Profile : Mondale Dives Into Tokyo’s Diplomatic Waters : The ambassador finds Japan ‘dynamic, challenging’ after 1 1/2 years on the job.


With the mayor of Nagasaki at their side, Walter and Joan Mondale placed a wreath on a stand and looked up to a massive statue in Peace Park, dedicated to victims of the atomic bomb the United States dropped here nearly half a century ago.

TV cameras scrutinized their faces, and America’s ambassador to Japan and his wife knew they should appear solemn. A bright sun shining in their eyes helped. But so did the enormity of the event for which they were symbolically expressing condolences.

More than 74,000 Nagasaki residents, Mayor Hitoshi Motoshima said, died in the first four months after the bomb destroyed the city in August, 1945, three days after an atomic bomb leveled Hiroshima. Later, Japanese media reported that Mondale said he was shocked by displays at a museum showing the bomb’s effects.


But as the Mondales were on their way to see a Peace Park sculpture by an artist from Minnesota, the ambassador’s native state, visiting students recognized the former vice president.

Mondale extended his hand, and the students, squealing with excitement, mobbed him. Soon, others had their cameras out, snapping shots of Mondale with his arms around students. It was a love fest. Such are the emotional roller coasters of the ambassador to Japan, who insists that he still enjoys his job.

There is no question that the man who lost a bid for the presidency in 1984 has plunged into his job with the dedication of an honor student--reading history, probing how Japan ticks, quizzing Japanese leaders on their ideas for Japan’s future and going through 12-hour forays into the countryside. “I’m learning a lot I wouldn’t learn if I did just another political job,” he said.

Under Washington’s supervision, he is the commander of one of America’s largest diplomatic outposts, a 600-member embassy that manages work involving 47,000 American troops at bases in Japan, cultural, political, scientific and technological dealings and attempts to reduce America’s $60-billion bilateral trade deficit.

“This is the most dynamic, challenging area in the world--far more so than I think is recognized in the United States,” Mondale said in an interview.

“Deep down emotionally, viscerally,” Euro-centered Americans still have not grasped the importance of Asia transforming itself into an economic powerhouse--a development “that’s changing the world in the profoundest possible way,” he pointed out.

Americans must have this new fact of life “cranked into our thinking and our psyche” so they can make correct business, political and security judgments, and even “cultural decisions on where we send our kids--what we teach our kids.”

“If I can build our interests here, if I can make Americans more aware of our stake here, I can have some influence on long-term policy,” he said.

Mondale indicated that when Washington officials started lambasting Japanese bureaucrats for “sabotaging” still uncompleted negotiations to establish what Washington calls a “framework” for U.S.-Japan economic relations, he stepped in to tone down the rhetoric. “You haven’t seen much of that recently, have you?” he asked.

Japanese bureaucrats, he added, “are very gifted people with a lot of experience. When you get them on your side, they’re good allies.”

In dealing with the Japanese, Mondale said his service as President Jimmy Carter’s vice president enabled him “in ways that might be more difficult for others . . . to speak for the (United States).” Japanese, he added, “receive me in a very respectful way.”

In the difficult area of trade, the ambassador rattled off a list of agreements that have been reached during his 1 1/2 years in Japan--in construction, rice, cellular telephones, intellectual property, telecommunications, medical equipment and insurance.

Yet, Mondale noted, no progress at all has been achieved on such key issues as opening doors to investment in Japan. Because of interlocking ownership, as much as 70% of the stock in Japanese corporations is never traded, “making it almost impossible to come in and buy a company here.”

“This economy, historically, was very insular . . . and (is) still insular,” he said. Compared to about $700 billion worth of foreign direct investment in Europe and $500 billion in the United States, Japan has taken in $12 billion, he said.

“Trade follows investment. The fact that we can’t penetrate this market in terms of our own investment affects our ability to trade here,” he said.

“For their own long-term health, they need to open this economy up more. . . . Wherever Japan competes with the world, she’s usually the best or nearly the best--cars, consumer electronics, that sort of thing. But where she protects herself--construction, housing, financial services, retailing--she’s not impressive. And there’s a big chunk of this economy that’s protected and inefficient.”

At the moment, “Both countries say we (won’t let) our (economic) disputes spill over into . . . our security relationship. But I don’t like to test that theory too much, and I keep telling my Japanese friends, ‘Let’s try to get these issues resolved,’ ” Mondale said.

Mondale said political reforms here “will help improve bilateral relations.” Already, Japan’s political parties have moved toward the center, firming up support both for the U.S.-Japan alliance and a greater Japanese contribution abroad, he said.

Redistricting also “should significantly strengthen the voice of urban consumers, who most favor deregulation and a more open market,” he added.

A new dimension entered U.S.-Japan relations with the agreement between Washington and Pyongyang designed to wipe out suspicions of North Korea’s nuclear weapons development--an agreement Mondale said would have been impossible without Japan.

The U.S.-Japan Security Treaty and the bases that Japan permits U.S. troops to operate here “denied North Korea a military option . . . (and) made it clear that there was no option available to them other than to negotiate,” he said. Without the bases here, the United States could not defend South Korea, he added.

With Japan paying $4.5 billion to support the U.S. bases, “I think the U.S.-Japan mutual security treaty is the best bargain we have in the world. It buys us a better opportunity for stability. It buys us a chance to avoid war,” he said.

In addition, Japan has promised to make a “significant contribution”--second only to South Korea’s--to paying the $4-billion cost of providing new light-water nuclear power reactors to reduce the North’s ability to extract plutonium from spent nuclear fuel, he said. The United States won’t be paying anything, he added.

A new headache for U.S.-Japan relations is likely to come next year, the 50th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II, Mondale said. Noting the uproar already created in both Japan and the United States by a planned Smithsonian Institution exhibit on the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima, he said:

“Here we are 50 years away from (the end of the war), and we still have these very deep differences of opinion about what actually happened.”

Although two recent prime ministers “made forthcoming statements” facing up to Japan’s wartime aggression, “a lot of Japanese leaders take a different position,” he added.

“I don’t think there’s any way of settling the debate. . . . I’m hopeful that the 50th anniversary will involve at least two things: one, candid recognition of what happened, followed by a desire by everyone to get on with this world and dealing with our problems. . . . After 50 years, we ought to say that’s enough.”


Name: Walter Mondale

Title: U.S. ambassador to Japan

Age: 66

Personal: Born in Ceylon, Minn., to a Methodist minister and his wife, a part-time music teacher. Attended University of Minnesota. Enlisted in Army 1951-53. Law degree, University of Minnesota, 1956. Minnesota attorney general, 1960-64. U.S. senator, 1964-77, focusing on civil rights and child welfare. U.S. vice president, 1977-81. Returned to private law practice before being named ambassador to Japan, 1993. Married to Joan. Three children.

Quote: “I’m learning a lot I wouldn’t learn if I did just another political job.”