The New Ambassador to Japan

Very few outsiders know that most, if not all, U.S. Navy technical bureaucracies ashore are operated by dual-management systems. In each, there is a military command that supposedly has absolute control and a companion civilian hierarchy that sometimes has significant, if not total, control of the least interesting, but nonetheless the most powerful function, that is, contract administration. This state of affairs is due to the fact that naval officers, both in headquarters and field organizations are assigned for three or four years, five at the most, whereas the civilians are incumbent more or less permanently and have plenty of time to establish effective relationships with each other.

In my opinion such was the situation in the Supervisor of Shipbuilding’s office for the 13th Naval District and in the Bureau of Ships in Washington, D.C. when in 1963 Lockheed’s Puget Sound Bridge & Drydock Company (PSBDD) of Seattle was awarded a contract for jumboization (lengthening) and modernization of two Navy fleet oilers. Just after the contract was signed, PSBDD announced that the new midbodies were going to be built in Kobe, Japan.

That news triggered a protest from the second-low bidder that sent certain members of Congress into orbits of indignant oratory and senior naval officers into a frantic search for a way to cover their rears. Eventually, cooler heads were able to point out that PSBDD’s subcontract with Kawasaki Heavy Industries (KHI) was permitted by the Buy American Act because the planned domestic purchase of materials required for other aspects of the modernization efforts exceeded the cost of the midbodies. PSB&DD had included a clever stratagem in its bid. Only then, when I was sure that the contract was not going to be cancelled, I turned my attention to how to implement my inspection and progress-reporting responsibilities in Kobe. That’s when the Supervisor’s civilian contracting officer contacted me.

The contracting officer advised that he and his counterpart in the Bureau of Ships had received approval to travel to Kobe and that I was included. Interpreted, that meant that they had a boondoggle underway; KHI was a subcontractor to PSBDD, not to the Navy. Implied was the idea that they didn’t dare exclude the one individual who did have a legitimate reason to travel to Japan. Thus, in May of 1963, that is a year before the Japanese bullet trains began to operate, my first visit to Japan was in company with the two Navy civil servants and their wives.

Since the U.S. Navy then had a significant ship-construction program in progress, KHI’s marketing people sensed opportunities for more such work and thus scheduled a meeting with Mr. M. Isano, KHI’s Chairman, immediately upon our arrival in Kobe. The conference room was austere by American standards, but it was impressive. Three of the walls were bare and one wall contained a single European painting that seemed to be expensive. The teak conference table, inlaid with a geometric design, was surrounded by arm-chairs encased in immaculate white slip covers.

Senior managers and various marketing people were already present when we three U.S. Navy representatives, with me also in a civilian suit, were ushered into the room and directed to one side of the table. The chair at the head of the table remained unoccupied while tea was served by two attractive young women who were dressed in stylish uniforms as if they were airline stewardesses. At that time, before women’s lib took hold in Japan, they were referred to as office flowers.

After the clutter of serving tea subsided, Mr. Isanso arrived accompanied by an interpreter. All stood and we three Americans returned his bow and exchanged business cards with him.


Then, with no further fanfare, Mr. Isano focused on just me and began to speak in a stern manner. His manner indicated that he already knew which one of the three Americans was the naval officer and that he was of the opinion that I had authority in the U.S. Navy much beyond my inspection and progress-reporting responsibilities. His black eyes never wavered and his words came out as if they were machine-gun bursts; he paused barely long enough for the interpreter to keep up. Reflecting Mr. Isano’s mien, the interpreter sternly said, “My first obligation is to my work force. What are the opportunities for me to get additional work from the U.S. Navy? If I do not get more such work, I will have to get work from the Communists!”

I heard my two civilian associates gasp; they were as startled as I was. This was just six months after the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War with the USSR was prominent in our minds. Mr. Isano was obviously expecting a reply from me and no laser ever worked faster than my scan of what I knew that would be appropriate to say.

My first thought was, that as the leader of a large corporation, Mr. Isano must know about how government bureaucracies operate, even in the United States. Thus any attempt to mislead him would be disastrous. Above all, I thought, reply with respect, say only what is absolutely true, and assume that he understands English.

Thus addressing only KHI’s Chairman I nodded my head and said, “Isano-san.”

He had not expected that honorific, and seemed to be pleased as he nodded in return.

I continued, “I cannot speak for the U.S. Navy, but I can speak for myself and for some other naval officers who think as I do. We are very pleased that Kawasaki has a subcontract to build the midbodies for two of our oilers because that arrangement has caused PSB&DD to bid four-million dollars less than the next low bidder. The effect is the same as the U.S. Navy getting a four-million dollar gift because that money will be used to improve other U.S. Navy ships.

“You probably know that PSB&DD’s competitors complained about the subcontract that you now have. Also, you may know how U.S. corporations present their wishes to our Congress; it is called lobbying. There are lobbying specialists available in Washington, D.C. Perhaps, you could present your views as part of PSBDD’s lobbying efforts.”

As I suspected, Isano-san did not need to wait for the interpretation. He grinned and my two civilian associates as well as the other Japanese managers in the room, seemed to sigh in unison.

As I was leaving, the civilian from the Bureau of Ships said to me, “As soon as I get back to Washington, D.C., I am going to tell the Chief of the Bureau about his new ambassador to Japan.”