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February 16, 1992|Walter Russell Mead

NEW ORLEANS — The Red Menace is dead; long live the Yellow Peril.

Communism is no longer a credible global menace, but we have a new king of terrors now: the alleged Japanese plan to ruin our economy by selling us quality goods at attractive prices.

This insidious Japanese plan for world dominion is already providing best-selling novelists with badly needed replacements for shopworn Nazis and newly unconvincing KGB bad guys, but hack writers aren't the only beneficiaries of the new Yellow Peril: Hack politicians and overpaid, underperforming corporate executives do pretty well, too.

For years, Americans have thought of Japan-bashing as a harmless entertainment--a no-cost way for politicians to cater to the ever-influential Stupidity Lobby. But now the rules of the game have changed, and people on both sides of the Pacific need to take note. The Japanese have started bashing back.

This is a bad sign. The Japanese tend to bottle their feelings inside, expressing anger only when they are so steamed up they cannot hold back any longer. For several years the Japanese have been growing increasingly angry with what they see as unfair American attitudes, and now the steam is coming out of their ears.

American workers are illiterate layabouts, says the prime minister of Japan. In response, the Americans produce studies that show American workers are still more productive than the Japanese. This is true, but it misses the point.

The point is that senior Japanese politicians now believe that America-bashing is good politics. The Japanese people are so fed up with the constant whining of the Americans that they want politicians who will stand up to us.

"The present generation of Japanese leaders are disgusting," a prominent Japanese economist, not known for anti-American views, once told me. Using a colorful Japanese idiom not suited for family newspapers, he said, Japan's elderly politicians "grew up under the American Occupation licking MacArthur's (expletive deleted) and drinking his (expletive deleted). My generation is different."

This new generation--people in their 40s and 50s--is now making its weight felt in Japan. They don't like Japan-bashing and they don't plan to take it. Unlike Germans of this generation, these Japanese have not been educated to an awareness of Japan's criminal war record, and unlike their parents, this generation remembers neither the war nor the U.S. occupation. This is a generation proud of what it has achieved, and it believes that its economic system works.

Now that bashing is a transpacific game, with insults flying back and forth like shuttlecocks on a badminton court, both sides need to understand it isn't fun anymore. The two countries in the world who most need good relations with each other, and who can do the most for each other, are embittering their mutual relations with unpredictable consequences.

We've gotten into trouble before. The current wave of Japanese attacks on America is eerily reminiscent of Japanese attitudes in the 1930s. Then, too, many Japanese saw American society as decadent and degenerate. They believed our racially and ethnically mixed society could never work efficiently, and that the United States was on the way down. Underestimating the United States is the worst mistake a country can make--and the Japanese are moving in that direction.

Meanwhile, we in the United States need to think long and hard about where we are headed. Do we want a partnership with Japan, or a rivalry? If we want a partnership, we must accept the need for compromise. Take one example: The Japanese point out with increasing urgency that they pay more for the United Nations than Britain and France combined, but, while the two European countries are permanent members of the Security Council, Japan is not. Japan wants a seat, and it should get one.

This problem, or something similar, is not new. Back in the days of the League of Nations, the Japanese--already angry because they were treated as a second-class power in the Treaty of Versailles--asked for, but did not get, a Declaration on Racial Equality from the League. The humiliating refusal of equal treatment convinced many Japanese that the white world would never treat them fairly, and the controversy marked an important step in Japan's break with Western ideas in the run up to World War II.

Moreover, the United States is going to have to change its attitude in trade negotiations with the Japanese. As it is, whenever our rules conflict with theirs, we insist they rearrange their society to suit U.S. convenience. The Japanese are beginning to point out, more and more insistently, that since our system is the one that isn't working well at the moment, maybe we should learn from them.

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