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Hollywood's rainbow leads Japanese astray

Back in the heyday of Japan's buying spree in America, when Tokyo's most ostentatious restaurants were still topping their sushi with edible gold leaf, the chairman of Sony, Akio Morita, had a simple prescription for Americans who worried that their cultural treasures were falling into Japanese hands.

"If you don't want Japan to buy it," he said breezily over dinner one night just after he engineered the purchase of Columbia Pictures, "don't sell it."

Five years later, the shopping should be better than ever for the Japanese. The yen is stronger than any time in modern history, making acquisition of American properties even cheaper for Japanese investors.

Yet Japanese investment in the United States has plummeted 50 percent, from $32-billion in 1989 to less than $15-billion last year. And no one in Congress is about to hold hearings to learn if Nintendo plans to relocate the Seattle Mariners to Kyoto.

After a series of embarrassing disasters _ in real estate, in tire-making, and most conspicuously in Hollywood _ it turns out the hearings should have been held in the Japanese parliament. And the questioning should have followed a different line: How did so many America-savvy industrialists get suckered into paying billions of dollars for assets that have since melted away?

After dropping a modest $5-billion on Columbia Pictures, Sony spent another $500-million or so (the exact figure is in dispute) to win the services of two of Hollywood's golden names, Jon Peters and Peter Guber. Both have since flown the coop, Mr. Peters in 1991 and Mr. Guber two weeks ago, and Columbia is said to be hemorrhaging money.

But that may turn out to be the lesser debacle when compared to the choices facing Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., the world's largest consumer electronics company, known in America for its Panasonic products.

Matsushita spent $6.1-billion for MCA Inc., the parent of Universal pictures, in 1990. At the time the move seemed driven chiefly by Matsushita's 40-year inferiority complex about Sony's seemingly keen understanding of American consumers.

And of course there was a lot of vague talk about a new era of multimedia in which the riches will flow to those who can create "synergy" between software and hardware.

Then last week, they discovered that they have more to learn about synergy, Hollywood-style. Two of MCA's biggest creative talents, the filmmaker Steven Spielberg and the billionaire record producer David Geffen, announced they would head off to start their own entertainment company with the former head of Walt Disney studios, Jeffrey Katzenberg.

They may soon be joined by the two leaders of MCA, Lew R. Wasserman and Sidney J. Sheinberg, who are reportedly preparing to tell Matsushita that they want to buy the studio back _ presumably at a hefty discount _ or depart as well, leaving Matsushita with a beautiful back lot and no one to run it.

While the American movie industry was twittering about the creation of the first new studio in half a century and a potentially seismic realignment of creative talent in Hollywood, it's a safe bet that the view from Tokyo was not tinged with the same excitement. There, such an act of corporate disloyalty is virtually unthinkable. And there would be swift and effective ways to deal with restless samurai who defected.

What happened in the 1980s was that Japan leapt from one form of investing, in which it retained total control, into another in which it held virtually none.

When Honda built its plants in Tennessee or Toshiba made chips in California, the Japanese came as the teacher. No major decision was made without checking with Tokyo.

But Japan's executives knew far better than to apply such management techniques to the wild egos of Hollywood or, for that matter, in the research facilities they set up from Palo Alto to Cambridge. They reveled in the stories of these wild and crazy Americans, and their extravagant ways.

The result is that none of Congress' worst fears about Japanese efforts to hijack American culture came true. It was hard to find a Japanese face in the hallway at Columbia or Universal.

When there were arguments across the Pacific, they were usually about money, not content. But the result, as many Japanese executives privately lament, is that they never learned the culture they bought into.

When Norio Ohga, the president of Sony, was asked at a lunch earlier this year about whatever happened to synergy, he talked briefly about how Sony improved the sound in movie theaters and then changed the subject.

Matsushita may hold on to Universal, bravely talking about how it has invested for the long term. The embarrassment of selling off could be too great.

But it will be a long, long while before Japan spends billions at a drop on America's creative juices, no matter how strong the yen gets, and the day could well come when American industry misses that infusion of ready cash.

Instead, these days, Japan's money is going to the region Japan knows best _ Asia _ and into industries it understands. And when Japanese executives get a hankering for Hollywood, they will likely satisfy it by buying a ticket to the movies. After all, in Tokyo it only costs $30 a head.

N.Y. Times News Service, 1994