Trouble made in America? Japanese show ambivalence toward U.S.

February 04, 1992|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

TOKYO -- How widespread in Japan is the disdain for American workers so often expressed by Japanese politicians?

In the latest rebuke of Japan's major economic rival, Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa told a parliamentary committee yesterday that he believed U.S. workers were losing the work ethic and drive "to live by the sweat of their brow." And a former Cabinet minister, now a conservative lawmaker, said Americans workwell only three days a week.

The remarks followed by two weeks statements by Parliament's lower house speaker, who said Americans were lazy, and come against the backdrop of comments over the years by prime ministers and Cabinet members blaming America's problems on low-education level, racial integration or a carefree attitude toward debt.

Do ordinary Japanese agree with such statements -- almost always retracted or softened when they cause a flap in the United States -- or do they really agree with something Mr. Miyazawa said earlier, that Japan should "repay friendship with friendship" by helping the United States get through hard times?

To an American correspondent who has lived here for 3 1/2 years and visited Tokyo on and off for two decades, the answer seems to be a littleof both. Among Japanese, there is a growing ambivalence about an America once widely admired and imitated but now often regarded as a crumbling superpower.

"Whatever happened to the America that never wanted anyone's help, that always said, 'Leave it to us, we can handle it,' can you tell me that?"

Hitoshi Ishio, an electrical engineer, put the issue that way in a question-and-answer session after a speech in Nagoya recently.

After the session, he pursued the question for another hour over beer and peanuts. It was clear that he was mystified, not $H scornful.

Mr. Ishio is 56. For many Japanese of his and older generations, relief at seeing the Cold War end has been tempered by a sense of loss.

Loss, if not of a friend or relative, then at least of a half-century of feeling that Japan had a powerful and self-confident partner on the other side of the Pacific. The kind of reliable, steadying

presence you could take for granted, which is precisely what some Japanese did for decades.

But few Japanese under 35 share that sense of loss.

Japan's young adult generation has grown up not only in a world of steadily rising prosperity but also in a country beginning to sense that, after a century and a half of catching up, its time is at hand.

"The assumption my generation lived by was that Japan was a tiny island country that could survive only if it earnestly learned from the modern world," said Shijuro Ogata, a retired deputy governor of the Bank of Japan.

"The assumption many younger Japanese seem to live by is that Japan has won the race and has nothing to learn from anyone else," he said. "Both assumptions are self-centered and deeply nationalistic, but the new one runs a high risk of a very dangerous arrogance, I think."

Japanese of both generations endlessly say that America's central problems are too much debt and spending -- by government, corporations and individuals alike -- and too little education and investment. Both say those problems are made in America, not in Japan.

Both generations look at America's problems and see a gigantic power passing its prime, so lost on a sea of social and economic miseries that it seems bewildered and unable to get its bearings.

The sight tends to disturb Japanese of Mr. Ishio's and Mr. Ogata's generations. They speak of the problems in tones of worry.

Members of the under-35 generations are more likely to feel indifference at best, disgust at worst. They speak of America and its problems in tones of impatience.

Shintaro Ishihara, the right-wing populist politician who wrote the controversial best-seller "The Japan That Can Say No," rose to political prominence by striking a chord that touches the nationalism of older and younger Japanese.

When the storm over Speaker Yoshio Sakurauchi's remarks broke, Mr. Ishihara said his elder colleague was half right and half wrong.

Right that America's problems are made in America. Wrong to blame them on American workers.

Mismanagement, he said, is the problem -- mismanagement of government policy and mismanagement of critically important industries.

AMERICAN BASHING

* Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, Monday: "I have long thought that they (Americans) lack a work ethic to live by the sweat of their brow."

* Conservative lawmaker Kabun Muto, Monday: "American workers are too preoccupied on Fridays with the coming weekend and cannot throw themselves wholly into their work Mondays as they played too hard Saturday and Sundays."

* Lower House Speaker Yoshio Sakurauchi, Jan. 19: "American workers don't work hard enough. They don't work but demand high pay ... about 30 percent of the workers cannot read."

* Former Justice Minister Seiroku Kajiyama, after the police rounded up foreign prostitutes in Tokyo in 1990: They "ruin the atmosphere of the neighborhoods they move into, the area is becoming mixed, just like America, where blacks move in and whites are forced out."

* Then Prime Minister, Yashuhiro Nakasone, in 1986: said Japan has a high intelligence level while "on the average, the United states is lower because of a considerable number of Blacks, Puerto Rican and Mexicans."

Hours on the job

The following table shows the number of hours worked per year by the average worker in the world's three leading industrial nations.

.. .. .. .. .. .. ..Hours worked

.. .. .. .. .. ..per year

Japan.. .. .. .. .. .. 2,044

United States.. .. .. .1,949

Germany.. .. .. .. .. .1,642

So: Japanese Ministry of Labor figures for year ending March 31, 1991.

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