Acceptance speech of the Ohira Masayoshi Memorial Prize

Japan's national flag is seen in front of containers and cranes at an industrial port in Tokyo, Japan, January 25, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
Editor's note:

Mireya Solís delivered her acceptance speech on the occasion of receiving the Ohira Masayoshi Memorial Prize for her book, Dilemmas of a Trading Nation: Japan and the United States in the Evolving Asia-Pacific Order, in Tokyo, Japan on June 12, 2018.

Dear Executive Director Ohira Tomonori, dear Board of Directors of the Ohira Masayoshi Memorial Foundation, and distinguished ladies and gentlemen: good afternoon to all of you.

My name is Mireya Solís. I am the Knight Chair in Japan Studies and Co-Director of the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC.

Today, it is my privilege to address all of you on this very special occasion celebrating the award of the 34th Ohira Masayoshi Memorial Prize. For more than three decades, this award has recognized and supported excellence in academic research around the Pacific Basin Community concept. I am humbled that my book Dilemmas of a Trading Nation: Japan and the United States in the Evolving Asia-Pacific Order has been selected alongside other excellent academic studies as a recipient of this year’s award. It is with a spirit of deep appreciation that I would like to open my address this afternoon by recognizing my fellow awardees:

  • Professor Hoken Hisatoshi from Kwansei Gakuin University
  • Professor Miyata Tomoyuki from Teikyo University
  • Professor Sadayoshi Yasushi from Kobe University
  • Professor Kamada Yumiko from Keio University
  • Professor Takagi Yusuke, from the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies

It is an honor to be in your company as recipients of the 34th Ohira Masayoshi Memorial Prize.

The Ohira Masayoshi Memorial Prize carries a very special meaning for me, both intellectually and personally. Intellectually, I feel a deep connection between the themes of my book and the pioneering work that Prime Minister Ohira carried out in championing the concept of the Pacific Basin Community. As you are all well aware, Prime Minister Ohira convened the Pacific Basin Cooperation Study Group to devise a strategy for realizing this objective. The study group submitted its final report to the Prime Minister on May 19th 1980.  The report laid out a very compelling vision, one that looked at the vast Pacific Ocean as an inland sea where diverse nations could deepen their efforts in building a regional community. Importantly, this was based on the notion of open regionalism -championing free and open interdependence- and with an expansive definition of who belongs to the community. It was not about building closed regional blocs, but about deepening trans-regional connections. Wisely, the bonds to be strengthened were not just trade, investment, or energy flows, but cultural ties as well. There was a strong emphasis on strengthening the fabric of the Pacific Basin community through people-to-people exchanges, through overseas studies programs, through education. And it was forward looking, a blueprint for the 21st century.

The Pacific Basin Cooperation Concept spearheaded by PM Ohira was also a careful articulation of how to respond to unsettling times. The report noted the deep concern that 30 years after the end of WWII, there appeared to be a decline in the free and open international economic system. And this concern drove its mission statement:

“Under these circumstances it is our hope that Japan and other Pacific countries will work together to invigorate and preserve the free and open international economic system by strengthening relations of cooperation and interdependence, thereby becoming new standard-bearers of globalism for the sake of the world’s economic development and prosperity.”

Seventy plus years after the end of WWII, we once again gather with a sense of foreboding as to whether the multilateral trading system can be rejuvenated, as to whether economic interdependence will continue to be nourished, whether the Pacific Ocean will be that inland sea of prosperity among diverse nations. These are the concerns that defined my book project Dilemmas of a Trading Nation. By focusing on the fate of a Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement (known for short as TPP), my book sought answers to some fundamental questions: will Japan be able to play a more proactive role in trade diplomacy to advance its own domestic economic revitalization? Will the United States and Japan be able to recast the role of trade in U.S.-Japan relations, to move away from a past of friction and work together in updating international trading rules and building a trans-pacific economic architecture? Will the United States be able to renew its faith in internationalism and continue to champion an open trading system?

Trade policy has catapulted front and center to the national conversations taking place in each country about its future: economic renewal, social cohesion, and international influence. How the United States and Japan chart their paths as trading nations is of paramount importance. At stake is the ability of these leading economies to upgrade international economic rules and create incentives for emerging economies to converge toward these higher standards. At play is the reaffirmation of a rules-based international order that has been a source of postwar stability, the deepening of a bilateral alliance at the core of America’s diplomacy in Asia, and the ability to reassure friends and rivals of the staying power of the United States.

In the execution of trade policy, we are witnessing an international leadership test at a time of geopolitical change with the rise of China. But success or failure in the international leadership contest will hinge on the ability of these countries to garner political will and invest in domestic renewal. We are going through a period of accelerated economic change. Technology and globalization are redefining the nature of work, so much so that support for open economies will require investments in workforce development, in skill acquisition, in social mobility. The foundation of leadership abroad is social resilience at home.

In rescuing the TPP project after the U.S. withdrawal from the trade agreement, Japan has shown the world that it is capable of supplying trade leadership at a critical time. The TPP 11 with its ambitious liberalization goals and rules to cover new areas such as the digital economy shows the path forward in preventing a slide into protectionism and in encouraging re-engagement by the United States. For reasons that will be apparent in a minute, I find it very encouraging that Mexico was the first country to ratify the new TPP.

Receiving the Ohira Masayoshi Memorial Prize feels like coming full circle in a very personal voyage. I was born and raised in Mexico, and in a decision that profoundly changed my life, my mother decided that it would be good for my sister and me to learn a new foreign language, not only English, so she enrolled us in a brand new Japanese school in Mexico City –the Liceo Mexicano Japonés. In the spring of 1980, when I was in middle school, there was a lot of excitement when we learned that Prime Minister Ohira would come to Mexico and visit our school. All the students in my grade were asked to memorize a text in Japanese with a greeting for the Prime Minister since our teachers would select one Mexican student to deliver that message to the Prime Minister. It was my very good fortune to be selected as this student representative and to welcome Prime Minister Ohira to my school on May 2nd 1980 (as you will recall this was also the same month the Pacific Basin Study Group delivered its final report).

My only recollection of what I said to the Prime Minister is “大平総理大臣.”  But as fate would have it, I saved a newspaper article reporting on this ceremony. As you can imagine, it was very exciting for a 14 year old to have had this opportunity, so I kept the newspaper clipping in my photo album these 38 years. Upon receiving word of the Ohira Memorial Prize , I reread the article and the words of the Prime Minister moved me once again. This is a loose translation, but captures the message that Prime Minister Ohira left with us, Mexican and Japanese students, in that auditorium:

“My dear children, devote yourselves to your studies and grow into excellent citizens, since you will be the foundation of both nations in the future.”

“What matters is for each one of you to cultivate a wide vision and flexible thought to make a contribution to the future international community. In that sense, the Liceo has a very important mission to accomplish as a friendship bond that brings together both peoples.”

In turn, I would like to dedicate this same message – now in Spanish – to my two daughters who have traveled to Tokyo with me (my youngest is the exact same age I was when I heard these words from the Prime Minister):

“Ustedes, queridos niños dedíquense al estudio y crezcan como excelentes ciudadanos, ya que serán el sostén de las naciones en el porvenir”

“Lo importante es que cada quien cultive una visión amplia y un pensamiento flexible, para contribuir a la futura comunidad internacional. En ese sentido el Liceo tiene una misión muy importante que cumplir como lazo de amistad que une a los dos pueblos.”

At this unsettling time when minds appear to be closing, I cannot think of a more powerful message to deliver to the future generation, on the importance of flexible thought and a generous heart, and on the immense potential of cultivating people-to-people exchanges. In my journey across Mexico, Japan, and the United States, I have been awarded extraordinary opportunities by people who live by these ideals, and who have encouraged education and cultural ties as a key driver of cooperation in a Pacific Basin community.

In closing, I would like to thank my family for their loving support. My mother not only set me in the path of Japan studies that would define my professional trajectory, but has enriched my life in every possible way. My friend of more than 20 years Yamaguchi Mutsuko (Mutchan) has become family to me. And to my daughters Natalia and Paola: this, like everything I do, is for you because you add meaning to who I am, and provide purpose to what I do.

Many thanks to all of you for your kind attention.