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Tongue Twister

September 28, 1986

Japan is one of the world's most ethnically homogeneous societies. With its long history of isolation Japan has been immune from the patterns of population mixing that elsewhere have resulted from open borders, immigration and conquest. For well over a thousands years, as the scholar and diplomat Edwin O. Reischauer has noted, "there have been no significant additions of blood to the Japanese race." The consequence of this has been the development and nurturing of a profound and pervasive sense of racial and cultural identity. Out of this has come a remarkable ability to mobilize national willpower. Out of it, too, has come an unmistakable feeling of superiority toward other, more racially diverse societies.

Some of this came through last week when Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, in a speech to junior members of his party, seemed to suggest that the United States is lagging behind Japan in achievements because the American population contains large minorities of blacks and Latinos. Precisely what Nakasone said or intended to say isn't clear. One newspaper that reported his remarks thought that he was talking about literacy levels. Another concluded that he was referring to intellectual abilities. Clarification has been impossible because Japanese officials have refused to release the text of Nakasone's statement. Significantly, Nakasone's comments were not at first considered important news in Japan, probably because their thrust reflected views that are commonplace assumptions among Japanese.

The story has been quite different in the United States. In Congress and from black and Latino leaders has come an understandable outburst of anger at the Nakasone comments. The first response from Japan was to say that Nakasone had been misunderstood. Finally, as protests in the United States grew, Nakasone took the rare and--in the Japanese context--deeply self-abasing step of issuing a "heartfelt apology" for the "offense" given by his remarks. Undoubtedly, no deliberate offense was intended; in his comparison extolling the values of homogeneity in Japan the prime minister was simply saying what most Japanese believe. Undoubtedly, too, for all of his experience with the United States Nakasone still has a lot to learn about building relations with the nation--and its people--that is his country's most important friend, ally and trading partner.

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