Mondale Urges U.S.-Japan Trade Action : Diplomacy: The new ambassador to Tokyo shows the old adroitness honed in politics.


After nine years in the political wilderness, former Vice President Walter Mondale stepped back into the public limelight Thursday, calling for urgent action to redress the lopsided U.S.-Japan trade balance.

In his first news conference as ambassador here, Mondale broke no new ground, and none was expected as he reiterated in his 40-minute appearance the basic American positions on mutual security, political relations and trade negotiations in such areas as rice, construction and semiconductors.

But he offered an answer to one of the biggest guessing games in town: Will Mondale approach Japan more sternly, as his predecessor Michael H. Armacost was known to do? Armacost, an academic and career diplomat, was considered a hard-driving, outspoken advocate for U.S. economic interests, earning him the nickname “Mr. Gaiatsu,” the Japanese word for outside pressure.


Or will Mondale show more sympathy to Japan, as longtime ambassador Mike Mansfield was believed to have done? Mansfield, who came to Japan from a political career, is lionized here for conveying the Japanese view--and at times defending it--to the American government.

“I’d like to define what I’m going to do, not in relation to what others did, but what I plan to do. I happen to think that both nations have sent superb ambassadors to represent them--perhaps until recently,” Mondale joked, adding that he will define the job with time.

Such humor, liberally used throughout the news conference, demonstrated Mondale’s political adroitness honed during years on the hustings as a U.S. senator for 12 years, vice president for four and, in 1984, the Democratic presidential candidate.

Mondale took pains to praise Japan for actions such as the government’s new economic stimulus package, the decision to support an indefinite extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa’s recent apologies for Japan’s “war of aggression” during World War II. He was so careful not to appear offensive that he amended in mid-sentence a reference to U.S.-Japanese relations: “irritants that undermine or--strike the word undermine--that affect the relationship between the United States and Japan.”

And even as he delivered his sterner messages, he sugared the pill. He reiterated the call for Japan to liberalize its rice market but also commiserated with rice farmers for their “tough tragedy” of this year’s disastrous crop and recalled his own days working on farms as a boy.

He took his toughest stance on the glacial progress in negotiations to open up Japan’s construction market, riddled with scandals involving bid-rigging and bribery. Rampant collusion, which effectively bars most outsiders from competing for contracts here, is cited by American negotiators as the key reason that U.S. construction firms command 45% of the global market--but 0.03% of the market in Japan.

The United States is asking for a completely open bidding system, but the Japanese say that could invite shoddy work and continue to argue for the right to screen qualified bidders.

“Up to this point, I’m told that very little progress has been made,” Mondale said, adding that sanctions could be imposed if no agreement is reached by Nov. 1. “We don’t like the idea of sanctions. We may have to do it, but we’d much prefer to come up with an agreement here which both countries can live with.”

In Japan, Mondale’s appointment had drawn mixed reactions. Some people, recalling his reputation as a strong supporter of labor, feared that he would take a tough line on trade with Japan. But others said his status as former vice president would enhance Japan’s visibility.