Japan-Bashing, an Ugly American Tradition

Walter Russell Mead is the author of "Mortal Splendor: The American Empire in Transition " (Houghton Mifflin)

It seems as if the Yellow Peril is on the march again; at least, that is the message from certain xenophobic quarters in the United States. They are saying an insidious Oriental plot has been formed to buy up U.S. assets and reduce us to the level of a developing country. Never mind that the British and the Dutch continue to invest more in the United States than the Japanese; it is not Redcoats that contemporary Paul Reveres warn us about.

Foreign investment has been the life blood of American prosperity for three centuries. There is no way a country can give more concrete expression to its faith and peaceful relations with another than by investing savings there. If Japan's investors and money managers believed that our two countries were heading for conflict, this is the last place they would put their money. Indeed, the larger the flow of capital from Japan to the United States, the more Americans can be assured that Japan still sees friendly relations with us as a pillar of its foreign policy. But this most concrete testimony of Japan's sincere faith in the relationship is interpreted as a sign of menace.

Japanese only started investing in America because we asked--and in some cases pressured--them to. If Honda and Nissan built car plants in America, that would shrink the trade deficit and save American jobs. "Export less," said U.S. trade negotiators, "and invest more." The Japanese did, but it didn't make us happy.

Suppose Japan stopped investing here. That, too, would be seen by the Japan-bashers as a hostile act, a plot to cripple U.S. industry, drive up interest rates and ruin property values.

Investment is not the only issue. If Japan fails to rearm--abiding by the terms of a constitution written and imposed by U.S. occupiers--then it is shirking its responsibilities and taking a free ride at the expense of U.S. taxpayers. If it rearms, and builds a modern air force, it is pursuing an insidious plan to destroy America's aerospace industry.

If it fails to contribute to international bailout programs to relieve developing country debt, then it is selfish and greedy--so unlike our own Christian selves. If it offers new money and makes proposals to settle the debt question, then the bashers attack Japan for "muscling in on global leadership."

The Japanese, then, of all our trading partners, are damned if they do and damned if they don't.

We must locate the root of this deep-seated fear of Japan, and the answer, alas, is not hard to find. We have seen it before: in the discriminatory provisions of immigration bills, in the 19th-Century anti-Oriental legislation in many states, in the unwarranted internment of U.S. citizens of Japanese origin during World War II, in discriminatory quotas against qualified students of Asian heritage applying to U.S. colleges and in the round of Japan-bashing now under way. Hostility toward Japanese products and citizens has not stopped short of physical attacks, even murder.

During World War II, while U.S. propaganda attacked the Nazis in Europe and spoke of "good Germans," there was no such subtlety in the Pacific war, as John Dower reminds us in his chilling "War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War." Japanese were "monkey men," according to Adm. William F. Halsey. Lt. Gen. John L. De Witt, the administrator of the forced evacuation of Japanese-Americans, told a congressional committee that while the Germans and the Italians pose no permanent threat, the Japanese would trouble America "until they are wiped off the face of the map."

While extreme forms of racism are not acceptable among educated people today, stereotypes die hard. "The Japanese are hard-working, but not inventive," said a young American research scientist, almost echoing the views of a generation of Western military observers who had to eat their words when Mitsubishi put the Zero, the most advanced plane of its time, in the air.

"Japan is a closed society," the scientist continued. "It is much easier for Japanese scientists to get jobs here than for American scientists to get jobs in Japan." Maybe so, but there might be another factor. Fewer than 1,000 U.S. scientists speak Japanese, while English is a requirement for science students in Japan.

In the war, Japanese soldiers were supposedly unable to fight, their planes unable to fly, their battleships of tin foil and plywood. After the war, Westerners scoffed at Japan's consumer goods: paper umbrellas, plastic cameras, tacky souvenirs. The Japanese, said the West, would never handle heavy industry. When Japan built its steel and automobile industries, the West did not flinch; the Japanese could never build genuine high-tech products like computers. Well, maybe they could build computers, but the imitative Japanese mind could not design new ones.

When the Japanese consistently proved their critics wrong, the inscrutable Occidental mind called in Stereotype No. 2. The Japanese are not subhuman; therefore they must be superhuman. Brilliant strategists, patient beyond enduring, armed with a cunning that transcends the simple candor of the virtuous West, the Japanese target industries and technologies with a secret master plan. The latest industry where a once-imitative people have suddenly turned into superhuman geniuses is finance. U.S. bankers used to scoff at Japanese financiers; now, they fear them. "They're going to do to us what they did to Detroit," said a panicky investment banker in New York.

Racism may be banished from polite public discourse, but old ideas still shape U.S. attitudes toward Japan. We no longer say that the Japanese people are inscrutable and unprincipled; now these accusations are brought against the Japanese government. Despite dozens of studies indicating that discriminatory trade practices in Japan account for only a minute proportion of America's trade deficit with the island country, popular opinion, even informed opinion, continues to blame Japanese wiles for U.S. failure.

There are legitimate reasons for foreigners to take an interest in the rise of Japan, and worry about its new prominence in international finance. The Japanese, like the British, are an insular nation, proud of their homogeneity. This made the British contemptuous of foreigners and sanctioned a colonial history of unparalleled cruelty. On a smaller scale, Japan's colonial record in Korea and Taiwan, and its war record in China, suggest susceptibility to the British disease. The wartime Japanese were as proud of their "superior" Yamato race as white Americans were of their European heritage. Historically--again like the British--the Japanese have sought either to conquer the world or escape from it. Like Americans earlier in this century, they find themselves suddenly possessed of power that they do not quite know how to use.

Yet Japan is not the only great power with a checkered past. Peaceful persuasion was not the way our frontiers advanced from the Mississippi to the Pacific. Every nation has blood on its hands, has xenophobic episodes in its history. Every nation's political life contains elements of corruption and fraud.

Both Japanese and American history contain elements of unprovoked aggressions and ugly passions. Both nations have also produced great cultural monuments, democratic societies and industrial achievements that are the envy of the world. Despite superficial differences between the countries, there are profound similarities. In Japan, with its limited resources and small land area, an ethnically homogenous society learned to compromise for the sake of the common good, and to rely on consensus in reaching decisions. America, too, has learned the value of these principles. In our society, land and resources are abundant, but the population's social heterogeneity would pull the country apart if we had not learned the arts of compromise and consensus.

Economically and culturally, Japan and the United States are fundamentally complementary, not competing, countries. People on both sides of the Pacific must reflect on that simple, vital concept to build a peaceful partnership.

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