US knocks on Japan's doors. Visitors ask for economic, social openness

Two American visitors came to Japan this week, bearing the insistent message that these islanders must become a more open society. One was Sen. Frank Murkowski (R) of Alaska, delivering the warning in a political and economic context. The other was Rev. Jesse Jackson, charismatic leader of the Rainbow Coalition, who emphasized moral commitment as well as political and economic openness.

Both messages went to the heart of what most Japanese sense their society must become. That does not mean they exactly welcomed what the two visitors had to say. Many Japanese feel that these days they are being preached at by the whole world.

Senator Murkowski is a soft-spoken former banker, unfailingly courteous whether meeting Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone or the Tokyo press. But his message was tough. Either Japan opens its markets or Congress will pass severe restrictions on Japanese goods and services entering the United States. Reverend Jackson is a deep-voiced arm-swinging preacher, who can look his hosts straight in the face and say, ``If your moral authority erodes, you become isolated in the world community.''

Murkowski's preoccupation on this trip was Kansai International Airport (KIA) - a symbol, to him and to many of his fellow legislators, of Japanese unfairness. KIA is an $8 billion project to create an international airport in the middle of Osaka Bay. While Japanese construction companies did $2 billion worth of business in the US last year, the senator told a press conference Wednesday, US construction firms do almost no business in Japan and have been shut out of all but token participation in the KIA project.

Ted Ury, who has headed the Los Angeles firm Pacific Architects and Engineers office in Japan for many years, faults US builders for not having more patiently and persistently worked to establish a presence in Japan, as his company has done. But it has been a tough uphill climb all the way. Mr. Ury says despite his firm's license, it must usually hire a Japanese company to be its prime contractor, otherwise no sub-contractor would dare work for it.

Some of the very Japanese builders that have been most successful in the US have been most vociferous in trying to keep their US counterparts out of markets here. This in turn has become a highly visible irritant in US-Japan relations.

Murkowski wants the Japanese to change their practices voluntarily. If they do not, he suggests retaliatory measures, the effect of which would be to close off the US market to the same degree the Japanese market is closed to outsiders.

Jackson's task is more difficult. One side of his message was immediately practicable: let Japanese companies in the US hire more blacks and other minorities, appoint more black lawyers and car dealers, and advertise more regularly in the black American press. The other side was more idealistic and related to what is going on in Japan itself.

Jackson was invited here by the Buraku Liberation League, a pressure group representing the country's estimated 3 million former outcasts. Outcasts, in feudal times, were those engaged in occupations the rest of the people considered unclean - slaughtering animals, disposing bodies, tanning hides. Many Buraku people today are in city sanitation services or in the meat or leather businesses. The Buraku people, like Ainus (about 24,000 people) and the Korean minority in Japan (about 600,000 strong) were incensed when Nakasone said three months ago that Japan was a homogeneous country.

Minorities in Japan are far less numerous than in the US but they do exist and have been discriminated against. Jackson spoke of these minorities during his Monday meeting with Nakasone. And in Osaka Wednesday, he told a packed human rights rally, ``Just as I cannot be free until a black American has the right to be president of the United States, you cannot be free until Koreans born in Japan have the right to be prime minister.''

Japanese are not used to being told such things, despite the fact that if one goes back far enough in history, many Japanese have Korean ancestors. The media have given Jackson's visit relatively little coverage.

Slowly, painfully, with many a backward glance, the Japanese are having to grapple with the demand of the times - openness toward minorities and openness toward outsiders wanting to trade and do business here. A cozy, closed society is having to become a little less cozy and a little less closed.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to US knocks on Japan's doors. Visitors ask for economic, social openness
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today