A Case Of Ja-Panic

You'll forgive the Japanese if they are feeling a bit besieged these days. According to a recent contract report written for the Central Intelligence Agency, they are "racist" and "amoral." Their international vision does not extend beyond an insatiable thirst for economic power, the report finds; what's more, they seek to "supplant" Western values and impose their own on the world. According to the new French Prime Minister, Edith Cresson, the Japanese stay up nights trying to think up ways "to screw the West." And an overheated but widely publicized new book by two obscure American academics says another war between the United States and Japan may be inevitable. As a Foreign Ministry official in Tokyo puts it, "These are strange ways to talk about an ally."

After enduring months of Western carping about its role - or nonrole - in the gulf war, Japan had hoped for a calm summer. Officials in Tokyo thought the massive allied victory and the ensuing U.S. euphoria would provide a time for frayed nerves to mend. Instead, June has brought a rhetorical heat wave to Tokyo. Publicly, the government is doing its utmost to downplay the Western case of Ja-panic. Last week it curtly dismissed the CIA-funded report: "not even worth comment," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Taizo Watanabe. And though Tokyo did take the unusual step of summoning the French ambassador to complain formally about Cresson last month, both governments since then have tried to pretend it's business as usual.

Business as usual this is not. Some Japanese are merely bewildered by the recent diatribes: "Yes," one young bureaucrat says sarcastically, "our values are a real threat to the West: thrift, hard work, respect for education, commitment to the family. " But others are getting angry. Yukio Okamoto, a former Foreign Ministry official who just completed a series of speeches throughout Japan, says the rising level of hostility toward the United States is palpable. "The question I kept getting was, 'What does America want from us? Why do we have to take all this criticism?'" If the sourness continues, he says, "the first Japanese reaction will be to withdraw. The second, if it gets bad enough, will be to punch back."

This spate of Japan-bashing is no fluke. It stems from growing Western economic insecurity and some post-cold-war realism. In Europe, for instance, where Japanophobia is now most acute, economies are growing sluggishly and the bill for reconstructing the formerly communist east is out of sight. With 1992 and the prospect of a single market bearing down on them, many businessmen and government officials are loath to allow full Japanese competition. Only a handful of European companies have successfully cracked the Japanese market, so the impulse to exclude Tokyo from their unified market is almost reflexive. Many Europeans look to the Japanese conquest of industrial America as a cautionary tale. That is at bottom what Cresson has been saying, in somewhat shriller tones.

Newsweek subscription offers >

The Japanese-American equation is more complicated. For the first three decades after World War II, Washington was both nurturer and protector. It helped restart Japan's economy and provided almost wholly for its defense. As a result, many older Japanese believe the United States is their country's only true friend. The formal underpinning of that alliance is a 1960 security treaty that turned Japan into America's east Asian fortress against Soviet expansionism. No mere economic dispute was going to get in the way of that.

The deal was plainly a stunning success. The Soviet threat is effectively gone, and Japan 30 years later is the world's second-largest market economy. But just as plainly, the reason the CIA recently asked a group of academics and businessmen to sit in a room in Rochester, N.Y., and talk about Japan (the discussions were the basis for the overheated report) is simple: the two countries are starting to look at each other blankly, wondering: what do we do now?

In ruling circles in both Washington and Tokyo, there is an extraordinary effort to pretend that nothing much has changed. Both sides claim they want the security treaty to remain the relationship's cornerstone - never mind that the enemy next door no longer seems threatening. Privately, America's most experienced Japan specialists fear that a top-to-bottom re-evaluation of the ties would invite a potentially catastrophic flight to hysteria. They believe an overhaul would focus excessive attention on divisive trade disputes and that Americans would make Japan a scapegoat out of jealousy over its economic prowess, instead of focusing on the formidable commercial ills in the United States. The result, the alarmists fear, would be an economic cold war, with both sides losing big.

The CIA-funded report - written by a retired Air Force colonel who is not a Japan expert - will obviously do nothing to allay those fears. It succeeded in fouling the air a little bit more, but the damage will probably go beyond that. Beneath the rhetoric lie real issues. At the Rochester meeting, for example, executives from two American corporations - Motorola and Xerox - presented a coldly harrowing picture of current technological trends between the United States and Japan. Most of the momentum is running in Japan's direction. The executives also spoke about the increasing Japanese stranglehold on East Asia's economies and what that portends for future U.S. influence in the region.

Newsweek subscription offers >

Kent Calder is a Princeton political scientist who participated in the Rochester meeting but has publicly disassociated himself from the report's incendiary language. Nonetheless, he concedes the obvious: "Those realities do create major issues of policy for the U.S." So they do. The urgency, indeed, is likely to become more apparent as the '90s wear on. Unless Americans can deal with those new realities coolly, the process of re-evaluating U.S. ties to Japan may end up provoking the split everyone wants to avoid.

A Case Of Ja-Panic | News