THE murder of a Japanese businessman in the southern California town of Camarillo last week sounded an alarm. While the case is still under investigation, the killers' motives appeared to involve resentment over Japan's economic penetration of the United States and the loss of American jobs.
It's far from certain that this crime fits into a pattern of similar incidents in the US. Racial motives have not, so far, surfaced in the murder of a visiting Japanese college president in Boston a week earlier. Many in the Japanese-American community, however, believe that animosity toward their ethnic group is mounting, fed by economic tensions. They cite numerous incidents of racial harrassment.
The immediate danger is that some people - swayed by such currently pervasive political themes as "buy American," protect US jobs, and get tough with Japan - might fail to distinguish between international disputes and attitudes toward individuals.
Trade disagreements with Japan should not cast a shadow over Japanese- or other Asian-Americans (or Asians visiting here), any more than the Gulf war should have put Iraqi-Americans at risk.
Around the fringes of society, however, are people who aren't constrained by standards of decency and justice and who are willing to attack individuals because they're seen as part of a hated group. At times of economic and social stress, those fringes may grow.
Political rhetoric can stimulate that growth, unless politicians are careful to make their own distinctions between criticism of a foreign nation and respect for Americans, or other individuals, with ties to that nation.
"Japan-bashing" has always been a bad idea, not just because the economic reasoning behind it is faulty given the interdependence between much Japanese and American industry, but because it can play so easily into racial scapegoating.