JAPANESE Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa last week criticized the American work ethic. He said the 1980s Wall Street binges set the United States back. He was repeating things US critics have said for some time.

Mr. Miyazawa's comments were, actually, dated. The US recession had already led to economic "truth telling," first by presidential candidate Paul Tsongas and now by many others, including President Bush. Americans know change is needed.

The America-bashing by Miya-zawa was ill-timed. US-Japanese relations are more tense than at any point since World War II. Mr. Bush's bizarre trip to Toyko last month didn't help; neither did comments from Lower House Speaker Yoshio Sakurauchi about "lazy" American workers. A wave of TV ads suggest that Americans should buy US, not Japanese, goods. A tough appraisal of US-Japanese trade is under way.

The bashing rhetoric on both sides must cease. Neither country needs an economic cold war.

Miyazawa's remarks, which reflect a growing view in both Japan and Europe, may prove salutary if they help keep Americans thinking about fundamental issues:

First, a realistic assessment of the post-cold-war world. After spending countless hundreds of billions keeping the peace, US competitiveness is lagging in key parts of the market. More overseas trade reciprocity is needed. But Americans must develop, at home, new industries that will compete abroad. This will require a more strategic approach. That is the game Japanese and Germans are playing. The US cannot stay on the sidelines.

Second, work must be made more meaningful. "I owe, I owe, so off to work I go" is no work ethic. Managers who can really motivate workers can help here.

Third, and more important, it is time for a new political maturity and self-definition among Americans, based on US ideals and experience. America is not only about capitalism and industry. Its measure is not making a car comparable to the Lexus.

Rather, the US has chosen to place a value on pluralism, civic culture, rights, and justice that most countries do not. This is a shaping value. Most of the world asks first: "Who has the power?" In the US the question is: "What is fair?" This seems naive abroad. But it has brought an integration of religions, peoples, and cultures unprecedented in history.

A country can't export its talent for pluralism. But the world desperately needs to live by principles other than power, especially as ethnic tribalism flares. The US example is critical.

The prime minister's comments are well taken. But they are hardly the whole story.

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