Finance and Changing US-Japan Relations: Convergence Without Leverage--Until Now

Working Paper
August 2001

In the postwar era, US-Japan economic relations have been characterized by substantial tensions, yet this has not damaged the underlying security relationship or critically harmed the multilateral economic framework. In fact, these two economies have become more integrated over time even as these tensions played out. These tensions, however, have required an enormous expenditure of political capital and officials’ time on both sides of the Pacific and have led to foregone opportunities for institution building and policy coordination.1 They have deepened since Japan “caught up” with the United States around 1980, and Japanese and US firms began increasingly to compete for profits and market share in the same sectors. Moreover, as both the US and Japanese economies continue to mature – both in terms of the age of their populations and their industrial mix – they will likely face even greater tensions between them over allocating the management and costs of industrial adjustment. 

Financial liberalization and integration could change all this. At present, US and Japanese corporate governance and investment behavior appear to be converging towards the arms-length, market-based, US approach to financial markets. If this trend continues, it will not only reduce tensions in the near term by facilitating the resolution of specific disputes, but it could also forge common interests between domestic interest groups across the Pacific while giving those groups more power relative to their respective governments. Over the longer-term, convergence would also produce common US and Japanese policy goals in relation to international capital flows and investment. Finally, for a transitional period, convergence should simultaneously increase US influence and improve Japanese economic performance, a combination that has been difficult to attain since the first oil shock.

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