NO ONE could accuse Time magazine of being slow in proclaiming a trend, so the cover of Time's Feb. 10 issue could stand as official notice of a great shift in American thinking: Our long obsession with the (former) Soviet Union has ended; our new obsession with Japan has begun.
Indeed, the Time cover borrowed a familiar motif from the Cold War years. The two flags are dramatically juxtaposed, a study in red and white. The text reads: "America in the mind of Japan, Japan in the mind of America." Inside are stories and polling data that seek to explore the mix of admiration and loathing on each side of the new divide. (As if to underline this tidal shift, the same issue carries a sad little story on the disintegrating Soviet sports juggernaut, going for its last hurrah in Albertville without flag or anthem.)
It could be argued that the sudden fascination with Japan is overdue. Nikita Khrushchev only boasted that the Soviets would overtake America economically; the Japanese actually seem to be doing it.
Still, one is left wondering whether it has become essential to the American character to be obsessed with an external foe. Saddam Hussein's Iraq was a convenient foil for about a year, but too puny to fill the Soviets' great shoes.
Japan has the heft and depth to hang in there for a generation.
Harvard economist Robert Reich has a plausible theory for what's going on. America is splintering along racial and class lines and between winners and losers in global competition. Fearful that we're flying apart, he wrote in last Sunday's New York Times, we seize on an external challenge to bind us together.
Americans, in Mr. Reich's view, "seem to need Japan as we once needed the Soviet Union -- as a means of defining ourselves, our interests, our obligations to one another."
Perhaps so. Americans also are more prone than the citizens of older, more jaded societies to see the world in terms good and evil. If we're destined to always wear the white hats, somebody's got to don the black hats.
But what Mr. Reich's line of analysis misses is that America really does have adversaries in the world. (Just because we're paranoid doesn't mean someone's not out to get us.)
The Soviet Union actually was an evil empire. Don't take it from me, or even Ronald Reagan. Ask the current leaders of the newly independent ex-Soviet states or the former satellites in Eastern Europe.
Czechoslovak President Vaclav Havel, in addressing a joint session of Congress in 1990, talked of how the postwar world was divided into two enormous forces -- "one, a defender of freedom, the other, a source of our nightmares." He attributed his nation's very existence to the willingness of freedom's defenders, led by the United States, to contain and eventually exhaust the "nightmarish power" that was the Soviet Union.
As for Iraq, Saddam Hussein really did invade Kuwait and threaten to dominate the world's oil reserves. Americans wouldn't have cared a hoot about him if he'd restricted his murderous ways to his own subjects.
The case of the Japanese is far more complex, and, contrary to the media hype about Japan-bashing, that complexity is reflected in public attitudes. While Americans may feel threatened by Japan's economic success, a vast majority in a Time/CNN poll expressed admiration for Japanese technological accomplishments, industriousness, educational institutions and respect for family life.
That said, Japan is not an innocent party here. While a lot of Japan-bashing is based on ignorance, there is no shortage of informed and level-headed observers who believe that Japan practices a kind of predatory capitalism that needs to be resisted.
A good friend who has worked in Tokyo for six years and knows the language and customs well is as convinced as any disgruntled auto worker that the Japanese take advantage of America's general commitment to free trade, while thwarting American access to their markets in a hundred different ways. If President Bush had brought along a delegation of American farmers instead of car manufacturers, he says, his complaints about unfair trade practices would have been a lot harder to dismiss.
So how much of the huge trade gap is our fault and how much theirs? Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton says 75 percent us, 25 percent them. My friend in Tokyo thinks that's about right.
That's not the way mainstream Americans assigned blame for the Cold War. So as long as we continue to keep our wits about us, Japan isn't likely to replace the evil empire as the embodiment of all we distrust and fear.
Donald Kimelman, a former reporter for The Sun, is deputy editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer editorial page.