For Bob and Ann Gotfredson of La Jolla, the financial volleys started off innocently enough.
First, Japanese investors bought up slices of real estate in and around their wealthy seaside village--a few hotels, some banks, a major resort. And the situation on the national front wasn’t much different.
Each day, it seemed, the papers carried news of another U.S. firm that, in the Gotfredsons’ eyes, had fallen prey to the ravenous yen. There were tire companies, a major record manufacturer, a motion picture conglomerate, even a nationwide gas station chain--all while U.S. exports and investment in Japan were quietly being stifled by harsh government restrictions, Bob Gotfredson said.
For Gotfredson, a La Jolla real estate investor, the prospect of foreign-owned domestic property and flagship companies was bad enough. But then, in October, Japanese buyers began making a run at what he calls the sacred American institutions.
A Japanese company bought controlling interest in the famed Rockefeller Center in New York City. Another Japanese company bought the Los Angeles Biltmore Hotel, where the Academy Awards were conceived.
Meanwhile, at U.S. ports, the imports continued to pour in. More than 8,000 Japanese cars arrive in the United States every day, Gotfredson said, contrasted with 80 American cars exported to Japan.
But the worst indecency, Gotfredson said, came with the publication of “The Japan That Can Say No,” a book co-written by Sony founder Akio Morita.
The way Gotfredson sees it, Morita’s book contains the following message for American businessmen: “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.”
For Gotfredson, them’s fighting words.
“He was bashing America, saying that we’re not smart enough to get our own houses in order,” he said of the reviews of the book, which has yet to be translated into English. “He said we couldn’t blow our own noses. But at least we’re all smart enough to keep buying Japanese products.”
Not for long, if the 62-year-old Gotfredson has his way.
He and his wife have formed the Committee for Fair Trade With Japan, a group that seeks to ignite a grass-roots response to the United States’ $50-billion trade imbalance with Japan.
On Dec. 7, the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Gotfredson is advocating a daylong boycott of the purchase of Japanese-made products.
It’s a way, he said, to send a message to the Japanese government to “tear down their invisible trade wall and begin to compete equally. As Donald Trump put it recently, ‘If we get any kinder and gentler, we won’t have any America left.’ ”
Gotfredson’s recent half-page ad in a weekly La Jolla newspaper showed a World War II- vintage picture of two Japanese officials surrendering to American generals aboard the U.S. battleship Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945. It asked the question: “Has America surrendered to the trade imbalance?”
“If you’re fed up with the inequity of Japan’s trade policy with the United States, now there’s something you can do about it!,” the ad said. “Send a message on December 7th, beginning at 12:01 a.m., joining millions of fellow Americans by placing a moratorium on purchases of Japanese products for 24 hours.”
Gotfredson, the father of eight and a grandfather of 21, is talking up his idea to customers, friends and family.
“We think most people will appreciate the significance of December 7th--the date is certainly associated with the Japanese,” said Gotfredson, a soft-spoken man whose quiet demeanor resembles that of Robert Young on the old television sitcom “Father Knows Best.”
He also sent letters asking for support to congressmen who have been vocal opponents of the trade imbalance as well as several prominent U.S. businessmen, including Chrysler’s Lee Iacocca and East Coast financier Donald Trump.
He has yet to receive responses but is undaunted. “Everyone I’ve talked to here in La Jolla thinks it’s a great idea,” he said.
The Japanese government has called the boycott plan misguided.
“If there’s one thing the United States is proud of, it’s this great number of opinions that can be spoken freely,” said Naoharu Fujii, a spokesman for the Japanese consulate general in Los Angeles.
“But this kind of retaliation doesn’t solve the problem. He (Gotfredson) seems to be too emotional. The two governments are doing the best they can to cure this trade problem.
“But this attack on Japanese products is deplorable, and I don’t think the American people will follow it. I think this is the exceptional case.”
Criticism of Gotfredson’s moratorium effort has also come from the San Diego business community.
“It appears to be a bunch of jingoistic rhetoric,” said Dick Davis, a project finance adviser for Great American Bank who, as head San Diego economic development corporation in the late 1970s, encouraged Japanese firms to invest here.
“Most of these moratoriums, in an effort to shed light on a subject, tend to generate nothing but heat.”
Rather, Davis said, he tries to look at the bright side of the Japanese investment in Southern California and elsewhere.
“I’d rather have the United States buying in Japan, but they’re the ones with the surplus right now,” he said. “And, if they are buying here, I’d rather have their dollars in long-term real estate investments than in short-term stocks and bonds.
Even Chrysler, whose president, Lee Iacocca, has been outspoken about the Japan-United States trade imbalance, would not join the fray.
“Even though we’ve been outspoken about the Japanese trade habits, we’ve never called for boycott against Japanese products,” said Chrysler spokesman Tom Houston in Detroit. “All we want is Japanese markets to be opened up to the United States on a fair basis.”
The Gotfredsons say they are the first to admit that the quality of Japanese products is first-rate. They even own a Japanese-made camera and video recorder, they said.
But someone, they say, has to take a stand against what they call Japan’s runaway, one-sided investment and import policies.
“What else is on the Japanese shopping list?” Gotfredson said. “Some more major media companies? Which ones? And, at that point, will the media be held hostage to Japanese ideas?”
His boycott, Gotfredson says, will send a message to the Japanese that such widespread investment is OK here, as long as Americans are allowed to own Japanese banks, for example, or to export a wider range of products to Japan.
“Let’s get an equal footing with the Japanese, an even playing field,” he said. He said he hopes his boycott will inspire others to follow.
“I know Americans feel strongly about this, and I believe the American spirit will awaken,” he said. “It’s like a sleeping giant that will one day roar again.”
Despite their efforts, the Gotfredsons say they don’t want to be misconstrued as racists. After all, they’ve seen Japan first-hand during a trip there six years ago on their 35th wedding anniversary.
In Tokyo, they were disappointed to see that McDonald’s and Coke were the only U.S. products advertised.
“So we went in and ate at McDonald’s, just to make a point,” Gotfredson said.
Added his wife: “And because we were hungry.”