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SPECIAL REPORT: Seeking a New World : Case Study / Japan : Beneath Talk of a New Partnership With U.S., Serious Tensions Grow : Officials in both nations warn that the relationship may be headed for its worst crisis since World War II. A recent poll of Japanese teen-agers listed the United States as a greater war threat than the Soviets.

December 11, 1990

TOKYO — Last spring, an unusual series of adult comic books called "The Silent Service" turned into a minor best seller on Japan's big-city newsstands.

The reason was its daring story line: "The Silent Service" was the saga of a Japanese navy submarine crew that obtains nuclear missiles, provokes a confrontation with the United States and declares "a war for Japan's true independence."

No one in Japan took the story seriously, but it seemed to connect with a growing mood of Japanese nationalism--and anti-Americanism--that has both U.S. and Japanese officials worried.

"There is anti-American emotion under the surface here," says Atsuyuki Sassa, a former national security adviser to several Japanese prime ministers. "If there's a real crisis, an isolation of Japan, then all of a sudden a new conservative nationalist party will arise. . . . We have no military capability now. But if we are pushed around, we can't stop the rise of nationalism."

A Wall Street Journal poll found that more Japanese teen-agers listed the United States as their country's most likely enemy in war than cited the Soviet Union (30% named the United States, only 23% the Soviet Union).

The developments are worrisome by any measure. Few countries are as closely linked as the United States and Japan. Half a century after World War II, Americans and Japanese buy each other's products, invest in each other's securities and even admire each other's culture; UCLA sweat shirts are as ubiquitous in Tokyo as sushi is in Westwood. Yet underneath, a subtle and dangerous resentment festers on both sides.

As a result, while U.S. and Japanese officials talk publicly of a vibrant "new partnership" between their countries, they privately warn that the relationship may be heading for its worst crisis since--well--1941.

"This is the one relationship that is as important to us as the Soviet Union or Germany--only, unlike those two, we haven't been able to move ahead," a senior State Department official says. "It's been a real disappointment."

Indeed, over the past 18 months the U.S.-Japanese relationship has seemed to grow increasingly sour. It is as if the two countries are discovering that the only glue that bound them together for 40 years was a shared fear of the Soviet Union, and now, with that gone, they have little else in common.

"I don't think Americans understand Japan at all," confesses a senior U.S. official in Washington. "I think it is too early to say what kind of society now exists in Japan--and how much of it is traditional, how much it has sincerely been changed by the experience from 1945 on, whether it is truly a democracy. . . .

"If you look at the way the system in fact operates, you can read about the Japanese political system in the 1920s--kind of an oligarchical system with power groups sharing and arranging things--and it's not all that different. In the past, it led Japan in very dangerous directions. I don't anticipate (a rebirth of U.S.-Japanese hostility). But . . . I don't know."

A Japanese diplomat agrees about the gulf separating the two peoples. "I was talking with one of our negotiators the other day," he says, referring to the latest round of U.S.-Japan trade talks. "He said the people on our side despise the people on your side. They don't have any respect for them. They say, 'We're talking in terms of 20 years, but the Americans think only of today.' "

Americans and Japanese have long criticized each other's policies, but now they are beginning to criticize each other's way of life--a breach of far deeper proportions.

Americans are increasingly accepting the arguments of the Japan scholars known as "revisionists," who charge that Japan's political and social structure are so different from America's that they will never play "fair" by U.S. standards. Japanese are increasingly listening to nationalists who argue that American criticism is unjustified carping--and that it is Japan, not the United States, that has been making too many concessions.

A tone of mutual dislike has crept into the two countries' endless dialogue; Americans and Japanese are beginning to use language about each other that they would never use to describe other allies--say, Britain or Germany.

When the United States complained about Japanese trade practices, for example, a leading opposition member of Parliament, Masao Kunihiro, sneered that his colleagues viewed the U.S. protests as "the whining of a crybaby." And when Japan's first offer of aid to the military deployment in the Persian Gulf was a disappointing $1 billion, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) denounced it as "contemptible tokenism."

Part of the problem may be that the two countries share a set of mirror-image anxieties. Americans are upset about the idea of Japan surpassing the United States in economic strength and political clout. Surprisingly enough, many Japanese are too.

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