Backlash is feared amid nation's fanfare for Pearl Harbor Asian Americans wary of old wounds

November 11, 1991|By Ellen Uzelac cbB

As the 50-year anniversary of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor draws near, Japanese-Americans and Japanese nationals worry that the commemoration has begun to unleash a backlash against Asian Americans in the United States.

The anniversary approaches against a backdrop of U.S. self-consciousness about its diminishing stature as an economic power and the perception by some Americans that "Japan is buying what it didn't bomb."

"Yes, the event should be memorialized," said Naomi Hirahara, editor of Rafu Shimpo in Los Angeles, the nation's largest-circulation Japanese-American daily newspaper. "It was a huge event in history. But we're all fearful of the twist it mighttake if it's tied in to present attitudes about Japan."

A new opinion survey by San Francisco pollster Mervin Field showed that one in five Californians continues to hold the attack on Pearl Harbor against Japan.

So sensitive is the Pearl Harbor commemoration that a number of Japanese corporations have requested that their products not be advertised in U.S. publications that are likely to feature news coverage of the anniversary.

"To use a hackneyed phrase, 'You don't rub salt in old wounds,' " said Joe Etley, a Charlotte, N.C., executive who heads the Public Relations Society of America. "It happened 50 years ago, but the public is still sensitive to it. When a very emotional issue occurs, advertisers pull back."

In Los Angeles, Jerry Rubin of Rubin Postaer & Associates, the agency for the American Honda Motor Co., said, "Obviously, this is a subject we might be sensitive to. You would prefer to be in an editorial environment that's totally complimentary and flattering to your message. We knew the anniversary was coming. It wouldn't be the most desirable environment, obviously."

The Dec. 7 anniversary will be attended by much fanfare: television specials, intensive news coverage, and four days of ceremonies in Honolulu that will be witnessed by thousands of Pearl Harbor survivors, their families and President Bush.

For many Americans, the attack on Pearl Harbor is a moment frozen in time: 2,403 Americans killed, 21 ships destroyed and 328 planes damaged or destroyed.

"The anniversary could be a good opportunity to build relations, but one of our failings is we've tended to ignore relations between the two countries," said Steve Clemons, executive director of the Japan-America Society in Los Angeles, a public affairs organization that draws members from both nations. "We have failed to build new images and, sadly, the last powerful image we have of Japan is Pearl Harbor."

Over the weekend, executives of the Japanese American Citizens League were holding the last in a series of workshops aimed at training members on how to sensitize the public and the news media to their concerns that the commemoration might be used to revive old hatreds.

"Obviously, this is a sensitive issue," said Bill Kaneko, president of the league's Honolulu chapter, who has led training workshops the past two weekends in Honolulu, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Houston.

"I actually had someone track me down at work recently and blame me for everything from the bombing of Pearl Harbor to the Japanese buying up American land," he said. "That's the kind of hysteria that's out there."

Japan's international shopping spree began in 1985, when the yen doubled in value against the dollar, making the United States a bargain basement. Japan's trophies have included several American icons: Rockefeller Center, the Pebble Beach golf course in California, Columbia Pictures.

In fact, the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association is holding its convention next month in a Japanese-owned Sheraton, one of the few hotels in Honolulu large enough to accommodate the group.

"Any time you get together thousands of people with the preconceived notion of the Japanese as an enemy as they were 50 years ago, and any time you get thousands together who have lost loved ones, you will get anger and bitterness," said Barbara Tanabe, a public relations executive in Honolulu. "You roll that in one spot and there's no way a bonfire won't happen."

Ms. Tanabe, a Japanese-American whose clients include a number of Japanese companies, said there have been "significant" cancellations of Honolulu reservations for the first week of December by Japanese tourists concerned about being unwelcome in Hawaii, a popular vacation spot among the Japanese.

In San Francisco, Mr. Field, the pollster, said he was not hopeful that the anniversary would be used as a healing exercise.

"Whenever you start reopening wounds, it's going to be upsetting. The public is in a pessimistic mood, and the country is gripped in a recession. This will only exacerbate hard feelings between the two nations. I think this commemoration is going to make it more difficult to get the economic understanding and rapprochement we'd like."

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