Racially tinged portrayals of Japanese appear on American television. A magazine headline talks of "Yellow Power." California businessmen prepare an anti-Japanese boycott and the governor warns of America becoming an economic colony of Japan.
Throughout the country, but particularly in economically depressed areas on the West Coast, anti-Japanese feelings have begun to come out into the open in the last few months. In the face of aggressive Japanese trade policies, the slump of the U.S. automobile industry and the Mediterranean fruit fly scare, Japanese-Americans here say they fear a revival of the racism of the World War II years.
Rep. Norman Y. Mineta (D-Calif.), one of three California congressmen of Japanese descent, said, "I receive nasty and bigoted phone calls and letters every time there is a major news story about the trade deficit" or other troubles in U.S.-Japanese relations. In his San Jose district, full of high-technology firms hurt by Japanese competition, a constituent asked, "Who do you represent, us or them?"
It is a resentment incited by an extraordinary Japanese invasion of the American economy. No American goods have managed to capture even 10 percent of the Japanese market, but Japan accounts for 23 percent of the American car market, 90 percent of the motorcycles, 50 percent of the recording equipment, 50 percent of the radios, 30 percent of the cameras and 25 percent of the televisions.
"What people do not understand in this country is that there is a difference between the Japanese economy and Japanese people," said Mike Murase, president of the Little Tokyo Service Center in the Los Angeles neighborhood having the highest concentration of Japanese and Japanese-Americans. This doesn't mean that they don't buy Japanese imports; they do, "but it creates the sort of atmosphere of racism, an active distrust, even of Japanese-Americans in this country."
Japanese-American community leaders have complained of a recent television commercial for television sets in which an off-camera voice with a heavy Japanese accent repeatedly interrupts the announcer's description of how good Sylvania is. "What about Sony?" the voice says, then flies into a rage when the announcer says Sylvania is better than the Japanese-made set.
George Kondo of the Japanese American Citizens League in San Francisco said he complained to Fortune magazine about the headline "Yellow Power" and the table-of-contents entry "Orient Express Rolls On" used to draw attention to an article on high income and education levels among Asian-Americans.
Ronald Ikejiri, Washington representative of the citizens league, said he objected to a General Motors commercial in which a man who appeared to be Japanese praised an American car in broken English. His organization, he said, also recently had to help persuade the U.S. Customs Office to revoke a permit for a new designer label, "Jap."
Murase blames these racial slights, revitalized by the widespread publicity and political charges about unfair Japanese competition, for two attempts to burn down a Buddhist church in nearby Gardena in the last year and for the demotion of Los Angeles County's Japanese-American medical examiner, Thomas T. Noguchi.
"It is not unlike the period during World War II when a lot of justifiable feeling against the Japanese military was used to justify putting Japanese-Americans in internment camps," Murase said.
Polls show a significant change in American attitudes toward Japan in the last few years.
Mineta cites a poll by Potomac Associates showing 29 percent of Americans with an unfavorable attitude toward Japan now, compared with only 12 percent in 1980. A Louis Harris poll done for the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun reveals a marked change in the character of ill will toward the Japanese, although, like the Potomac Associates poll, it indicates most Americans still like the Japanese.
In 1971, the disliked Japanese trait most often cited by Americans, 11 percent, was that they were "sneaky little people who can't be trusted." By 1982 only 3 percent cited this trait and, instead, 11 percent complained of the poor U.S.-Japanese trade balance, which had not been mentioned in 1971.
These feelings go to extremes in places where the U.S. economy has sunk the lowest, such as Detroit.
In a recent speech at the U.S. State Department's "Open Forum" program, Mineta recalled that "when I was in Detroit last year, I heard stories of Japanese-Americans who are afraid to drive imported automobiles in Michigan. Parking lots have signs saying 'No Japanese Cars Allowed.' A Detroit union office parking lot has a sign saying 'Park Your Imports In Japan.'
"I even heard of a Japanese-American who owns a Datsun 280Z. While stopped for a stop sign, this person had his windshield broken by a baseball bat-wielding pickup truck driver."
Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), who represents part of Detroit, was quoted by an industry newsletter, Coal Outlook, as referring to Japanese as "little yellow people" in a closed-door discussion of legislative remedies for Japanese competition with the automobile industry.
A spokesman for Dingell said that the remark was taken out of context and that Dingell had apologized publicly to anyone who might have taken offense. Mineta said when he confronted Dingell, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Dingell said, "Well, I wasn't talking about you, Norm."
Mineta said later, "Who did he think he was talking about?"
While growing anti-Japanese sentiment has received only occasional coverage in the U.S. press, it has been a staple of Japanese newspapers. Statements such as that by U.S. Commerce Undersecretary Lionel H. Olmer that "we, indeed, are asking for some fundamental changes of part of the Japanese way of life" were front page news in Tokyo.
In March, when deputy U.S. trade representative David R. Macdonald visited Japan, ruling Liberal Democratic Party secretary general Susumu Nikaido told him at a dinner, "Opinions expressed about Japan in the United States are anti-Japanese. They give us the impression of the prewar days."
For years, Japanese newspapers and politicians have been extremely sensitive to anti-Japanese remarks in the United States, and have come to expect them during American election years. Experienced observers in Tokyo say some bitterness has accumulated toward American officials who they feel are using the Japanese as a political scapegoats."It is not unlike the period during World War II when a lot of justifiable feeling against the Japanese military was used to justify putting Japanese-Americans in internment camps."
The complicated trade issues also acquire strange twists in Japanese domestic politics. Recently thousands of Japanese farmers demonstrated in front of the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo against threatened relaxation of restrictions against importation of U.S. produce. And the signs denounced not only the United States but also large Japanese manufacturing companies; the farmers blamed them for stirring up U.S. anger by aggressive sales abroad.
Les Hubbard, senior vice president of the Western Growers Association, said he is holding in reserve a planned boycott of Japanese goods if Japan does not soon keep a promise and lift its embargo on California fruits and vegetables once threatened by the Medfly.
Hubbard said the contemplated boycott, delayed in January after the Japanese agreed to accept California lemons, was necessary to give the state bargaining power, but he worried that it could trigger a return to widespread anti-Asian feeling.
"There was a little concern on my part that we might open a Pandora's box," said Hubbard, 65, who served in the Pacific in World War II but found the Japanese he dealt with after the war to be "really very nice people."
The anti-Japanese feeling, Hubbard said, "is purely economic," but it has spilled into the advertising world in a way that bothers some Japanese-Americans here.
Asked about the anti-Sony television commercial, Sylvania's audio-video merchandising director, Grif Harrison, said he knew of only two complaints, one from a dealer in the Northwest who vowed never to stock Sylvania products again. Although the company did not conduct a survey on the commercial, its executives and attorneys and attorneys for its advertising agency concluded "it would not be derogatory toward Japanese," Harrison said.
An executive with the Sony Corp. of America said his company had complained only about the commercial's assertion that Sylvania rated higher than their model.
Anti-Japanese sentiment remains a particularly sensitive issue in California because of the memories of early official discrimination against Asians, the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans on the West Coast and the large numbers of persons of Japanese descent still living here.
U.S. Census figures indicate that, of the more than 700,000 people of Japanese ancestry in the country, about 260,000 live in California--including 116,000 in the Los Angeles area.
In Los Angeles' "Little Tokyo" neighborhood, concern about Japan's trade dispute with the United States has become so great that many residents believe an apparently random Immigration and Naturalization Service raid of Little Tokyo businesses with suspected illegal aliens recently was in retaliation for the Japanese government's ban on produce from Medfly-plagued California.
In the heated California election campaign, several local politicians have also used Japanese economic competition as a target to rally voter support.
In his "state of the state" address in January, Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., now running for the Senate, mentioned Japan's threat to the state's high-technology industries. "In a sense," he said of U.S. trade relations, "we are forming a type of colonial relationship with Japan. We ship her raw materials, she ships us finished goods."