Articles - December 2018


Ambassador Sugiyama Melds Japanese Tradition with Broad Diplomatic Experience and the Vision to Deal with a Rapidly Changing World
By James A. Winship, Ph.D.

Japan’s Shinsuke Sugiyama presented his credentials as Ambassador to the United States to President Trump on March 28, 2018.  This is not his first Washington assignment, however.  Sugiyama was posted to the United States from 1989-1992 as First Secretary in the Economic Section of the Japanese Embassy.  He and his wife Yoko return to Washington with fond memories of the city and with an appreciation of how much change has occurred in the last three intervening decades.

As fate and diplomatic postings would have it, Ambassador and Mrs. Sugiyama arrived in Washington just two days before the opening of the Cherry Blossom Festival to find a whirlwind schedule of public engagements waiting for them.  “My wife and I were taken aback to see how the cherry blossom festivities have grown into a truly American event that spans several weeks and brings in more than a million visitors.  That is very different from when I was here as First Secretary at the embassy 30-years ago.” 

“That was a good beginning,” Ambassador Sugiyama notes.  “My wife and I could not help but feel that, at a people-to-people level, relations between the United States and Japan are very good indeed.”   Indeed, Sugiyama is as well prepared to be a cultural ambassador as a political voice for his country and a trade negotiator.  He is equally conversant in the cultural traditions of Japan, the intricacies of strategic weapons and regional security, or the complexities of trade regulation.

When asked about his route to a diplomatic career, Sugiyama explains that he has family roots in both the political world, where his grandfather served as a full-time elected member of the upper chamber of the Japanese Diet, the House of Councillors, and the academic world, where his father was a professor of international law at Hosei University in Tokyo.   “I cannot recall the precise moment of seriously contemplating a diplomatic career, but it was an idea that began before I entered university.  Diplomacy seemed a good blend of my family’s political heritage along with my father’s academic pursuits.”
Ambassador Sugiyama has spent his entire professional career in the Foreign Ministry rising through the ranks from a junior officer to become Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, the highest ranking career position in the Foreign Ministry.  Educated at Waseda University in Japan, upon entering his country’s foreign service, Sugiyama was sent to Oxford University in the United Kingdom to receive what he smilingly calls a proper British education.  There he received both a second BA Honors degree and a Master’s degree. After Oxford, his first diplomatic posting was at the Japanese Embassy in Lagos, Nigeria.

Ambassador Sugiyama notes that though a career bureaucrat is supposed to be politically neutral, serving as the top bureaucrat in the Foreign Ministry, the position has necessarily required him to have close contact with Japan’s political leadership.  “Because of my role at the top of the career foreign service and my personal involvement with leading political figures, I have inevitably been a bridge between the political leadership of my country and the career diplomatic service.”

He notes, for example, “I have known Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for many years.  His father, Shintaro Abe, was Foreign Minister from 1982-1986 at a time when I was a junior legal advisor in the foreign ministry.  At that time, the current Prime Minister served as his father’s private secretary.”  When it comes to the current Foreign Minister, Taro Kono, Ambassador Sugiyama recalls, “his father was a famous statesman who not only served twice in as Foreign Minister but also served as Speaker of Japan’s House of Representatives and as President of the Liberal Democratic Party. So, I know his father quite well.”
Suffice it to say that in the course of his extraordinary diplomatic career, Ambassador Sugiyama has literally touched virtually every diplomatic and strategic issue of concern to his country.  We are grateful that he granted Diplomatic Connections this unusual opportunity to speak with him at length.

Diplomatic Connections:  We are delighted to be with you, Ambassador Sugiyama, and honored to be interviewing you here at the residence in the traditional teahouse with its koi pond and colorful fall foliage to look upon.

Ambassador Sugiyama:  Thank you.

Diplomatic Connections: You arrived in Washington not quite a year ago.  Could you share with us the instructions you received from the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister before taking up the Ambassador’s role?

Ambassador Sugiyama:  Specific instructions were given.  First, the objective is to speak up and speak out about Japan’s economic concerns, regional security needs and generally communicate Japan’s stances on a wide range of issues. Second, it was strongly advised to travel throughout the United States, to visit each state, to meet with governors and legislators, to experience American culture through sports, the arts, and reaching out to local populations -- not to confine myself just to the Washington, D.C. area.  Furthermore, I was specifically encouraged to reach out to Japanese businesses with facilities in the United States and to American companies doing business in Japan. Trade between our two countries, in both directions, is an important matter for us.

Diplomatic Connections:  How do you balance those travel demands against the myriad functions of your job that require you to be present in Washington?

Ambassador Sugiyama:  It is not easy.   My prime responsibility is keeping in touch with members of the current administration, key Congressional leaders and legislators who sit on committees crucial to the relationship between Japan and the United States. I must also be in close contact with many Cabinet departments such as State, Treasury and Defense and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR).  Then, add to the mix the need for me to be constantly in contact with the electronic and print media based here in Washington.

Diplomatic Connections:  What are your goals for your time here as ambassador? This is a relationship that is very deep, going back to the Mutual Security Treaty (1951) first signed in the aftermath of World War II and in the early days of the Cold War. But it is also a relationship that is undergoing transformation, with all the uncertainty and discomfort that accompanies change.

Ambassador Sugiyama:  I try to do as instructed.  Working with my staff we try to translate the directives that have been given to me by the Prime Minister and his cabinet into an effective program of two-way communication with our counterparts in the U.S. government and with people across the width and breadth of this country. To capsulize this, my goal as Ambassador is to sustain and, as possible, to enhance the longstanding relationship between our two countries, even – perhaps especially – in the face of the great changes that are going on in our region and in our world.

Diplomatic Connections:  Japanese Prime Minister Abe has worked quite hard to cultivate a personal relationship with President Trump. They have played golf together several times. They met in Washington last spring before the G-7 meeting in Canada. And, they met again in New York City at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly session last fall. How do you as ambassador see the importance of this kind of personal relationship, between heads of state, or heads of government?

Ambassador Sugiyama:  It is not unusual for my Prime Minister and your President to develop a personal relationship.  To the contrary, it is to be expected between close partners.  Diplomacy focuses on state to state, government to government relations.  But it is vitally important to develop personal trust and friendship between leaders.  My Prime Minster highly values his trusted friendship and close relations with his counterpart, Mr. President (Trump).

Diplomatic Connections:  What is the relationship between Prime Minister Abe and President Trump like?

Ambassador Sugiyama:  I, myself, have been very fortunate to be sitting in the room, when the two leaders have been meeting with each other.  They had a tête-à-tête at Trump Tower and a more formal meeting later that included Secretary of State Pompeo, National Security Adviser John Bolton, and Presidential Special Assistant Jared Kushner among others.  Prime Minister Abe, Deputy Prime Minister Aso, Foreign Minister Kono and others represented the Japanese government.
We were permitted to listen to them talking to one another. I'm not entitled to disclose the content of those conversations, of course.  However, at the level of personal relations, there appears to be a real friendship and a substantial degree of personal trust. Of course, friendly personal relations above cannot solve everything, but trust is the basis for conducting free and frank discussions between the two leaders and their teams.

Diplomatic Connections:  It is striking that not only are you in your first year as Ambassador to the United States but there is also, because of the change in administrations, a new Ambassador of the United States to Japan.  It is quite a change to go from having an Ambassador from a leading American political family, in the person of Caroline Kennedy to having Mr. Hagerty, who has a business background.  In your experience, what is the difference between the two?

Ambassador Sugiyama:  Both have done excellent jobs representing the United States.  Ambassador Kennedy was very helpful to me during her time in Tokyo.  And, Ambassador Hagerty was exceptionally kind as I prepared to assume my new position here in Washington.

Diplomatic Connections:  It was especially interesting that during Ambassador Kennedy’s tenure new ground was broken in Japan-U.S. relations; and while there, Secretary of State Kerry visited Hiroshima and the memorials to the victims of the atomic bomb blast in August 1945.  His visit was later followed by President Obama visiting the Hiroshima memorials.  What was the importance of those visits?

Ambassador Sugiyama:  This has always been a difficult matter because the emotional aftermath of World War II is hard for both Japan and the United States to forget.  The importance of these visits was the recognition that what happened in Hiroshima must never happen again.  These visits underscored the future of Japan-U.S. relations and the importance of preventing any future use of nuclear weapons as the world seeks to assure both regional and worldwide security. Although, given the history and domestic politics in both Japan and the United States, putting these visits together was not an easy task.  It was a delicate but worthwhile effort in public diplomacy for  our two countries.

Diplomatic Connections:  Could you explain a bit more about the interaction of domestic politics and foreign policy in both the United States and Japan?

Ambassador Sugiyama:  I have to be rather careful in speaking up for the symbolic importance of these visits to Hiroshima and the relationships between President Trump and Prime Minister Abe.  Japan has no intention to intervene in the domestic politics of the United States. That's a basic principle of international law.  Yet, there are important interactions between domestic politics and foreign policy.  Prime Minster Abe has said very clearly that the Japan-U.S. alliance symbolizes the power of reconciliation. We have taken a very solid, very stable alliance and made it stronger.

Diplomatic Connections:  Trade relationships between Japan and the United States are strained at the moment.  The United States withdrew from the TPP treaty, which had been a very active effort at expanding trade relationships. How would you characterize both the trade issues between the United States and Japan?

Ambassador Sugiyama:  In the course of my diplomatic career, I once was a trade officer. That was at a time of peak trade friction between the United States and Japan, a time when the United States saw Japan as a major competitor in the world economy.  Economists were writing about Japan as the “number one” global economy and closely examining Japanese production methods.  At the same time, Japan often felt that it was target number one in discussions of global markets and international trade.  It was also, much like now, a time when the United States was deeply concerned about its trade deficits.

Diplomatic Connections:  Since the withdrawal of the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership draft agreement, Japan is moving ahead with a new regional trade agreement very much like TPP but minus the participation of the United States, is it not?

Ambassador Sugiyama:  That is true.  We are moving ahead with what is being called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPT or CPTPP).  This agreement includes eleven Asia-Pacific economies and includes a substantial proportion of the language that was included in the original TPP.  Japan believes that this free trade agreement will promote closer trade and investment linkages in the Asia-Pacific region and will set high standards for regional commerce.
Let me emphasize that we are not excluding the United States from this agreement.  For the moment, however, the United States has chosen not to participate in these regional negotiations.  Instead, the U.S. seems to prefer to move toward bilateral trade agreements negotiated with individual countries.  Japan is certainly open to that possibility as well.  One agreement does not preclude the other.

Diplomatic Connections:  How do you expect bilateral negotiations between Japan and the United States to proceed?

Ambassador Sugiyama:  Bilateral trade negotiations between Japan and the United States are about to start in an effort to bridge the gap between Japan’s preference for a regional trade agreement and the preference for “fairer, more balanced trade” voiced by the United States. There are many specific trade issues that must be considered.  These concerns include trade in automobiles and agricultural products.   Ambassador Robert Lighthizer, United States Trade Representative, and Toshimitsu Motegi, Japan’s Minister in charge of Economic Revitalization, will head the negotiating teams.

Diplomatic Connections:  May we turn to what is obviously one of the most sensitive regional security questions for Japan?  That is the issue of North Korea’s missile development and nuclear weapons programs, and the efforts to enter negotiations between the United States and North Korea as well as between the two Koreas themselves.  How would Japan wish to see those negotiations evolve, in terms of regional security and in terms of its relationship with both the United States and North Korea?

Ambassador Sugiyama:  Prime Minister Abe, his government and the Japanese people do deeply appreciate the courageous decision of President Trump to open negotiations with North Korea.  To his credit, President Trump became the first U.S. President to meet with the North Korean dictator face-to-face.
Japan was extremely frustrated by the North Korean missile tests that landed in the Sea of Japan or overflew Japanese territory to land in the Pacific.  That is even truer of the series of nuclear tests that were conducted.  Those weapons directly threaten Japan’s security.
Thanks to President Trump’s efforts, these missile tests and nuclear detonations seem to have been halted, at least for the time being.  We are also concerned, of course, that Japan’s specific interests, especially the question of Japanese abductees who have been forced to live in North Korea over decades should be resolved as part of this process.

Diplomatic Connections:  Has there been on-going consultation between Japan and the United States as the negotiations with North Korea proceed?

Ambassador Sugiyama:  To be sure, these negotiations will not be simple.  Thanks to President Trump, the possibility of a new chapter in relations with North Korea has been opened. Nevertheless, there are serious challenges ahead.  Are they really ready to get rid of all types of weapons of mass destruction and all ranges of missiles?  What does the term “denuclearization” really mean to each side?  How would that concept be operationalized?
We have repeatedly conveyed the importance of regional security issues and Japan’s specific concerns to multiple U.S. presidents and their secretaries of state.  And, it is believed that those concerns are being heard.  The United States negotiating team has assured us that these issues have been raised in their discussions with the North Korean representatives.  Japan is encouraged by these new negotiations, yet we recognize that there is some work to be done in reaching solutions to these concerns.

Diplomatic Connections:  Prime Minister Abe recently made the first formal state visit to Beijing in seven years to see President Xi.   How do you see the relationship between Japan and China - which has for so long been shaped by the memories of the 20th century, World War II and the Cold War - changing in response to the reemergence of China as an economic and a military power?  Do you see a new era of potential cooperation between Japan and China, especially at the economic level emerging?

Ambassador Sugiyama:  Indeed, the Prime Minister’s visit to China was very important as it brought an end to what had been seven years without an official visit though there had been continuing communications at the foreign ministry level.
The meeting between Prime Minister Abe and President Xi seems to have produced good results.  The two leaders share the sense that Sino-Japanese relations are moving into a new phase.  Prime Minister Abe emphasized that we must see each other as cooperative partners, such that neither is afraid of the other.  Central to that recognition is the goal of developing free and fair trade between Japan and China.
The Prime Minister and President Xi also celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship Between Japan and China concluded in 1978.  Certainly there are differences of opinion between Japan and China on issues such as those in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, as well as several trade related concerns.
But, no one is trying to deny China’s emergence on the regional and the world stages.  There is no effort to contain China.  There is no intent to antagonize China.  Geographically, Japan and China are very close neighbors, and we can hardly avoid each other.  We are intertwined historically.  Japan learned much from China over a thousand years.  And, after the modernization of Japan in the middle of the 19th century, Japan exported many ideas of industrialization and government reform to China.
The point is not simply that Japan needs China, but that we need China to be rule-based and engaged in the international community following the rules of international law.

Diplomatic Connections:  China is making enormous investments in what it has called the New Silk Road project, sometimes referred to as “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR), with the intent of building new infrastructure to connect East Asia with South Asia, Central Asia, Africa all the way to Western Europe and the European Union.  It is a sweeping ambition.  As I understand it Prime Minister Abe and President Xi had some important discussions around the idea of greater Japanese involvement and investment in these major infrastructure projects.  Can you confirm those conversations?

Ambassador Sugiyama:  These topics were part of the conversation.  We welcome China's engagement, and China's investment to construct infrastructure – railways, roads, ports, pipelines and utility grids – to enhance connectivity in East Asia, the ASEAN region, and across the broader Indo-Pacific region toward Europe.  Japan does not oppose China’s efforts; quite the contrary, we welcome opportunities for cooperation as long as these projects proceed and are financed according to international standards and in transparent manner.

Diplomatic Connections:  You used a term that is relatively new in international diplomacy: the Indo-Pacific region. Could you just explain what that is?

Ambassador Sugiyama:  As we look at the infrastructure projects the Chinese are initiating, they are designed to enhance connectivity reaching out toward India and Sri Lanka and beyond to Africa and Central Europe.  In some ways, this terminology is beginning to replace the previous Trans-Pacific regional terminology.  To be sure, the Pacific Ocean continues to be vitally important, but this new Indo-Pacific terminology takes into account the importance of the Indian Ocean as touching the shores of South Asia, Africa and even the Middle East.

Diplomatic Connections:  You have had a long career as a diplomat in Japan’s foreign ministry, working with the bureaucracy, working at the nexus between the political system in which you have deep family roots and the bureaucratic system, the foreign ministry where you have invested your career. As you near the end of a career, imagine that you are in charge of training the new class of entering Japanese diplomats. What lessons would you want to share with them, from your experience?

Ambassador Sugiyama:  There are many things I would tell them, but one thing stands out above all others.  They must learn to think for themselves -- to express those thoughts freely and, moreover, responsibly.  By that I mean that diplomats must learn to think incisively and creatively, while simultaneously recognizing that in diplomacy they are required to follow the direction of our political masters if they wish to serve as representatives of Japan and our country’s foreign policy.
They must learn the history and theory of international law, becoming acquainted with the classic theorists and the modern directions of thought.  Listening is a prerequisite and imperative to the job. Taking in a variety of opinions will be required, some of which they may find suggestive, some of which they may disagree with substantially.
In class, I am a teacher and you are the student. I share with you my thoughts, but you do not have to accept my ideas or those of classic or modern thinkers in diplomacy. You must always listen; by doing so, it is you who must evaluate, you who must weigh the options, you who must offer insight and advice, and eventually at some point in your career –- it is you who must decide.  There will come a time when final responsibility rests upon your shoulders.

Diplomatic Connections:  Ambassador Sugiyama, thank you very much for your insights and for sharing your experiences.  Diplomatic Connections is enormously grateful to have had the opportunity to speak with you and to do so in this beautiful traditional space within your residence here in Washington, D.C.
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