The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

In July 2014, Wendy Cutler spoke at an American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ) event, emphasizing that “women’s empowerment is not just a women’s issue; it’s a men’s issue, a societal issue, and an economic issue.”

Cutler, then the highest-ranking career employee at the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR), was regularly visiting Japan as a key negotiator for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement.

One-and-a-half years later, with the successful conclusion of the historic pact, she has been named the chamber’s 2015 Person of the Year, in recognition of her work over the years to advance the US–Japan trade agenda.

In addition to her accomplishments in trade, the ACCJ recognizes Cutler as a role model and inspirational spokesperson in her support for professional women.

After nearly three decades with the USTR, and many accomplishments along the way—including her role as lead negotiator on the U.S.–Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS)—Cutler now serves as vice president of the Asia Society Policy Institute (ASPI) and managing director of Asia Society’s DC office. She sat down with The Journal during a recent visit to Tokyo to recap her personal and professional achievements, as well as her goals for the next stage of her career.

Tell us about your first experience at the negotiating table.

When I look back, I almost cringe at the mistakes I made during those first years. But, you learn from those errors. Early on in my career I focused more on showing that I was tough rather than problem solving.

Over time I’ve learned to listen more to the other side’s concerns and views, search for win–win solutions, and pick my battles at the table. Indeed, you serve your country better by focusing on the issues that really matter for your country’s interests rather than simply scoring points on the ledger board.

At the end of the day, we are all people, so treating your counterparts with respect is extremely important. I have tried to impart that to younger negotiators.

You’ve cited empowering women in Asia as one goal in your new role. What plans do you have for this?

Women are key to economic growth and development. Clearly they are underrepresented not only in the private sector, but also in the public sphere. Over years of negotiations, I couldn’t help but notice how few women were on the other side of the table. I have seen that begin to change, however.

I am particularly interested in sharing my work experiences—including the opportunities and challenges I’ve faced in my career—and how I’ve learned from these experiences, with the next generation of professional females.

In terms of what I can contribute specifically in my new role at ASPI, I hope I can first and foremost provide a platform that ensures women’s empowerment gets an equal seat at the table when discussing economic policy issues. More than anything, I believe I can help validate that gender equality is not only a women’s issue, but also an economic one.

What is your view on mentoring?

When I was at the USTR, many people sought my advice on issues related to trade negotiations, as well as workplace-related issues.

I really enjoyed that part of the job, as I think it’s important to give back, to help the next generation flourish in the workplace and at the negotiating table. The success of the next generation of leaders is our success.

When compared [with those in] the United States, I think many professional women [in Asia] still are reluctant to reach out to potential mentors. In the United States we are used to raising our hands to seek advice and counsel, and I have done that throughout my career.

I hope that the younger women I have worked with will continue to reach out to me throughout their careers.

What have you learned from your negotiations with Japan?
Over the years I’ve been able to develop deep mutual trust with my Japanese counterparts to achieve win–win outcomes. I have always been impressed with how well prepared and skillful my Japanese counterparts have been.

But compared with other countries, the Japanese negotiating style requires more time for decision-making because of the need to develop internal consensus.

For the TPP negotiations, Japan set up a new negotiating structure under the direct leadership of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Minister of Economic Revitalization Akira Amari.

Previously, we essentially negotiated with different ministries, and frankly often wondered if they were all working for the same government. The centralized and improved structure set up for the TPP negotiations facilitated our ability to reach a mutually acceptable deal.

Wendy Cutler spoke at an ACCJ Women in Business event in July 2014.

Wendy Cutler spoke at an ACCJ Women in Business event in July 2014.

Were the TPP negotiations particularly challenging?
Japan’s decision to join TPP was huge. There was a lot of skepticism about whether Japan would be ready to make meaningful market-opening commitments, particularly in agriculture.

We spent a lot of time consulting with the Japanese government before we supported their TPP participation, and ultimately they were able to deliver.

The deal Japan will submit to the Diet is one they can defend as being in the national interest, and I feel strongly that the United States can do the same with Congress. TPP will provide significant economic and strategic benefits and can serve as a model for future trade agreements in the region.

Was there ever a moment when you thought the deal might not happen?

In every negotiation there are moments when you are ready to give up, and TPP was no exception.

But what I’ve learned is that you can’t let those moments take over. It’s important to regroup, reflect on your position, think about the other side’s position, and go back to the table to find a way forward.

Which sectors of the US economy may reap the most benefits from TPP?

US companies will gain meaningful market access to Japan’s agriculture market. There are also many areas on the manufacturing side where inroads can be made, largely due to the reduction of tariff and non-tariff barriers.

TPP provides regulatory transparency and important market-opening rules and commitments related to the services sector, an area in which the United States is particularly strong.

We’ve also laid the foundation for more partnerships between Japanese and US companies. As supply chains are established in the region, I expect there will be more areas where US and Japanese companies will be an integral part of those chains.

Which countries would be candidates for expanding TPP?

It’s very heartening to see that right after TPP was concluded, a number of countries expressed interest in the agreement, such as South Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Thailand. Even China has indicated that it is closely studying TPP and having internal discussions as it seeks to develop its position on the pact.

[South] Korea comes to mind as being most ready on that list of candidates, primarily because we’ve already concluded a free trade agreement with them that includes many high-standard provisions.

How does it feel to receive the ACCJ 2015 Person of the Year Award?
I’m very honored to receive this award, particularly when I look at the list of past recipients. I’ve worked hard throughout my career, with Japan in particular for over 20 years, often slogging through really tough negotiations but also trying to change things in Japan.

To be recognized for that by the ACCJ means a great deal to me. I’ve worked with the ACCJ over the years and I know that they are sometimes a hard audience to please!

Any words of inspiration for US businesses here?
Governments can only do so much to improve trade relations and flows. Now, it is up to companies to help work to get the deal in effect in TPP countries, so they can gain the benefits created by the agreement.


Hear Wendy Cutler accept the POY award on March 17.


Brandi Goode has been the editor-in-chief of The Journal since May 2014, and helped lead the magazine’s relaunch last year.
Gender equality is not only a women’s issue, but also an economic one.