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New Deputy Consul General Arrives at Chicago
Interview with Kenji Tanaka

The new Deputy Consul, Kenji Tanaka, arrived at Chicago early July.
Tanaka was born in 1961 in Nagano, Japan. Upon graduating from Chuo University Faculty of Law, he joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1987 as a U.S. Specialist. After studying at Oberlin College and University of Pennsylvania from 1988 to 1990, he was assigned to the Consulate General of Japan in Chicago to work for the Japan Information Center until 1992. From 2002 to 2005, Tanaka was in charge of foreign press at the Consulate General of Japan in New York. This is his third U.S. assignment.

Q: I see that you were engaged in numerous international negotiations right after you joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, such as the talks under the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), Uruguay Round, WTO (World Trade Organization), PECC (Pacific Economic Corporation Council), ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Plus, and Japan-Europe EPA (Economic Partnership Agreement).

Tanaka: I was first assigned to the First International Organizations Division, Economic Affairs Bureau, and my job there was engage in negotiations under the Uruguay Round with regard to the service-related matters. In the late 1990s, I was responsible for negotiations regarding the four service-related areas that were left unsolved by the WTO.

Q: What can you tell us about the ins and outs of international negotiations?

Tanaka: Today there exist a lot of mega-FTAs (free trade agreements). Most recently, I was engaged in the negotiations of some of the mega-FTAs, such as the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) which involves the ASEAN member nations plus China and India, and the Japan-EU EPA which is believed to be very close to conclusion. Also, when Mr. [Naoki] Ito, the current Consular General in Chicago, was the Lead Negotiator in the Japan-China-Korea free trade agreements, I was the Negotiator under him in the areas of investment and e-commerce.

When I was the Programme Director/Acting Secretary-General of the International Secretariat for the PECC, I remember that the talks for the framework of cooperation noticeably moved ahead after the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997 boosted the awareness of the Asian identity among the nations in the region. That led to the creation of the ASEASN Plus Six (including Japan, China, South Korea, India, Australia, New Zealand) and Plus Three (including Japan, China and South Korea), with the latter becoming the foundation of the RCEP. The RCEP membership ranges from the big powers such as China and India to smaller economies in the ASEAN, so it’s extremely challenging to negotiate for creation of comprehensive and fair rules.

During my assignment for negotiation regarding the investment and e-commerce, I was strongly impressed by the high expectations among other countries for Japan’s investment. Other countries, particularly China and India, are focusing on foreign investment more and more. But through the ASEAN nations’ high expectations for Japanese investment, I could feel that they regarded Japan’s investment activities as standing out in the region. Considering such expectations and other factors in the region, it’s a challenge on how to create common rules.

Q: What constitutes a starting block of negotiation?

Tanaka: The WTO negotiations provide a framework for negotiations in goods and services. We can build our negotiations based on that, while revising or adding anything as necessary.

There is no such framework for investment negotiations, so participating countries make proposals based on their own negotiation experience. For example, India has a unique way of making proposals – Indian negotiators often begin with the underlying philosophy for the issue at hand. That presents a unique challenge to reaching an agreement.

E-commerce is still a quite new area. I think Japan is a leader in reaching an agreement in this area, and we are now utilizing our position as a leader to expand the scope of the newly created rules to be applied.

Q: It must be critical to have an investment agreement for new market development.

Tanaka: That’s right. Also, in the meantime, actions precede legal agreements in Asia. Japanese companies have already made a lot of investment in China and India. Signing an investment agreement with them after the fact means to make the government’s commitment legally binding. It means that you can invest more safely, legally reducing risks.

Q: You were assigned to the Japanese Embassy in Thailand twice, from 2000 to 2002 and from 2008 to 2010. Were these assignments connected to the ASEAN negotiations?

Tanaka: The first assignment was during the period that the cooperation framework under the ASEAN Plus had been established within the entire Asian region. Thailand was the chair of the ASEAN when I was in that country for both assignments, and it was the center of activities for the ASEAN and ASEAN Plus. It was a good learning experience for me.

Q: What have you learned through negotiating with a variety of people?

Tanaka: The people I’ve met through negotiations are all highly capable negotiators. They all represent their specific national interests that are very different from, and sometimes at odds to, ours. When negotiating with them, the most important thing, I believe, is trust and honesty. When you argue for your position, you argue what you truly believe in, while taking the other side’s position into consideration. A bunch of clichés don’t work – you have to use your own words, I believe. Otherwise, what you say might differ from your earlier words, and you can’t earn your counterpart’s trust that way.

Among the Asian nations, there’s no standout leader, like the U.S., that’s recognized by everyone. So, who will have to lead in the real trade talks? People look to Japan for leadership. I felt the high expectations for Japan from other Asian nations as huge pressure in various negotiations, which were a pleasure as well as a challenge.

The Asia-Pacific framework includes the U.S. and that’s the significance in terms of security. The main goal of the RCEP, I believe, is to add India to this framework. Just like the concept of the Asia-Pacific region became broadly familiar after the Asian Financial Crisis, today we are hearing a lot about the new regional concept of “Indo-Pacific.” It’s a huge challenge for India, but the [Narendra] Modi administration is working hard for the RCEP negotiation to encourage foreign investment.

Q: Do you see any possibilities for the U.S. to return to the TPP negotiations?

Tanaka: It’s up to the U.S. – I think those who support the TPP in the U.S. remain unchanged, and Japan will continue trying to persuade the current U.S. administration. So whatever path it may take, I expect the U.S. will eventually move to that direction.

Q: You have engaged in negotiations with African countries.

Tanaka: I was at the Japanese Embassy in Botswana from 2010 to 2012. In 1992, following the assignment in Chicago, I served at the Embassy in Ghana.

Botswana was the only country that maintained a non-white rule in southern Africa under apartheid. Its first president, [Seretse] Khama, studied in England and married a white woman despite a widespread criticism from the British and the neighboring white governments. They made this heroic and romantic life story into a movie, and I saw it on the plane to Chicago.

Botswana’s economy largely depends on diamonds. Khama was smart to have made a joint venture deal with the diamond giant De Beers when the world’s best and richest diamond mines were discovered in his country. It’s also trying to diversify its economic activities, and safari tourism there is one of the best in Africa.

Ghana has offshore oilfields. When there are large-scale concessions like that, they often become the source of corruption, and that’s one of the reasons African nations have been struggling economically. Ghana’s president, John Mahama (July 2012 – January 2017), tried to avoid that trap.

Mr. Mahama – it was on the news in Japan – was one of the local staff and my subordinate at the Japanese Embassy when I was assigned to Ghana in 1992. Later, he became a Member of Parliament, then a member of the cabinet, and finally the president when I was in Botswana. Investment agreement negotiations with Japan are currently ongoing. It has a very good relationship with Japan.

Q: Let’s jump back to the beginning. Why did you choose a career at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs?

Tanaka: I thought I was going to be a lawyer, because I studied law. But the average age of passing the national bar exam back then was 29 and that was too burdensome for me. Also, I always wanted to go to America since I was a kid, and thought I could go to America to study if I joined the Foreign Ministry. In addition, my dad’s brother, who was drafted as a student during World War II and perished as a kamikaze (suicide attack) pilot, wanted to be a diplomat, and that was always on my mind somewhere.

Q: So you always loved America.

Tanaka: America is my great teacher, and I’ve always regarded it with respect.
America has been the world leader in the post-World War II period, and has a pivotal role in the Asia-Pacific security. Without it, there can be no peace or economic stability in the region. The alliance between America and Japan is the strong foundation for it.

When I was in Chicago in the early 1990s, it was the tail end of the U.S.-Japan trade controversies. Since then, many Japanese business people exerted effort in investment and local manufacturing in America for a long period of time, and now I can see it bearing fruits and expanding. I believe that is the basis of today’s extremely good relationship between the two countries.

America today seems a bit out of steam. But this country has this resiliency, a system that enables it to adapt to a variety of conditions, which I believe will not easily disappear.

Q: I understand that you were engaged in the negotiations with the U.S. forces in Okinawa from 2005 to 2008.

Tanaka: In 1996, the administration of Ryutaro Hashimoto put out the final SACO (Special Action Committee on Facilities and Areas in Okinawa) Report, regarding the plan to scale down the existence of the U.S. bases in Okinawa. The chance for implementing the SACO plan was getting better at that time, when the reorganization of the U.S. forces was moving ahead around the post-Cold War world.

As such, I worked with the high-level personnel of the U.S. forces in Okinawa for handling the issues in Okinawa.

Those days, we had many Japanese government officials visiting Okinawa almost every month, as well as the heads of the local municipalities having talks with them. Watching them in the workings of the real politics, I learned a lot. It was a fruitful three years for me, precious experience. Okinawa feels like my second home.

Q: What do you feel has changed here in Chicago after 25 years?

Tanaka: Back in 1990, I came here directly from the school where I was studying in the U.S., so the transition was seamless, and Chicago felt like the economic and cultural center of the Midwest. But this time, I was flying from Japan. And before coming here, people around me showed relative ignorance about Chicago, saying things like “What’s it like in Chicago?” That was rather surprising to me.
I see now there are a lot more high-rises in town. Compared to New York, I think Chicago is safer and cleaner, and I don’t feel the roughness in the people here at all, like the way I felt in the post 9-11 New York. This is a pretty good place to live, I think.

In terms of my work, I would like to know what America is all about. The last time I was in the U.S., I thought the Midwest was where you could see the true America, not the West Coast or East Coast. Again, I think Chicago is the best place to check the temperature of today’s America after my 25-year hiatus.

I plan to get out on the street, meet a lot of people and learn America, and contribute that experience to my work as Deputy Consul.

Q: Do you have any family members with you?

Tanaka: My wife, a magazine editor, is staying in Japan, so I’m alone here. She came to help me move but has gone back to Japan. She’ll come to Silicon Valley for business soon.

Q: Before we wrap up, please tell us what you like to do in your spare time.

Tanaka: I love traveling. Wherever I am on an assignment, I travel around the neighboring areas. When I was in Botswana, I visited the Victoria Falls, and a place called Sobe, where they have a highly concentrated population of elephants. I also went to Cape Town in South Africa – it’s so beautiful.

When I was in New York, I visited South America quite a lot, such as Peru, Chile and Brazil. While on this assignment, I’d love to take my time and explore Chicago.

Q: Thank you very much for your time.

New Deputy Consul General Kenji Tanaka