AUGUST marks the 50th anniversary of the climactic events of World War II: the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945; the second bomb on Nagasaki on Aug. 9; and the Japanese surrender on Aug. 14. These anniversaries will occasion reflection and reconsideration, especially in light of the imposing present-day relationship between Japan and the United States.
The August events ended a harsh and bitter war, in which full US engagement began Dec. 7, 1941, with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The events also mark the beginning of a remarkable success story in Japan's postwar development and in US-Japan relations. These accomplishments need fuller recognition.
Commentary tends to focus on tension between the two, notably around trade issues. Yet this conflict pales in comparison with the comity. One of the most remarkable developments in modern history is the rapidity with which many of the participants of World War II put behind them the bitterness of that event.
Just three months before the war ended, Gallup asked a cross section of Americans whether ''the Japanese people have approved of the killing and starving of prisoners ....'' Sixty-three percent said they thought the Japanese public entirely approved of the atrocities, while 25 percent said they approved in part. Only 2 percent absolved the public. Yet just six years later, in August 1951, when Gallup asked Americans to characterize their ''feelings ... toward the Japanese people at present,'' 51 percent said they were friendly, 18 percent said they were neutral, and only 25 percent said they were unfriendly.
By and large, the Japanese have reciprocated this sentiment. My colleagues at the Roper Center and I have recently reviewed a huge collection of surveys in which respondents in each nation were asked to give their feelings and assessments of the other. Since 1981, the Japanese prime minister's office has asked the Japanese public: ''What countries do you like?,'' specifying that they should choose up to three from a list naming many different nations. In each instance, the US has come in first - and by a very large margin over every other major trading partner. (Only Switzerland, which is favorably described in Japanese school textbooks as a model of industry and civility, comes close to the US in popular approval.) On the other hand, the US ranks near the bottom on this question: ''What countries do you dislike?'' In the latest survey available to us, done in March 1994, only 8 percent of Japanese respondents said they dislike the US, whereas 50 percent said Russia.
In surveys taken by the prime minister's office in 1994, 64 percent of Japanese respondents described the relationship between Japan and the US as basically good. Sixty-seven percent called the US-Japan Security Treaty - which was imposed in 1952 when Japan was still subordinate - as useful in maintaining ''the peace and safety of Japan.'' Sixty-eight percent said they would maintain the treaty as is, while only 11 percent would abolish it - either strengthening Japan's own military (4 percent) or disarming entirely (7 percent). On a number of occasions in the 1980s and 1990s, the Jiji Press has taken polls asking the public whether they think their country should side with the ''liberal camp'' of Western democracies, the communist camp, or should remain neutral. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, only about 1 percent chose the communists, and not more than a quarter endorsed neutralism. Roughly two-thirds said they want Japan firmly aligned with the liberal democracies.
In the US, the main source of concern and irritation focuses around the arguments, so often voiced in the news media, that unfair Japanese trade practices have contributed to an alleged American economic decline. This argument has clearly left many uneasy, though the public has by no means bought it entirely. Polls show, for example, large proportions saying that if they are losing ground in economic terms, it is because of poor performance at home, including the efforts of US manufacturers. Americans endorse a free-trade position in which they are permitted to choose between products wherever they are manufactured, including in Japan. Still, anxieties remain.
All of this is at once unfortunate and ironic, since careful economic calculations made by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) show both the American and the Japanese economies growing impressively over the last quarter century, with the US maintaining a substantial lead in living standards. In a new report, the OECD found per capita gross domestic product in Japan (in purchasing power equivalents) at $20,500, next to the US with $24,300. The OECD study also showed the US surpassing Japan by a substantial margin in research and development spending on a per capita basis. In short, Japan has indeed gained impressively in the economic sphere, but not overall at the expense of the US nor in a way that casts doubts on its economic future.
Since World War II, Japan has developed stable democratic institutions and entered the community of free and peaceful states. The Japanese economy has recovered - with American assistance - from the war's devastation and ranks second only to our own. Americans may grumble, but they have resisted moves toward protectionism. They quickly put the war behind them and established sound, if not warm, ties with their one-time foe.
For all these reasons, the people of both countries should be proud.