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EAST MEETS SOUTH - Can Japan Inc. and the Almighty Yen Find Happiness Where the Good Ol' Boys Play?

June 02, 1991|Harry Shearer | Harry Shearer,

America's most charmingly titled daily newspaper, the Times-Picayune of New Orleans, put the story on Page 1. Other, less whimsically hyphenated Timeses probably sent it directly to the recycling bin. But this item told a lot about what happens in the New World Order when the shooting stops.

A Japanese consul, the Times-Pic reported, was scouting business opportunities in the South. The man loved Tennessee--the discipline of the work force and especially the eagerness of the authorities to meet and greet His Excellency.

He was sad to add, however, that it was much harder to motivate your Mitsubishis and Matsushitas to take a look at Louisiana. It wasn't so much that the work force had a more leisurely attitude toward life, an attitude the consul admitted he personally found appealing. His chief complaint centered on his attempts to be officially met by the state's governor, a man whose main preoccupation at the time was switching parties, from Democratic to Republican, to give himself a better shot at re-election.

Unlike Tennessee's chief exec, who nearly tore a hole in the interstate rushing to greet the representative upon his arrival, Louisiana's Buddy Roemer kept the consul waiting for two months. When the meeting finally occurred, Governor Buddy wasn't even wearing a suit. He was in Levis, and his cowboy-booted feet were propped up on the desk. All he lacked, the newspaper observed, was a piece of straw in his mouth.

The story sounded familiar, but it had been recast so skillfully, like an all-woman company of "The Odd Couple," that it seemed new. The Japanese consul was playing the role created by the British colonial governor in India and later successfully re-enacted throughout Southeast Asia by American "special operations" personnel. The visiting mucky-muck finds the locals sadly lacking in the civilized (and civilizing) virtues of home.

We who used to do the judging were now being judged, and found wanting. One of our states fit the new standard of efficiency enough to earn itself a Honda plant, but part of this country is a little too backward to benefit from an infusion of the Almighty Yen.

Or is it? I'll admit that the only reason I've never run for governor is I don't like to wear suits, but the Japanese envoy let his pique at the governor's informality blind him to this peculiar fact: Poor backward Louisiana resembles Japan more than it resembles the rest of this country.

For starters, it's a state where people actually like to eat seafood. Not because of some American Heart Assn. chart that glares at them from the Lagniappe section of the paper but because it's local custom to suck the heads off crawfish.

Like Japan, Louisiana is steeped in culture and tradition and sense of community. Granted, it's hard to imagine New Orleanians standing each morning and singing the Panasonic company song, but if they did, it would swing. And the annual music festival New Orleans hosts is remarkable not only for the breadth of talent it presents but also as an amazingly efficient human organization: It is the only place remaining on the planet where popular music performances, by the thousands, begin and end on time.

And, with the possible exception of the exquisite pantomime of the cartoon-character replicas that inhabit theme parks, no part of American cultural life is more akin to Japanese Kabuki than New Orleans' Mardi Gras Indians--clans of black men who deck themselves out in homemade feathered costumes more elaborate than a Vegas showgirl's, take fanciful Frenchified names and perform long, hypnotic dances and chants with distinctly African roots.

As in Japan, business in Louisiana is lubricated by the open and shameless use of what might delicately be called "monetary incentives." Not even in Koch's New York, or Reagan's Cabinet, will you find so many public officials in very nice suits walking through prison doors. But in Louisiana, those are revolving doors. The possibility of redemption for a jailed governor is as much an article of faith down there as a man's right to drive with an open bottle of beer in his hand.

And in the more rural parts of the state, they still nourish a habit of mind that former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone embraces on behalf of his people: racism.

But the visiting dignitary, distracted by denim, missed all that. It's the colony's fate to be misunderstood. We're no longer playing leading man on the world stage. After eight years of Ronald Reagan, we've now been cast in his old role: hero's best friend.

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