Perception and Reality in Japanese-Black Relations


Some 35 Japanese business executives went to school one evening last week to learn about black America. But for some in the group -- those engaged in manufacturing Japanese automobiles -- the lesson may have come to late.

The subject of the session last Monday -- the same subject that some of the executives and other Japanese participants have been pursuing now for nearly two years -- was "Perceptions vs. Reality: A Discussion of Japanese-Black American Relations."

"In recent times, that relationship has been subjected to some extraordinary strains," wrote Eddie N. Williams, president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, in the foreward of a pamphlet -- a primer of sorts -- prepared for the discussion course. The strains, Mr. Williams added, have been "fueled by a number of highly publicized racial slurs lobbed across the Paciofic by Japanese leaders, and by charges of racial discrimination in Japanese companies operating in the United States."

The Joint Center, the highly regarded black-issues think tank, sponsored Monday's program along with the Japan Commerce Association, a loosely knit, Washington-oriented group of nearly 200 Japanese corporate representatives and individual business executives.

Against the background of Mr. Williams' primer, the executives spent Monday evening sharpening their preceptions of black America: Seated in the ballroom of a Washington hotel, they viewed a portion of "Eyes on the Prize," the award-winning film about the civil rights movement, and heard a lecture on "the black experience" by Eleanor Holmes Norton, the Georgetown Unilversity law professor who is also this city's non-voting delegate to Congress. The next day, they received a stiff jolt of reality.

Benjamin L. Hooks, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, told NAACP members that he was fed up with trying to negotiate with Japanese car manufacturers to make more dealerships available African Americans. He urged the NAACP's 400,000 or so members -- and all other blacks -- to "buy American" from now on when it came to the purchase of cars.

Mr. Hooks came as close as he could to calling for a black boycott of Japanese cars without using the word. He was being cautious, he said, because he feared that an outright appeal for a boycott might leave him open to being sued. Mr. Hooks, besides being the NAACP's director and a Baptist minister, is also a lawyer.

To the Japanese executives who had attended "school" the night before -- particularly those in the car-manufacturing business -- Mr. Hooks' threat had to send some chills up the spine. The portion of "Eyes on The Prize" that they saw portrayed the day in 1956 when Rosa Parks had simply had it with being consigned to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Ala. Her refusal to take a rear seat precipitated the black boycott of the city's bus system which paralyzed the system and brought about Montgomery's capitulation to open busing. (Mrs. Parks' action also set off the civil rights movement -- and introduced the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to the world.)

The lesson was there for the Japanese executives to read: A black boycott, whether of a city bus system or of Japanese cars, could be devastating -- if successful.

There was no immediate indication of how hard Mr. Hooks would push his "Buy American" campaign against the Japanese car manufacturers.

"This is not Japanese-bashing," he said at the Baltimore-based NAACP's 83rd anniversary celebration. "We don't hate anybody. But we want to take care of our own.

While there were 359 minority-owned dealerships among the Big Three U.S. automakers -- General Motors, Ford and Chrysler -- there were 11 such dealerships among the major Japanese car manufacturers, he said. According to NAACP estimates, about 30 percent of black car owners bought Japanese cars -- a figure said to be roughly comparable to overall U.S. car ownership.

"We've been pushing the Big Three for the last several years to get black dealers and we've gotten some response," Mr. Hooks told reporters. But he said there has been little response from Japanese car makers.

"Only smiles and politeness," said another NAACP official last week."

Among those attending Monday night's discussion program was Toshihiro Iwatake, deputy general director of the Washington office of the Japanese Automobile Manufacturers Association.

Mr. Iwatake showed no awareness of what Mr. Hooks had in store for him the next day. Instead, he was expressing some satisfication with JAMA's efforts to control the damage created recently by the speaker of Japan's House of Councillors, Yoshio Sakurauchi, who described American workers as lazy and slipshod.

JAMA had received so many letters protesting Mr. Sakurauchi's remarks that it had mailed out a form response. The "rebuttal, as Mr. Iwatake called it, was attributed to Yutake Kume, chairman ++ of JAMA and presient of Nissan Motor Co., and said that the Tokoyo official's comments "do not represent the Japanese automobile industry's overall perspective on American labor."

All JAMA members with plants in the United States "commended the diligence and dedication of their work force," the response letter said, adding: "JAMA members' American employees meet the highest standard in every way."

Mr. Iwatake did not return a reporter's call for his comments after **TC Hooks' statement. But attached to JAMA's letter was a list of activities by Japanese car manufacturers uder the heading: "Contributing to Local Society; Good Corporate Citizenship." The list included such items as Toyota's 'I Have a Dream summer program'; Nissan's $1 million 'support to the summer school for minorities and others'; and Mazda's 'support for activities by minorities (Detroit Urban League).' No further explanations. And no mention of dealerships.

In the minds of black Americans, at least the recent derogatoryh remarks coming from Tokyo officials about American labor are intertwined with a flow of racist comments and incidents across Japan's history.

One of the Joint Center's pamphlet-primers for its discussion group contains an analysis of racism among the Japanese which offers a striking parallel to a problem Mr. Hooks may face in carrying out his "Buy American" threat.

As a result of what might be called the twist of intergration in modern automobile manufacturing, some Japanese cars are completely manufactured in U.S. plants with American workers, while some American-made cars have Japanese parts.

A similar twist appears to exist in the problem of Japanese-black American relations. The primer's analysis uses Commodore Matthew Perry's naval expedition to Japan in 1853 as an example.

The commodore would invite Japanese guests to his ships for entertainment which "generally consisted of minstrel show caricaturing blacks," the analysis said. The enjoyment experienced by the guests at the black-face performances, the, the analysis continued, would become typical of "the Japanese accepting many of the prejudices of white Europeans and Americans who brought their anti-black bias to Japan."

In other words, as the analysis is titled, much of Japan's racism seems to have been Made in the U.S.A."

Arch Parsons writes on minority affairs

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