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Standing Up to Japan : America Can Reverse Its Decline the American Way, Not by Copying the Japanese

March 12, 1989|JAMES FALLOWS | James Fallows has reported from Asia for The Atlantic for the past three years. This article is adapted from his book "More Like Us: Making America Great Again," to be published this month by Houghton Mifflin.

CALIFORNIANS MAY think they're part of the new Pacific Rim, even its leaders. But what does the Pa cific Rim think of them?

In some ways, California in general, and greater Los Angeles in particular, still represent the pinnacle of glamour and excitement. Half of the commercials on Japanese TV seem to have been filmed on Southland beaches, among the roller-skaters of Venice or in mansions in Beverly Hills. Half the cars on the road in Kuala Lumpur have "L.A.--I'm on My Way!" bumper stickers, put there when Malaysian Airlines inaugurated its Kuala Lumpur-Los Angeles route. I've seen "California Style" used as an advertising slogan, a restaurant name and a general classy motto practically everywhere in Asia, including China.

But there is another edge to the fascination with California, which is an intensified version of the Asian interest in America as a whole. Carefree and exciting California may be--but, Asians say to themselves, isn't it also becoming decadent and over the hill? Asians often regards Californians in the way that nice, wholesome middle-class teen-agers look on the rock singer Prince or on the dope-head rock groups of yesteryear: diverting, because they are so naughty and irresponsible but not any guide as to how to build a stable future for yourself. Let's watch the Californians frolic in the sun for a while, the Koreans, Taiwanese and Japanese seem to say. Then we'll head back to the library and the workshop.

In January, after Emperor Hirohito's death, Japanese TV ran round-the-clock newsreels of the early days of his reign, including Japan's attempt to erect a puppet state in Manchuria in the 1930s. The relentlessly sober-minded documentaries drove millions of people to Japan's video-rental stores, which did their biggest-ever business in the two days after Hirohito's death. But they also prompted the inevitable jokes about how Japan could avoid such mistakes in the future. "Next time, no Italians!" a Japanese man says to a German in a standard joke about the weak link in the World War II Axis lineup. "California will be our new Manchuria--this time without guns," goes another line.

The very things that seem exciting about California--and by extension, America--also look like its fatal weaknesses to those on the other side of the Pacific. Californians are casual, they are fun-loving, they are open-minded--and that's why Asians can sell them so many VCRs and buy so much of their real estate. (Although the Japanese shrink from the thought of buying or eating rice grown in any alien soil, several Japanese sake breweries are doing a handsome business in California's Central Valley, using California rice.) California is dreamland, rather than work-land, which is why Asians believe they are bound to succeed.

Beyond this conception is the very Asian idea that cultural values, rather than government policies or straightforward business decisions, are the ultimate reasons for a society's economic success. Why has Japan come so far in the semiconductor business? One columnist recently declared in a major Tokyo paper that it is because of the Japanese /Shinto custom of "cleanliness and purification." When chips passed the "1-micron barrier" in miniaturization, he said, Westerners, with their different, impure traditions, simply couldn't keep up. Behind this idea, in turn, is the firm belief that the distinctive cultural traits of Japanese, Korean and Chinese societies now constitute a huge competitive advantage--Confucian-based traits such as obedience, reverence for tradition and fierce loyalty to the family, which in the case of Japan extends to the nation-family as a whole.

Perhaps more than any nation on earth, Japan has succeeded by making sure that people stick to their proper place in the great national hierarchy. Even now, at least 25% of Japanese marriages are "arranged," to ensure that partners meet others from the proper social and economic level. Even now, most promotions within companies are made on the basis of seniority--as at a boarding school where members of each class lord it over the ones below them while fighting among themselves for positions as class officers. It is all but impossible for professional workers to switch from one large company to another after their mid-20s, or for women to find a place in the corporate world. Whether or not it pleases the individual Japanese worker, the system has undeniably been useful in building Japan's trade surpluses. Factories run more smoothly when no one dreams of challenging the boss.

Californians aspire toward just the opposite traits, summed up as "I gotta be me." Therefore, in the Asian view, California and the nation it's attached to are doomed to decline. In three years of interviewing Japanese and Koreans, I've heard "American decline" and "lazy Americans" used so often that the words seem to form natural compounds, like "brazen hussy" or "fellow traveler."

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