When Taro Imamura and Yasushi Kikuchi, two students at the University of Wisconsin's La Crosse campus, ventured into the town's main business district on the night of April 21, they had in mind a quiet chat over a few drinks at a local bar.
But, as they were returning to their car a few hours later, the Japanese students were confronted by a group of drunken whites who hurled a lighted cigarette and a racial epithet at them and then beat them severely when they objected, officials said.
"A policeman told me, 'Whatever happens, just ignore,' and maybe I should have just ignored when they threw the cigarette," said Imamura, 22, a sophomore from a suburb of Tokyo.
The incident, while extreme in its outcome, is part of a broader climate of increased hostility in the United States toward Japan and its citizens and toward Japanese-Americans and others of Asian origin, according to those who track the pattern.
"We see an increase in media images we regard as negative," said Paul Igasaki, the Washington, D.C., representative for the Japanese American Citizens League, a group that monitors discrimination against Asians. "We see an increase in acts of violence against Asians in general. We see an increase in newspaper columns and letters to the editor taking an anti-Japanese tone."
Igasaki and his fellow activists assert that this rising hostility is being driven by a complex mix of factors, including fears of a recession, insecurity over the United States' diminished economic status and tensions between the country's white majority and its rapidly expanding Asian minority.
A newly released U.S. survey of 3,004 adults by Times Mirror found that there has been a striking shift in U.S. public opinion over the past three years toward a more negative attitude about Japan.
The poll, which was done in May, found that unfavorable opinions of Japan jumped from 27 percent to 39 percent between 1987 and 1990 while favorable opinions declined from 70 percent to 56 percent.
James Fallows, an American writer who lived in Japan for two years in the 1980s, argues that the poll results can be interpreted merely as an assertion of legitimate national self-interest, not as anti-Japanese prejudice. "There is a tendency among the Japanese press and intelligentsia to . . . interpret any criticism of Japanese policies as hostility toward the Japanese people," he said.
But Igasaki says his group distinguishes between the two. "If someone criticizes the policies of Japan, that doesn't interest us. If they attack Japanese-Americans, it does. We find ourselves quite busy lately."
Meanwhile, in La Crosse, Imamura has resumed his studies after undergoing surgery for a detached retina suffered in the assault.