US-Japan relations are tense these days. Americans are agitated over Japan's spectacular real estate, corporate, and market penetration of the United States at the same time US business remains largely blocked from Japan. A popular book published in Tokyo earlier this year addresses this agitation. And in doing so, has added to American discomfort. Clearly intended for Japanese readers, its pages are an odd mixture of startling assertions and pragmatic approaches that alternatively set off and set back even the most ardent Japan-basher.
``A Japan That Can Say No'' is coauthored by Shintaro Ishihara, a 21-year Japanese parliament (Diet) veteran and a front-runner for the prime minister's slot. The other coauthor is Akio Morita, chairman of Sony Corporation.
A fast seller in Tokyo bookstores, the book made its way to Washington this summer in bootleg version. The 65-page manuscript is made up of sections prepared individually by one of the two authors. Mr. Ishihara writes of American racism, and the need for Japan to better maneuver its technological superiority. He also draws comparisons between the merits of Japan's ``creative'' society and America's ``shifty'' lot.
Mr. Morita makes constructive suggestions to US-based Japanese citizens about integrating into American culture; Ishihara talks of Japanese disengagement from the US. While both are straightforward in their approach, Ishihara is clearly more flamboyant.
``The roots of the US-Japan friction lay in the soil of racial prejudice. ... It is in America's interest to rid itself of prejudice against Asia,'' he says. This is especially urgent, he says because it is ``the end of the modern era as developed by white Westerners.''
In a chapter entitled ``Let's Not Give in to America's Bluster,'' Ishihara writes: ``America wants to steal Japanese know-how.... Japan has advanced so much that America gets hysterical, an indication [of] the tremendous value of that card - perhaps our ace. My frustration [is] that Japan has not, thus far, used that powerful card in the arena of international relations. ...''
A senior staff member of Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina says the US Department of Defense has had the book translated. ``I have a big pile on my desk, and I pass out copies to people,'' the aide says. ``This is definitely Japanese mainstream thinking,'' he says. ``They [Morita and Ishihara] just never figured that it would be read in the US.''
``It's extraordinary,'' says Sen. Frank Murkowski (R) of Alaska, who has his own copy. ``It wasn't meant to be translated, yet it puts forward an interesting view for Americans. It is a reference that we must understand the customs and traditions of Japan and the prevailing attitude in Japanese business.''
Says the less sanguine Helms staff member: ``It makes Congress more steely-eyed ... our suspicions are confirmed.''
Sony Corporation's Morita cuts deep with talk of America's ``deteriorating'' economy and its ``extremely nonchalant'' consideration of the budget and trade deficits. ``Unless the Bush administration handles economic issues very seriously, a worldwide collapse is not just a worry, but a very real possibility.''
Morita tells overseas Japanese executives to become more involved in their local US communities, by going to PTA meetings or by doing volunteer work. ``A little kindness and consideration can turn around attitudes about Japanese people,'' he says. Nevertheless, he warns, ``if the trade imbalance with the US is not rectified, Americans will always say it is Japan's fault.''
Japanese Embassy officials say that Morita is embarrassed by his connection with Mr. Ishihara's blunt language and has sought to distance himself from both Ishihara and the book. But their cooperation was no coincidence, according to Murkowski.
``Japanese business executives set policies in concert with the government,'' Murkowski says. When the Ministry of International Trade and Industry makes a decision, it is a harmony between government and private sector interests.''
Ishihara is US bound in December, when he will visit Washington, according to Japanese wire service reports. Should he venture over to visit Congress, he will have to tread carefully on the Capitol steps, a site where US protectionists once smashed Japanese-made VCRs.