The plot is sinister: Officials in Washington conspire to keep the dollar low and force Japanese authorities to intervene in the exchange market to buy the U.S. currency — not to save vulnerable Japanese exporters from the dangers of a high yen, but to keep the U.S. economy from sliding.
This story line from a top selling “manga” comic book in Japan is entertaining and delightfully implausible. Nonetheless, it highlights growing fears here over seesawing currency fluctuations.
There’s little doubt that if the yen rises too much against the dollar, Japan’s fragile export-driven recovery could sputter. Prices for Japanese products abroad would soar and earnings of major companies would plunge.
It’s true that Japanese authorities have been intervening for months, spending a fortune buying and bolstering the value of the dollar while keeping the yen lower.
Now that dry economic reality has been turned inside out to become improbable fictional fodder for fans of “Golgo 13” — an action hero serial that’s featured in the biweekly Big Comic magazine.
The main character of “Golgo 13” is a macho sniper-assassin whose illustrated exploits reflect the big social, political and financial changes on the world scene.
In the latest three-part series he’s caught up in the center of a dramatic battle between the yen and dollar.
In the real world, analysts say there’s no doubt Japan’s shopping spree for dollars is helping the U.S. economy.
“It’s keeping U.S. interest rates low and helping push up American share prices,” says Mamoru Yamazaki, economist at Barclays Capital Japan in Tokyo.
But Yamazaki believes the intervention campaign has been excessive, fueled by exaggerated fears over a surging yen among Japanese officials and the media.
“Sometimes a strong yen can be a good thing, like from a consumer’s point of view,” he said, referring to how a strong yen would push down import prices. “Excessive intervention is distorting the market.”
Japanese authorities spent a record 20 trillion yen to intervene in the currency market last year to curb the dollar’s slide, and about 10 trillion yen in the first two months of this year alone.
Even so, the dollar has fallen more than 10 percent from last year to 105 yen levels in February but has recovered lately. All the while, Japan has been aggressively snatching up U.S. Treasury bonds to keep their currency from getting too strong.
Japanese officials continue to brush aside speculation that interventions may be finally ebbing.
The dollar fell in Tokyo early Wednesday amid continued speculation that Japan’s interventions would ease. The greenback cost 108.32 yen at 3 p.m. Wednesday, down 1.30 yen from late Tuesday in Tokyo and also below the 108.78 yen it bought in New York later that day.
“Our stance remains unchanged,” Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki told reporters earlier this week. “We believe foreign-exchange rates should move stably in reflection of fundamentals.”
It’s hardly the dialogue of an action hero. But the creators of “Golgo 13” have spiced things up.
The work includes R-rated sex scenes and blood-spattering violence. Although the assassin Duke Togo has yet to appear in the latest episode, he generally kills his victims by shooting them from a distance.
In it, high-profile Washington figures, including one apparently inspired by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, are depicted as intensely worried about the dollar’s possible plunge.
“The Japanese move too slowly,” the character says in one scene. “They’re so slow. That’s why there’s no progress on their reform program.”
An overly weak dollar will not only set off a job exodus to China and India but will cause capital to flee from America, they fret.
The story suggests that the White House has concocted a diabolical trap to force Tokyo to cough up a massive amount of cash to finance ballooning deficits for the U.S. budget and global trade balance while preventing a crash in U.S. Treasuries.
Big Comic editor Naosumi Nishimura says “Golgo 13” appeals to Japanese because it is a fantasy based on realistic portrayals of current events. Since its start in 1968, “Golgo 13” has sold 200 million copies in various formats, including compilation books.
“Our politics are neutral,” Nishimura said, adding that the bad guys and good guys shift from episode to episode. “This is just the way it turned out this time.”