The hidden gap in US-Japan relations

AS Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone holds his summit meeting with President Reagan today, the United States-Japan relationship faces a curious gap between form and substance: the public image of amiability between the heads of state on the one hand versus the private reality of increased alienation between the two nations' policymakers and general public on the other. It is essential to examine the contours of this gap in order to understand US-Japan relations. On the summit level, bilateral ties appear better than ever. Mr. Nakasone and Mr. Reagan, both fresh from reelection victories, exude confidence that their respective ``mandates'' extend to the foreign as well as domestic policies pursued during their first term of office.

Indeed, most Japanese were relieved to see Mr. Reagan reelected. The Japanese media, ever alert to events in this country with implications for Japan, dwelled throughout the presidential campaign on the ``protectionist'' proclivities of the Democratic Party, seen as captive of labor union interests. Walter Mondale and Sen. Gary Hart were depicted as ``tougher'' on Japan than the incumbent and thus more likely to use selective protectionism or impose other measures detrimental to Japan in an effort to rectify the bilateral trade imbalance.

On the US side, many Japan-watchers were pleased to see a continuation of the Nakasone government. In stark contrast to the Nixon-Sato conflicts of the late 1960s and early 1970s or the Reagan-Suzuki tensions of the early 1980s, the ``Ron-Yasu'' partnership has appeared refreshingly upbeat. Mr. Nakasone's apparent charm, articulateness, and decisiveness have created in the US a favorable image unprecedented among recent Japanese prime ministers.

But beneath the surface niceties of smiles and handshakes, the bilateral relationship faces formidable challenges.

US policymakers are impatient with what they view as Japan's reluctance to open its markets to American products and services. While conceding that a barrier-free Japan would reduce by less than half the projected bilateral trade deficit for 1984, US officials express frustration at the apparent Japanese intransigence. Unlike the 1960s and 1970s, when the US took a piecemeal approach to individual products, in the 1980s the focus has shifted to a comprehensive indictment of Japan's industrial policy, economic practices, and business culture.

Japanese policymakers, on the other hand, are alarmed by what they see as US inability or unwillingness to put its own house in order. America's high interest rates, overvalued dollar, and declining export competitiveness are viewed at best with quiet disdain and at worst with outright contempt. And even America's staunchest supporters in Japan find it difficult to defend what is widely regarded in that country as an unreasonable US position on the whaling controversy.

What is most striking in recent years, however, is the growing sense of nationalism among the US and Japanese public. If unchecked, it may well prove to be a disruptive force in the bilateral relationship.

The image of Japan as a threat to US economic and technological security has been reinforced in recent years by the IBM-Hitachi incident of June 1982. Since then, a number of proposed Japanese acquisitions of US companies have been blocked by the Department of Defense on national security grounds. Visa applications for Japanese applying to enter the US have been slowed, and an increasing number of books have appeared in this country purporting to ``expose'' a Japanese conspiracy to overtake the world by economic conquest.

Most alarming is the rise in the incidence of anti-Asian violence in the US. Although it is difficult to establish conclusively a link between these incidents and bilateral tensions, the perception that the US is suffering from a sinister Japanese economic onslaught has fed racially motivated sentiments and behavior. A dramatic example is that of Vincent Chin, the 27-year-old American of Chinese ancestry beaten to death in Detroit in 1982 by two white men, one of them an unemployed auto worker who reportedly mistook his victim for a Japanese national and therefore ``responsible'' for his plight.

The Japanese image of the US is in flux. As the fortieth anniversary of the end of World War II approaches, many Japanese are reassessing their modern history. Fundamental to such a reassessment is defining Japan's role vis-`a-vis Asia and the West, in particular the US. Three recent items of popular culture indicate some major themes that concern the Japanese public.

The first, Oshin, was a daily television series last year that enjoyed the highest audience ratings ever recorded in Japan. Lamenting her country's emphasis on economic success at the expense of traditional values, the author allegorically traced the rise of modern Japan through the life of her virtuous and diligent heroine. The second, a five-hour documentary film casting doubts on the legitimacy of the Tokyo war crimes trial, attracted nationwide attention and acclaim. The third is a best-selling, three-volume epic novel, serialized on television this year, that explores US-Japan relations in the 1930s and '40s. A boldly revisionist account dwelling on Japan's victimization at the hands of the US, its author claims to uncover the ``truths of history'' by reinterpreting the Pacific war, the incarceration of Japanese-Americans in 1942, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Tokyo war crimes trial.

Although heads of state and cabinet officials may change every few years, a people's long-held prejudices and deeply cherished beliefs are not likely to fade so quickly. Nor will structural differences in national economies disappear overnight. Thus as we watch Mr. Nakasone and Mr. Reagan on the evening news this week smiling, shaking hands, and proclaiming that all is well between the US and Japan, those of us concerned about the bilateral relationship need to look beyond the summit. We must recognize once again that we should not take the relationship for granted, that we cannot afford to be complacent about sharing a commonality of interests, and that managing the alliance requires hard work, foresight, and the willingness and ability on both sides to compromise for the good of the long-term relationship.

Glen S. Fukushima, an American attorney based in Los Angeles, was a Fulbright fellow from Harvard University in Tokyo, 1982-84.

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