RONALD REAGAN'S well-paid tour of Japan gave a prominent American, perhaps the most prominent American, a chance to say supportive things about relations between the two countries. This at a time when those relations are strained. More than a few Americans may have wondered about the appropriateness of the $2 million paid the ex-president by a Japanese media conglomerate. But affirmations of Japanese-US friendship should be seen as something more than highly paid political announcements. At a time when Japanese purchase of a US film studio has refueled talk of an ``invasion'' by Tokyo, recognition of the depth of the ties between the two countries is in order.
One expert called US-Japanese relations ``a marriage from which there is no divorce.'' Neither side can abandon an economic arrangement that includes Japanese dependence on the American consumer and US dependence on Japanese manufacturers. When members of Congress tried to hit Toshiba with trade sanctions a few years ago after one of its subsidiaries did prohibited business with the Soviets, US business objected. Toshiba's electronic components are crucial to many US firms.
Americans sometimes think the benefits from this relationship flow only one direction - toward Tokyo. But that's short-sighted. Perhaps Japan's economic vigor does outshine that of the US right now. But the challenge Japanese economic strength poses may turn out to be more sanative than harmful. The Japanese example has helped force issues like the low American savings rate to the fore. Japanese management theories have sparked useful reform in American industry.
The bubbling of nationalistic feelings is what's most troubling about current friction between the countries. Some warned that Sony's buyout of Columbia Pictures was tantamount to losing control of American culture. Mr. Reagan ventured that Sony might help clean up the movies. More likely American culture will prove a force beyond anyone's control.
Some in Japan see the uproar over Japanese acquisition in the US as racial in motivation. Who screams about European investment, which far outstrips Japan's? And what about the huge American overseas investment?
Resentments feed on resentments, and they can get in the way of progress. The US has legitimate complaints about trade. Japan should move toward more openness, and in fact is working on revised fair-trade practices, antitrust law, and other policy revisions. This process needs to go faster, and is best helped along by civility and clear recognition of the huge stake both countries have in continued good relations.