In a demonstration of the principle that the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it, politicians faced with the country's economic problems in an election year have given in to scapegoating. They have led the country to blaming Japan for our woes. Although most people who criticize Japan do not mean to make an issue of race, they don't realize that hatred of Japan blurs into hostility toward some of their fellow citizens.

On occasion, sentiments directed against Japan are voiced with express racial prejudice. Television commentator Andy Rooney, for example, has admitted, "I'm vaguely anti-Japanese. Don't ask me why. Just prejudice, I guess. I'm very comfortable with some of my prejudices and have no thought of changing them now."

More often, Japan becomes a symbol for anything Asian, including Asian Americans. When a public figure uses the epithet "Jap" and then apologizes because he had no idea the term is anything other than an abbreviation, he probably also does not understand that it implies Asian Americans too.

Along this line, during the last recession, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) complained that American jobs were being lost to "little yellow men." His statement could have meant that domestic workers had their livelihood threatened by overseas competition, but it just as easily might have referred to white employees meeting Asian-American colleagues. It would not have helped much if he had paused to add, "The little yellow men who are Americans are okay, though."

Inevitably, anger aimed at Japan hits Asian Americans. That has been true ever since Japanese Americans were deemed enemy aliens in World War II. But Asian Americans did not realize that they still had to worry, and about trade imbalances, until a few years ago, when in Detroit, two white auto workers used a baseball bat to beat an Asian American to death. His murderers blamed Vincent Chin for the problems of domestic car companies.

Perhaps forgetting the Japanese American internment, people have explained to me that I must recognize that many Americans are still angry about World War II and Vietnam, and that helps explain their frustration at foreign competition. Needless to say, I am not persuaded that they should be angry with me. After all, Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca, who is proud of his Italian ancestry, is not called upon to apologize for the fact that Italy was an Axis power nor held to account for its contemporary political affairs -- and rightly so.

The popular worries about the rise of Asia and the decline of the West seem to take Asian Americans as an example of both trends. When people say that America is becoming a colony of Japan and then post signs in a neighborhood with a large Asian-America population saying that the last American to leave should turn out the lights, their concern is no longer about relationships among countries.

While Japan and Asian Americans are treated as akin to one another, Japan and European nations are dealt with differently. It sounds evenhanded if far-fetched to warn against any foreign interest trying to take over the American economy. But alarms are not sounded over the conduct of all multinational companies, only Japanese-based ones, even when others are doing more or less the same thing. In the last decade of foreign investment, British companies bought up more than their Japanese counterparts. In Cleveland, where I live, the British Petroleum skyscraper is an imposing presence on the downtown public square, apparently without bothering anyone very much. I wonder if the same would be true if a Japanese petroleum building were there instead.

None of this is to suggest that Japan is above criticism, whether for its trade practices and ambitions in Asia, or its own racism and antisemitism, or numerous other reasons. To the contrary, if attacks on Japan do not become attacks on Asian Americans, and if policies treat Japan like other countries, then legitimate criticism will not degenerate into Japan bashing.

The writer, a recent law school graduate, is a clerk for a federal district judge in Cleveland.