Japanese official uses slavery metaphor to fault U.S. response to rising yen

April 30, 1995|By New York Times News Service

TOKYO -- A Cabinet minister has bitterly rebuked the United States, saying it enslaved the Japanese people as it once enslaved Africans, but he then backtracked by saying he had meant his comments to be off the record.

The official, Transport Minister Shizuka Kamei, was expressing Japan's frustration at its predicament as the yen rises against the dollar.

"If I dare to use a metaphor, there was a time when America bought black slaves from Africa and produced wealth," Mr. Kamei said, according to Japanese news reports on Friday. "The recent behavior of the United States makes me suspect that it may be using Japan and saying, 'There are very diligent Japanese whom you can use as slaves and produce good results.'

"Doesn't it seem that the feelings toward Japan of the United States, the country we democracies depend on the most, have chilled recently? This may sound like the weeping of a jilted woman, but that's the sort of feeling I've got."

Mr. Kamei's remarks underscore the growing anger at what is seen as American indifference to the shift in exchange rates. The yen's trajectory -- to about 84 yen to the dollar now, compared with about 100 yen to the dollar at the beginning of the year -- is a major political issue in Japan.

While Japan is a bit proud of its strong currency, it is extremely concerned about the effects on exporters, who find it much more difficult to compete in international markets at current exchange rates. In addition, even purely domestic companies are now facing growing pressure from imports that are much cheaper because of the strength of the yen.

Mr. Kamei, an outspoken former police official, made his remarks in a speech Thursday night in Tokyo to the Japan Critics Association, a writers group.

After his remarks caused a stir in Tokyo, Mr. Kamei appeared to backtrack, but he stopped short of an apology or retraction. According to Japanese news reports, he told the foreign minister and the chief Cabinet secretary that the remarks were inappropriate.

Asked for a response, he told Japanese reporters on Friday: "This was a place I lectured on the condition of its being off the record. I have no intention of announcing it publicly to the United States."

Americans tend to blame Japan in part for the strength of its currency, saying that it should do more to deregulate its markets. In theory that could fuel extra economic activity, which could lead to more imports and a declining currency. But Japanese officials contend that they are already deregulating markets.

Many economists say that in the immediate future Japan is more likely than the United States to suffer the consequences of the strong yen, so that the problem should be addressed in Japan now.

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