Why plain-speaking Nakasone upsets many Japanese

Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone is an old soldier with a liking for simplicity, straightforwardness, and military metaphors. A display of these traits in Washington recently won him many American friends, who are now eager to see how United States Secretary of State George Shultz fares on a visit to Tokyo this week.

But Mr. Nakasone's straight-talking worries many Japanese trained to be outspoken only in the safety of the home.

Conventional opinion in Washington and other Western capitals is that life would be a lot easier if only the Japanese would become more scrutable and reveal honestly what is on their mind.

Americans took to Mr. Nakasone as a refreshing change, but analysts here consider it dangerous to regard him as heralding a new era of Japanese plain-speaking.

According to one noted writer: ''Following others is a social obligation in the Japanese scheme of proper behavior, following oneself a psychological necessity, and following foreigners a national pastime.''

Most Japanese, of course, would not put it so bluntly. But they would admit to a reluctance to make hard-and-fast commitments (especially to more legalistically inclined Westerners) that might prove difficult to fulfill, leading to disappointment, embarrassment, and possibly friction in human relations.

It is permissible in Japan, therefore, to fudge the truth or even lie: to say different things to different people or at different times, to be deliberately vague and ambiguous - even if this only postpones the day of reckoning.

Japanese are accustomed to a difference between words and real intentions, summed up by two oft-used expressions: tatemaem (the way things are presented on the surface) and honne (the truth you know and feel).

Mr. Nakasone seems to have made a lot of people here uncomfortable by not following the old creed - by expressing his clear intent in unambiguous terms. His choice of words only added to domestic fears.

Trying to express his determination to upgrade Japanese defense, he said the nation should become ''an unsinkable aircraft carrier'' (fuchin kudom), which evoked for many Japanese a repugnant image of a military fortress bristling with weapons.

Older Japanese had heard it all before. In World War II propaganda, the carrier Akagi was fuchin kudom, the world's largest warship; Yamato was fuchin senkanm (unsinkable battleship). Both were speedily sunk by American planes.

In seeking to sum up Tokyo-Washington relations, the prime minister selected the phrase unmei kyodotaim, charitably translated as ''a relationship between two nations sharing common values and destiny.'' The original expression to Japanese , however, evokes an image of a suicide pact - and was interpreted here as meaning Japan was doomed to die in a nuclear holocaust with the US.

Since returning home, Mr. Nakasone has tried to talk his way out of trouble. But he has resisted the tendency of other Japanese making controversial statements overseas to later insist they were misquoted and provide a watered-down domestic version, relying on the Japanese language's built-in vagueness to muddy the waters.

More often than not, however, it is the foreign audience which gets the censored version.

Many Japanese persist in the belief they can say what they like at home and no one outside the country will ever hear of it - perhaps a holdover from centuries of isolation.

There is considerable self-censorship out of a desire to perpetuate the national image of smiling, courteous people, in which everyone wants to believe.

It is true - on occasions. The Japanese bow politely: they are perfect hosts. They will do everything possible to avoid offending someone they know. But that should not obscure the fact that individually, Japanese can be just as rude and offensive as anyone else (anyone trusting in Japanese politeness should avoid rush hour travel on commuter trains here, for example).

Culturally, Japanese are required to play a role. If the world believes Japanese are polite, then everyone must go to extreme lengths to perpetuate this image. But defending a cliche often leads to the most illogical contortions.

Example: last September the monthly magazine Beungei Shunju carried an interview with Taiyu Kobayashi, chairman of the computer company Fujitsu, which was remarkably candid.

He seemed to confirm all America's worst suspicions when he described how Japanese companies successfully obtained secret IBM computer design information and how the Tokyo government protected the domestic market from foreign competition.

The magazine had agreed to allow the Washington Post to reprint the interview , but later revoked the permission when Fujitsu objected.

There have been many cases in recent years where the Japanese media have carried harsh words about the US and Europe expressed by leading government and business personalities.

Attempts to confirm the accuracy of the statements are usually stonewalled by official spokesmen insisting ''these remarks were never intended for translation into English.''

This may be one reason why foreign correspondents are still barred from regular press conferences by many Japanese organizations - even when the information will be available for all to see in Japanese newspapers the next day.

There is a strong suspicion that the centuries of isolation have developed a built-in Japanese belief that their language is an unbreakable code incomprehensible to foreigners. But modern communications ensure that no remark for domestic consumption only ever stays that way for long. And many outsiders now believe that Japan's national image suffers more from a double standard being displayed than from any outspokenness.

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