Japanese businessman's America-bashing book


THE JAPAN THAT CAN SAY NO. Shintaro Ishihara. Simon & Schuster. 160 pages. $18.95. Few books will arrive in U.S. bookstores with as much history and advance impact as this salvo into the economic and political battles between Japan and the United States. A bootleg copy of a best-selling Japanese edition made the rounds of Washington politicians and journalists in late 1989, earning a lot of attention in American news columns and on editorial pages. It appeared -- in the shorthand labeling endemic to our time -- that Japan had found its own America-basher to match the Japan-bashers who populate our shores.

The title is provocative enough. It's clear who Japan's "no" will be directed at -- us. Shintaro Ishihara, a member of Japan's parliament and by all accounts an extremely popular public figure there, is as blunt as his title suggests. Referring to the United States and the Soviet Union, he writes that Japan controls the "high technology on which the military power of both countries rests. Unfortunately, Japan has not used the technology card skillfully. . . . We are like a stud poker player with an ace in the hole who habitually folds his hand."

A couple of things have happened to this book as it traveled from Japan to this authorized U.S. edition. Akio Morita, the chairman of Sony Corp. (which not too long ago rode the headlines by buying Columbia Pictures), was the co-author of the Japanese edition, but he wouldn't participate in this one. Mr. Ishihara is characteristically forthright: "As a businessman, he must consider the consequences of adverse publicity, while I am free to speak for myself." So in addition to his original contribution, reprinted essentially intact, Mr. Ishihara added a second section to fill out the book.

It's not hard to see why the bootleg edition that first made the rounds in the United States caused such a fuss. Mr. Ishihara calls America aracist society, citing, among other things, the use of atomic weapons in World War II. The United States didn't use such weapons on Germany, but "on us because we are Japanese," he writes. "The same virulent racism underlies trade friction with the United States."

He finds Americans at the "terminal phase" of the modern era, "increasingly emotional, almost hysterical, about Japan." He maintains that if Japan held back high-tech components America's defenses would be crippled, and he adds, "Some business leaders go so far as to say that if Moscow would return the four islands off Hokkaido that it has occupied since 1945, thereby clearing the way for a peace treaty, Japan would terminate the alliance with Washington and be neutral." The payoff? "Japan would get exclusive rights to develop Siberia."

This is a short book, and part of its appeal is the shock value of such comments. We are used to hearing the U.S. side of the great trade debate: that Japan still is reluctant to open itself up to imports and foreign economic participation; that Japan is ungrateful for America's protection since the end of World War II; that Japan doesn't pay its fair share for its own defense. Mr. Ishihara gives us the other side, provided by a nationalist who believes his country is ready to maintain its own defense and to take its independent place among the leading nations.

Whatever the merits of the Japan-bashers' arguments about closed markets and the like, it's hard to argue with Mr. Ishihara's point that U.S. economic problems are mainly made in America. He offerssound advice on ways to improve U.S. education: allocate 5 percent of the gross national product to it; set objectives; emphasize engineering and science. He says U.S. managers need a longer-term perspective and America must better control itself -- the scourges of drugs and crimes must be contained.

In some ways, Mr. Ishihara wants Americans to become more like the Japanese: consider lifetime employment; encourage worker participation in management; encourage individual savings.

In the more recently written second part of the book, he strikes a more conciliatory tone, admitting some shortcomings on the Japanese side. He cites prejudice in Japan as well as in America and advocates reform of Japan's complicated distribution system, which keeps prices high. "Preserving dysfunctional practices in the name of Japan's cultural identity is contemptible," he writes. "Deregulation as a result of prodding by our trading partners has given shoppers a choice of less expensive and better products."

With the breakdown of the U.S.-Soviet rivalry, it's easy to believe Mr. Ishihara when he writes, "the conflicts among nations will be increasingly economic in nature." Conflicts over trade will become worse between the United States and Japan, but Mr. Ishihara claims to be a long-term optimist. He thinks America will regroup and, with Japan as a more equal partner, largely shape an emerging new age.

Until then, the war of words and ideas between the United States and Japan is likely to stay hot, with big consequences for both nations' economic health and standing in the world. Apparently immune to the dislike for a "clash of opinions" that he says afflicts many Japanese, Mr. Ishihara here forthrightly enters the battle of minds.

Mr. Lipschutz is a writer living in New York.

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