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Green Line Rhetoric and the Japanese

January 22, 1992|BILL BOYARSKY

Attacking the Japanese is one of California's oldest and most dishonorable political traditions.

Early in the century, U.S. Sen. James Phelan campaigned against the Japanese, using the slogan, "Keep California white." Unrestricted Japanese immigration, warned Gov. Henry Gage in 1901, was a "menace" to American labor.

Such talk gave legitimacy to latent racism among California's predominantly white residents. Racist sentiment led to passage of state laws denying Japanese the right to own land in California; to national laws excluding them from immigration and, finally, to imprisonment of Japanese during World War II.

Although I was a small child, I still remember the expressions of relief and triumph in my white East Oakland neighborhood when the Japanese in the area were carted off to Tule Lake and the other prison camps. We accepted the idea that kids disappeared from class, not to be seen until the war ended.

Today, I hear echoes of that old California rhetoric as politicians protest the award of the Metro Green Line commuter train contract to a Japanese firm, Sumitomo Corp. of America.

"Japan is beating us to death," said Sen. Diane Watson, (D-Los Angeles). "Now, we're giving them hundreds of millions of dollars of our money."

Another leader of the anti-Sumitomo contingent is Los Angeles City Councilman Joel Wachs. That's surprising, considering Wachs is one of the council's foremost advocates of tolerance toward gays and others who feel society's scorn.

But Wachs is no stranger to demagoguery. I recall the day the councilman attacked the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power for padding his water bill with "hidden surcharges." It turned out that Wachs hadn't understood the bill and was actually being fined for wasting water.

Here's someone who can't read his water bill correctly pretending to be an expert on commuter train construction.

But mere ignorance doesn't disqualify politicians from this debate. The subject is irresistible to pols desperately chasing votes in a electorate troubled by recession, joblessness and the industrial pounding America is taking at the hands of the Japanese.

They don't seem to understand a central fact: For years, America hasn't been much of a success at making commuter trains.

Today, this country can claim only one of 22 companies producing rail cars worldwide. A decade ago, there there six. In the '50s and '60s, rail commuter lines were already being abandoned around the country, and U.S. train car makers were dropping out.

I covered the commuter train story in the mid-'70s. A big issue in the 1976 campaign was the decline of industrial America--proof that nothing changes. The popular panacea was harnessing Space Age technology to solve earthbound problems, such as traffic congestion. Or, in the words of the PR specialists, "Why can't the country that sent a man to the moon send a street car to Santa Monica?"

Pursuing that question, I visited the Rohr Industries plant in Chula Vista and the Boeing-Vertol Co. in Philadelphia, aerospace companies that were building transit cars. I was impressed. But a few years later, both companies were out of the train business, besieged by cost overruns and equipment failures.

In other words, the experiment failed. Building equipment for city streets required different skills than making a rocket. And the federal government didn't offer much help. Japan, on the other hand, built the Bullet Train.

Thursday, several members of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission bowed to the attacks on Sumitomo and proposed that the agency build its own commuter car, "The L.A. Car," in a $50-million factory that would be owned by the commission.

The pols at the press conference said it was a great idea, apparently unaware that even the Kremlin is dropping this kind of industrial scheme. Of course they'd like it. The county's own factory. What political patronage.

Ironically, Supervisor Kenny Hahn's decision to go along with the other commissioners and back the plan was announced by Mas Fukai, a Hahn aide and Japanese-American.

Fukai is a tough, sophisticated, unsentimental political veteran. But his voice was heavy when he spoke. "All you see in the newspapers is Japanese-bashing," he said.

Fukai worried about how the anti-Japanese rhetoric will affect Japanese-Americans. "I was 15 years old when they put me in a camp," he said. "They say it can't happen again. It can happen again."

Fukai understands the danger of the rhetoric in the Green Line controversy. In the earlier California, attacks on Japan fed--and legitimized--racism in the populace.

That's what frightened Mas Fukai----and others of us with long memories.

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