50 Years Later, We Still Won the War

BEN WATTENBERG

November 27, 1991|By BEN WATTENBERG

KYOTO, JAPAN. — Kyoto, Japan -- Fifty years ago, on December 7, 1941, Japanese planes pierced the dawn to attack America at Pearl Harbor. That set into motion events that ultimately made America what, in U.N.-speak, is called the ''S.S.S'' -- Sole Surviving Superpower.

But nothing stands still. Now revisionists ask: Could it be that Japan really won World War II? After all, haven't the Japanese been buying up America, decimating the American automobile industry, running massive trade surpluses while America runs massive trade deficits? So, who won?

America did. Trust me; after five days in Japan I am surely one of the world's great experts.

Join me at a banquet in a private dining room of a fine restaurant in this beautiful and historic city. Thirty of us are sitting on low, legless chairs, the guests of a Japanese industrialist, a fellow participant in a conference that is exploring the Japanese-American relationship. The food is magnificent. It turns out that the Kobe steak goes at about $200 per copy; the cost of the evening runs about $1,000 per person.

Kneeling beside us are geishas and maikos, the young apprentice geishas studying the ancient arts of dance, ritual and conversation. They are dressed in brocaded kimonos, made up in stylized whiteface, with elaborate upswept hairdos.

Soon, they take to a stage to perform ceremonial dances. They return. The restrained conversation resumes. Then our elegant maiko is asked: Does she go to the movies?

A broad smile pierces the white makeup. She goes. She likes ''Robo-Cop,'' ''Terminator II'' and, most of all, ''Pretty Woman.'' She is fascinated by its star, Richard Gere, whose pretty face adorns the kiosks of Tokyo, plugging couture goods.

Japan may, in certain regards, have the world's most successful economy. It is a lovely place. But in a way different from other nations, Japan is also a cultural colony of the American mind, albeit an ambivalent one. That's not what is supposed to happen victors.

It's not just that the Japanese watch American movies (Europeans watch more). Or that so many advertisements in Japan use American faces. Or that the disk jockeys often chatter in English (there are plenty of Japanese rock groups, singing in Japanese). Or that ''60 Minutes'' and ''20-20'' often appear on Japanese television (Japan has a vigorous domestic television business, and may be the world's leader in animation).

Nor is it that a social revolution in post-war Japan was called ''My-home-ism'' (as in ''my home sweet home''). The suburban model for that was, brace yourself, the comic strip ''Blondie.''

It isn't even that much of the Japanese domestic agenda for change is rooted in American concepts of individualism. Japan wants to lighten up. The Japanese want to change their education system away from the robot-memory standard, moving toward the open dialogue of an American classroom (while avoiding America's educational mistakes). Japanese women are on the path to fuller equality.

At root, the Japanese still measure themselves by the standard of their World War II adversaries. Japan is the Woody Allen/Rodney Dangerfield of nations. There is an ongoing identity crisis, remarkably public. Japanese elites ask: What does the world think of us? What should we do, now that we are rich? Why do foreigners pick on us? Why don't we get respect? And, oh yes, who are we, anyway?

The questions are asked generally, but they are directed to America, where the Japanese fixation remains, long after Pearl Harbor. Many Japanese, egged on by their press, believe that ''Japan-bashing'' is America's favorite sport, going beyond trade disputes and into racial realms. The reciprocation is called kenbei, a nasty form of America-bashing among some of the elites, who say America is failing.

We shall see about that. It's been said before, many times, and yet Uncle Sam ended up as the S.S.S. For now, in any event, the yardstick in Japan remains America, the nation that won the war, changed the world and Japan.

Ben Wattenberg, of the American Enterprise Institute, is author of ''The First Universal Nation.''

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