are quite another matter. The orange lobby is very strong and they don't want American tangerines brought into the country in huge numbers.
"The beef lobby used to be opposed to buying U.S. beef--but they were buying U.S. grain to feed the cattle. They would buy the feed grain, ship it to Japan, feed the cattle and butcher the cattle. People have begun to say: this is ridiculous, why don't we just buy the beef from the U.S.? And that is precisely what is happening."
The emotional issues surrounding Japanese steel imports are another concern of Yamada. "Many people will say to us, well, of course your steel plants are the most efficient in the world because we the United States helped you to rebuild your plants after World War II."
Since sons and relatives of World War II vets are among the workers laid off in the steel industry, Yamada concedes, "there is a lot of emotion involved here in this issue. We try in our firm to see that neither the American nor the Japanses side goes around taking actions based on misinformation and misunderstanding. The Japanese are a bit self-conscious anyway and sometimes they believe there is a minor conspiracy against them."
Yamada is reluctant to discuss dumping issues that are before the International Trade Commission, but says he has no illusions about the political winds that are blowing. "There have been several pieces of legislation presented in Congress demanding more equitable trade arrangements with Japan. Also, there is proposed legislation on component part use in manufactured goods, and numerous other pieces of legislation have come up involving trade issues with Japan. None has passed, yet, but we expect to see much more legislation presented as these issues garner more support and more proponents."
Yamada thinks American fears of Japanese trade dominance are exaggerated. "There is this mythical notion that Japan is this all-knowing, all-powerful entity over there churning out products. That is not so; Japan has a lot of problems. It has 120 million people concentrated on islands the size of Montana. Industrial managers have to employ people for life and they have to find something to do with all of these people. The Japanese can only compete by making things, by manufactured goods because there are no natural resources in Japan.
"There are many shrewd American analysts and advisers who are actually advising Japanese manufacturers on how to determine what the American market wants and needs at any given time. The Japanese are not able to just guess what the Americans want and then manufacture it, they are being very well advised."
Yamada freely admits that Japanese manufacturers need American consumers, and says his clients are not trying to exploit the U.S. market. "Our clients are very established, very conservative, and are not out to make a big splash and then leave the States. Japanese manufacturers are not going to shrivel up and die every time a law is passed on Japanese trade or a congressman makes a statement. We are in it for the long haul."