Opinion: Cold Copy: The Times in the golden age of Japan-bashing


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If you haven’t been following our Dust-Up on China engagement with Joseph Farah and Andrés Martinez, here’s a sample from Tuesday’s exchange. Said Farah:

I’m a fan of imports from Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. I think most Americans are. These countries are known for producing quality goods at reasonable prices, for paying their workers fair salaries and for sharing many of our most basic values about human rights and liberties.


And Martinez:

I commend you for loving Japanese imports, but I must say a lot of the same people who are so exercised about China taking on the U.S. on the global stage are the same people who worked themselves into a frenzy over Japan’s rise in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Remember when Toyotas were chainsawed on Capitol Hill? I don’t play the race card lightly, but I do think there is an element of ‘yellow peril’ mongering at issue here. The hysteria has moved from Japan to China, but the point is no one ever rants about German imports or Dutch foreign investment (the way they moaned about Japanese foreign investment).

The youngsters out there may be saying, ‘What are these two talking about? Isn’t Japan that place with all the ganguro or something?’ But you’ll find a different story in the ever-forgettable first drafts of history...

Set the wayback machine to those zaibatsu-crazy days of chop-suey rock and full-bore Tokyophobia, before the Japenese bubble burst, when our nation’s fascination with Japan Inc. (and vice-versa) expressed itself in such short-lived cultural monuments as Akio Morita’s The Japan That Can Say No, Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun and the Ron Howard joint Gung-Ho. (Jesus, what were we on?)

Believe it or not, back when ‘Ronald Reagan’ was not yet the name of an airport and ‘George Bush’ was still the name of a Dana Carvey routine, this country cowered in existential, yellow-peril horror because American drivers were appreciating the superior gas mileage of the Corolla, or because Sony was buying Columbia pictures, or most of all because the Mitsubishi Group had bought Radio City Music Hall — or as the late Art Buchwald called it in a 1989 column printed in the Los Angeles Times, ‘Radio City Tojo Hall’ (complete with a ‘Kamikaze Ice Skating Rink’).

Channeling the protectionism of the time was no less a figure than The Donald, whom Times reporter Frank Clifford quoted bashing the Rising Sun in New Hampshire in late 1987 (when Trump was still rumored as a possible ’88 presidential candidate). ‘The fact is we don’t need a tax increase,’ Trump told supporters. ‘We should have a tax decrease. We should have Japan and we should have Saudi Arabia and we should have all of these countries who are literally ripping us off left and right.... They should pay for our $200-billion deficit.... We are supporting — we are literally supporting — Japan, which is the greatest money machine ever created, and we created it to a large extent.’

By the middle of the following year, Trump had warmed to the topic, telling Times reporter Nina J. Easton, ‘There is going to be a tremendous backlash against what Japan is doing in this country — sucking the lifeblood out of it because of our stupid policies. Our policy is to have free trade, but Japan is not reciprocating.’

Were the American People in sympathy with Trump’s dimestore demagoguery? You betcha! As the decade Bob Giraldi built drew to a close, La Jolla’s own Bob and Ann Gotfredson were hipping the Times’ John M. Glionna to their own plan to fight back against the ‘financial volleys’ against ‘sacred American institutions,’ with a Japanese-product boycott that would kick in on December 7. Bob Gotfredson explained the message of Akio Morita’s book: ‘’We have a lot of wealth in your country. We employ a lot of your people, and one of these days we’re going to show you the samurai sword.’


Japanophobia hit full stride with the Rockefeller Center purchase in October of 1989, with disappointed tourists in the Big Apple complaining about our ‘selling the country away’ and losing ‘some American spirt in the sense of keeping our property.’ By the end of the year the Times ran a UPI story hinting darkly of a Japanese group’s ambition to buy up Chicago’s Sears Tower. That rumor ended up in the same limbo as last year’s terrorist plot in the Windy City against the perpetual bridesmaid of America’s tragic skyscrapers.

As Bryan Caplan noted in a recent Reason article, ‘During the anti-Japan hysteria of the 1980s, British foreign direct investment in the U.S. always exceeded that of the Japanese by at least 50 percent.’ But that didn’t stop the whole country from going stark, seppuku-inducing mad.

The whole country, that is, except the L.A. Times’ editorial board, which, as it had in the days of Sputnik sputtering, maintained an even keel throughout the Crazy Eighties, and brought Gen. Otis’ motto of ‘True Industrial Freedom’ to life for a new generation. Some examples:

[Florida Gov. Reuben] Askew and [Rev. Jesse] Jackson have a firmer grasp on economic realities than their Democratic opponents, all of whom have expediently embraced auto import controls to one degree or another. Askew and Jackson quite rightly think that trade barriers in the end only hurt America and Americans, and they have said so. President Reagan also opposes auto industry protectionism, but sensing its appeal to Congress he has gone along with another year’s extension of ‘voluntary’ export limits by Japan. That’s the lesser of two evils, but an evil nonetheless, and it harms consumers...Among the most transparent nonsense being uttered this [presidential campaign] is that protectionism, even a little bit, can be not only cost-free to the country but beneficial. Those who are peddling that line ought to be ashamed.

That’s the ed board in January of 1984. (And you can check out some of Jackson’s more recent musings here.) The board revisited the theme later that year:

What it comes down to is that import restrictions have been utterly without social value, and have created demonstrable economic ills in the bargain. The job picture in the U.S. auto industry has not improved...consumers have had their freedom of choice in the marketplace narrowed, and...fuel savings that might have been achieved for the national good have been lost.


Nor was the board simply engaging in some special pleading on Japan’s behalf. The fair complaint of that era’s Japanophobes — that Japan kept its own markets tightly restricted — was made regularly, and Tokyo was urged, for example, to ‘swallow its reluctance and agree to more generous import quotas for U.S. beef and citrus’ (in an editorial that raised the question of what’s the Kanji for ‘Zzzzz!’). By decade’s end the board was scolding a Japanese government that ‘allows and encourages a spectrum of anti-competitive practices whose aim is to exclude foreign goods while denying Japanese consumers freedom of choice and the chance to spend much less on products than they are now forced to spend.’ And by 1992, the board had recognized the Japan-bashing tragedy as farce, scolding then-Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady for referring to ‘Japs’ while briefing reporters, and urging someone ‘to protect America from congressional protectionists.’

But at that point, the struggle was already over. The American economic recovery was underway, the loss of all that ‘lifeblood’ Trump lamented got us trimmed down for the longest peacetime economic expansion in American history (as Bill Clinton never tired of calling it) and Japan’s economy entered a long winter’s nap from which it has only recently awakened. The stunning thing now is what a vast array of penny-ante issues — from the sale of jeans and rice in Japan to a harebrained scheme to raise the price of Japanese microchips to a ‘Buy American’ ballot initiative by the ever-vigilant L.A. City Council — demanded the ed board’s full, free-trading mockery and ridicule along the way. And we’ll give the last word to that era’s greatest Japanologists, The Vapors.