Here are two slices of Washington life that illlustrate the sort of games that Japanese and American politicians play with and against each other and that, in the end, make relations between the two countries so raw and ragged.
Scene I: the Senatee confirmations hearing of Bill Brock, the former Republican National Committee chairman who is the new U.S. trade representative. Brock warns the Japanese that he intends to play "hard ball" and leaves open the possibility of restrictions on Japanesse auto imports.
Scene II: a private luncheon between a group of Americans and a top Japanese government official visiting Washington. The Japanese official is asked about Japan's willingness to increase defense spending. The gist of his answer: Don't push too hard.
All this fits a familiar pattern. Over the years, American and Japanese officials have acquired the dangerous habit of blaming each other, sometimes in the most subtle and sophisticated ways, for their own problems. Self-deception is an dangerous in nations as it is in individuals, and the invasions create a climate that ultimately poisons relations.
Both the United States and Japan have preferred to cling to World War II stereotypes of victor and vanquished. The United States periodically demands some act of obedience, and the Japanese resist, though feeling that they ultimately must comply.
Neither nation has faced up fully up to the changes that have made old stereotypes outmoded. The United States has lost much of its economic superiority, and Japan is now a first-rate power. The health of the U.S. auto industry and the question of Japanese defense spending -- issues that appear miles, if not light years, apart -- only underline how today's conditioned behavior reflects outdated roles of the past.
The issues are intensely emotional. Americans view the very future of the auto industry -- which is the symbol and substance of the industrial heartland -- as jeopardized. For the Japanese, higher defense spending challenges the strong pacifist tradition that arose after World War II.
No less imposing are the human and financial pressures. In the United Stated, more than 186,000 auto workers remain on indefinite layoff. On their side, the Japanese face huge budget deficits (about one-third of the total budget this year) and strong demands for higher Social Security payments, which at an average of about $135 a month are paltry by U.S. standards.
Because these issues are so important and so emotionally charged, the fact that pressures for change seem to be coming from the outside only compounds the nationalistic resentment. Political leaders in both countries are tempted to bend to the resentment rather than deflect it. But by persisting in defining the "problem" in terms of the other country, each nation's leaders seek to avoid responsibilities that they ought to shoulder in their own national interest.
Distortion becomes inevitable. To talk about the U.S. auto problem as if the Japanese were the main culprits -- and Brock drifted dangereously in this direction -- ignorees the evidence. The increase in Japanese imports since 1978 has been only one-fifth as large as the drop in U.S. cars are oversized and overpriced; import restrictions simply would give producers more freedom to raise prices and would do nothing to break the industry's wage-price spiral. They're not in our interest.
The Japanese have no less difficulty with defense. Their armed forces total slightly less than 250,000; this sis about one-tenth the size of U.S. forces for a country with half the population. No one is asking the Japanese to achieve parity, but a third of a century after the end of the war the United States no longer can afford , either poliltically or economically, to bear the overwhelming responsibility forWestern security. And Western security is in Japan's interests.
Perhaps these issues ought to be finessed. You can visualilze a group of U.S. and Japanaese politicians sitting around a table and reaching a cozy accommodation. Lighten up on the defense rhetoric a bit, say the Japanese, and we'll put a lid on our auto exports. Somebody in Washington gets credit for being tough on Japan, and the Japanese are spared additional discomfort on the defense issue.
There are those who would see this as an act of political maturity and enlightened diplomacy: each side becoming more sensitive to the real-life pressures on the other. And surely this approach would be superior to the obvious and possible alternative: having the two countries publiicly bludgeon each other with demands and recriminations.
But how much better?
Import quotas will not solve the auto industry's problems, but they imply Japanese culpability and will make Americans blame Japan. Soft-pedaling the defense issue will not make it go away or make the Japanese feel less put-upon.
U.S.-Japanaese relations probably never have been more important than now.
A recent report of "wise men" -- a group of eight top American and Japanese officials -- points out that the United States and Japan together provide nearly one-fifth of the world's exports and comsume about half the industrialized world's oil imports. More important, they represent the two largest working democracies.
It's true, as the "wise men" argue, that contentious issues need to be resolved more quietly and with less bomblast than in the past. Both U.S. and Japanese officials have used the old sterotypes for their own purposes; if Brock seems cast as the latest American heavy, countless Japanese also have encouraged this sort of visible pressure to give them more leverage in internal debates.
But there can be too much finessing. Leaders in both couontries need to speak more forthrightly about their nations' own interests and responsibilities; otherwise, old stereotypes will persist and old sores fester. r