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COLUMN ONE : 'Japaning' of Europe at Full Tilt : Companies rush for a foothold before the 1992 integration of the European Community. Alsace is a case in point.

August 02, 1990|KARL SCHOENBERGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RIBEAUVILLE, France — The story begins with life falling to pieces for an expatriate Japanese businessman in Dusseldorf. His small trading company goes kaput. His wife abandons him, taking their 10-year-old daughter back to Tokyo and leaving him and the family dog behind.

The man then ventures off on an aimless drive through the German countryside and strays across the border into France, where the heavy hand of fate intervenes. He crashes his car into a haystack in a tiny Alsatian village with the imponderable name of Niedermorschwihr.

There, amid the half-timbered medieval houses, this fugitive from Japan's economic front lines falls in love with a pretty Japanese art student, who happens to be staying in the village.

So goes the plot of "The Blue Skies of Alsace," a television series that aired in Japan in late 1985. Ratings were lackluster, but the show marked the beginning of a Japanese infatuation with this picturesque region in northeastern France. The tourists started coming, followed by a rapid and remarkable influx of Japanese capital into the industrial base of Alsace.

Sony made the first move. Lured here by a local development agency chief with a Japan vision, Sony chose the vineyard town of Ribeauville to construct a sprawling high-tech factory that makes videocassette recorders, compact disc players and 8-millimeter camcorders, and now employs more than 1,000 Alsatians.

Other big manufacturers like Yamaha and Ricoh, and even some small electronic-component makers, have since arrived. Japanese restaurants cropped up in the cities of Colmar and Strasbourg. A Japan-Alsace Friendship Society was born. And an idle local convent was resurrected as a Japanese boarding school, its chapel converted into a kendo martial arts hall.

The sudden "Japaning" of Alsace is part of a process being repeated in one fashion or another in regions scattered all across Europe these days, from the rust pockets of England to resurgent and soon-to-be-reunified Berlin. Direct investment is booming as Japanese companies scramble to get into position by 1992, when the 12 nations belonging to the European Community will integrate themselves into a single market of 320 million consumers.

The fear is that the new Common Market has the potential to become a "fortress Europe" that might make a habit of imposing anti-dumping duties or otherwise crimping imports from Japan. To get around that, the basic Japanese strategy is to establish a foothold inside the ramparts in the next two years and enjoy the EC's privileges of free trade.

Last year alone, the number of Japanese manufacturers with operations in Europe leaped by 22% to a total of 529 companies, according to a survey by the Japan External Trade Organization. Statistics from the Finance Ministry in Tokyo show that during the fiscal year that ended March 31, Japan invested $14.8 billion in Europe--representing about one-third the cumulative total of all of its investment in the region since 1951.

The scale is still relatively small compared to investment from the United States, which has been pumping capital into Europe for decades. In Britain, target of more than a third of Japan's European investment to date, Americans own about 3,000 manufacturing enterprises. The Japanese have 130.

But the intensity of Japan's pre-1992 stampede to Europe appears to be arousing suspicions that a scheme of economic conquest is in the works--much in the same terms that the specter of U.S. economic domination was viewed from this side of the Atlantic some 25 years ago.

The French have been the most vitriolic in sounding the alarm, even though France ranks second among Common Market countries (after Britain) in hosting Japanese plants, and even though local development agencies--like the one in Alsace--are bending over backward to woo further investment.

Echoing nervous industrialists, the French news media are making statements such as "The Japanese Are Killers." That was the headline of a Jan. 12 cover story in the reputable journal Le Nouvel Economiste, which went on to characterize Japan's corporations as predators bent on destroying Occidental industry.

Another French publication, Challenges, which bills itself as "the most European of economic magazines," published a special issue in June titled: "Japan: The Secrets of the New Masters of the World."

French officialdom has helped stain the atmosphere with a little hyperbole of its own, particularly where the automobile industry is concerned and especially when Edith Cresson, the razor-tongued Cabinet minister in charge of European affairs, is speaking. In an interview with a Los Angeles Times reporter last year, for example, she compared the Japanese to "ants."

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