A Yankee In Tokyo's Court

It's not easy being Bill Duncan these days. Usually, the scholarly head of the Washington office of the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Assn. (JAMA) likes to keep a low profile. But in mid-May, Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.) thrashed Duncan as a hypocrite on the Senate floor. Blasting Tokyo for shutting its markets to U.S. autos and auto parts, Levin quoted liberally from a book Duncan published more than 20 years ago. The book, declared Levin, who had launched a concerted search for the long-out-of-print account of the early rounds of U.S.-Japan auto negotiations, "provides strong historical support for the Administration's decision to pry open markets which have been discriminatorily closed to us for three decades."

As the American spokesman for Japan's car companies at a time when Washington and Tokyo are on the brink of a trade war, Duncan better get used to such treatment. JAMA is jockeying for the spotlight as the June 28 deadline for U.S. sanctions on imported Japanese luxury cars nears. It has already run full-page ads in The New York Times and The Washington Post excoriating the Clinton Administration's stance as strong-arm tactics that won't work. And on June 2, JAMA launched its first U.S. television commercial, aimed at policymakers and journalists in the Washington metro area.

TWEEDY CREDENTIALS. Such methods are bound to rile America-Firsters. JAMA "is just mouthing the Japanese government's propaganda line," scoffs Pat Choate, author of Agents of Influence, a book about Japanese influence-peddling in Washington. But the man crafting JAMA's message belies the stereotype of the slick lobbyist in an Armani suit. Bespectacled, with a faint New England accent, Duncan, 53, looks and sounds like a professor. In fact, he did postgraduate work in international economics at Tokyo's prestigious Keio University and earned a PhD in the subject from Tufts University.

Duncan doesn't speak in sound bites; he lectures. And his background and long tenure at JAMA, which he joined in 1976, impart an intellectual authority to his comments on behalf of Japan's car companies. "I call him Dr. Bill," says Philip A. Hutchinson Jr., president of the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, of which JAMA is a member. "He has a depth of knowledge of economic subjects that most government-relations people lack."

Duncan spent three years in planning for Mobil Corp. before taking the JAMA post. He says he was drawn to the job because the auto industry, like Big Oil, was undergoing dramatic structural change. "When I was at Mobil, there was a lot of anger at oil companies because prices were going up, but the industry was still providing a very valuable service to the American consumer," he says. "The Japanese industry in the very same way came in as a competitive force. It was providing high-quality small cars when the U.S. did not have high-quality small cars."

He denies that Japan's industry is closed to foreign players, arguing that U.S. carmakers haven't penetrated the market because they haven't made a serious effort. But he concentrates most of his rhetorical firepower on U.S. negotiating tactics. Washington's insistence that the Japanese commit to specific increases in purchases of American parts is "a forced-sales approach," he says. "It amounts to asking another capitalist country to do something that this country would certainly never accept."

SMART MOVE. Blasting the world's standard-bearer of free trade for trying to manage trade is a forceful argument that has put the Administration on the defensive. JAMA has been "very, very skillful in making purchasing targets the whole issue," concedes Greg Mastel, senior fellow at the Economic Strategy Institute, a Washington think tank that backs the White House's stance. Another smart strategic move: JAMA leaves the heavyweight lobbying to import-car dealers and American representatives of Japanese transplant factories, who speak for U.S. workers and employers.

As persuasive as Duncan can be, however, some say his argument ignores the subtleties of U.S.-Japan trade. True, Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler are working harder to sell cars elsewhere in Asia than in Japan. But as Kevin Nealer, a partner with the Scowcroft Group, a Washington consulting firm, notes, U.S. parts companies that are eager to sell in Japan "have been frustrated by Japan's regulatory structure" and other hidden barriers.

Moreover, the idea of setting voluntary parts-purchasing goals was originally Tokyo's. In 1992, at the urging of the Ministry of International Trade & Industry, Japan's carmakers agreed to double their purchases of American-made components, to $19 billion. That goal will be met this year, but the U.S. wants Japan to double it again. Duncan credits "company-to-company" dealings for the surge in parts purchases, glossing over the fact that the fear of sanctions drove Japan's auto makers to deal with American parts suppliers in the first place.

And the Clintonites insist that, far from threatening free-market capitalism, they're seeking short-term affirmative action for a key sector. A similar approach, launched in the late 1980s, helped U.S. semiconductor manufacturers gain a 20% share of Japanese sales.

NICE REVIEW. Duncan wins praise from his industry adversaries for his gentlemanly ways and his initiative in arranging matchmaking sessions between U.S. parts suppliers and Japan's carmakers. "He is someone I feel very comfortable dealing with," says Andrew H. Card Jr., president of the American Automobile Manufacturers Assn. "The trauma of the day never affects our ability to work together." Then again, Duncan could be said to raise good manners to an art form. Of Senator Levin's attack, he says: "Here a U.S. senator respects my book enough to read pages into the Congressional Record. I can't be anything but honored by that."

But some Administration officials find Duncan's polemical style an irritating impediment. He sticks tightly to JAMA's public line. "He's not the kind of person you can talk to to resolve anything," grouses one official. "Even the Toyota people acknowledge there's a gray area, where they can do more and so can we."

Of course, the well-heeled Washington of which Duncan is part is full of both lobbyists and Lexuses, and representing Japan's carmakers "hasn't been particularly uncomfortable," he says. When people learn what he does, "the usual response is, `I've been driving a Japanese car, and I love it."' Duncan himself tools around the northern Virginia suburbs, where he lives, in a Nissan Maxima or a Toyota Previa. But he fondly recalls the GM Cutlass station wagon he had in the early '80s. No one is lobbing eggs at Bill Duncan. But as the rancor grows, he may be dodging more brickbats from the likes of Senator Levin.

The World According to Duncan

ON THE TRADE IMPASSE "When Japan's auto makers say they're not going to accept what is basically a forced-sales approach...they're not going to do it."

ON THE THREAT OF SANCTIONS "The Clinton Administration has gone to bat for the Big Three and is now on the verge of stealing the bases with a blatant and irresponsible violation of international law."

ON THE BIG THREE "If the European companies can make it in Japan's vehicle market, surely Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors can."

ON JAPAN'S AUTO INDUSTRY "It was the basic principles of competition that made the Japanese automobile industry strong."

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