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Reporting From Japan with Kevin Sullivan

September 4, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Another in our occasional series of conversations with reporters stationed overseas for American news organizations. The country this time is Japan, which is under American pressure to get out of its economic recession. Today Treasury Secretary Rubin met with his Japanese counterpart to push for more action. Phil Ponce taped this conversation earlier this week.

PHIL PONCE: And tonight our foreign correspondent is Kevin Sullivan, Northeast Asia co-bureau chief for the Washington Post. He and his wife and co-bureau chief Mary Jordan are based in Tokyo. Welcome, Kevin.

KEVIN SULLIVAN, Washington Post: Thank you very much.

PHIL PONCE: What’s the reaction among ordinary people to all the scrutiny and all the anxiety that people in other parts of the world have about what’s happening in Japan, as far as its economy is concerned?

KEVIN SULLIVAN: It’s a terrible letdown for the Japanese people. I mean, as you recall, 10 years ago they were riding high at the top of the world, and everyone in this country was studying the Japanese way of doing things. And American businessmen kept being told you’re not doing it as well as the Japanese. And now the Japanese find them in the terrible position of seeing their country in such a weak position and people talking about Japan leading the world into a global depression. It’s terrible. We talk to people on the streets, and they use words like “embarrassed,” “humiliated.” One woman said, you know, I remember when the yen was all powerful and everywhere we went, people respected it, and now people laugh at our yen. It’s very, very difficult for a proud nation to accept.

PHIL PONCE: So it has affected the people’s self-image to a certain extent.

KEVIN SULLIVAN: It certainly has. And you see it all the time. I think a lot of people are very confident that they’re going to come out of this, and the new prime minister, Mr. Obuchi, is — in his maiden speech in parliament said, I just wish my people had more faith in their country; we need to maintain our faith in the Japanese system.

PHIL PONCE: Is there any resentment when people in Japan hear all this, all this pressure, all this – as I said, anxiety in other parts of the world about Japan having to reform its markets – now this concern about all those bad loans the Japanese banks – are people beginning to feel any resentment about it?

KEVIN SULLIVAN: Yes, they are. I think if Secretary Rubin ran for Japanese prime minister, he wouldn’t do too well these days. People – Japan is tired of being treated like a little brother by the Americans. In so many ways since World War II Japan has played a secondary role to the United States, and they’ve listened to the United States’ advice, and they’re really tired of what they’re hearing lately, because to them it doesn’t sound like sage advice from an ally; it sounds like lecturing; it sounds like carping. And they don’t like it. And ordinary people on the street will talk to you and say, well, I know we have problems, I know we need to fix them, but we need to fix them our way, and we don’t need you Americans to tell us how to do it.

PHIL PONCE: The yen is worth less than it used to be. How does this affect the Japanese life? Are people still buying stuff?

KEVIN SULLIVAN: Well, it’s very difficult. If you went to – if you flew into Tokyo tomorrow, you would have no idea there were any financial problems. People – we go out – we take our children out every weekend to a coffee shop in this neighborhood called Shibuya, and you can’t move there are so many shoppers in the streets carrying their Gap bags and their Eddie Bauer bags. But if you look more closely, you see that from all around the world Japanese travel is way off. In Honolulu there’s a great problem with just Japanese tourism has dried up. On the Gold Coast of Australia there are some hotels that have closed because their Japanese business is not coming there anymore. Domestic auto sales in Japan are way down. Department store sales are at record lows. But the Japanese economy is so big and people have so much money that there can still be a vast number of Japanese out shopping and have there be a big problem, because just a couple of percent drop in Japanese spending is devastating.

PHIL PONCE: Speaking of percentage points, unemployment is up. I mean, it’s supposed to be up to like 5 percent by the end of this year. What is it like for people who are unemployed? In this country, for example, a few years ago it seemed that everybody knew somebody who had been downsized, unemployed, and there wasn’t that much stigma anymore. What is it like in Japan?

KEVIN SULLIVAN: Well, it’s completely different. Opportunity is different. People who lost their jobs at, you know, a big automaker here eight or ten years ago, for a lot of them there were new opportunities, new businesses sprouted up; it was like squeezing a fistful of Play-doh. You squeezed in one area, and it came out somewhere else. It expanded in a different direction into new technologies, new start-up businesses. There’s much less of that in Japan, and people’s identity is really wrapped up in their work to a certain extend. And if you lose your job in Japan, you lose your meishi – you lose your calling card, your name card. You lose the friends, the built-in friend system that you had at work. There’s really a terrible stigma attached to it. So for these people there’s really – the future is very, very grim. And we hear women – we interview women a lot, and they will say, well, my husband was laid off, and he’s home now, and I have no idea what to do with him; I don’t know him; I haven’t seen him in 20 years, because he’s been working 20 hours a week; now he’s home, and we have no idea what to say to each other.

PHIL PONCE: In more extreme cases one reads about the suicide rate in Japan. Has it honestly gone up as a result of all this?

KEVIN SULLIVAN: It has. It has. I mean, I think you can paint too bleak a picture of what’s going on in Japan. A lot of people are very optimistic that this is going to end, and they understand that the Japanese economy is huge and strong. But there are these problems with suicide. There was a celebrated case recently where three businessmen were having trouble, checked into a motel. They went out and had lunch; they checked into a motel; and they found them later hanging from three pieces of rope cut from the same length of rope. They died in a suicide pact, because they felt they had let down their friends and family. And that sort of thing is happening a lot more than it used to.

PHIL PONCE: You’ve been in Japan now for three years. Have you come across anything that strikes you as just a huge surprise, something that just came at you sort of from left field?

KEVIN SULLIVAN: Well, actually, I’m the one that came literally from left field. I wrote a story once about high school baseball and the devotion that these players have to this sport. It’s more of a tool. Someone told me that the Americans invented baseball to be fun, and the Japanese reinvented it as a tool of education. And I went to a practice one afternoon at a high school on the northernmost island of Hokkaido. It was the middle of February. There were five feet of snow on the ground. It was snowing a blizzard, and these kids put on their baseball uniforms, put on knee-high rubber boots, and went out and practiced in the snow with baseballs painted blaze orange so they wouldn’t lose them in the white snow. It’s remarkable.

PHIL PONCE: Did it seem like they were having fun, or like they were doing work?

KEVIN SULLIVAN: They were having a great time. I think if an American high school coach tried to do that, he’d be sued, fired, and chased around by the parents. But over there it’s just a measure of seriousness, devotion to a certain – to what your task is. A lot of the high school baseball players who make it to the big tournament they have – championship tournament they have every summer are regarded as something of celebrities, like, if you can put “played at the Koshien Tournament” on your resume, you’re regarded as someone who’s very serious, someone who works hard, and works hard at the goal, whatever it is.

PHIL PONCE: Kevin, recently, North Korea has been rattling its sabers. What’s been the reaction in Japan to that?

KEVIN SULLIVAN: This is – the Japanese don’t need this right now. They have a lot of problems. They’re focused on their economy – they’re tying to —

PHIL PONCE: I mean, does it scare people, does it scare the ordinary –

KEVIN SULLIVAN: Certainly, certainly it does. It really – people on the street look at North Korea as a big question mark. They have no idea what the North Koreans are going to do, which puts them just about in the same league with policy makers in Japan, the United States, and everywhere else. No one knows what they’re going to do. And now that they’ve fired this missile all the way over Japanese territory, it’s clear that they could do great damage, and it raises all sorts of policy questions about what Japan’s response might be, how it might assist the United States if there were ever a conflict on the Korean Peninsula again. It raises all sorts of policy questions, but on the streets – I haven’t been there in a week but we’ve talked about this issue many times with people in the past – people are afraid because they just don’t understand the gross unpredictability of the North Koreans.

PHIL PONCE: Shifting gears dramatically here, what has been the reaction in Japan to President Clinton and the Monica Lewinsky affair?

KEVIN SULLIVAN: I think it’s a lot like people driving by a traffic accident, and they just can’t take their eyes off it. They’re horrified by what they’re seeing over here. But it’s very difficult for a lot of people in Japan to understand why this is such a big deal. Not to over-generalize too much, but there has been a long history in Japan of men having mistresses. I mean, I think it’s much less now. I think this is changing. And it’s certainly not everyone, but it doesn’t shock people that a politician would have someone other than his wife who he was intimate with. Whatever happened between the President and Monica Lewinsky – who knows – but the Japanese don’t see it as something that should be a reason that the President would resign. And I don’t think they think any less of him because of it, because President Clinton enjoys great respect in Japan.

PHIL PONCE: Kevin, you mentioned earlier that you have a couple of children. You and your wife have two children around the age of three. What it is like to be an American, to have a family in Japan?

KEVIN SULLIVAN: It’s almost paradise. Japanese people are wonderful to our children. It’s a safe – it’s an incredibly safe, incredibly clean society. We take our children everywhere. We live in the middle of Tokyo, and I probably shouldn’t say this on television, but we rarely lock our front door. We leave our expensive bicycles in the driveway and never lock them. In fact, other people drive their bicycles to the subway station, leave them there all day, unlocked, many of them, come back at night, hop on their bike, and go home again. I’m just not sure that would work in a lot of American cities.

PHIL PONCE: Kevin Sullivan, thank you for being here.