A new trade bill became law in the United States this week. Japan quickly assailed it. It was a predictable sequence. But viewed from the historical perspective, it indicates a significant change in the US-Japanese power relationship in the late 1980s: The US is getting tough with Japan, and Japan is not the compliant junior partner any longer.
Perhaps the best way to measure this changing relationship is to look at new literature about Japan and the United States. Some of the most provocative recent books include Trading Places (Basic Books, New York), Clyde Prestowitz's account of how the United States has lost the economic lead to Japan; Buying into America (Times Books, New York), Susan and Michael Tolchin's analysis of the wave of Japanese investment in the US and the dangers they see from it; and Imperialist Japan (St. Martin's Press, New York), Michael Montgomery's almost hysterical thesis that how Japan is bent on world domination.
The Montgomery book is a vastly negative history of Japan, as racist in its implications as it accuses the Japanese of being. The Prestowitz and Tolchin books, however, are more serious. Each made waves in Washington. The Prestowitz book helped proponents of a tougher trade law. The Tolchin book has been the center of an effort to get better reporting of asset purchases by foreigners and to get states to stop their unseemly bidding wars for Japanese industry.
Now there are three new books on Japan also worth noting. All three, in different ways, make the point that Japan-bashing has gone far enough and that the US needs to rethink its relationship with Japan and Asia.
First, and most important, is The Third Century (Crown Publishers, New York), by Joel Kotkin and Yoriko Kishimoto. This is an impressive cross-cultural work that argues persuasively that the US should treat Asia at least as well as it treats Europe. It points out that Americans have been slow to shed the ``European biases of our nation's second century'' and have ``generally underestimated the technological and overall economic strengths of Asia.''
In its first century of existence, America distanced itself from Europe, the book notes. In its second, America came to Europe's rescue during and after two immensely destructive wars. Unfortunately, Kotkin and Kishimoto note, the US also slipped into European-style colonialism - either directly or by helping colonial powers such as France and Britain maintain their franchises after World War II.
Now America is becoming a more multiracial, multiethnic society, with rising numbers of new Americans coming from Asia and Latin America. These are hardworking, entrepreneurial, creative people - and their ties are not to Europe but to the dynamic, growing regions of Asia and Latin America.
``A synthesis of Asian and American values,'' the authors say, ``could play a crucial role in the renaissance of the nation's economic vitality. Yet many in America's intellectual, political, and economic elite often choose to ignore, or seem threatened by, these new and unfamiliar influences.'' They point out that the US mission in the world is so much more than ``mere national enterprise or simply the outcome of westward expansion of European civilization.''
Now consider Tough Words for American Industry (Productivity Press; Cambridge, Mass.). It was written by an award-winning Japanese engineer, Hajime Karatsu, for a Japanese audience and was translated into English to show Americans just how irked many Japanese are at the moment about what is wrong with American business practices.
The book is fascinating and outrageous. A point about how US automakers ``made out like bandits'' because of voluntary export restraints concludes: ``As a result the trusting Japanese were made to play the part of the fool. It's no wonder that Americans hold us in contempt.''
Mr. Karatsu argues that US business leaders ignore customer service and quality, are selfish, and are deindustrializing the US while states and cities vie for Japanese factories.
``Though this message may not penetrate the consciousness of the sorts of antisocial auto executives who take advantage of import restrictions to pocket large bonuses,'' Karatsu says, ``I have great hopes that more socially aware Americans will begin to advocate a new policy of reindustrialization.''
Finally, there is Japan Inc. (University of California Press; Berkeley, Calif.), an introduction to Japanese economics in comic book form. Shotaro Ishinomori penned this comic for Nihon Keizai Shimbun, the Japanese equivalent of the Wall Street Journal. It is a soap opera involving a subject that is at the center of Japan: business. The characters - from an ambitious careerist to a bumbling office assistant - work their way through trade friction with the US, the appreciation of the yen, and assorted economic events.
Unlike ``Dallas,'' however, there is much more business and economics than sex and violence here. And the moral of each episode is uplifting: that ethics pays, that being forward-looking and socially responsible makes a difference. Like Karatsu's book, this is a glimpse into Japanese thinking. Because it is a comic, it is also fun.