Can the Pacific Marriage Be Saved? : Japanese nationalists gain their power in part from cross-cultural ignorance.

Looking back, I wish my college friend Haruhiko had stayed another year and allowed himself to become Americanized. But his two-year Japanese government fellowship to Amherst had come to an end and his family summoned him back to Kobe forthwith. “I’m having too much fun here with you crazy Americans,” I recall him saying. “If I stay in America much longer, I’ll never be able to go back to Japan and fit in again like ‘normal Japanese’.”

Now, thinking about the storm clouds gathering over U.S.-Japan relations, I wish a whole generation had come, like Haruhiko, and stayed too long. “Only a Japanese who has lived or studied here can possibly understand you Americans,” says Haru, now a businessman in Japan. “Not many Japanese do.” And how much does America really understand Japan? In a speech in Honolulu, Japanese Ambassador Takakazu Kuriyama raised that question. Forty thousand Japanese study in the United States but only 1,200 Americans in Japan. Wouldn’t it be chilling if we are even more ignorant of them than they of us?

Whatever the reason, the postwar shotgun marriage of Japan and America is on the rocks. Misunderstanding in a marriage can lead to divorce, but misunderstanding between superpowers can lead to far worse.

President Clinton and a large American delegation have planned a two-day trip to Tokyo after the Asian economic summit in Osaka that’s scheduled to start Saturday. But now the rancorous budget battle in Washington threatens all that planning. And we Americans lecture the Japanese on the need to modernize their political system! Any diminution, not to mention cancellation, of this vital trip would prove a fiasco. It would also prove, like the Okinawa rape outrage, a political windfall for nationalistic elements in Japan--the kind of blunder that Ryutaro Hashimoto, the skilled, nationalistic Japanese trade minister, could “Ross Perot” into the prime ministership.


Hashimoto, the head of the powerful Liberal Democratic Party, leads his closest parliamentary challenger in the latest polls five to one. This resourceful and steely politician represents a new generation of leaders who support an economic, if not a military, divorce from America. After all, Japan could reduce investment in America and increase it in Asia, where it can realize a greater return on its yen without the onerous overhead of having to be lectured to by blowhard American politicians. Some top Japanese even believe Japan should shed today’s demilitarized, pacifist skin and metamorphose into a “normal nation” with its own superpower military machine. Then it could unceremoniously return the American security blanket to sender. If this happens, as Jim Rohwer, former Asia correspondent for the Economist, writes in his comprehensive new book, “Asia Rising”: “Japan, with its troubled Asian history, its domestic-policy paralysis and its security fears about its close neighbors (Russia, China and a probably soon-to-be-reunified Korea), will be a handful.”

The truth is that the current setup works well. “I don’t see why there has to be any real rush for Japan to become a so-called normal nation,” Secretary of State Warren Christopher told me recently. “The present security relationship has worked very well for a long time. That’s one reason we have about as many U.S. troops in Asia now as in Europe.” Christopher is right: The U.S. cop-on-the-block has kept the region cool, soothing historic mistrust.

Here at home, the U.S.-underwritten postwar stability has put money in many pockets. In California last year, Japanese automakers invested $2.6 billion and their 125 dealerships statewide employed 50,000 Americans. All kinds of PacRim things are hopping--U.S. exports to Asia are running more than 10% higher so far this year than last and, hey, Hideo Nomo was baseball’s rookie of the year.

But all this positive stuff drops like a rock to the bottom of the Pacific lake if Hashimoto leads Japan back to the future. So the Clinton Administration is scrambling because the centerpiece (and maybe the only piece) of its foreign policy is the expansion of international trade, and trade with Asia is the key. Thus I don’t doubt the Administration’s concern; what I worry about is a Japanese U-turn.

I think of my 9-year-old daughter. She has a wonderful Japanese-born friend whose father is temporarily on assignment here. Whenever invited, the Japanese girl bounds over to be with her crazy American girlfriend. But my daughter always has to initiate the invitation. I like my daughter’s friend’s parents but I get the sense that they don’t want her to become Americanized. And my guess is that when they return to Japan, they’ll support Hashimoto’s nationalism, as will a whole lot of Japanese And that my daughter will never see her friend again. And that this will not prove the only Japanese-U.S. relationship that’s on the wane.

* Tom Plate’s column runs Tuesdays. His e-mail address is