1. Archive

It's time to tone down the rhetoric in U.S.-Japan trade war

It never fails. I go off to a place like the Middle East for a few weeks and a war breaks out somewhere else.

This time while I was traveling through Iraq, Jordan and Israel, the war started on the other side of the world _ in Washington and Tokyo.

That's right, Washington and Tokyo.

I'm talking, of course, about the war of words known as "Japan bashing" or "America bashing" that has been going on for several weeks without let up. So far, it may be only a lot of nasty name-calling, but it's dangerous just the same.

In all fairness, it has to be pointed out that most of the nastiness has been coming from the Japanese side lately. Hardly a week goes by without one Japanese politician or another saying something insulting or downright stupid about the American people or our way of life.

First, the speaker of the lower house of Japan's parliament says that American workers are lazy and illiterate. Then Japan's prime minister, Kiichi Miyazawa, chimes in to say that Americans lack a "work ethic."

Slurs like this aren't new. In fact, compared to what has been said in the past or what gets printed in Japanese newspapers almost every day, the comments by Miyazawa and the parliament speaker are relatively mild.

Even so, there is a disturbing undertone to what has been coming out of Japan these days, an undertone that can be interpreted in only one way _ contempt.

You almost have to conclude that the Japanese _ even our best friends among them _ have contempt for America's ability to compete in many of the most crucial areas of industrial enterprise.

This shouldn't be so hard to understand. In just about every field in which they have challenged us, the Japanese have not only excelled but just about run us out of the game.

Have you tried to buy an American-made transistor radio, television set or VCR lately? Japanese companies already have 30 percent of the American automobile market and predictions are they will have 50 percent by the end of the decade. Memory chips, flat screen displays and other important components in computers are almost a Japanese monopoly.

So the Japanese, who were literally flattened by American technology and power 47 years ago, are understandably proud of what they have been able to achieve since then. If they seem arrogant about it, then that's understandable too, if not very wise.

But what about us? Are we any wiser than the Japanese in trying to sort out our mutual problems? Recent signs aren't too encouraging.

By all accounts except his own of course, President Bush's recent trade mission to Japan was a fiasco. About the only thing it accomplished was to encourage people like Chrysler's Lee Iacocca to continue blaming others for their own management failures.

To make matters worse, this is an election year. Republican as well as Democratic politicians are lining up to bash the Japanese as international trade criminals because they know it will play well with the voters.

One Democratic candidate has even proposed legislation to eliminate America's trade deficit with Japan within five years. I wonder how this same politician would react if the Europeans enacted legislation to eliminate the $17-billion trade surplus America runs with the European Community.

Most of this is demagoguery, of course. The politicians making these threatening noises almost certainly know that protectionist tariff barriers are self-defeating. The fact is that every president since Herbert Hoover _ whether Democrat or Republican and no matter what they promised during their election campaigns _ has favored free trade after taking office.

The politicians aren't the only ones being deliberately obtuse. Owen Bieber, chief of the United Auto Workers union, has accused the Japanese of making rude comments about American workers as part of a plot to undermine American confidence in superior American-made products. Think about this for a second _ Bieber is saying that Japanese politicians accuse American workers of being lazy and illiterate so Americans will buy Hondas and Toyotas instead of Fords and Pontiacs.

What Bieber and the politicians, Japanese as well as American, have known all along is that American workers are as productive and skilled as anyone around.

Even Japan's own figures show that American manufacturing productivity is 20 to 30 percent higher than Japan's. And if you measure it on the basis of purchasing power produced by an hour of work, American productivity is a whopping 62 percent higher than the Japanese.

Another piece of evidence worth noting is that Hondas and Toyotas made in American plants by American workers are just as good if not better than the same cars made by Japanese workers in Japan. In fact, Honda is producing several models exclusively in America and shipping them back to Japan.

Mitsubishi is doing the same thing with large-screen televisions it's making at plants in California.

What all this points to is that the trouble with American industry isn't on the assembly line but in the boardroom.

If the American electronics or automobile industries are still losing ground to their Japanese competitors, it's not because of lazy or illiterate workers on the shop floor. It's because of short-sighted or unimaginative managers in the front office.

Iacocca and others like him need to figure this out quickly.

The sooner leaders on both sides of the Pacific tone down the rhetoric and start thinking seriously about how to solve real problems, the better off we'll all be.