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The Samurai Behind the Bow : THE JAPAN THAT CAN SAY NO: Why Japan Will Be First Among Equals. By Shintaro Ishihara (Simon & Schuster: $18.95; 158 pp.)

January 20, 1991|Michael Lewis | Lewis is the author of "Liar's Poker" (W. W. Norton).

An early version of "A Japan That Can Say No" was pirated by the Pentagon from the Japanese original, and appeared in the summer of 1989. Lord knows why they bothered.

Perhaps they were blinded by the seeming importance of its authors: Shintaro Ishihara, a senior Japanese politician, and Aiko Morita, the chairman of Sony. Perhaps they were genuinely alarmed by the call for Japan to build its army, hoard crucial military technologies, play the United States off against the Soviet Union and generally behave in ways a Pentagon official might find objectionable. In any case, since pirates are sexy, the translation created a market where there was none. The circulating photocopies--read by flashlight under the crisp, white bedsheets of Washington's suburbs--fast became tattered and smudged.

The fun is over now that the book makes its formal, legal appearance. Ishihara's crude jingoism benefited from being unpublished; the sneak reader could pretend he had discovered a dangerous and hidden side of the Japanese mind. Gone now is that simple, voyeuristic pleasure.

Gone, too, is Morita, the more thoughtful of the two writers, who withdrew his words and name from the official translation to avoid offending his biggest customers (us). Sitting on 60 pages of used prose, Ishihara was seized by the unfortunate desire to "expand upon my positions," i.e. pad out the text with old pieces from Japanese magazines. So he polished the language of the pirate, made a few indignant noises about the inaccuracy of the Pentagon's translation (lest we think we already know his views), and voila ! A dud.

But a curious dud. It's worth comparing a longish section from the book with the same section in the pirate. "About 1987," Ishihara writes in the book's chapter called "Stand Up to U.S. Threats," "the United States began using a new tactic against Japan. Given Gorbachev's popularity in the West and the reduced threat from the evil empire, Japan-bashing became even more frequent. It was open season on Tokyo as one politician after another made wild, emotional attacks.

"Instead of carefully weighing all the facts, Congress went off half-cocked. Several members, for example, smashed a Toshiba radio-cassette player to bits with sledgehammers on the steps of the Capitol. That was a disgraceful act. During my 1987 visit to Washington, politicians hinted at a detente with the Soviet Union, implying the two Caucasian races would soon be on much friendlier terms."

Now the same passage from the pirate: "America has renewed its bluster in the last year. Politicians must sense that they will win more votes bashing Japan than bashing the Soviet Union. Criticism of Japan by U.S. politicians has taken on a rather hysterical tone these days. I experienced it personally when I was there and met with politicians who told me there was a new power shift between the U.S. and (the) U.S.S.R., as if this development should scare Japan somehow. These same politicians indicated that since both (the) Americans and the Soviets are white, at a final confrontation they might gang up against a nonwhite Japanese."

The second version was made for export; the first to sell in Japan. The groomed version sounds almost statesmanlike, like one of those tediously important articles in Foreign Affairs. It is Ishihara's bid to sound plausible to our ears without backing off his original assertions; only a Japanese reader could envision an American politician whispering about white solidarity.

The same sorts of cosmetic changes were made throughout the book. It's a shame, really. Sounding as it does a bit like the old Saturday Night Live Japanese Night at the Movies skit, the style of the pirate is better suited to the content.

And what of the content? Ishihara restates his sensational claims that since Japanese semiconductors make for more accurate nuclear missiles, Japan can undermine American security by redirecting the semiconductors to the Soviet Union. He makes this point at least four times in 148 pages, with a Tom Clancy-like relish for the details of weapons technology. Yet in the same breath he complains that America doesn't place sufficient trust in its Japanese ally. For example, he asserts, the U.S. Navy would rather Britain than Japan help it track Soviet submarines. I wonder why. Ishihara wants to mock the lingering American suspicion of a nation with a history of surprise attacks at the same time he helps to nurture it.

When he isn't trying to have it all ways at once, he's trying to sound more original and profound than he is. The book is filled with pseudo-intellectual assertions of the sort one might encounter at a dinner party of well-oiled disciples of Henry Kissinger. American politicians are inept because "Americans, with their scant few centuries of history, have never experienced the shift from one major historical period to another."

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