Americans are generous and the Japanese are selfish. The Japanese are polite and Americans are brash. Americans are impatient and the Japanese persevere.
Americans may be more well-liked than the Japanese, who still stir black and bitter memories among many Asians for the wartime conquest of their countries. Americans are also viewed as better teachers, both by virtue of the U.S. higher education system and by what is perceived to be a greater willingness to transfer technology and know-how to their Asian partners.
But, as business leaders, the Japanese appear to be more respected. And in the long run, it is the Japanese who will prevail as the leading economic power in the region because of their deep pockets of wealth, product quality, insatiable appetite for information, perseverance, industriousness and familiarity with the rites of the Asian business culture.
Right or wrong, fair or not, these are the perceptions of the United States and Japan from business executives, economists and academics in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan; Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand; Korea and the Philippines. Beyond the statistics, which show Japan on the rise and America fading in regional economic influence, interviews around the Pacific Rim reveal a rich panoply of respect and resentment, envy and awe, fear and frustration with the region's two premier economic powers.
"By far, the Japanese are on top of the Americans," said Willy Tjen, an Indonesian-American business executive of Chinese descent who now lives in Los Angeles. "It's not necessarily because they are better business people. But they are patient and persistent. They open an office and say, 'OK, if I don't get my money now maybe next week; if not next week then maybe next month.'
"The Americans say, 'Oh, that's too far away. I want it now.' "
Despite respect for the Japanese business savvy, Tjen, like many other Asians interviewed, views Tokyo's growing economic clout in the region with a twinge of alarm.
"If a person bullies and beats you at home, you will remember it for your whole life," said one Chinese businessman, who runs a T-shirt trading firm in Beijing. Although the businessman, in his late 20s, is too young to have experienced the Japanese occupation himself, he said he felt a deeper "hatred" of the Japanese than the Americans and claimed 70% of Chinese probably felt the same way.
He may not be far off the mark. In 1986, a Japanese news agency mailed questionnaires to 120 employees of Chinese government agencies and institutions. While 80% valued Japanese products, only 18% felt friendly toward the Japanese people.
In an interview this month, former prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, said there was an "underlying unease" about Japan throughout Asia, exacerbated by the nation's failure to forthrightly admit its wartime errors. In contrast to Germany, he said, Japan has not yet faced its own history nor eliminated its guilt through a national catharsis.
As a result of the lingering mistrust toward Japan, several Asians interviewed urged U.S. businesses to reinvest in the region as a way of countering the Japanese clout. In addition, many say they simply prefer to work with Americans.
"The Japanese will seek to dominate. The Americans are more equitable, looking favorably on merit," said Sudhisakdi Manibhandu, a Thai investment banker and partner in Manistee Ltd.
"Thais on the whole would prefer to have an American partner, but you can't get them. There is a perception that U.S. industry is not interested in overseas markets. Even though the Japanese predominate here, it is not necessarily a matter of choice."
Kim Woo Chong, chairman of the Daewoo Group in South Korea, might attest to that. Daewoo is noted for its reluctance to deal with the Japanese, and most of its joint ventures are with American firms. But after its U.S. partner, General Motors, refused to support its proposal to produce a "mini-car," Daewoo turned to Suzuki Motor Co. It licensed the necessary technology from the Japanese auto maker, established a new automobile company and produced a four-door hatchback scheduled to go on sale next week in Korea.
To be sure, Asian perceptions about Japan may not reflect reality. Several Japanese firms, such as Hitachi and Toshiba, argue that they have been exceedingly fair about transferring technology to their partners in Asia and elsewhere.
In addition, it is virtually impossible to generalize about any particular "national sentiment" toward the U.S. and Japan. If the Daewoo Group balks at working with Japan, two other Korean conglomerates--the Samsung Group and Hyundai Group--are known for their receptiveness.
In general, however, three distinct images repeatedly surfaced in interviews.
Americans are more generous, the Japanese more selfish.
Americans are given higher marks for transferring technology and know-how to their Asian partners, for promoting local staff to top management, for more equitable arrangements in joint-venture agreements.