It has been suggested that Japan's reaction to undue pressure from the United States on the trade issue may be to reexamine the American partnership in economic, strategic and other terms. But conversations here with officials and influential private citizens indicate that, although the Japanese are fuming over demands that they do things the American way, they are too coolheaded to make such a mistake.
In the first place, American hawks are right in one respect: For Japan, there is no substitute for the huge American market. Through exports and joint ventures, the two economies are increasingly integrated. And as for playing a Russian or Chinese card, as some Japanologists think possible, the odds are against Japan's doing it.
"Nobody trusts the Soviet Union," said Hisashi Shinto, chief executive officer of the newly privatized Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp. Shinto, who just has returned from a visit to China, believes that China has so many problems that it will be many years before it is either a big market or a major competitor. He stresses the need to boost productivity in American factories "by taking your engineers out of the computer rooms and putting them on the workshop floors."
On the other hand, there is little doubt that the loud noises out of Congress have offended Japan's pride and ego. At a conference of Liberal Democratic Party members on June 14, Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone said "there is nothing more humiliating than to be called unfair."
There is already a backlash developing to congressional demands that Japan increase its defense spending beyond the ceiling -- 1 percent of the budget -- set in 1976 by the government of former prime minister Takeo Miki. If Japan spends more, why shouldn't Japan have a greater role in saying how the money should be spent, instead of taking orders from Washington? some Japanese civilians ask.
Yasushi Hara, an editor of Asahi Shimbun and its former Washington correspondent, snapped: "Why shouldn't we have an aircraft carrier or a cruiser for the money we're spending instead of supply craft or helicopters the United States wants us to finance?"
A leading Japanese industrialist, Yotaro Kobayashi, chairman of Fuji Xerox Ltd., points out that pushing Japanese military spending merely will accelerate Japanese productivity in a new field. Last year, experts said at a seminar that an inevitable result of the United States' push for Japan to become a stronger military power will be to turn Japan -- now an exporter of peaceful goods -- into a competitor in the arms-exporting business.
"The real problem [between the two countries] is macroeconomics," Michihiko Kunihiro, a high Foreign Affairs Ministry official, said. He was referring to overconsumption in the United States, triggered by an overvalued dollar, and underconsumption in Japan, caused by fears that expansion at home will regenerate inflation. "And there we have a responsibility. I believe, and I argue inside the government, that we should take more positive steps to increase domestic demand," Kunihiro said.
But this is where the conservative streak in the Japanese psyche comes in to play. A visit to the headquarters of the Ministry of Finance for an interview with Toyoo Gyohten (said to be one of Japan's future leaders) confirmed that officials have an overpowering fear of letting the budget deficit grow any further.
Gyohten made it clear that a government-financed program to expand housing and social services, as urged by Kunihiro and LDP leader Kiichi Miyazawa, is out of the question because interest costs already soak up too much of government expenditures. Following Ronald Reagan's line, Gyohten stresses the role of the private sector in an increasingly deregulated economy. If more housing is needed, let the private sector take care of it, Gyohten said.
"What we are most afraid of is giving the impression that the government is not concerned about the deficit," he said.
The political reality is that the government is under no real pressure from the Japanese public to boost spending for such things as better housing, even though it is painfully apparent that housing is one of Japan's most critical needs. (A clever exhibit at the Soviet Union's pavilion at the Tsukuba Expo '85 features the "free" and glamorous rental-housing accommodations supposedly available to Russian workers.)
Politicians know that Japan has made enormous strides in its standard of living. Per-capita income approaches two-thirds of that in the United States. "We started off with nothing at the end of the war," said a Japanese friend, "and now 90 percent of the people say in response to polls that they are in the middle class. It is a pretty egalitarian society."
Kunihiro agrees. "The biggest shortage here is land, but people seem to be satisfied with their small residences," he said. "They have plenty of money for cars, or to go abroad for vacations. They save money to send the children to school. There's no threat of war, and very little violence.
"So everybody is satisfied to some extent, and there is very little force for change."