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COLUMN ONE : Like an Old War Wound : An ugly tone of contempt and mistrust has resurfaced between Japanese and Americans. There is a fear that racist passions are being unleashed once again.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As economic and political conflicts intensify between Japan and the United States, new volleys of mutual racial vilification are shooting across the Pacific.

In the United States, Americans have rallied against Japanese investment in the United States without a peep about historically larger British and Dutch purchases. Antagonists burn crosses at a Japanese school in Tennessee and wave “Jap Go Home” picket signs at a Nissan auto plant. White supremacists beat up Japanese students in Colorado.

Here in Japan, industry and government leaders are beginning to publicly voice the quietly held view that their alleged racial purity makes the Japanese superior to the American mongrels.

“Before the war, America was a good country,” said Shoichi Osada, chairman of Tokyo Sowa Bank, Ltd. “It made good cars, developed good science . . . that was a white country then. Now there are blacks, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Japanese, Koreans, Jews, Arabs, and that one-race, white-only state has come to disappear.”

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Osada added: “We used to think of the United States as an emperor. Now we think you’re weak. You’ve become a multiracial nation. You won’t get any better.”

Despite the rhetoric, most of the exchanges between Japan and the United States today are not nearly as racially charged as those that affected relations between the two powers before the attack on Pearl Harbor that cast both into World War II.

An explosion of contact between the two peoples--business, diplomatic and personal--has helped dash the profound ignorance that bred wild and egregious stereotypes.

For all the disenchantment evident in the slogans, Americans and Japanese still generally respect each other. Despite the new strain of kenbei, or scorn for the United States, 70% of Japanese surveyed in a recent poll by Asahi Shimbun, the nation’s largest newspaper, regarded America as an ally.

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And however much Americans feel threatened, they respect Japan. In two new public opinion polls, one for Gallup and one for the Japan Times, a majority of Americans viewed Japan as a close friend or ally, second only to Britain. While troubled by what they regard as unfair trade practices, they also believe Japanese work harder and produce better goods than they do.

“Race is not the central concern, but it’s a nasty thing that can poison us,” said John W. Dower, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor. “In fact, we have immense common interests and immense common respect.”

Nonetheless, an ugly tone of contempt and mistrust has resurfaced, fueling fears that racist passions from both nations’ past are being unleashed once more.

“Clearly there is a resurgence of racial-type tensions,” said Dower, whose “War Without Mercy” is regarded as the definitive book on U.S.-Japan racism during World War II.

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Americans no longer disparage the Japanese as subhuman, as they did in wartime propaganda showing the Japanese as monkeys, Dower said. Instead, there is the notion of the Japanese as economic animals or robot-like people.

On the Japanese side, there is a growing sense that America is falling apart--caused, in the view of some, by America’s being a “mongrel” country that is somehow inferior to Japan, Dower said.

“What is really coming back is a sense of racial revenge . . . for being treated by Americans and Europeans as little men who should know their place,” said Dower.

The fundamental reason for the tensions does not seem to be blind race hatred. Rather, the racist sentiments are an expression of frustrations over seemingly intractable economic and political conflicts.

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The prolonged U.S. recession and America’s weaker standing in the world have left Americans with a deep sense of pessimism about their future. In the 1980s, the United States changed from the world’s largest money lender to a huge borrower. Americans lost competitive edges in leading industries, such as semiconductors, and stood in growing unemployment lines as hundreds of thousands of jobs were lost in autos, computers and the like.

As Americans become more frustrated, the Japanese come in for more scorn. Suddenly, it seems to some Americans, the vanquished wartime foes have come to reign over America. To make matters worse, in the minds of some, they did so by “cheating.”

They built factories in the United States, but balked at promoting Americans into key management positions. They flooded the United States with exports but refused to give Americans similar access to their own market. Flush with yen from a strong currency and a doubling of values in land and stock, they began buying up American landmarks.

As Americans began to complain, Japanese began to snap back. Crybabies, they said. Look at your own faults. Your education system. Your short-term thinking. And yes, your racial minorities.

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This only fueled more outrage among Americans, this time aimed at the perceived racism and arrogance of the Japanese.

No longer a war of torpedoes and bombers, but now a war of words.

“Racism is always a dormant instrument of hostility which flares into life in a situation of difficulty and crisis,” said Carol Gluck, a professor of history at Columbia University. “I think we’re talking our way back into it.”

Americans feel a loss of power, productivity and potency in world affairs to Japan, she said. “America feels less powerful, and it is,” said Gluck. “Second, it feels that Japan has usurped the power it has lost. . . .”

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In its strongest expression, the passions have led to a rash of reported violence against Japanese in the United States. In June, for instance, three Japanese women said they were roughed up at the bar of the Red Onion restaurant in Huntington Beach, Calif., by patrons who yelled, “Speak English!”

According to Katsumi Nakashita, 33, the Americans blocked the women when they tried to leave, and one female punched her, splitting her lip.

“For a while I didn’t want to talk to white people,” said her companion, Mariko Okano, 34. “In the supermarket line, I’m afraid maybe they will hit me.”

The national magazines have trotted out stereotypical samurai and sumo wrestlers for cover stories ranging from the New Republic’s “They’re Back! Is It Time to Worry About Germany and Japan?” to Fortune’s “Fear and Loathing of Japan,” to a Newsweek cover that is notorious here, “Japan Invades Hollywood.”

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To many Japanese, the current mood in America reflects an all-too-familiar pattern of racism.

Even though Japan eagerly turned from Asia to Western civilization after the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the Japanese felt humiliated by one slight after another at the hands of the Americans and white Europeans.

“Any religion would call it a sin to decide a public issue based on racial sentiment,” fumed one Takataro Kimura. The date was April 13, 1913. The issue was California’s new law barring Japanese from owning land. Kimura was one outraged voice of many interviewed that day by the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s biggest newspaper.

“How do Americans who dare to unashamedly practice this unjust, unfair and sinful behavior face George Washington, the founding father of America?” Kimura asked.

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The Japanese suffered a bigger shock in 1924, when Congress voted to bar further immigration from Japan. A crowd of 3,000 Japanese swarmed the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo to protest, and one man actually committed suicide. “The Day of White Peril,” a leading columnist declared.

Yoshimi Ishikawa, a Tokyo writer, says the law seared into Japanese mentalities a feeling of racial persecution.

“How much we dreamed of being part of Western civilization. We gave up our kimono and wore suits. We gave up our zori and wore shoes,” Ishikawa said. “But the 1924 law was a turning point. We were rejected to join Western countries. After that, anti-American feeling expanded.”

In the following decades, as the winds of war began to blow, Japanese militarists bent on expansion exploited the sense of racial aggrievement to whip up public support. They pushed the idea, at a time when much of Asia was held as European colonies, of Asia for Asians, with the so-called Japanese “Yamato race” destined to lead.

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“At least in the minds of intellectuals and power-holders, I think they were pretty convinced that Japan faced a racially hostile Western world and that Japan as a country had to object to this white supremacy,” said William Wetherall, an American scholar who has studied issues of race and discrimination in Japan for 20 years.

Today, a common analysis in Japan is that Americans insist on their historical superiority and are jealous of a younger brother--Japan, in this case--growing up.

A more crass idea holds that white-majority America can’t stomach being outdone by yellow Japan. “Japanese sometimes talk about Americans looking at Japan as an upstart yellow race superseding their superior position,” said Sen Nishiyama, who gained fame in Japan as an interpreter for former Ambassador Edwin O. Reischauer and for the Apollo moon flights on Japanese TV. “I think that’s a pretty simplistic interpretation of what motivates Americans to be critical of Japan.”

Indeed, Dutch journalist Karel van Wolferen argues that Japanese authorities have skillfully exploited American guilt over racism to silence legitimate criticism over trade policy and the like. In fact, he said, the two sides suffer from incompatible economic systems--but Japanese bureaucrats don’t want to acknowledge that for fear of shaking the status quo.

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“It’s called Japan-bashing, which in the minds of many Americans is translated as something close to racism,” said Van Wolferen, author of “The Enigma of Japanese Power,” an influential and controversial work. “It works. Americans are intimidated. They hold back what they would otherwise say.”

Others, however, argue that U.S. racism against Japanese and other nonwhites is a definite problem that has not changed appreciably since the war.

“No one is going to call you a ‘nigger’ or ‘Jap’ most of the time, but that sentiment still exists,” said John Russell, a Tokyo-based scholar specializing in racism against blacks.

On the Japan side, discrimination takes a different form. While Americans tend to discriminate against people of different colors, Japanese prejudice is targeted against all outsiders. It is what Taizo Watanabe, a senior spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ruefully calls a mentality of “us and them.”

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That mentality has led to mounting grievances against Japanese firms in America. While the United States, Britain, Germany, the Netherlands and Canada place their own nationals in about 3% of managerial positions abroad, Japanese firms in the United States fill 20% to 40% of those slots with their compatriots, according to a congressional subcommittee.

Congress is also looking into the practice of Japanese firms in the United States buying equipment and materials from Japan instead of from American companies.

Among Americans, the group most discriminated against in Japan may be blacks. Russell, who argues that Japanese learned much of their racist attitudes from white Americans, says blacks are routinely dehumanized on Japanese TV as sex machines, criminals or minstrels, mistaken for hired help, called names and refused service.

“Foreigners and Caucasians are continuously refused entry into Japanese bars, nightclubs and other places where the Japanese don’t want to have foreigners around,” Van Wolferen said. “If a Japanese were refused entry into a bar in New York because he wasn’t Caucasian, there would be an outcry. Here, nobody notices it.”

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However, Japanese discrimination is generally expressed less in denigrating others, American-style, than in elevating themselves, Dower of MIT said. That manifests itself in the myth of the “Yamato race,” a supposedly unique, pure and superior breed descended from 125 unbroken generations of the imperial line.

Wetherall said “Yamatoism” was largely a fiction manufactured to unify and mobilize the nation to confront the arrival of Westerners and transform Japan into a modern state.

Through the national education system, what had been a collection of disparate feudal states was, after a few generations, whipped into a populace convinced that they “constituted a nation with the same language, culture, race and historical experience--whether they did or not,” Wetherall said.

Today, about 5% of Japanese residents are members of minority groups subject to routine discrimination. They include aboriginal Ainu, Koreans, Chinese, Okinawans and racially pure Japanese known as burakumin who are excluded because their ancestors worked as butchers, tanners and other animal-related occupations.

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Nonetheless, according to polls by the national TV network and others, more than 80% of Japanese believe they belong to a homogeneous and superior race.

At the same time, “Many Japanese feel that Americans are too lazy, take too much vacation, just complain, and that’s why they lost the economic war,” said Hiroshi Kashiwagi, a board member of the Japan Pacific Resource Network.

Still, 1991 is not 1941. On the American side, the tone and degree of blatantly racist acts are nowhere near the level reached during the period leading up to the war, when more than 500 laws singled out Japanese and barred them from owning land, intermarrying and the like. Bald ignorance has been largely dissipated by the wealth of contacts between the two sides.

For Masao Iizuka, an advertising executive in Tokyo, his entire knowledge of Americans before the war was a frightening image of animal-killing carnivores with big bodies. Since then, he and his wife have traveled to the United States, hosted an American student in their home and sent two daughters to stay in homes in Seattle and Los Angeles.

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As a boy, Watanabe of the Foreign Ministry can remember learning that Americans were a “physically nauseating” people similar to devils who were “ganging up on Japan to destroy the spirit of non-European races in Asia.” Watanabe is now a leader in promoting relations between Japan and U.S. minority communities.

Economically, too, the links have become almost irreversibly intertwined. The countries are two of each other’s largest trading partners. More than 500,000 Americans work directly for Japanese firms, and more than 40 U.S. states have offices in Tokyo to compete for Japanese trade and investment.

“We welcome the Japanese,” one official from the American South told former Japanese Ambassador Toshiro Shimanouchi. “It’s the Yanks we don’t like.”

Times staff writer Sonni Efron, in Los Angeles, and Chiaki Kitada, Times research assistant in Tokyo, contributed to this report.

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THEN AND NOW

In the eyes of American illustrators, the Japanese have been transformed over the last 50 years from monkeys and monsters to economic giants. In Japan, wartime cartoons showed debauched white imperialists brutalizing prostrate Asian peoples.

In the post-war era, Japan tends to portray itself as smaller, meeker and weaker than a belligerent America .

AMERICAN

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World War II--A British graphic showing the Japanese soldier as a kind of super-ape appeared in the New York Times Magazine in 1943.

Recent--More than 40 years later, the image of Japan as a threatening superman was back--on the cover of the New York Times Magazine in 1987. The sumo wrestler has become a symbol of Japan’s economic power.

JAPANESE

World War II--In this 1942 cartoon, Japanese war planes are portrayed exposing FDR’s and Winston Churchill’s true nature, represented by the hindquarters of a horse and the backside of a badger, an animal that in Japan symbolizes cunning and deceit.

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Recent--In this Nov. 20 illustration, Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa has a nightmare about trade conflict with America. Bush, yelling “Hurry up and buy.” is crushing Miyazawa with rice barrels that represent complete liberalization of Japan’s markets. Some Japanese leaders support 5% liberalization.

SOURCE: Professor John W. Dower of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, author of “War Without Mercy: Race & Power in the Pacific War,” New York Times and Akiri Fukiyama of the Yomiuri Shimbun.


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