THE JAPAN THAT CAN SAY NO By Shintaro Ishihara Translated from the Japanese by Frank Baldwin Simon & Schuster. 158 pp. $18.95
SHINTARO ISHIHARA is Japan's version of William F. Buckley Jr. -- a charming, erudite author and political figure on the fringe right wing of the conservative party, endowed with many ideas but little political influence.
The idea that Ishihara has been promoting on both sides of the Pacific for the past couple of years is a fairly virulent form of America-bashing. He sees the U.S.A. as a lazy, racist has-been of a country. He thinks Japan is the rightful leader of a new world order and should start saying "No" to Americans while looking for new allies.
Together with Sony Corp. founder Akio Morita, Ishihara put these notions into a slim, disjointed book two years ago under the now-famous title No to ieru Nippon ("The Japan That Can Say No"). Initially, the volume sank into obscurity in Japan. But then people in the United States. heard about it and reacted with predictable anger; that got Japan interested, and suddenly Ishihara had a bestseller on his hands.
Except in an unauthorized translation, which made the rounds of Washington's congressional and bureaucratic policy shops, the book was never published in the United States. Now, having lost one author (Morita has dropped out, evidently fearful of an anti-Walkman backlash) and gained a few chapters that rather soften the overall impact, Ishihara's infamous screed is on the U.S. market.
Some of it is simply name-calling. Americans are "like barbarians." Their products are "shoddy." They are "deeply biased" against Asians, and the "persistent discrimination by the white power elite against Japan and other Asian countries will undermine U.S. leadership."
When we get to discussion, much is out of date. Ishihara's most notorious suggestion, that Japan might break its alliance with the United States and start selling high-tech components to the Russians instead, looks ludicrous today. With hungry Russians coming to Japan for emergency handouts, it's not all that likely they'll be buying large quantities of expensive computer technology.
For that matter, Ishihara's contention that "Japanese companies outperform their U.S. counterparts" in microchip technology is also dated. In the past two years, Japanese computer makers have become even more dependent on American firms like Intel, Motorola and Sun for the microprocessor chips at the heart of the bestselling computer models.
Ishihara's contention that the United States has interfered with Japan's hopes of building an independent military force is simply absurd today. Last fall, when the Japanese government tried to send a few hundred of its soldiers to non-combat duties in the Persian Gulf, the United States was all for it -- but the Japanese people raised such a ruckus that the idea died.
Another example of Ishihara's logic comes when he explains that, because of racist bias, America doesn't trust Japan with its military secrets. This appears shortly after his comment that Americans responded with "hysteria" when the Japanese company Toshiba sold confidential U.S. Navy submarine technology to the Russians.
If America doesn't trust Japan with secrets, how come Toshiba had them to sell? And since Toshiba has sold confidential military gear to the highest bidder, could it be that experience, rather than racism, thatmakes the United States suspicious? If Ishihara has the answers, he didn't bother to provide them.
Some of Ishihara's points seem valid to me. If Americans are going to get mad when Japanese companies buy Rockefeller Center or Columbia Pictures, why get mad at the buyers? Ishihara wonders why people don't get mad at the Rockefeller family, which chose to get a little richer by selling their cherished hunk of America to Mitsubishi.
Similarly, he's right on point when he says the flood of Japanese investment in the United States was a direct result of the decision by James A. Baker III, the former treasury secretary and present secretary of state, to weaken the U.S. dollar. Baker's "Plaza Accord" effectively gave every Japanese buyer a 30 percent discount on any U.S. real estate purchase.
WILL A READER of Ishihara's book learn anything about the opinions of average Japanese people?
Yes, the Japanese have tempered their traditional admiration for everything American. But very few are as hostile as Ishihara purports to be. Ishihara concedes that his idea about rewriting the constitution that the United States imposed on Japan in 1947 could not prevail because of "practical political reasons." That is, nobody would vote for it.
But the book does provide a clear insight into the intensely racial viewpoint that many Japanese people take toward other countries. For Ishihara, race explains everything. The end of the cold war? "The Russian-American detente was based on both being white." Trouble in the Philippines? It shows that "the white man, especially Americans, had not carried his burden well."
Throughout, of course, Ishihara sees the United States strictly as a "white" or "Caucasian" country. The idea that there might be black, or Asian, or Semitic people who are also American, the idea that a nation can draw its strength from a grand amalgamation of all races and nationalities, is too big an idea for Ishihara to digest. "The American melting pot," he says, "is a failed experiment."
On this point, Ishihara does reflect widely held Japanese opinion. It's hardly surprising that he refers to Seiroku Kajiyama, the former justice minister who said U.S. blacks are like prostitutes (because nobody wants to live in their neighborhood), as "a close friend."
Whether or not the author intended it, the picture he provides of Japan's attitudes toward race is probably the most important lesson of The Japan That Can Say No. T.R. Reid is the northeast Asia bureau chief of The Washington Post.