April 23, 2014
Thursday, December 26, 2013

Room for improvement in economic ties

Japanese ambassador to Argentina Masashi Mizukami talks to the Herald.
By Michael Soltys / Senior Editor / Economic Outlook
Japanese ambassador interviewed to mark Emperor Akihito’s 80th birthday, Tokyo 2020

What better time to look back on a successful year than Emperor Akihito’s 80th birthday on Monday, says Japanese Ambassador Masashi Mizukami — and it has been a good year, thinking especially of that September evening when Tokyo clinched the 2020 Olympic Games in this city.

And what better impression of Buenos Aires and Argentina could Japanese have than clinching the 2020 Olympic Games there, Mizukami continues — doing his job for him in improving relations better than he ever could.

If the theme of the first Tokyo Olympics in 1964 was recovery (from the Second World War), so is it again now — from the Tohoku earthquake devastating the east coast of Honshu in March, 2011. Japan would like to use the 2020 games to express its gratitude to the rest of the world — not just the economic assistance but the sense of solidarity, the moral support to repair the spiritual damage.

The Herald then reminded the envoy that this month was not only the 80th imperial birthday but also the first anniversary of the Shinzo Abe government, asking for a summary of his first year. Unlike his first premiership (2006-7) facing an Upper House opposition majority, Abe has had a free hand since his midterm sweep last July and could think ahead for deeper structural changes over the next three years (if not beyond), after jumpstarting the Japanese economy out of deflation in his first year.

Among the achievements of the first year, Mizukami gave a high place to normalizing the value of the yen for the first time in 10-15 years — neither overvalued (as usually) or undervalued but the right balance for both global exports and domestic purchasing-power. The surge of the Nikkei share index has been impressive too, giving companies the means to invest, create jobs and retrain employees.

Turning to the birthday boy, Mizukami said that Emperor Akihito has been advised to work less now that he is turning 80 but try telling him that. Every foreign ambassador to Tokyo he knew (even from socialist countries) had described presenting their credentials to the Emperor as the most impressive experience of their mission. Talking of envoys to Tokyo, he described Washington’s appointment of Caroline Kennedy as extremely positive —even the fact that she was not a professional diplomat meant that there were no big problems between the two major economies.

The Herald then referred to a chance encounter with a fireman grateful for the Japanese Embassy’s aid to ask about donations. Since Argentina is not a poor country, Japan considers big donations unnecessary — instead it prefers to target its aid (often in the form of technology transfer) concentrated in four or five areas (fire engines, ambulances, small local hospitals and — perhaps above all — the environment).

Asked about cultural exchange, Mizukami said that his Embassy’s budget for cultural activities had recently been improved, adding (with a smile) that perhaps September’s Olympic decision helped. In all cultural activities, his criterion was not just putting on a show but seeing it bring in people.

The Japanese community here was a great asset on the cultural side, he added. Space does not permit any detailed account of the cultural activities this year but they embrace design, music, documentary films, the Salta Symphonic Orchestra (whose conductor Kuwahara Shizuo is Japanese) and amateur sumo, among others.

The interview then turned to what is often the core of bilateral relations — economic ties. Here the diplomat made little effort to be diplomatic about the difficulties faced —investment prospects needed an Argentine settlement with the Paris Club and import curbs virtually limited Japan’s options to cars and electronics. But bilateral trade was not the full measure with many Japanese companies exporting to third countries.

Mizukami quotes the company philosophy of Toyota (which recently announced a major investment to expand its plant here) to show that good times and bad times are relative.

Toyota explained investing here in 2002-3 just after a maxi-devaluation by saying that it invested in capacity, not cash — what mattered was the potential of the country and their output has gone up from 90,000 to 140,000 vehicles. Now Honda were also here.

The interview ended appropriately with an Imperial Family reference — Prince and Princess Akishino (who already visited Argentina extensively in 1998) will be here in late January, a good opportunity to project Japan.

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