Inscrutable Oriental mysteries like the Tea Ceremony and the No Drama come to mind when people speak of "cultural obstacles" to economic cooperation with Japan. But in fact such mundane things as patterns of spending and savings are chiefly involved.
Japanese habits are such that in order to retaliate the United States first has to shoot itself in the foot. Which explains why the Reagan administration has suddenly rallied against the anti-Japanese mood so popular in Congress.
Consider, first, savings. Japan is not a consumer society in the American fashion. There are practically no credit cards. Nor are there consumer loans, with tax breaks, to ease the buying of homes or cars or gadgets. On the contrary, the ordinary Japanese make purchases the old-fashioned way. They save the money.
Major banks, with their huge deposits, are closely regulated by government, as a means of guiding the development of industry. Low-interest loans are available to businesses favored by the bureaucrats in the finance ministry or the ministry of trade and industry. Since Japan is a country almost naked of natural resources, the bureaucrats inevitably favor industries that can export abroad, thus earning the foreign currency the country needs to buy such vital raw materials as food, oil and coal. The bureaucrats also tend to defend against outside competition clients of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party -- notably farmers and business.
One consequence of this "culture" is the fabled efficiency of Japanese manufacturers. Easy credit, plus closed domestic markets, made it possible for many firms to develop low-cost, high-quality products in basic manufactures. Many Japanese products can't be matched by competitors in this country and Europe.
Another consequence of the culture is the export of Japanese savings to other countries that offer higher interest rates and better returns on investment. During the past few years the United States has been the chief beneficiary. Japanese investments -- mainly in U.S. government securities -- amounted to about $40 billion in 1984. The "crowding in" of Japanese money has made it a lot easier for this country to finance its $200 billion budget deficits without "crowding out" credit available to American consumers and business.
At the same time, the surge of Japanese investment in the United States has contributed enormously to the strengthening of the dollar against other currencies. Many Japanese acknowledge that the dollar should trade at a little less than 200 yen. Instead, it has been buying upwards of 250 yen. The super-dollar tends to make many foreign exports more attractive than U.S. products. It works to price out of competition American producers of a wide variety of items ranging from autos through electronics and steel to agricultural goods.
The American victims of the overpriced dollar naturally complain long and loud. They are, after all, losing business, losing jobs and losing farms. While their complaints take many forms, the most popular has been a demand that, unless Japan opens its markets to the United States, this country should retaliate by closing American markets to Japanese goods.
A fortnight ago the Senate voted 92-0 for a resolution embodying such action. Before the Easter recess, the Senate Finance Committee had voted out a bill translating the resolution into legislation. The House had also voted for the resolution.
The administration, at first, tried to play it cute. The 92-0 vote meant the White House was not fighting the resolution. On the contrary, the strategy was to use the resolution as a stick to beat concessions out of the Japanese. But the indulgence of Japan-bashing produced a highly negative outcome.
Tuesday in Tokyo the Japanese concluded a review of openings for American trade. The review offered little except promises. But it was accompanied by an impassioned, televised statement from Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone. He appealed "to you the people" and to the "industrial circles" to "accept foreign manufactured products in order to make your own life richer and more affluent."
That cry from the heart did nothing to assuage congressional critics of Japan. One called it a "yawn." But it conveyed Nakasone's sense of impotence in a desperate situation. The Reagan administration, once so passive in opposing shots at Japan, rallied to the alarm bell.
The White House in California and the State Department in Washington both praised the Japanese statement as "commendable." Vice President George Bush said those who wanted to build "walls against Japan . . . would end up with a cliff, and we'd find ourselves falling straight down into chaos."
For once the vice president did not exaggerate. American efforts to punish Japan inevitably boomerang. They not only raise the cost of goods. They also work to increase interest rates in this country. They thus slow down American economic growth and raise the danger of a default on the billions owed by Latin American countries to U.S. banks. So in fighting against the Japan-bashers, the administration has come to its senses -- and not a moment too soon.