WITH Bill Clinton ahead of George Bush in the polls, Japan has begun to brace itself for the prospect of dealing with the first Democratic president in 12 years, and one with ambiguous views on free trade.
As a precaution, Japanese officials and business leaders are actively sizing up the Arkansas governor while trying to gain access to his advisers.
"Clinton has many aides who are from Harvard [University] and we also have many graduates from Harvard," says an official in Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI). "We are making connections."
Such scrutiny of Mr. Clinton, however, remains secretive so that Japan does not sour its ties with President Bush in case he should win a second term.
Many Japanese see this US election as vital to halt an economic decline in their largest trading partner. Popular interest in the campaign, mostly on TV and radio talk shows, picked up after the Los Angeles riots in April, in which the US was shown by Japanese media as seriously divided between haves and have-nots. Often, such reports reveal both a disdain and a dismay at the US for letting its economy slip.
Japan actually began to size up Clinton years ago. He has visited Japan four times as a governor, mainly to woo Japanese investment to his state.
In 1988, on his last trip to Tokyo, he was eyed by Japanese officials as a potential US president and was granted an unusual appointment with then-Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita, who remains a powerful figure behind the scenes. And in 1990 he held a private talk in Atlanta with then-Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu. Impressive on trade issues
Clinton seems to impress Japanese officials as being direct and unprejudiced as well as knowledgeable about the complex and always volatile trade issues between the United States and Japan - perhaps too knowledgeable.
"He knows Japan as well as any expert Japan-basher in the US. That's really scary to Japan," says Takashi Kawakami, a researcher at the International Institute for Global Peace. "His advisers know how Japan works, how Japanese bureaucrats actually welcome US pressure on Japan to help them justify domestic reforms.
"Clinton can work directly in the Japanese structure. He won't need to use political theater [through trade disputes] to change Japan," Mr. Kawakami says.
But what pleases Japanese officials about Clinton are his views that US economic woes are largely a domestic problem and not due to the trade policies of other nations. Clinton pledges to revive the US economy with an industrial policy, modeled to some degree on Japan, that would be aimed at boosting the global competitiveness of American business.
"I do hope the industries of the US will become more competitive," says Sozaburo Okamatsu, director general of international trade policy at MITI.
The Democrats are more eager for an industrial policy, he adds, but "both sides now recognize that they have to re-establish US industry."
A stronger US economy would reduce protectionist moves in Congress, Japanese officials say. "With a proper economic policy, a Democratic administration would be less interested in trade," one official says.
The US government might work better with a Democratic White House and Congress, the official adds. Under the Bush and Reagan administrations, Democrats and Republicans engaged in a very public debate over US policy toward Japan, with Bush trying to be tough enough on Japan to fend off even tougher action by a Democratic Congress.
Under a Clinton presidency, says this official, anti-Japanese rhetoric in Washington would go down. But it is still unclear if better cooperation between Congress and the White House would mean that a President Clinton would intervene less than Bush on trade issues.
Kawakawi believes Japan-bashing would only increase under Clinton. "He and Congress will have the same policy. There would be a serious confrontation with Japan short of an all-out economic war."
While Clinton advocates free trade, he promises tough measures against closed foreign markets and he does not fully endorse a Bush-proposed free trade pact with Mexico. On perhaps the most emotional bilateral issue, a revival of the so-called Super 301 trade provision that allows the US to punish its "unfair" trading partners, Clinton appears to support its use.
By and large, the Japanese official says, "Mr. Clinton has not really made his ideas very clear on foreign policy."
Some Japanese also question Clinton's commitment to finish the Uruguay Round of world trade talks. With a March deadline coming up for the talks, a newly installed Clinton administration might be too busy to deal with the difficult negotiations.
A belief among Japanese business that Democrats tend to be protectionist has begun to be challenged by Japanese officials, who see Clinton as more less activist toward Japan than some of his challengers during the Democratic primaries, such as Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, and compared to might-be candidate Ross Perot.
"Compared to Perot, Clinton almost seems likes an angel to Japan," says Yukio Okamoto, a consultant and former head of the North American division in Japan's Foreign Ministry. Mr. Okamoto says there is a creeping suspicion in Japan that trade disputes could be more openly solved under Clinton. "The Republicans stand for free trade, but they required us to work behind a curtain to make compromises on every issue. A Democratic government would be more overt." Following candidates
Younger Japanese bureaucrats and businessmen are becoming more accepting of a Clinton victory, says an American businessman in Tokyo who tracks trade issues. "They figure Clinton will be so wrapped up with domestic problems that he may ignore the intractable problems with Japan."
Japanese newspaper reporters have begun to actively follow the candidates, trying to probe them on policies concerning Japan. In an interview with the Asahi newspaper, Democratic vice presidential candidate Al Gore, whose home state Tennessee hosts a major Nissan auto-assembly plant, said last week that a Clinton White House would not be protectionist.
Earlier this year, some Japanese officials openly stated a preference for Bush's re-election. But fearing the campaign might latch onto a US-Japan trade issue, such as a rising trade surplus for, officials are now keeping a low-profile.
"The presidential candidates have stayed away from making the trade issue an inflammatory national issue in the American presidential campaign," says Foreign Ministry spokesman Masamichi Hanabusa. "I think this is a gratifying phenomenon."