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U.S.-Japan ties are seen slipping to postwar low

TOKYO - As Japan and the United States move toward the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor next year, relations are worse than at any time since the war, according to many business and government leaders. Americans have come to view this island nation as a threat, surveys show. And with the Cold War thawing and U.S.-Soviet ties improving, Japanese worry that they will be assigned the now empty niche as Enemy Number One, according to interviews with academics, diplomats and business executives here.

Rhetoric on both sides of the Pacific has grown shriller. In Japan, a view of America as a lazy and declining giant has become commonplace, while nationalistic tracts, such as The Japan That Can Say No, win wide readership.

In the United States, assessments of Japan as an alien and rapacious power have won new respectability. Many worry that Japan may be vulnerable to making another historic miscalculation about American weakness or resolve. They worry that a mix of economic warfare and psychological miscalculation on both sides is dangerously combustive.

"Are we headed for a serious rupture in the most important bilateral relationship in the world?" William E. Franklin, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan, asked recently. "If the United States and Japan don't change their tune, that is exactly what could happen."

Leaders of both nations agree that no one can afford a rupture between the world's two leading economic powers, which together produce more than 40 percent of global wealth.

While no one here seriously predicts another shooting war, many believe that a trade war would plunge both countries and, very likely, the rest of the world into depression, with Japan succumbing first.

Japan needs Americans to buy its cars, cameras and computers; the United States needs Japanese money to keep its good times rolling by financing its deficit and helping keep interest rates down.

To preserve the alliance, many here say, Japan is seeking to bind the U.S. economy ever closer to ensure that the United States does not waltz away with Europe and its new friend, the Soviet Union.

"It's like nuclear war," said Takatoshi Ito, economics professor at Hitotsubashi University. "You have to have mutual assured destruction to have stability."

But it is precisely such growing dependence on Japanese technology and capital that makes many Americans increasingly mistrustful of Japan's motives. Chalmers Johnson, a University of California Japanologist, warned of a "collision course" if the United States does not whip its own economy into shape so that it can stand up to Japan.

"One can argue at great length, and many people do, whether Japan is fair or unfair," said John Stern, who represents the U.S. electronics industry here. "But the real question is, how long are we going to stand by and get the pants beaten off us?"

Polls show that most Japanese still have friendly feelings toward the United States and want it to remain strong, according to a survey conducted for the Mainichi newspaper in December. Asked to name the country they like most, a plurality of 30 percent named the United States; in a parallel survey of Americans' most-liked countries, only 2 percent named Japan.

But many see the United States slipping.

"When you're number one for a long time, you become complacent, you become lazy, you don't have that same drive anymore," said self-made business tycoon Kazuo Inamori. "You are a proud country and cannot say, 'Help us,' but you need our help."

Along with a growing self-confidence, though, Japanese still see their resource-poor nation as forever vulnerable to bullying.

"You can't make cowboy movies anymore because you can't portray Indians as bad guys, and you won't be making any more movies with atrocious Russians," said Yukio Okamoto, a Foreign Ministry official in charge of U.S.-Japan political relations. "So will you be making movies with Japanese as bogeymen?"