Chapter 12: Not Made in the USA

Chapter 12. Not Made in the USA

I returned to San Francisco for several weeks before going on to New York to stay with my third cousin who lived in a white shingle house in a town next door to Greenwich, Connecticut where the GDP per capita was one of the highest in the US and from where Wall Street execs commuted daily to Manhattan. My cousin who was about the same age was an in-house attorney for GE Capital. She offered to introduce me to a close friend who was a partner in a large New York law firm on Lexington Avenue with a roster of Japanese corporate clients. Cyrus Vance, the former Secretary of State during President Jimmy Carter’s administration, was the law firm’s chairman. Japanese companies, on a buying spree in the US, were among the firms’ most lucrative clients.

The partner suggested that I apply for work as an assistant to partners who were engaging with the firm’s Japanese clients to help facilitate the negotiations. But I knew that even though I would be dealing with Japanese businesses, the relationship would be superficial at best. I declined the offer even though the salary would be higher than Mercian’s and the standard of living would also be more comfortable.

I briefly considered getting a law degree because candidates with my credentials were uncommon. After visiting Columbia University to enquire about the criteria for acceptance I was urged to apply despite my age. However, a law degree would take four years, consequently isolating me from corporate Japan and the ensuing drama that inevitably would unfold. I continued to stay at my cousin’s house while looking for employment.


ESP!

I was going through withdrawal symptoms from the wine division so during one hot and muggy morning in Manhattan I collected maps and information on the Napa Valley to send to Mercian. I thought about the deputy director whose family had owned the Mercian Winery before Sanraku had purchased it. It was unfortunate that Mercian had not sent him to see Markham and I hoped that one day I would be able to be his guide around the Napa Valley wineries. By 2pm my dress was damp with perspiration and I decided to return to Greenwich instead of waiting until 5pm, my regular commute time. The train departed from Grand Central Station. Holding the bag with the maps for the wine division, I waited in a queue at the information booth under the giant clock to find out the time of the next train. A gentleman with greying hair and wearing a grey tee shirt was standing in front of me. In a soggy daze I did not notice anything peculiar about him until he turned around.  Looking at me he exclaimed in Japanese, “Susan! We’ve been trying to contact you!” The man was the deputy director of the wine division. His face was ashen.

Since I had been thinking about him that very day and was holding a bag full of materials for the wine division, for a second, I assumed that seeing him standing before me was perfectly natural. After we regained our composure, the deputy director told me that Mercian was having some problems with Louis Martini and wanted me to accompany him to the winery to sort out the situation. He asked me if I could meet him in San Francisco the next day and accompany him to Martini for the meeting. Mercian would pay for the entire trip and for my services. To the relief of the deputy director I accepted. My ulterior motive was to have the opportunity to guide him around the Napa Valley.

After an uneventful flight to SFO I took a taxi to the St. Francis Hotel where Mercian had reserved a room for me and a room for the deputy director.  That evening we ate in the dining room to discuss the meeting agenda. The deputy director told me that when he called the wine division that evening to report the Grand Central Station incident everyone was aghast at what could only be described as an ESP event. The next morning we were driven by private car across the Golden Gate Bridge to Napa. The director was awed by the natural beauty and the space and the dry, sunny climate. The meeting with Caroline Martini went smoothly allowing plenty of time to show the director my favorite wineries. We had dinner at a restaurant in St. Helena before heading back to the hotel. As we parted company, I handed the director the bag of information I had collected.


The USTR Does Not Want Me!

I went to Washington DC and stayed for several weeks with my mother’s best friend. Her husband had retired from the World Bank where he was one of its first staff and who had worked for the bank in India, Thailand and the Soviet Union. I had no contacts at the USTR and decided to apply for a low level position which initially would not have entailed negotiations or analyses of trade policy.

I was interviewed at the USTR offices by a civil servant in his fifties who was the director of HR. After reading my CV and asking some general questions he ended the interview by stating that the USTR did not need a staff who was fluent in Japanese because it was focusing on China, which was surprising, since Japan was the United States’ largest trading partner and its chief ally in the Pacific. Furthermore, the USTR was constantly pressuring Japan to deregulate is markets for rice, beef, automobiles, insurance and pharmaceuticals, industries that were represented by powerful lobby groups. The officer was not interested in either distribution or non-tariff barriers. I suspected that trade negotiations were equally based on political necessity. Frankly, the rejection came as a relief because I had come to the conclusion that, although I was in the US, I would continue to work in a Japanese corporate environment. There were numerous Japanese North American headquarters located in Manhattan.


Bubble, bubble: all you need is cash

The United States, due to events such as the end of Bretton Woods (chapter 2), high government spending during the Vietnam War, high inflation and a stock market crash in 1973-74, suffered a recession (1973-5). Not having fully recovered from the recession, the United States encountered a double-dip recession in 1981–2. Although Japan was fast becoming the second largest economy in the world and “overtaking the United States,” the Japanese continued to rely on the ministries and politicians to tightly regulate their industries and to continue mercantile policies, accumulating a large current account surplus while holding the yen in Japan.

After the termination of the fixed exchange rate in 1971 the currency market was unregulated and controlled by supply and demand. During 1980-85 the dollar appreciated 50 percent against the currencies of its chief trading partners; Japan, France, Germany and the United Kingdom. The US was also experiencing a large and growing current account deficit. On the other hand, Japan and Germany held large trade surpluses. Protectionist trade policies and the appreciation of the dollar threatened to destabilize the foreign exchange market. The US pressed for a multinational intervention to control the appreciation of the dollar against other currencies and make American goods competitive in global markets.

 In September 1985, the United States together with Japan, France, West Germany and Great Britain agreed on the Plaza Accord, signed at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan, which effectively intervened in currency markets, floated the dollar and appreciated other currencies, including the yen. The US promised to reduce its government deficit and lower interest rates. Japan agreed to loosen monetary policies and initiate financial sector reforms. During 1985–7, the yen appreciated 51 percent against the dollar. In FY1986 Japan’s exports plummeted by a third, a blow to its export-driven economy. To counteract the yen’s appreciation the BOJ implemented expansionary monetary policies and eased interest rates in early 1986 from 5 percent to 4.5 percent and gradually to 2.5 percent by February 1987.

During the post-war period the central bank had dictated to each bank quarterly the amount acceptable for net lending (i.e. quotas) through the extra-legal policy tool known as “window guidance” (madoguchi shido). The banks were ranked accordingly, from the large metropolitan banks to the regional banks. The Bank of Japan’s easy money policy triggered what is referred to as Japan’s “asset-inflated bubble economy.” Corporate over-expansion in Japan during the bubble years of 1986–90 was funded by substantial loans from national and regional banks. Many of the loans were underwritten by the spiralling value in real estate. This trend was accelerated by fiscal policies which included lowering taxes. Unfortunately, the banks lacked the skills to assess collateral and approved additional loans to valued clients without increasing the collateral because the BOJ had provided a safety net as lender of last resort since the late 1950s.

On the other hand, the extra-legal “window guidance” could pressure banks to hire retired officials, a system commonly known as amakudari or ‘descent from Heaven’ (discussed in chapter 16). The BOJ would “punish” banks by reducing loan quotas, while taking no action against the borrowers to recover collateral, leaving “zombie” borrowers effectively bankrupt but still in business. Many retired bureaucrats from MOF and retired executives from the BOJ were employed in top management positions in metropolitan banks and financial institutions. As of 1992, there were 78 former MOF officials and 64 BOJ officers on the boards of 115 listed banks through amakudari.

During the 1990s a series of scandals linking the failure of financial institutions with MOF officials in the regulatory agency that monitored the keiretsu main banks and other financial institutions were covered extensively by the Japanese media. Nevertheless, amakudari continued.


Dazzle in the Big Apple and London Town: the sky’s the limit

I was amazed at the extent of Japanese corporate investment in the US. During the bubble years, Japanese companies invested heavily in the purchase and construction of commercial and residential properties in Japan. As a consequence, the value of real estate throughout Japan, particularly in Tokyo, appreciated over 50 percent. Furthermore, Japanese companies purchased high-profile properties in Manhattan and Los Angeles. In October 1989, Mitsubishi Estate, an affiliate of Mitsubishi Trading Group, initially invested an estimated $846 million in cash for a 51 percent interest in Rockefeller Center, joining other business owners with whom it had previously purchased 6.1 percent of shares in 1984. The Exxon Building was purchased by Mitsubishi Real Estate Development Company of Tokyo for $620 million in 1986. Identifying itself as Japan’s second largest real estate company, it also invested $500 million in Citicorp Plaza in Los Angeles, which it developed with the Prudential Insurance Company.

However, the purchases by Japanese companies of high-profile real estate and American movie companies during the bubble years also triggered a spat of public protests. After Sony Corp purchased Columbia Pictures in September 1989, Matsushita, to even the score, purchased MCA Entertainment in 1990. The $6.6 billion MCA deal included the concessions in Yosemite National Park. After considerable public outcry that Japanese companies were buying up pieces of the American landscape, US Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan launched an inquiry into whether entertainment giant MCA Inc. had violated its government contract to operate Yosemite concessions when it sold Yosemite Park and Curry Co., the concession operator, to Matsushita without Lujan`s approval. The unwelcome publicity and pressure from Lujan lead Matsushita within two years to sell off the concessions, which included a hotel and tents, for $49.5 million to an American non-profit foundation where Lujan served as a member of the board. The foundation donated the concessions to the National Park Service.


More bubble stories: regional banks

Japan’s big banks opened retail branches in the US during the 1980s, among them Dai-ichi Kangyo, Sumitomo and Daiwa Bank, which opened branches in New York City and in Los Angeles in the 1980s.

In an attempt to emulate the metropolitan banks, Japan’s regional banks such as Kyoto Bank and Iyo Bank in Ehime Prefecture, anticipating that the Japanese economy would continue to expand, opened one-man branch offices in New York and Los Angeles with the objective of providing offshore support for small businesses based in their prefectures. Some of the banks operated offices for no other reason than to be seen as having “internationalized.” The new branches also served to illustrate Japan’s overconfidence and the need to be recognized as an economic force internationally.

The banks, which were very exposed to the real estate market, were left with a substantial body of non-performing loans or “bubble loans.” It was estimated at the time that the top twenty-one commercial banks were carrying $100 billion at the end of September 1992, escalating 50 percent from the end of March and constituting one-third of their total capital.

Until the 1990s, all Japanese banks were assured that the government would support them and that both the BOJ and MOF regulators were their protectors who shielded them from close scrutiny by outside auditors. The banks were reluctant to disclose the extent of their NPL because it would be tantamount to admitting mismanagement.

Nevertheless, large corporations, flush with success in international markets during the 1980s, were investing capital to expand their subsidiaries in ventures that were beyond the subsidiaries’ core competencies, basing strategies on forecasts of continuing growth in both foreign and domestic markets. Their loyal banks, who also owned equity in the companies and in their subsidiaries, were willing to continue lending without assessing collateral or the risks involved regardless of the accumulation of significant debt. Furthermore, the regulation of the banks both private and state by the Ministry of Finance and the BOJ, the lender of last resort, remained almost non-existent. Nothing changed despite public outcry. The banks continued to lend to their borrowers and the borrowers continued to expand operations while disregarding debts which they kept refinancing.


Sushi anyone?

The wave of Japanese corporate investment and operations in the US and Great Britain also brought opportunities to Japanese retailers and to small and medium-size business which were setting up shop to provide services to the large corporations. Japan’s most prestigious department stores opened branches in New York and in London to retail Japanese foods and accoutrements to Japanese corporate executives. Mitsukoshi operated a branch in London, serving elegant and expensive Japanese cuisine to a loyal Japanese clientele working in Japanese ministries, banks and large corporations.

Manhattan and Los Angeles were the most sought-after destinations for small businesses which included office suppliers and real estate agencies who offered rental properties and relocation services at inflated fees to Japanese executives who were bringing their families with them during their secondment. There were small Japanese businesses that catered for corporate events, delivering standard Japanese lunch boxes to offices daily. Japanese sushi restaurants along with tempura and noodle houses proliferated and were not only a popular lunch-time destinations for Japanese but, also, for non-Japanese.

A branch of one of Tokyo’s finest traditional noodle restaurants opened in Soho, Manhattan in 1991. I had met the owner in Tokyo at a California wine tasting event shortly before I returned to the US. He had graduated from the University of California with a degree in city planning but had ambitions of opening a branch of his family’s noodle restaurant in Manhattan. I was eager to support him and offered to help with the promotion by introducing him to James Sterngold, the New York Times correspondent in Tokyo, and his wife.

The restaurant was located in Ogikubo, where, by coincidence, the hospital where I was treated for the kidney infection in 1969 was located.  I suggested that I invite Sterngold and his wife to dinner at the Ogikubo restaurant. The UC graduate was overjoyed and offered to serve the three of us cuisine representing the specialties of the house. The elegant meal was based on buckwheat served in various forms besides noodles. It was one of the most delicious meals I had yet to experience. The Sterngolds were impressed and a week later James published an effusive half page review of the restaurant which included that a branch was due to open in Manhattan.

When my friend visited New York to hunt for property in Soho I took him to fashionable restaurants, mainly Chinese, to suggest wines and spirits that would enhance his menu. I was confident that his new venture would be entirely successful because of the maze of Japanese corporate headquarters in Manhattan whose executives missed their fine Japanese cuisine.

The family invested substantial capital to finance the refurbishment of a small installation in Soho, (which accommodated only twenty diners) and cover costly overheads, including the secondment to New York the chefs from the Tokyo restaurant and sourcing most of the ingredients such as the buckwheat from Hokkaido. Sterngold’s article in the New York Times promoted the new establishment to the rich and famous from the world of art, music and fashion, and to Japanese corporate executives. The restaurant became the hot spot for Japanese haute cuisine.

The owner called me his “lucky star” and whenever I wanted to savor gastronomy at its finest I could always reserve a table even though the restaurant was fully booked. The owner served me new dishes and my favorite Japanese sweet at the end. I would never again experience the star treatment.


TV Asahi

After the interview at the USTR I continued to commute from my cousin’s house to Manhattan daily to look for work. I went to a large branch of the Japanese book store Kinokuniya near Rockefeller Center and purchased a copy of a Japanese newspaper published specifically for Japanese residents and distributed weekly by the Overseas Courier Service (OCS). The paper carried a want-ad section for Japanese staff. After three weeks of commuting daily to Manhattan and purchasing OCS papers, I found an ad for an office manager at TV Asahi’s North American headquarters. TV Asahi was one of the largest commercial stations in Japan and which broadcast the popular 10pm news. The station also collaborated with CNN and ABC.

The ad did not detail the job description but I anticipated that the work would not be challenging. I visualized interaction with Japanese reporters and journalists and instant access to news. I called the office and spoke to a man who spoke fluent English. He explained that a new bureau chief from Japan would be coming to New York the following week and would schedule an interview with me.

TV Asahi was located on the twenty seventh floor of the International Building in Rockefeller Center, in which Mitsubishi Estate had a 51 percent stake. For the interview I took Mr. Suzuki’s letter of recommendation and the Martini cookbook but I refrained from including detailed information regarding my work at Mercian because it concerned corporate business which was not in the public domain.

The interview took place in the reception room with a table, chairs and a television. The deputy bureau chief who was in his forties and had spoken to me on the phone accompanied the new bureau chief. Since the new chief interviewed me in Japanese I suspected that his English was not fluent. He was in his fifties and appeared to have a good sense of humor. The cookbook sealed the job. I began to explain the objectives but it was unnecessary because the chief understood immediately, praising the work as a fine piece of marketing material. I was surprised because I had received no comments, either positive or negative, at Mercian. The chief also recognized that I was comfortable in a Japanese corporate environment.

He explained that I would be responsible to him, assisting him with general office work and other duties. I accepted because he would be my boss. The chief had been the director of the award-winning 10pm news and the three year secondment to New York was probably a reward prior to his retirement. My job would commence in several weeks after the chief had relocated to Manhattan from Tokyo.

I managed to find a studio rental in the New York Times real estate ads. The apartment was on the seventeenth floor of a building located on East 63rd Street between Second and Third Avenues and a memorable twenty minute walk to Rockefeller Center down Park Avenue towards the Pan American Building on 34th Street. There was a concierge who told me that among the tenants were representatives from various countries to the UN and business executives and that most of the apartments were condominiums.

The studio was larger than the Tokyo flat and, in comparison, the facilities were luxurious with a full oven, a dishwasher, a large bathroom with tub and shower. But since I was unsure whether I would remain in Manhattan I limited my purchases to the bare essentials; a bed, a small dresser, a folding table for eating, a twelve inch television, and a telephone, which I placed on the floor beside my bed. I could not have foreseen that I would remain in the same apartment for the next eight years.

TV Asahi New York transferred its staff salaries to the Daiwa Bank branch on Fifth Avenue where I opened a checking account after closing my Mercian account at the New York branch of Dai-ichi Kangyo (DKB). The yen/dollar exchange rate conveniently brought a bit of extra cash for the bare essentials. When the asset-inflated bubble burst in 1989, the DKB carried a load of non-performing loans because of its risky loans to corporate clients and to Yakuza crime syndicates. Despite the scandals involving the MOF’s monitoring of banks in the early 1990s, the DKB continued to conceal the extent of its NPL problem and lending without calling in debts.

The TV Asahi office was spacious. The room where all staff worked was equipped with three large televisions placed on a wall adjacent to the desks where, besides the bureau chief and deputy bureau chief, an American researcher in his late twenties and a part-time American researcher in her thirties worked. Neither of them spoke Japanese. There were two young attractive Japanese female reporters seconded from TV Asahi HQ and three male Japanese local staff who served as cameramen and film editors. They were married and had their green cards. The female reporters and the Japanese local staff went on the road often to film interviews and on-site reports throughout the US. Both women were trainees and were getting their initial experiences in TV reporting. One was the daughter of a TV executive and had graduated from a university in Washington DC.

The TVs were always tuned to the three commercial news stations -NBC, CBS and ABC to keep staff on top of daily news, regardless of whether anyone was watching. An editing room was next to the work space where one of the Japanese local staff edited film before sending it as live feed to TV Asahi HQ. Adjacent to the editing room was a sound stage where occasionally live interviews of newsworthy Americans pertinent to Japanese interests were conducted by the bureau chief. There was a utility room with a FAX machine which received requests from HQ for reports on hot topics.

The deputy bureau chief was also regarded as local staff. He had served as the bureau chief of TV Asahi’s Washington DC bureau and, consequently, had a solid knowledge of Washington politics. Married to an American, he lived in a wealthy suburb on Long Island.  TV Asahi HQ regarded the New York bureau as its primary North American bureau and, similar to most Japanese corporations, seconded its staff to serve in the top positions.  However, the bureau chief relied on his deputy for his expertise and his English and for implementing the requests from HQ. Many of the decisions regarding hard- news coverage and who would facilitate the reports were in the hands of the deputy.

The new bureau chief was very astute and often made the final decisions. He also was the sole interviewer for the live broadcasts. In other words, the deputy chief remained behind the scenes even though he did most of the legwork.

The bureau chief and I had an excellent rapport. Initially the work was minimal, keeping track of business expenditures accumulated by the local staff and accompanying him to various venues in Manhattan to acclimate him to the city. Since my duties were relatively inconsequential I was concerned that I would not be exposed directly to daily news about what was transpiring in Japan. The staff never discussed Japanese politics or reacted overtly to the turmoil in the equity market perhaps because they had settled in the US. I was reluctant to ask questions. However, the Asahi, the Yomiuri and the Nikkei newspapers were delivered daily to the office which kept me abreast of politics and business.


The Persian Gulf War

In mid-January there was a radical change in the office environment. The Persian Gulf War began on January 16, 1991 when the US declared Operation Desert Storm to counteract Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990 and its refusal to withdraw its troops from Kuwaiti territory. The declaration was accompanied by an airstrike by the US coalition warplanes on Iraqi military targets, including Baghdad.

On the evening of 16 January we gathered in the reception room to watch the live blow-by-blow coverage by CNN reporters from Teheran. I chronicled the event on a yellow legal pad. It was extraordinary. I was covering an American war for Japanese news station and listening to the comments of Japanese news reporters. The CNN coverage continued, not only garnering CNN a reputation for forging the way for live TV coverage of military action but, also, for a new format for news reporting. It was broadcast history in the making. TV Asahi’s relationship with CNN blossomed.

TV Asahi HQ sent FAX after FAX to request both the reporting of the conflict and the monitoring of President George H. W. Bush and his military staff at the White House The bureau chief and his deputy immediately began discussing the logistics of sending to the Middle East the three Japanese local staff to cover the war. I was tasked with investigating visa applications to Iran, sorting out insurance for their equipment and facilitating their entry through customs. I had no knowledge of the processes entailed but I managed to simplify matters through numerous phone conversations. Fortunately, a Japanese travel agent was hired to implement. However, Iran would not allow Japanese or other foreign reporters into the country and the three staff were sent to Israel for three days to report on the conflict and to conduct interviews with Israelis to gauge their reaction to the war.

Upon their return to TV Asahi they edited the footage and sent it to HQ. The report was superficial and hardly justified the expense but HQ seemed satisfied with the result.  Most of office time was spent watching CNN and the instantaneous coverage. The political cartoons published in Japanese newspapers were among my favorites and I began collecting them. The cartoons were not US-friendly regarding the United States’ involvement in the war. One cartoon depicted President Bush in cowboy gear on a bucking bronco and lassoing a terrified Saddam Hussein. Another depicted weeds growing abundantly in front of a dilapidated White House with the words “The New World Order” scribbled beneath.

My exposure to tight border security was at a check-point at border controls set up to check passports and passengers’ identities during a one-day trip to Toronto to take an HQ reporter who was visiting New York to renew his visa at the US Embassy. We boarded a plane at La Guardia, making an hour stopover in Montreal in order to have our passports checked. When I handed my TV Asahi business card to the officer, he asked me if I spoke Japanese. He was so impressed that he let both of us pass through without looking at our passports.


Et tu Brute?

The deputy chief was on the phone constantly to TV Asahi in Washington DC and he tended to turn up the volume of the televisions so that his conversations in Japanese were relatively private. He may have been concerned that I might disclose the information to the chief. His resentment of not being the Bureau Chief was palpable when he mentioned the chief’s lack of knowledge of American politics or his absence from the office (“whereabouts unknown”) or his tardiness in the morning, perhaps due to a bout of drinking with HQ colleagues the night before. The deputy bore the brunt of the work, yet the chief had the final word and received all of the credit.

At the end of the war the bureau chief interviewed the Commander-in-chief, United States Central Command, Norman Schwarzkopf (“Stormin Norman”) who had led the coalition forces in the war. The interview was transmitted live to TV Asahi Japan and its affiliates. As the director of the 10pm news he understood the added-value of showing the staff working busily in the newsroom instead of moving the camera directly to the interview. We were instructed to sit at our desks looking occupied while the cameraman zoomed in for a ten-second shot. Evidently I was spotted because following the interview TV Asahi Osaka telephoned the office to inquire about my identity.

Schwarzkopf visited a second time for another live interview regarding his recently published autobiography It doesn’t Take a Hero. The two Americans purchased copies and asked the general to autograph them. But I asked him to autograph my legal pad paper on which I had recorded the 16 January attack.


Hot News

The Japanese press and television broadcasting stations reported news about the United States that was often provocative. The deputy chief also selected these topics. The stories regarded crimes perpetrated against Japanese tourists and racial discrimination, drug culture, prostitution or abortion issues which could be construed as “scare-mongering” and creating the impression that the US was racked with social problems and a dangerous place to live. The objective was to counter the articles in the US newspapers, which were about the negotiations between the US-Japan trade representatives as the US was pressing Japan to deregulate its closed markets. The two female reporters and the three local staff were on the road much of the time, returning briefly to edit the film and to feed it to Tokyo.

Although the deputy chief was married to an American, had young children and had lived in the US for a number of years he was hardly an admirer of the US, which probably was one of the reasons he had been sent to cover the US by TV Asahi. He revealed his pro-Japan stance one day after reading an article by David Sanger of the New York Times who covered Japanese politics and trade issues. The deputy could not contain his anger and blurted out that the article was biased because Sanger did not have his fill of Japanese women.

A young male researcher from HQ spent three months in the office for training. He often complained that Jews controlled the banking industry and the American press, pointing to the New York Times and the Washington Post. In all fairness, he was merely repeating what he had been taught in Japan and what was also the view of many Americans.


Drinks at the Algonquin with Japanese Journalists

There was no socializing after work until the Bureau Chief suggested that we go to the Algonquin Hotel for a drink. The Algonquin was the venue for the renowned Algonquin Round Table, which was established after the First World War in 1919 by a group of illustrious journalists, authors, literary critiques, playwrights and humorists who met daily for lunch. Among the members of the mutual admiration society were Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and Pulitzer-prize winners Robert Sherwood and George Kaufman. They played games, gossiped, and spouted witticisms and ideas. Since some members wrote newspaper columns the group became famous in the national press. The round table continued until 1929. The hotel earned the status of New York City Historic Landmark in 1987.

The Aoki Corp., a large Japanese construction firm, purchased the property with the Texas-based Bass Group in 1987 for $29 million. During the same year Aoki also purchased with Bass the Westin Hotel and resort chain for $1.53 billion with the Industrial Bank of Japan (IBJ) financing the transaction. The fifty North American hotels included the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. The Algonquin hotel had yet to be renovated when we visited and the interior was only a tired memory of the Round Table days.

I had assumed that I would be going to the Algonquin with American writers but instead I was accompanying Japanese news reporters.


The End but Not For Long

One morning in late November I arrived as usual at 8am to collect the FAX from Tokyo. HQ wanted to counteract President Bush’s scheduled visit to Honolulu on 7 December to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor with an investigative report regarding alleged atrocities committed by American GIs in Iraq against Iraqi soldiers such as burying them alive in the desert. In all probability, the deputy chief may have been concerned that I had seen this FAX because several days later the Bureau Chief advised me that my contract would not to be extended. Since he was dependent on the deputy director, he had little choice. Although we had a good working relationship and he had never indicated any dissatisfaction, I was relieved to be released because the deputy’s attitude impacted on the office environment. Sitting in front of three blaring televisions was like being in a torture chamber.

Without skipping a beat, I went to Kinokuniya for a copy of OCS. In the want-ads section was a small advertisement by an organization called “Ship Machinery” located at the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) office in New York requesting an assistant. I considered that the job would be a stop-gap until I found a better position and telephoned the contact number from TV Asahi. A gentleman answered in Japanese. Replying in Japanese I asked if the position was open to an American. He was delighted that I was fluent in Japanese and asked me to visit his office the following day for an interview.

JETRO New York’s office was located on the forty-fourth floor in the McGraw Hill Building, which was also in Rockefeller Center and owned by Mitsubishi Estate. I was escorted to a small one-man office and told to wait. The book cases were lined with volumes   in Japanese regarding ships and transportation. There were also directories with Tokyo University (TODAI) written on the covers. Realizing that the man was a graduate of Tokyo University and that he was probably a civil servant from the Ministry of Transportation, I thought that it would be a refreshing interlude to work with an elite bureaucrat for a few months.

Ironically, President Bush cancelled his trip to Honolulu to avoid friction with its key ally in the Pacific.


Pop goes the Bubble

In May 1989, the BOJ began to boost the official discount rate from 2.5 percent to 3.25 percent and then to 5.5 percent. Stock prices fell to 50 percent of their value during the peak in 1989 and by 1991 the value of real estate fell heavily. In order to cover losses, companies began selling equities, triggering a downward spiral of the equity market.