Whatever happened to Japan-bashing?
The strange birth and unnatural half-life of a semantic imp
It’s hard to remember that there was a time in the early 1980s when the menace Japanese imports posed to the U.S. economy, particularly the auto industry, was headline news, when auto workers took hammers to Japanese cars, and Detroit suits lobbied for higher trade barriers.
Today, not only is Japan’s domination of the U.S. car market a given, but the United Auto Workers’ finest have been told that Japanese factory pay scales are the way to go. Nobody’s talking about raising tariffs to protect the U.S. car market from foreign invaders. And nobody but nobody is bashing Japan. What happened?
The term “Japan-bashing” was the brainchild of Robert Angel, from 1977 until 1984 president and CEO of the Japan Economic Institute, a bastion of the Japan lobby in Washington, D.C., financed by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and since 1986 a political scientist at the University of South Carolina.
New Republic Senior Editor John B. Judis first traced the origins and assessed the significance of “Japan-bashing” in a winter 1992 article for the Columbia Journalism Review. As Angel told Judis then, “I looked around for a phrase to use to discredit Japan’s critics, and I hoped to be able to discredit those most effective critics by lumping them together with the people who weren’t informed and who as critics were an embarrassment to everybody else.”
Angel’s model was the Israel lobby’s use of “anti-Semitism” to stigmatize opponents of Israel’s policies. The implication was that people who indulged in “Japan-bashing” might nurture a visceral dislike of Japan and the Japanese. They might be racists. They might want Japan to suffer. Maybe they had psychological problems. With Hiroshima and the Holocaust only a generation away, nobody wanted to be known as a Japan-basher.
As Angel tells it, he had tried using “anti-Japanism” in speeches and interviews but found that it didn’t stick. Inspired by the British term “Paki-bashing,” he began to drop the term “Japan-bashing” into speeches and discussions with journalists. Last December, toward the end of his last semester at the University of South Carolina, Angel remembered: “I did it by just repeating the phrase during meetings with journalists, as if it was a familiar term. The aim was to get them to think that they thought of it themselves.”
The idea finally took root. Journalists in Washington started using “Japan-bashing” in 1982, and the Japanese press corps in Washington started using “Nihon tataki” in their dispatches home. “I got pretty cynical about the depths to which journalists were willing to be led,” Angel recalls. “But, in a way, they knew. Some of them must have known.”
STORMING THE ACADEMY
“Japan-bashing” soon made the great leap from features columns into the heady air of learned and scholarly interchange. Academics and intellectuals proved no more discriminating than journalists when it came to detecting the planted thought. Introducing an important collection on Western perceptions of Japan in 1997, the writer Phil Hammond, for example, swallowed Angel’s construction whole:
Some argued that the Japan-bashing of 1995 was simply a hangover from the past… However, Morley and Robins suggest that this argument is insufficient to explain the outburst of Japan-bashing in recent years…. This is not to suggest that contemporary Japan-bashing is purely a matter of international politics and world economic rivalry.(pp.xiii-xv).
And why wouldn’t he swallow it? Everyone else did, except for the late Michael Crichton, who came closest in the early ’90s when he claimed that “Japan-bashing” was the creation of pro-Japanese policy advisers close to then-President George H.W. Bush.
Angel gave me the inside dope on “Japan-bashing” in 1998, when we met in Tokyo to discuss a panel on Japanese propaganda we had planned for the Association for Asian Studies conference in Boston the following spring. When our panel proposal was rejected, we decided to turn our presentations into a collection of papers, which duly came out in Japan Forum in 2001.
In a discussion article for our Japan Forum symposium, the economist Edward Lincoln brought up “Japan-bashing” in the light of reactions to “Japan’s Financial Mess,” an article he had published in the May-June 1998 issue of the influential Washington journal Foreign Affairs. Lincoln argued that the only way to get Japan to take a coherent approach to the crisis in the Japanese economy, particularly the impending collapse of its banking industry, was by the U.S. giving Japan the cold shoulder:
Through canceled meetings, unreturned phone calls and a lack of advance notice of American policy moves, the United States can send the message that it no longer regards Japan as a global partner. This may seem like a heavy-handed way to treat the world’s second-largest economy, but under present circumstances it may be the only way to move Japan off a path that is destructive for us all.
In late June 1998, President Bill Clinton made an eight-day visit to China. On his way home in early July, Clinton failed to stop over in Tokyo and Seoul as U.S. presidents had been doing since the early ’70s – but found time to catch some rays in Hawaii.
This was serious. Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs put a brave face on it, and then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright put in a reassuring appearance in Tokyo in July, but many in Tokyo saw Lincoln’s Foreign Affairs article as the real cause of Clinton’s Japan bypass, taking into account his reputation as a “policy wonk” and his sensitivity to the ruminations of Washington think tanks, among them Lincoln’s Brookings Institution.
As Lincoln recalled in Japan Forum, “These arguments resonated with some Japanese and Americans, who now routinely categorize me as a ‘Japan-basher.’”
BASHING BY NUMBERS
In the short term, “Japan-bashing” emerged as an important weapon in the public-relations war being waged in Washington over trade policy and U.S.-Japan economic relations in the 1980s.
But how important was it? A rough, unscientific survey of the use of the term “Japan-bashing” in hundreds of English-language newspaper databases largely in the U.S., but also in Canada, the U.K., East Asia, India and Europe, yields a nuanced picture of the penetration of “Japan-bashing” into global media.
Between the first appearance of the term in 1982 and April 1985, when the second Reagan administration decided to let Japan’s “voluntary” quota on car imports lapse, there were only 22 articles in U.S. newspapers using the term. That is, just when we might expect “Japan-bashing” to have been at its busiest deflecting opposition to Japanese trade practices, it was not much more than a semantic blip on the horizon.
“Japan-bashing” only really got stuck into the news in the ’90s. There’s a steady increase after 1985, from nine uses in 1986 to 107 in 1990, and from 157 in 1991 – when French Prime Minister Edith Cresson declared that “Japan is another universe that wants to conquer the world with its exports” – to a massive 519 in 1992.
What happened in 1992? The headline media event was the publication of Crichton’s novel Rising Sun in January, but in a year chock-full of trade disputes, the novel was more a reaction than a cause. In late July 1993, the film version of the book did great box office in the U.S. and overseas, but even Sean Connery failed to lift “Japan-bashing” above 85 appearances, still mostly in the American press. In all of these, the term was either invoked as a routine disclaimer – “I’m no Japan-basher” – or as a denunciation – “Enough of this Japan-bashing.”
And in the longer term? Since the highs of 1992, the use of “Japan-bashing” has been on a generally downhill course, with 41 mentions in 1994 and barely double figures until lows of eight in 1999 and a miserly five in 2000.
Its most recent appearance came in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix of June 28, 2008. Reporting the failure of the International Whaling Commission meeting in Chile to halt the “No. 1 hunter Japan,” the StarPhoenix quoted Ministry of Foreign Affairs official Ryotaro Suzuki: “I’m not telling you that we’re going to stop the scientific research. All sorts of resolutions and talk about Japan-bashing in the past . . . didn’t stop us.”
In the new millennium, long after “Japan-bashing” had served its immediate purpose of undermining the credibility of critics of Japanese trade policies, Angel’s semantic imp refuses to return to its bottle.
REPORTS OF MY DEATH…
As I write, the U.S. auto industry is on its knees. In the wake of the failure of Congress to agree to a $15 billion rescue in December 2008, some say that General Motors, Ford and Chrysler had it coming. Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker claimed the sticking point in rescue negotiations was the UAW’s refusal to accept pay parity with autoworkers in Japanese-owned factories in the U.S.
Laden with unsold cars, lost jobs and sore feelings, the air between Washington and Tokyo may well be nourishing a resurgence for our old friend. So far, the feistiest commentary on Japan’s position in the automotive debacle has come, interestingly, from Judis at The New Republic:
Japanese companies, which for years have benefited from a one-way deal by which they could sell cars in the U.S. while U.S. companies were stymied in selling cars and trucks in Japan, set up non-union plants in low-wage, low-education, right-to-work states where they can pay less wages and benefits to their workers. … Corker and these other great patriots want to allow these Japanese companies to dictate the wages and benefits that American companies pay their workers. It’s despicable.
Despicable! Patriots! Now that’s what I call Japan-bashing. Or do I? ❶
Judis, John B. “Campaign Issues: Trade” in Columbia Journalism Review, November/December 1992. Online at: http://backissues.cjrarchives.org/year/92/6/trade.asp
Hammond, Phil (1997) Cultural Difference, Media Memories (1997).
Lincoln, Edward “Japan’s Financial Mess” in Foreign Affairs, May/June 1998, Vol. 77, No.3, pp.57-66.
O’Connor, Peter (ed.) “Informal Diplomacy and the Modern Idea of Japan” in Japan Forum, 2001, Volume 13 (1).