PROBABLY most people encounter their first serious case of one-upmanship in high school. Some kid tries to boost his own self-image by putting down others. Powerful nations have been engaged in this form of behavior for centuries. To foreigners, the United States is often seen as a prime example of a boastful, prideful country, full of flag-waving super patriots. Of course, the foreigner's picture may be exaggerated and not recognize adequately the wonderful qualities present in the diverse American scene. But Westerners are just not used to the Japanese engaging in put downs and braggadocio. That is perhaps why this rather strange little book has become so controversial. The first half smells of Japanese chauvinism, as well as hurt feelings.
``The Japan That Can Say No'' is written by a longtime member of the Japanese Diet and a leading figure in the governing Liberal Democratic Party, Shintaro Ishihara. The first section was part of a bestseller in Japan that was probably intended for Japanese eyes only. However, the Pentagon funded a bootleg translation - a bad one, according to the author - which was circulated in Congress last year, and, as usual, slipped into the hands of journalists. It caused such an uproar in the US that coauthor Ako Morita, chairman of the Sony Corporation, has refused to participate in this authorized translation. His was the more moderate half of the original book.
Ishihara has added further chapters to bring it to book size. This translation is readable, straight forward. In a note, the translator says he was under instructions to ``scrupulously maintain the integrity of the Japanese text, lest critics claim that there has been modification or deceit.'' The extra chapters repeat some of the America-bashing in the first section, but are phrased as constructive criticism.
Further, this second section is at least as critical of the Japanese establishment as of the United States. For example, Ishihara agrees with the US position that Japan should reform its retail distribution system, open its public works projects to foreign bidders, and allow US rice growers access to the Japanese market.
The author repeatedly describes himself as being candid and outspoken and wishes Japanese officials were more like him in this regard. He wants them to be tougher in their dealings with the US. For instance, he charges Japanese officials with ``craven capitulation'' to Washington in its deal for Japanese development of the FSX (fighter support experimental) aircraft. ``They believe deference, even to the point of servility, is safer than confrontation,'' he writes. Ishihara would have preferred Japan build ``an indigenous, superior support fighter,'' even if it cost more.
In the US, there have been any number of books bashing Japan. Like those books, the Ishihara book often lacks balance, certainly in the first part. In trade and other commerce, no nation can claim to be pure in treating the goods and services of other nations fairly.
But Japan and the US share many common commercial, political, and strategic interests. Ishihara barely tips his hat to this fact. Like many, he has a tendency to see competition as always a zero-sum game, where gains of one mean losses for another. But that's often not the case. For instance, Japan's superb quality manufacturing techniques are now spreading to many US manufacturers and thereby benefitting buyers of their products.
Basically, Ishihara maintains that Japan is moving toward technological and financial superiority over the US. He wonders if the US is not finished as a great country. He would like Japan to take over its own defense and engage in more Realpolitik. He talks of Japan providing the Soviet Union with computer chips vital to nuclear defense and money for Siberian development as sort of a bargaining tool should the end of the cold war result in a US-Soviet alliance that ignores the needs of Japan. However, considering the industrial clout of Japan and the economic weakness of the Soviet Union, such a US policy surely must be unlikely.
``Japan and the United States should constitute a Group of Two that works to solve global issues,'' he writes. ``An equal partnership would help confirm Japan's status in the world, and I think Washington would see the advantages. In such a relationship Japan would frequently have to disagree, after carefully explaining our reasons.''
He charges the US with racial prejudice against Japan. There may well be something to it. But because of the manner of the charge, one is tempted to reply, ``Look who's talking.'' Many Japanese are not free of biases toward blacks or whites or foreigners. The Korean minority in Japan certainly suffers from discrimination.
Nonetheless, the book offers a fascinating view from the unusual standpoint of a Japanese geopolitician. And when Ishihara becomes more diplomatic, his criticism becomes more often valid, and certainly worth hearing. He even offers an 11-page ``Agenda for America,'' full of suggestions for US improvement, some of them novel.