Japan-bashing has just about hit its low point with an unfortunate New York Times Magazine cover story by Theodore H. White called "The Danger from Japan." He says that the Americans made a mistake in being too good to Japan at the end of World War II.
If the Japanese continue to be successful in their trade policy, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author writes, we may have to teach them the same lesson we did after Pearl Harbor:
"The superlative execution of their trade tactics may provoke an incalculable reaction -- as the Japanese might well remember of the course that ran from Pearl Harbor to the deck of the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay just 40 years ago."
The White article is a cheap shot: it descends to the suggestion that any and all problems of American industry can be laid at Japan's door. Says a photo caption: "While most manufacturing plants in Japan, such as the one above, are going full blast, U.S. factories are falling silent."
Simple, isn't it? The pictures make it easy to tell the bad guys from the good guys.
White's piece comes at a time when Congress is at a fever pitch to "do something" about Japan's growing trade surplus with the United States. It sheds no light on what most reasonable people believe is a long-term problem that requires answers from both the American and Japanese governments.
But the article is a catalog of every clich,e in the book, down to the discredited charge that even the most protectionist-minded in Washington no longer make: that the Ministry of Finance manipulates the value of the yen to keep export prices low.
What comes through best is White's seeming regret that Gen. Douglas MacArthur fed the Japanese, that we Americans didn't pummel Japan into a vassal state more to our liking when we had the chance, that "if we did blunder in that fall season of 1945, the blunder stemmed from mercy and generosity."
He then goes on to build a case that Japan's objective is not a share, but dominance, of world markets. Here, he relies heavily on the hawkish views of Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige, who comes out of the closet to say some things publicly that he has been saying to others privately. By giving vent to what White describes as "bitterness," Baldrige certainly doesn't help the Reagan administration or moderates in Congress forge economic and trade policies that will contribute to a solution.
The fact is that State Department, Treasury Department and White House officials are all critical of the anti-Japanese stance the Commerce Department takes in Cabinet-level debates. Said a senior official in a private conversation: "I'm really uneasy at the idea that we ought to put such a heavy burden on the Japanese for solution of all this stuff."
He added: "I don't seek their political or economic structure. But I do think that we ought to be paying more attention to them in finding ways to be more productive, more efficient, better marketers, better market analysts and so on."
How to explain the ugly hostility of the White piece and the heat and anger in other contemporary articles?
"The Japanese provoke American wrath because they are a locked and closed civilization that reciprocates our hushed fear with veiled contempt," White says.
Strange, isn't it, that the United States last year had a $20 billion trade deficit with Canada -- exactly the size of the deficit with Japan the year before -- but no one in Congress (and certainly not White) stands up to say that Canada is a threat. Could it be because our neighbors to the north are white, while the Japanese are yellow?
The anti-Japanese tide is rising. But I am convinced, after a recent reporting trip to Japan, that the typical Japanese government official and man in the street are not hostile, as White says, but still friendly to the United States; and that the military and strategic importance of Japan to the United States is incalculable -- a fact he glosses over.
But I think that the real danger is that the coming generations of Japanese leadership, less conscious of the ties forged in the MacArthur and post-MacArthur eras, will be turned off by continued vitriol flowing from the United States.
We surely need better access to Japan's markets. But we also must get our own house in order, especially in upgrading the quality of our products and performance of industry and labor. White's "Rambo" solution is not the one.