George Bush as Commodore Perry

January 08, 1992

With all the subtlety Commodore Matthew Perry displayed in 1853 as he sailed into Tokyo Bay with a quarter of the U.S. Navy and a letter of friendship from Millard Fillmore, President Bush has arrived in Japan proclaiming: "I come as a friend."

Like President Fillmore, Mr. Bush wants to pry open the Japanese market. He is not relying on gunboats but on 21 American corporation chiefs, including the bosses of the Detroit Big Three whose companies have been clobbered by Japanese competitors turning out cars Americans love to buy.

"We don't have to apologize to anybody," Chrysler's Lee Iacocca asserted after marching down the ramp of Air Force One. To put his own indelible imprint on the occasion, Mr. Iacocca said he hadn't come to "accept whatever favors they can bestow on us." His intent, he said, was to tell the Japanese that "you've got to change." Not us. Them.

If things go as planned, Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa will come up with an array of trade concessions that Mr. Bush will then proclaim have justified his quest for "jobs, jobs, jobs." It is the usual charade that these awkward allies/adversaries engage in when the diplomatic schedule forces them to put a gloss on the huge trade surpluses Japan has run up over the past two decades. These surpluses are the result of Japan's insular protectionism and American profligacy -- hardly the stuff of political speeches.

So there has been a pattern in which the U.S. executive branch colludes with the Japanese government to produce an endless series of trade "packages" designed to contain protectionists running rampant in the U.S. Congress.

What is intriguing about what might be called the Iacocca-Bush variation on a theme by Commodore Perry is whether the American corporate moguls, already on the defensive about their lush seven-figure salaries, will be co-opted into playing the collusion game with Mr. Bush.

Ever attuned to political nuance, Mr. Bush fretted en route to Japan that no matter what favors he extracts from his Japanese hosts, his Democratic adversaries will complain he didn't get more. He must also be wondering how Iacocca & Company will fit into the drama.

Coming precisely one month to the day after the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, with a U.S. recession energizing protectionist sentiment in a presidential election year, the Bush visit could not be more ill-timed. We are left to hope that the prime minister and the president will limit the damage.

As the only two economic superpowers, churning out 40 percent of gross world product, the United States and Japan have an immense role to fulfill now that the Cold War is over and financial/technological prowess replaces nukes and guns as a determinant of global influence. Both have societal flaws that need self-correction. Only then might they fulfill their mission rather than succumb to the hostility that has plagued their relationship since Perry's ships appeared in Tokyo Bay.

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