Alaska Business Leaders Frown on Japan-Bashing

PICTURE a world map with Alaska's largest city in the center of the globe, roughly equidistant from Tokyo, London, and New York.

This is the way Alaskan business leaders like to view the nation's "last frontier," and is one reason that anti-Japan campaigns by lower-48 manufacturers get a chilly reception here.

For Alaska, Japan-bashing makes no sense, said Paul Fuhs, special assistant to Gov. Walter Hickel and former state director of economic development. "It's a major market for us. You just don't dump on your customers like that."

With $2.4 billion in exports to Japan in 1990 and $2.3 billion through the third quarter of 1991, sparsely populated Alaska tops all US states with its Japan trade surplus, according to the University of Alaska Anchorage's Center for International Business. The nation cited by many lower-48 manufacturers as the culprit in America's recession buys about two-thirds of Alaska's exports.

It is not just the Japanese purchases of fish, timber, minerals, or glacial ice cubes that generate money. Nor is it just the Japanese tourists who come to Fairbanks in the dead of winter to view the Northern Lights. A new cargo industry

One of Alaska's most crucial growth industries is servicing cargo bound from Japan and Asia to US and European markets. Anchorage International Airport handles 95 percent of all Asia-to-Europe air cargo and 70 percent of all Asia-to-lower 48 air cargo, according to the state Department of Commerce. The air cargo business is vital, replacing international passenger stopovers that have nearly vanished because of newly opened Siberian air space and longer-range aircraft that need no Alaska refueling stops.

Most Alaskans are optimistic about their place in the world economy, said Paul Johnson, a University of Alaska, Anchorage, business professor.

"I don't think people in Alaska have very much of an anti-Japanese sentiment," he said. "I think Alaskans are becoming more export-minded, more outward-minded, more active rather than reactive in respect to a global marketplace."

Alaskans, in fact, benefit greatly from Japanese participation in the state's economy, he argues. During the late 1980s, when low oil prices plunged Alaska into a recession, Japanese businesses were almost alone in investing here, he said.

But despite their dependence on the Japanese market, or perhaps because of it, some Alaskans have engaged in anti-Japan campaigns that make officials like Fuhs cringe.

Nearly all the harvest from southwestern Alaska's Bristol Bay, site of the world's largest natural sockeye salmon run, goes to Japan. Striking Bristol Bay fishermen last summer accused the "inscrutable" Japanese owners of local seafood processors of conspiring to halve prices, and cheat both fishermen and consumers.

State and federal investigators found no evidence of collusion, only of a glutted Japanese salmon market and financial troubles among some major Japanese fish brokers, said state Commerce Commissioner Glenn Olds and other members of a special salmon task force. Possible negative effects

Whether anti-Japan campaigns here or in the lower 48 will tarnish Alaska's trade relationship is a matter of debate.

Commerce Commissioner Olds termed the trend "counterproductive.We are worried that this kind of bashing may have a number of negative impacts on many levels," he said. Mr. Fuhs, too, warned that bashing is hurtful to the Japanese: "They're very concerned about their image."

But Johnson said Japanese firms buying Alaskan products are sophisticated enough to separate Japan-bashers from good businessmen and to spot an election-year fad. "These winds have come and gone," he said. "Next year it might be the time of America to criticize Europe."

At a conference held here last month, where the Alaskan-view-of-the-world map was used in the meeting's logo, a stream of Anchorage businessmen apologized to visiting Mitsubishi officials for a local Chrysler dealership's anti-Japan advertising campaign.

For Chuck Talsky, creator of the controversial Chrysler advertisements - featuring photographs of the Pearl Harbor bombing, well-publicized quotes about "lazy" US workers, and the words "Unconditional Surrender??? local response has been a deluge. Since the campaign began, he said, he has been getting about 50 calls a day ranging from excoriatory to congratulatory. The campaign has been the subject of front-page articles in both Anchorage newspapers and all three city television newscasts.

Mr. Talsky argues that by buying Chryslers, Alaskans can show they put their lower-48 countrymen ahead of successful business dealings across the North Pacific.

"You can have a special relationship with the bully down the street, but if he's hitting your brother-in-law in the face, are you still going to think he's a great guy?" he said.

To spread the word that the United States is being taken over by Japan, Talsky said the Anchorage Chrysler dealership plans to give copies of "Agents of Influence," a book by Pat Choate, to each customer who test-drives a Chrysler or Dodge vehicle.

Talsky's arguments drew scorn at the Center for International Business. "I think it would be good if people in Detroit and people at Chrysler would understand that the rest of the country is not going to fall [in] behind them in this Japan-bashing," Johnson said. "Other people in the country are doing very well because of the Japanese."

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