The Almost Rising Sun
Revisiting America's Moment of Japan Hysteria
As you may know, I’m currently writing a book about America in the early 1990s. One of the subjects of the chapter I’m working on at the moment is our country’s moment of panic about the rise of Japan during the 1980s and ’90s. It’s strange to think about now, after Japan’s economy has hobbled through the last 30 years barely exceeding 1% growth during long stretches of that time, but Japanophobia was a full blown cultural phenomenon in the U.S.. Dozens of books were published with titles like The Enigma of Japanese Power (1989) that purported to explain the secret ways in which the Japanese were subverting and supplanting American hegemony. William S. Dietrich’s 1991 “In the Shadow of the Rising Sun”even warned Japan “threatens our way of life and ultimately our freedoms as much as past dangers from Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.” Some of these books fantasized about a future war between Japan and the United States, who had been steadfast allies since the end of World War II. A new Pearl Harbor awaited as Americans were encouraged to remember the old one. Novels like Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun (1992) portrayed Japanese businessmen infiltrating the highest reaches of American government and media and even murdering a blonde woman. (Another thriller of the time, Gate of the Tiger, also featured the murder of a blonde, perhaps pointing to an acute psychosexual undercurrent to the fears of the East.)
Crichton’s book was fiction but he appended a solemn afterward warning of Japan’s designs on the United States and listed the many non-fiction books in the Japan-fear genre he had read in preparation for his book. Most of the examples of this Japan-bashing genre were middle-brow business traveler airport fare or lower-brow mass market dross, but the highbrows got in on the action, too: Yale professor Paul Kennedy’s 1987 The Rise and Fall of Great Powers predicted that Japan would grow “much more powerful” and be the “leading or second nation” in the coming years.
In 1993, Crichton’s novel was made into a movie starring Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes. It followed 1989’s Black Rain directed by Ridley Scott, which featured Yakuza gangsters counterfeiting U.S. currency in revenge for the bombing of Hiroshima. The same director’s earlier Blade Runner (1982) already envisioned a dystopian Los Angeles dominated by Asian culture. According to Andrew McKevitt’s Consuming Japan: Popular Culture and the Globalizing of 1980s America, a survey in 1989 showed seven out of ten Americans believing the “economic threat from Japan” was more serious than the threat from the Soviet Union. Polls in the late 80s and early 90s showed 30 to 45 percent of the country believing Japan would take America’s place as the world’s leading power.
Of course, there was an ugly racist subtext—barely a subtext, really—to all this. While the Japan-bashing genre usually fixated on the aspects of Japanese “culture” that they felt made Japan a formidable competitor to the U.S., they often strongly insinuated these were essential features of the Japanese people. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report on “Civil Rights Issues Facing Asian Americans in the 1990s” directly connected Japan-bashing rhetoric to a surging wave of hate crimes against Asian-Americans, many of whom were not even of Japanese descent. There was the infamous 1982 murder of Vincent Chin by laid-off autoworkers in Detroit who believed he was Japanese, but also less well-known incidents like the 1989 mass murder of largely Southeast Asian school-children in Stockton, California by a man who the Attorney General had said was “driven by a hatred of racial and ethnic minorities.” In 1992, a troop of Japanese-American Girlscouts in L.A. were called “Japs” and told, “I only buy from American girls,” triggering anxieties in their parents’ and grandparents’ generation who had lived through internment. Dr. John Hara, a St. Louis dentist who had been interned with his parents, told the Post-Dispatch, “‘Sometimes I wish we could stamp our forehead with a mark that says, 'Made in the USA.’”
“Made in the USA” was part of the issue. There was a large imbalance in trade between Japan and the United States. Japan rapidly went from a net-importer of manufactured goods to a net-exporter, and its products, especially automobiles and electronics, were often cheaper and more reliable than American-made products. A strong dollar in the ’80s also benefitted importers at the expense of exporters, but Japan was still the second largest market in the world for U.S. goods after Canada. In 1983, the chairman of Caterpillar Tractor, Lee Morgan, commissioned a report that Japan was artificially depressing the value of the Yen to gain an unfair competitive advantage in U.S. markets. “In particular, they argued that restrictive capital market policies discouraged inflows of capital into Japanese markets, thereby suppressing demand for the yen, and increasing demand for other currencies, such as the dollar. As such, the Caterpillar report called for correcting the strong dollar by further opening Japanese financial markets,” Greta Krippner writes in Capitalizing on Crisis: The Political Origins of the Rise of Finance. The Reagan administration took this advice up, since it fit in with its ideological preference for market liberalization, and pressured the Japanese to deregulate their financial markets. They did. But instead of U.S. investments going flowing into Japan, Japanese capital flowed into America. U.S. Treasury bonds became a particular favorite. This came at a fortuitous time for the Reagan administration, which was engaging in furious deficit spending to build up the military: Now the U.S. deficit was being financed by Japanese pensioners.
The Japanese did not stop at Treasuries, either. When Treasury bills declined in value as the dollar weakened after 1985, Real estate became a favorite target: with around $6 billion of American properties bought by Japanese in the 1986 alone, during the fevered bubble in commercial real estate driven by deregulation and junk bonds. Mitsubishi purchased a big chunk of Rockefeller Center, Sony bought Columbia Pictures, and Nintendo looked at buying the Seattle Mariners. This purchase of American properties further inflamed anti-Japanese sentiment with the feeling that our national soil and patrimony was being snatched up by foreign hands. Of course, it takes two to tango: it was U.S. owners invited the Japanese investors in. They did not get particularly good deals, either: they often paid above market rates, a decision which proved unwise when the real estate bubble began to burst in 1989.
Japanese companies also invested in industrial capital. In the 1980s, Komatsu, a producer of tractors and earth movers, opened plants in Chattanooga, Tennessee and Peoria, Illinois. In 1991, its competitor Caterpillar, which had boosted the dubious Japanese financial liberalization scheme, closed two of its plants in Illinois during a dispute with the United Auto Workers. Between 1979 and 1992, Caterpillar halved its American workers and closed six union plants. And it increasingly outsourced its parts production to non-union foreign plants. Caterpillar stayed competitive not through international financial wizardry, but by squeezing its workforce: by the end of the 1980s, barely any Caterpillar families could get by on a single income from the plant. (By the way, in 1992 the average wage at a Caterpillar plant was $17 an hour, considered a stagnant wage at the time; today the average wage remains around $17 an hour.) In 1992, the town of Greece, NY, outraged by comments of a Japanese legislator who, intemperately reacting to anti-Japanese rhetoric in the U.S. press, called American workers “lazy” and “illiterate,” rejected a contract for $40,000 Komatsu excavator, which was $15,000 less expansive than the “American-made” John Deere model. Never mind that ever since 1988, Deere excavators were built by a joint venture called “Deere-Hitachi Construction Machinery.” The slogan “Buy American” in the age of globalization made diminishing sense.
Just as anti-Japanese sentiment peaked in the U.S. around 1992, the bottom started to fall out of the Japanese economy: the baburu keiki—bubble economy—burst and it has never fully recovered. So did the bubble economy of Japanophobia: all the bestsellers ended up in the bargain bin and movies like Rising Sun and Black Rain are cult classics to be smiled about knowingly by cinephiles. The possibility of a future Japanified United States, with Blade Runner-esque megalopolises jammed with neon signs written in katakana or hiragana, is now less a dystopian fear than a nostalgic fantasy. Other than pockets of subcultural interest in anime and our continued appetite for Japanese cuisine (Sushi has saturated a middle America that once recoiled at the prospect of raw fish; Ramen, a comforting street food in Japan, had its moment as a gourmet fad among American foodies earlier in this past decade), the U.S. quickly forgot about its erstwhile greatest foe and took up new interests. During the height of the hysteria, Robert Reich wrote an insightful piece for the New York Times, where he nailed the meaning of the phenomenon:
The ostensible purpose of joining together is to meet the Japanese challenge. But I think that the real logic -- the deep message of these books, hidden perhaps even from the purveyors of the warnings -- is precisely the reverse. The purpose of having a Japanese challenge is to give us a reason to join together. That is, we seem to need Japan as we once needed the Soviet Union -- as a means of defining ourselves, our interests, our obligations to one another. We should not be surprised that this wave of Japan-as-enemy books coincides exactly with the easing of cold-war tensions.
“The central question for America in the post-Soviet world -- a diverse America, whose economy and culture are rapidly fusing with the economies and cultures of the rest of the globe -- is whether it is possible to rediscover our identity, and our mutual responsibility, without creating a new enemy,” Reich wrote. “The authors under review may think not. I hope they are wrong.” We’ve now seen a couple more prospective enemies come and go and we’re still waiting to find out.