The Great Japanese Misunderstanding

Agents of Influence: How Japan's Lobbyists in the United States Manipulate America's Political and Economic System

by Pat Choate
Knopf, 295 pp., $22.95

The Japanese Power Game: What It Means for America

by William J. Holstein
Scribner's, 339 pp., $22.95

Pat Choate writes that his book is not really about Japan—despite its subtitle, despite the big red hinomaru circle of the Japanese flag that dominates its cover, despite the debate that Choate has provoked in Washington about whether Japanese interests have too much influence over American politics. (The two books under review here have almost identical big-red-dot covers, suggesting that maybe it’s time to retire the hinomaru as a design motif for writings about Japan.) Choate says that, instead, he is concerned with the structural corruption that arises when American politicians and bureaucrats leave office and immediately go to work as lobbyists for special interests. The most important of these interests have traditionally included defense contractors, assorted American corporations and economic interest groups (such as sugar or milk producers), and some foreign governments.

If a book like Choate’s had been published ten years ago, it would have concentrated on the lobbies in favor of a bigger defense budget and firmer US support for Israel. But through the 1980s, Choate says, Japanese corporations and the Japanese government have put more money into lobbying than any other single group, foreign or domestic. Therefore, it is hard to discuss the general problem of corruption without coming back again and again to Japan. He writes in his introduction,

In a sense, this book is not about Japan or any other foreign interest. It is about a fundamental problem with American governance—one that allows foreign interests to assume a dangerously large role in America’s politics and policymaking through political manipulation.

Choate’s book is most impressive if he is taken at his word—if the book is judged as an anatomy of Washington, rather than of Tokyo or of US–Japanese economic relations. Its strength lies in its extensive anecdotes and case studies of how lobbyists actually work in Washington, and its demonstration that foreign, and especially Japanese, money is playing a larger and larger part in electoral politics throughout the country. Two years ago, the noted Japanese business consultant Kenichi Ohmae publicly recommended that Japanese companies should “simply halt” investment in the districts of congressmen who have criticized Japan, to pressure them to change their views. Choate indicates that such a strategy is underway. The book’s major weakness is that it assumes, rather than argues or demonstrates, that US and Japanese interests necessarily conflict, and that working for any “foreign” interest (including, say, the government of Canada) is suspect activity.1 The book should be considered a polemic about self-inflicted American problems, and as such it is useful and important.

Since late last year, Choate—who is a veteran of Washington politics rather than of specifically Japanese concerns—has done an amazing job of building anticipation for this book, above all for Appendix A, the list of former government officials who have gone to work as agents of foreign interest groups. In newspaper interviews, on talk shows, even in congressional testimony, he has said that his book would take the lid off foreign influence buying in…

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