TOKYO — By saying that Japanese society is superior to that of the United States, Japanese prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone drew attention to the huge perception gap between Japanese and Americans.
Make no mistake about it. It was no slip of the tongue when Nakasone said that Japanese society is "far more intelligent" than American society because "there are a large number of blacks, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans" in the United States and "their level is low."
He did apologize for the hurt that his remark caused. But he did not retract the remark. He said much the same thing three years ago when he told patients at the A-Bomb Hospital in Hiroshima that "the Japanese have been getting along well for the past 2,000 years because there are no foreigners on these islands."
In both cases, the remarks were simply reported by the Japanese media, in far less space than if Nakasone had said something about interest rates.
The response of Americans to Nakasone's comment last week--shock and outrage--is an indication of just how little is known about Japan in the United States.
The fact is that most Japanese see themselves and the rest of the world in terms that would strike Americans as racist. The popular image of foreigners is hardly a complimentary one. Foreign actors are invariably asked to portray goons, thugs and rapists, victimizing innocent Japanese.
Most Japanese are not only convinced that they are "racially homogenous" but, like their prime minister, they see a positive value in not having significant groups of minorities.
It is this mind-set that helps to explain why Japan took in hardly any Indochinese refugees, and why foreign businessmen find it so difficult to penetrate Japanese markets. About 5,000 Indochinese have been permitted to settle under various visa arrangements in a country of 120 million mostly prosperous people.
But while the Japanese were severely criticized for their lack of generosity, they were behaving correctly according to their own standards. During the pre-World War II period of militarism, droves of Japanese dissidents recanted their past sins to the police rather than go into exile.
Japan is not a land of refugees. On the contrary, the strong nationalism of today is the ideology of those who stuck it out in a land threatened by European colonization in the late 19th Century.
The question one often heard in Japan in the late 1970s was: Why are the Vietnamese abandoning their country just when it needs them most? According to popular opinion, the Vietnamese refugees would not find happiness in the United States because they would encounter hostility and racial discrimination there.
But while there is little doubt that their sense of uniqueness has helped the Japanese to build an economically strong country, it is this same conviction that prevents them from fully integrating themselves into the world economy. For example, in spite of constant market-opening measures, 99% of the new cars sold in Japan are domestically made. Occasionally, Japanese cars may be equipped with a few foreign parts for export, but not for the domestic market.
Japanese prejudice against imported items is widespread. When the Ministry of International Trade and Industry purchased two token foreign limousines, one West German and the other American, a newscaster on NHK, Japan's public broadcasting system, said on the air, "Let's hope they do not break down." And when the government announced that it would simplify the inspection process for foreign cosmetics, a women's group protested, arguing that foreign products containing chemicals harmful to Japanese skin might enter the country.
It does not make much difference in Japan if an imported product is deemed superior or inferior; it is rarely given a fair crack at the domestic market. Since Japan cannot produce good wine, it heavily taxes imported bottled wine while allowing domestic bottlers to buy foreign bulk wine cheaply and to bottle it as if it were a Japanese product. Quality French and California wines are kept out in this blatantly unfair manner. The intent is clearly to allow Japanese to exploit a domestic market for themselves--to give an imitation domestic product a better chance than the real thing.
Such behavior is an outgrowth of discriminatory racial attitudes. Another example is the unwillingness of Japanese contractors to allow Americans and Europeans to work in Japan.
Right now Japan has a trade surplus in manufactured goods with all its trading partners. No people can possibly explain such an unparalleled achievement in terms of the economic theory of comparative advantage. Not unless, of course, they share with their prime minister a fervent belief in their uniqueness.