Tokyo. -- The Japanese like the prestige of having an American ambassador who was vice president of the United States, but they have learned that the coming of Walter Mondale marked the end of a certain American indulgence of the mixed goals and cross-purposes that have symbolized the relationship between the world's economic superpowers in the 50 years since the end of the World War II.
Ambassador Mondale is the third overqualified American to serve here since the war. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the "American Caesar," as one biographer called him, tried to create a new Japan deliberately designed to both reflect and complement American views of how the world should be -- and he succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of either nation.
Then Mike Mansfield, former majority leader of the U.S. Senate, came -- not as a politician but as an Asian scholar and friend of the new, rich Japan -- and ended up practically representing Japanese interests to the U.S. instead of the other way around. The rest of us had to "understand" Mr. Mansfield's Japan, a country of easily hurt feelings that could not quickly change its mysterious self-centered ways. Besides, there was a Cold War on, and we needed military bases in Japan.
Enter Mr. Mondale, who has no history with Japan and no stake in the history of Japanese-American relations. He is, above all, a politician, which means he understands precisely the differences and nuances between talk and action. He is also a Minnesota politician, which means he has a sense of fair play -- a sense that is offended most every day by the difference between Japanese words and deeds.
Sitting in his office here, a little heavier and a lot grayer than the sleek and handsome national politician of the 1970s and '80s, he laughed about some of his dealings with Japanese politicians and officials -- and he was not always amused. "They said to me once," he said, "that you have to understand the sociology of our country. Trade issues in Japan means jobs for our people. I said if you think our sociology likes unemployment, you've got to start thinking again."
(Forgetting politics for the moment, the Reeves family, eight of us, began a summer around-the-world trip in Tokyo. Three of us stopped off to see Mr. Mondale.)
On the state of the world, Mr. Mondale spoke favorably of the Japanese role in every area but trade, saying that the U.S.-Japan security relationship, American arms and men paid for by $5 billion in Japanese yen, was a great bargain. But when the subject turned to commerce, he said, "They like to sell and they don't like to buy -- it's as simple as that." His job, he said, is to deliver a message they still don't want to hear: We can't continue to live with this trade imbalance. . . . If they don't produce (the opening of markets) here, there's going to be an explosion back home in the United States."
If he cannot persuade the Japanese that it is in their own interest to end the trade war they have been waging against the United States for decades by selling but not buying, then no one can -- and we are all going to pay a high price in the long run. Mr. Mondale thinks "substantial" progress is being made -- as a practicing politician he would say that even if it were not true -- and he was happy with the result of the auto parts agreements negotiated last month by his 1984 campaign chairman, U.S. trade representative Mickey Kantor.
"But," he added, "it's always so slow and grudging. We allowed the development of a lot of bad habits over the years, one-way systems that have to change." (Mr. Mondale did not mention it, but in 1963, President Kennedy went before Congress to promote efforts to end the U.S.-Japanese trade imbalance because it was tilted, then, so far in our favor.)
"It's tough," he added toward the end. "We now know that Japan functions and makes decisions so differently than we do in our system. Power here is disaggregated . . . ministries are linked to their constituencies. Bureaucrats have more power than politicians, (and when changes are proposed) they ask the people affected -- farmers or telecommunications companies -- and of course they say 'No.' If we did that, we'd be the most protectionist country in the world."
Mr. Mondale had a last word: "For the Japanese's own good, they have to become a more forthcoming trading partner. What they are doing is driving up protectionist instincts around the world." It's not just the United States, he suggested; ask the Koreans, the Thais, the Taiwanese, other Asians.
We will, I promised. The family is heading in that direction already.
Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.