The complex relationship between the United States and Japan lends itself to mutual distrust. For Japan, the scars left by 1853 (when U.S. gunships forced Japan to allow U.S. trade access), the turn-of-the century “yellow peril” bigotry, and the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are deep and enduring. For the U.S., where memories of Pearl Harbor are still painful, the relationship has recently become more difficult, as the U.S. recession deepens and Japanese politicians disparage the United States. The situation is only worsened when U.S. media substitute facile xenophobic notions for clear-eyed analysis.
The recent 50th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor provoked long discussions of the U.S./Japan relationship. The attack was described by commentators as a fundamental turning point in world history. As Tom Brokaw said on NBC Nightly News (12/2/91), “That surprise attack, of course, catapulted America into a war and changed the character and destiny of this country in a way that few could have imagined at the time.” According to Newsweek (11/25/91), Pearl Harbor led to the Cold War (“the aftershock generated a fear of a nuclear sneak attack”); the CIA (via “an obsession with better intelligence”); and, particularly, the emergence of the U.S. in world affairs (the “galvanic” shock “forged a superpower”). Newsweek stressed, as did other media, the innocence of the U.S.: After Pearl Harbor, the nation was “shaken to the bottom of its soul, its geopolitical innocence in ruins.”
Media routinely framed the political and economic disagreements between the U.S. and Japan in militaristic terms: War was used repeatedly as a metaphor for economic competition. “Many Americans see Japan’s economic juggernaut as a continuation of war by other means,” Time reported (12/2/91). “In some views Japan is already achieving what it failed to win by force of arms: a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.” CBS‘s Dan Rather referred regularly to Japanese assaults on the U.S. economy: “Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor mobilized America against a Japanese military machine bent on dominating the Pacific. Fifty years later, a Japanese economic machine is bent on dominating large parts of the U.S. economy.” (12/2/91)
Some questioned the media refrain about Japan’s economic “assault” on the U.S. As even conservative analyst Richard Rodriguez pointed out on MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour (12/5/91): “It was as though Americans had never heard of capitalism or the way big business influences U.S. foreign policy. It was as though we were innocent in some new game the Japanese had invented all by themselves.”
Japanese capitalism was presented as rapacious and predatory: “Its multinational companies predatorily seek global market share, demolishing foreign competitors in strategically important industries,” the Washington Post reported (1/20/92). “Japan has crossed the line from competitor to predator,” CBS stated (12/3/91). Japan has “a system that does not respond to ordinary citizens, an educational system that puts brutal pressure on the young, and a family culture that belittles women, by Western standards,” according to Newsweek (11/25/91).
Capitalism in the U.S., in contrast, was portrayed as more benign. “The American economy is managed to benefit the consumer, who is given access to cheap imports and protected from overly great concentrations of corporate power,” said the New York Times (12/4/91). Although the context included U.S. plant closings, massive layoffs, and calls for employee concessions, union spokespeople were almost invisible in media coverage of the U.S.-Japanese economic relationship. It took a Michael Kinsley op-ed column (Washington Post, 1/30/92) to point out that the average U.S. workload has increased by 163 hours per year since 1971, or that U.S. workers typically labor the equivalent of eight weeks more per year than West Germans, for example.
Also under-reported was the fact that Japan, with $49 billion in U.S. imports in 1990, buys more American goods than Britain, France and Germany combined (Boston Globe, 1/8/92). Few reports noted that the U.S. trade deficit hit a nine-year low in 1991, down from a peak of $152 billion in 1987 to about $65 billion in 1991 (Washington Post, 1/18/92, 1/22/92).
Race was a primary issue in the debate. While the media provided critical coverage of racist attitudes in Japan toward Koreans, African-Americans and others, it was seldom willing to look at U.S. racism toward the Japanese. If mentioned, U.S. racism was “unconscious” (Newsweek, 11/25/91) or “implicit” (Time, 12/2/91)–the latter term applied to Time‘s own use in 1941 of the phrase “yellow bastards.” Similarly, Newsweek mused on a Pearl Harbor survivor’s reference to “the damn Japs”: “A shock of recognition. A curse that still reverberates 50 years later…. No one in polite society says ‘Japs’ anymore, of course.”
Most media seemed unconvinced that racist sentiments about Japan were a problem, referring dismissively to the “handwringing and complaints about American ‘Japan-bashing’ that had dominated the Japanese news media for weeks.” (Boston Globe news article, 1/8/92) A New York Times op-ed (12/2/91) argued that “the term ‘Japan-bashing’ has seriously undermined any serious discussion.” Japanese complaints about U.S. racism were felt to indicate the “extreme sensitivity” (Washington Post, 1/24/92) and the almost “masochistic zeal” (Time, 12/2/91) of the Japanese.
Despite disavowals of racist intent, most media ran news stories, op-eds and cartoons riddled with racist sentiment. Caricatures of Japanese as men with thick glasses and buck teeth appeared (Boston Globe, 1/12/92), while references to saving and losing “face” were rampant. News stories routinely talked about the “intrinsic martial instincts,” “relentless competitiveness,” and “national character” of the Japanese (Newsweek, 11/25/91). Ted Koppel (Nightline, 12/6/91), even while disavowing views of the Japanese as “evasive and duplicitous,” painted them as both avoiding open conflict and being “among the most aggressive competitors we’ve ever confronted.”
The media consistently questioned Japan’s honesty and trustworthiness. The New York Times noted in a news article on Japanese trade practices in Asia (12/5/91), “There is a constant worry about Japan’s ultimate intentions,” and argued, “The lingering question of Japan’s real motives will always push itself to the fore.” Newsweek (11/25/91) reported that Japan’s failure to face its history fuels “suspicions that linger in American union halls and executive suites.”
Much was made of Japan’s continuing refusal to confront squarely its imperialist and racist history. But the harsh condemnations of Japan stood in stark contrast to the U.S.’s failure to look critically at its own history, a point made recently by June Jordan in The Progressive (2/92): “Why do we forget Feb. 19, 1942, that Day of Infamy, when Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 whereby 100,000 innocent Japanese and Japanese-Americans were sentenced to American concentration camps?”
Aside from explicit evocations of race, media coverage of the U.S./Japan relationship often used terms of power and domination. A New York Times news article complained (12/4/91) that “the new assertiveness on Japan’s part” violated an understanding in which “the Japanese agreed to support and follow America’s lead on political and security issues.” A Leslie Gelb column (New York Times, 1/13/92) warned against contempt for the U.S.: “It is deadly dangerous for Japan to harbor such feelings toward America. Respect for America helps to contain a Japanese cultural arrogance ever closer to the surface and always threatening.” A New York Times news story (1/8/92) quoted an analyst from the right-wing Heritage Foundation who endorsed a relationship of “the United States being in a superior role and Japan in a subordinate one,” saying, “It is nice to have one area where we are still No. 1, still superior.”
The macho pronouncements of business and political leaders passed without comment, as when Chrysler president Lee Iacocca chanted, “We won the hot war, we won the cold war, we’re the leaders of the world” (Boston Globe, 1/11/92), or when General Motors chief Stempel warned the Japanese, “This is no business for sissies.” (Boston Globe, 1/18/92) Patrick Buchanan’s remark that Bush staffer Charles Black was “a geisha girl of the new world order” (New York Times, 1/15/92) combined the racism and machismo at work in much U.S. thinking about Japan.
Margaret Quigley is a researcher at Political Research Associates, a thinktank in Cambridge, Mass. that examines right-wing politics. Research assistance was provided by Andrew Yick.