Japan's new nationalism

A new nationalism is dawning in the Land of the Rising Sun.

The trend leaves thoughtful Japanese uneasy about a country that has so far studiously maintained a low international profile.

The greater self-assertiveness comes at a time when more and more Japanese are increasingly irked by United States pressures to make Japan more responsive on trade and defense matters.

What were once mere pinpricks now loom as repeated jabs to force Tokyo to fall into line with the US Congress on increasing defense expenditures and opening up Japanese markets to more American goods.

''Americans are always pushing. People are getting sick of it. They always want things done bang, bang, bang,'' says Hiroya Echikowa, senior assistant director of international economic affairs for Keidanren, the powerful organization that represents big Japanese business.

When asked by a group of visiting American journalists whether there was a growing sentiment within Japan for greater military spending, a senior Japanese journalist with a leading Tokyo newspaper snapped back:

''That's a stupid question. The only one who wants and asks it is the United States. The majority of the LDP (ruling Liberal Democratic Party) don't want an increase of defense expenditure beyond what it is now.''

To Dr. Sadako Ogata, Japan's first woman diplomat and now professor at Sophia University, Institute for International Relations, there are growing signs of Japanese nationalism which she finds ''worrying.''

One manifestation was the textbook controversy in which Japan characterized its World War II invasion of Manchuria as an ''advance.'' But Dr. Ogata does not limit Japanese nationalism to the textbook issue, which aroused strong anti-Japanese sentiment in China and South Korea and throughout Southeast Asia.

US calls for ''greater liberalization of trade, for (acceptance of) more refugees, for greater defense spending,'' she says, ''are interpreted as pressures and these are resented.'' Such pressures, she warns, could force Japan into a go-it-alone policy, which she regards as a ''very dangerous sign.''

Japanese nationalism takes many forms, not all of them overtly political.

Throughout Japan, for instance, people are looking more deeply into their national character to find out what makes them tick.

Bookstores are filled with books probing the roots of the Japanese people and the Japanese national identity in a country where American sociologist Ezra Vogel's celebrated book, ''Japan as Number One: Lessons for America'' is a perennial best seller.

For some 4 million Japanese who go sightseeing abroad every year, world travel only narrows their horizons. Their impressions of a world less safe, less efficient, and less civil than Japan merely reinforce their conviction that Japan is No. 1.

Former Washington-based correspondent Yoshio Murakami, who broke the news of the Lockheed scandal that brought down the government of Kakuei Tanaka, sums up the negative feedback from Japanese tourists returning from the United States:

''They find the United States is unsafe. They are robbed in their hotels. They see people shot and killed in the streets, and they see a lot of cities where English is not spoken. They come back thinking, 'We've nothing to learn from the United States.' ''

Asked to comment on his recent visit to New York City, a Japanese visitor who could barely speak English stumbled out the words: ''Much danger.''

A similar sentiment is echoed by Michio Nagai, senior adviser to the rector of the United Nations University in Tokyo and former education minister in the Miki Cabinet.

Japanese tourists, he says,''Come back to Tokyo feeling it is very safe. (Tokyo has the lowest crime rate of any major city in the world.) They think Japan is really a very nice country. In Paris they find only French food. In Hong Kong only Chinese. Many decide (cosmopolitan) Tokyo is the paradise of the world.''

Fueling - and somewhat explaining - Japanese chauvinism is a realization among Japanese that their recent economic achievements are unmatched anywhere in the world.

As a prominent Japanese business official put it when discussing the economic competitiveness of Japan: ''Where else in the world would you find 10 automobile manufacturers competing against each other?'' What is more, they are all successful.

Much of Japan's satisfaction comes because of the speed with which this country, only 1/22 the size of the US but with half its population, has catapulted itself into a position where its gross national product is second only to the US in the noncommunist world.

When the Allied Occupation ended in 1952, Japan's GNP was little more than one-third that of either France or Germany. By the late 1970s, Japan's GNP was already as large as Britain's and France's combined and more than half that of the US. Japan's industrial output now surpasses that of the Soviet Union.

According to shirt-sleeved Mike Mansfield, the former Senate majority leader who is now the popular American ambassador to Tokyo, ''The most important bilateral relation in the world, bar none, is that between Japan and the United States.''

But Mr. Mansfield insists that for the sake of that relationship, Japan must do more to open up its markets. ''Japan is the greatest beneficiary of the international trading system,'' he notes, ''Now it's time for it to assume more responsibilities to see that that system works.''

At the same time Mansfield refuses to see any trade conspiracy on the part of the Japanese toward the US.

''They are a people who want the US to succeed. If there is anyone who wishes to see the United States recover from the recession, it is the Japanese,'' he says.

While the influx of automobiles is in many ways the most conspicious example of Japanese penetration of the US domestic market - more than 1 out of every five cars driven in America is Japanese - it is the rush of Japanese high technology that makes many Americans worry that Japan has set out on an economic conquest of the US.

Some Japanese leaders believe that this threat is overstated and that Americans underestimate Japan's vulnerability - its built-in fragility because of its overwhelming dependence on importing raw materials.

In many cases the scenario of Japanese supremacy is overdrawn.

According to a recent article in ''Japan Echo,'' the US, for instance, is credited as being strong in the fields of space development, aircraft, nuclear power, medical equipment, oil production, food, chemicals, aluminum, and software service industries.

Japan's industrial prowess, in turn, is emphasized in cameras, watches, consumer electronic products such as calculators and tape recorders, audio-visual equipment, office equipment, shipbuilding, and steel.

Areas of future Japanese-US competition are expected to be: very large-scale integration electronic circuits, sensors, computers, peripheral and terminal computer equipment, optical communications, industrial robots, fine ceramics, and videodiscs.While the US presses for greater Japanese liberalization of trade , many informed commentators on the Japanese scene, including distinguished Japanese economist and former foreign minister Dr. Saburo Okita, say that a fundamental problem is the high level of the dollar. Even before the yen's latest difficulties, the dollar had appreciated in value against the yen by as much as 30 percent in the last four years.

One effective solution, it is argued, would be to decrease the value of the yen against the dollar since Japanese exports would then drop as Japanese products became more expensive.

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