With a refreshing bit of journalistic acuity, the USA Today reporter James Cox has reminded me how bizarre the U.S. attitude toward Japan has become. Under the headline, “U.S. bullies Japan like no other nation,” Cox noted the astonishing extent of U.S. high-handed meddlesomeness with Japan, suggesting that it is reminiscent of the time U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur ruled the country.

What prompted Cox’s historical comparison was apparently the recent U.S.-Japan talks on Japan’s phone rates. Various reports said that many telecommunications people, both American and Japanese, regarded the U.S. government’s stance as questionable. But that was a matter of no concern to Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Richard Fisher who flew to Tokyo to pound the table. After his demands were rejected, he said he’d take the case to the World Trade Organization.

I must say Cox made an odd journalistic mistake in turning to Ed Lincoln for a concurrent opinion. A former special adviser to the U.S. ambassador to Japan and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Lincoln is famous for displaying his displeasure with the Japanese for not heeding his advice. After all, it was none other than Lincoln who told the readers of Foreign Affairs last year not to return phone calls from Japanese.

In the Cox article, too, Lincoln’s displeasure is palpable. “If [the Japanese] want to be more efficient, more competitive, have a higher standard of living, that’s their business,” Lincoln said to Cox. “I would say maybe it’s time to just shut up and let the Japanese stew in their own juices.”

Still, Lincoln is a scholar and he evinces some scholarly pretensions when he says, “It’s hard to imagine American officials sitting down with the French and telling them to alter their supermarket laws.” One — not to say the main — problem with U.S. officials and academics who get worked up noticing that Japan is not an exact copy of the United States or that it does not gladly accept every demand (and advice) the U.S. makes is their ignorance.

Take the much-maligned Japanese bureaucracy. As Peter Drucker has pointed out in Foreign Affairs, the Japanese bureaucracy is based on the European model — that part of the bureaucracy, I might add, that does not derive from its own history. Not many Americans know this.

Lincoln’s mention of the French and “supermarket laws” makes me think of a few other things.

How to protect and preserve small businesses while devising ways of making them efficient, where possible, has been one of the Japanese government’s central policy concerns since not long after Japan’s defeat in World War II. It is a legitimate concern because it has to do with social policy.

The Large-Scale Retail Store Law was one of the mechanisms embodying that concern. It may have inhibited efficiency, but who is to say that efficiency is the sole purpose of human existence?

Yet the U.S. government, following the argument of just one U.S. toy chain, pressured Japan into changing the law. Recently the toy chain has “retrenched,” shutting down a number of outlets. For now I don’t know the effect of the retrenchment in Japan. But suppose Japanese outlets also shut down as a result, will the U.S. government shoulder the cost of ensuing unemployment?

In a big, sprawling country where social mobility is openly prized (though the reality may be somewhat different), ideas such as that on retail space may be readily tried and, if they don’t work, as readily abandoned. Look at the “category killers.” These huge, unimaginative retail spaces were touted, not long ago, as a bright promise; they are now tottering. But even if they die, leaving cavernous shells stranded on the roadside, few people may complain.

Still, small businesses are considered desirable even in the U.S. as was demonstrated when Mayor Rudoph Giuliani tried to allow a mall-size retail outlet into New York City. Why should the U.S. government impose a uniform view on a foreign nation? Or, to follow Lincoln’s example, how about trying to tell the Germans that they are dead wrong in their attempt to preserve the communal cohesion of small towns and villages through stringent zoning permits and other means?

To return to MacArthur, one recent example of the U.S. as Japan’s bully is the latest edition of the U.S. Trade Representative’s annual report to Congress ( ustr.gov/reports/nte/2000 ). Innocuously entitled “2000 National Trade Estimate,” it is in fact a unilateral indictment of 55 of the U.S. trading partners.

We all know that the U.S. plays the triple role of prosecutor, jury and judge in international trade, but what appalls is the fact that Japan gets the longest list of indictments: 60 pages vs., say, 17 pages given to China and nine to Russia. This is a political document, I know. But is Japan such a heinous trading nation?

One reason the U.S. government gives for this state of affairs is Japan’s failure to implement the two dozen trade agreements it signed with The U.S. Yet most of those “agreements” were reached by the same set of steps: The U.S. makes a demand, Japan refuses, the U.S. threatens with sanctions and Japan buckles.

Aside from the fact that trade agreements often can’t be implemented with mathematical precision, would the U.S. gladly follow through on a promise exacted from it?

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