Does Japan wield too much influence in the American political system? A debate on that question began simmering in Washington in the 1980s as Japanese lobbying proliferated in the halls of Congress. Now things may well be on their way to a full boil, courtesy of a former executive of TRW Corp.
"Today Japan controls the most sophisticated and successful political-economic machine in the United States," Pat Choate declares in an article to be published next month in the Harvard Business Review. It is "more extensive and effective than either U.S. political party or any U.S. industry, union or special interest group. Japan's campaign for the United States is designed to serve one very important purpose: to influence the outcome of political decisions in Washington, D.C. ... "
Containing many a similar strong phrase, the article is the core of a book by Choate that is to appear in October, called "Agents of Influence." The book is awaited with both admiration and disdain in the Washington community of politicians, business leaders and academics that debates Japan and the future of the U.S. economy.
The article will appear about a month after Choate left his job as a policy analyst at TRW, a Cleveland-based technology company and federal contractor. According to TRW, he resigned to pursue a full-time career as writer and lecturer. According to friends, he was forced out after some of the company's many Japanese customers and partners complained about him. His departure, to the friends, is proof of the book's thesis.
In recent years, the sharp-tongued Choate has been a fixture at seminars, congressional hearingsand press conferences on the subject of U.S. economic competitiveness. He became a classic Washington figure, a man with an issue -- the revival of American industry -- and the energy to see it through. Again and again he has argued that the United States must toughen its stance with Japan, or risk losing the underpinnings of its industrial affluence.
Times have been hard for him and his camp in recent years, with the White House occupied by Republicans who preach the efficiency of marketplace solutions. But the group has kept on, raising issues as diverse as high-definition television and rules of foreign investment and, repeatedly, lobbying.
If an institution is known to receive Japanese money, its opponents in the trade debate these days are likely to bring that up to try to discredit its ideas. Groups that do not get Japanese funding often make a point of declaring that fact to the world.
The Japanese Embassy is not happy to see Choate's book appearing, calling it another example of critics singling out Japan for what everyone does.
"Why are they pointing mainly to the Japanese?" asked Hiroshi Hirabayashi, economic minister at the embassy, but "not the British, not the Dutch, not the Canadians, not the Koreans?" Japanese companies, he said, are merely working in the way U.S. custom demands.
Hirabayashi, however, said he felt that although they are within their rights, hiring big-gun lobbyists can build ill will, so he said he often counsels Japanese companies to do their lobbying themselves. Even if interpreters are necessary, he said, "that would be much more effective than using consultants and lawyers."
Michiko Higuchi, a research fellow at Georgetown University, said that Japanese companies, despite their presence here, remain unfamiliar with the ways of American lobbying. As a result, "Japanese companies tend to hire the big names and pay whatever they request."
Choate said he sees them as much more sophisticated than that, however. He has argued that Japan's effort is well-planned and dwarfs everyone else's. He has estimated that its companies and government agencies are spending $400 million a year to influence opinion in this country. Choate has said the money goes to hire former administration officials as lobbyists, to set up political action committees, to fund U.S. front groups such as consumer councils and to distribute information -- he has called it propaganda -- to American schools and news organizations.
Japanese spending, Choate said, equals the amount spent by Republicans and Democrats in House and Senate elections in 1988. Japanese spend more on their 1,000-member cadre of lobbyists in Washington than do the five most influential U.S. business organizations, which include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, he said.
Most of the lobbyists are Americans, some of them prominent. Between 1973 and 1990, Choate said, one-third of the principal trade officials at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, which handles trade negotiations abroad, became registered foreign agents after leaving the agency, most of them for Japanese clients, among others.
Choate said he sees the effort as well coordinated and highly effective. Japanese lobbying turned back a common-sense decision by U.S. customs officials that small pickup trucks should be classified as trucks and taxed at a higher rate than cars, he said. Other victories have come, in Choate's view, in such fields as supercomputers, machine tools, satellites and air transportation.
Choate also has explored Japan's campaign "to persuade Americans to adapt favorable views toward Japan." This, he said, takes the form of nurturing prominent Americans who will speak on their behalf, bankrolling universities and influencing the work of American journalists. Sponsored trips to Japan for American teachers, he said, are part of an effort to shape the thoughts of young Americans.
Choate hasn't accused Japanese companies of breaking the law, but rather of taking advantage of a bankrupt system that allows such things to go on. On lobbying, he said, "it is, after all, greed and self-interest in Washington, D.C., that makes it all possible."
He calls for laws that would bar senior U.S. officials from ever working for foreign companies. More junior officers would have to wait at least five years. Any American who takes a job for foreign interests -- they might be lawyers, academics or journalists -- he says, should be required to register as a foreign agent.
Foreign companies should flatly be barred from engaging in U.S. politics.
Choate has plenty of critics, however. Prof. Nathaniel Thayer of Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies has argued that as long as the U.S. government is run on adversarial principles, Japanese companies that do business here have a right to be heard just as American ones do. "If we're talking about automobiles, it's views have to be included in all legislation that has to do with automobiles. ... If there's a big argument on how loud the horn is going to be, they should be included in those talks."
Thayer also criticized Choate's analysis of world trade. "He draws a line in the sand and puts all the Americans on one side and all the Japanese on the other," when in fact their interests are often intermingled, said Thayer. "If you do something nice for Mazda you're probably doing something nice for Ford, too, because Ford owns 20 percent of Mazda."
Other critics contest Choate's contention that Japanese lobbying is ever-victorious. In many cases, the White House, for various reasons of economic philosophy or politics, has taken the side of the Japanese in specific issues.
"The American political process and all the views that make up this vast country are far more important than the amount of money that they spend" on lobbying, said Francis J. McNeil, executive director of the Commission on U.S.-Japan Relations for the Twenty First Century, a nonprofit group sponsored by U.S. corporations.