Japan May Regret Alienating U.S. Customers

GARLAND L. THOMPSON

January 25, 1992|By GARLAND L. THOMPSON

Pride goeth before a fall. Americans have heard that forgenerations, with the volume turned up sharply since World War II. Yankee know-how, which once astounded the world, turned into super-patriotic pride, and before long ''Yankee Go Home'' was heard 'round the world.

Japan's leaders seem hell-bent to relearn that lesson, cast in slightly different language: One does not tick off one's biggest customer with foolish, gratuitous insults.

The most recent irritation arises from remarks of Yoshio Sakurauchi, Japan's speaker of the house. It is ''dubious,'' Mr. Sakurauchi said, that the Japanese could buy as many American products as they promised President Bush. American workers ''turn out so many defective products,'' he said, and Japanese news reports had him adding even more breathtaking comments about illiteracy rates and laziness.

Leave aside the puniness of the promise on autos, the No. 1 product causing trade deficits. We can also acknowledge that Mr. Sakurauchi's aides deny he made the most damning remarks. Still, after ''The Japan That Can Say No'' and repeated disparagements of our diversity, it is clear Japan's leadership has contracted the Ugly American disease.

Mr. Sakurauchi could spare himself some pain by looking at a few salient economic facts before opening his mouth again:

* U.S. Commerce Department figures say the overall 1991 trade deficit with Japan is something like $42 billion. The biggest piece of the deficit comes from cars, of which the Japanese sold more than 3 million here.

* Japanese automakers proudly point to their U.S. transplants when challenged about eroding U.S. manufacturing capability, but a Customs Service probe has caught them talking through their hats. Much of the touted ''American'' content of those transplant-made cars was really tooled and fitted in Japan.

* Studies by U.S. researchers show the Japanese, who still complain of American racism, diligently avoid siting U.S. plants near minority communities. Personnel rules designed to keep out even those minorities willing to relocate have sparked nasty discrimination complaints in the past. And recent news reports show even white Americans claiming discriminatory treatment by Japanese employers.

* Protectionism is a two-way street. In computers, in which the Japanese notably lag American competitors, the Computer Systems Policy Project found that in 1991 only 0.4 percent of all Japanese government mainframe computer buys came from foreign firms. By contrast, 41 percent of Japanese private firms' mainframes were foreign computers. U.S. government mainframe purchases show a 19.6 percent foreign share, despite loud complaints by Japanese makers and some university scientists that U.S. protectionism bars better use of foreign machines.

Those workers Mr. Sakurauchi disparaged are the prime customers for Japanese automobiles and the consumer electronics with which his countrymen have blitzed world markets. Lest he forget, the principal pillar on which Japanese success here rests is consumer acceptance. U.S. consumers think Japanese cars, TVs and stereos are better, stemming from a time U.S. manufacturing was inefficient and U.S. product developments lagged.

Take a good look at those new models GM is turning out, if you still believe that's true. Cadillac won a Baldridge Award not long ago. Auto-magazine writers are making favorable comparisons of its newest car to the best Japanese luxury models. Specialists say the two plants that produce Ford's Taurus in Atlanta and Chicago equal or better Japanese efficiency and that the new Escort, made in Detroit and Mexico, has the highest customer-satisfaction ratings in company history. Even Chrysler has built a brand-new engineering center-cum-plant to crank up quality.

Consumer attitudes can be fickle in the best of times. Japan's industrial leaders question why their products are seen as a threat but Europe's aren't. It takes only one look at cars to see why: total European sales of 347,329 vehicles in all of 1991 in this country, versus more than 3 million for the Japanese.

One needn't bash the Japanese to observe that they are not above using legal mumbo-jumbo and keiretsu compromises to keep out better-quality U.S. products, but want free rein in U.S. markets. Bashing U.S. worker-customers, a trend most recently continued by Mr. Sakurauchi, is bound to change some of those favorable consumer attitudes that keep Japanese companies booming. If that happens, blaming ''jingoism'' in the U.S. won't get anywhere. It'll just be one more counter-productive move.

Garland L. Thompson writes editorials for The Sun.

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