My Story on Contempt for America Raised a Storm of Protest

January 16, 2013

Below is the story I published in the Los Angeles Times that caused a fuss and forced me to rethink my attitude towards Japan.

COLUMN ONE : In Japan, Scorn for America : Some see a nation that has fallen from grace. Others express open contempt. Gut-level dislike of the U.S. is now common enough that the Japanese have coined a word for it.

October 25, 1991|LESLIE HELM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — “As a Japanese coming from the Land of the Sun that boasts such works as ‘The Tale of Genji,’ I have nothing but contempt for America,” says Toshiro Ishido, a popular movie script writer.

Akiyuki Nosaka, a famous novelist, calls America a country of “refugees, a nouveau riche country.” Looking at the United States, he says, is like watching “a test run for the decline of the human race.”

“We have to go out of our way to find American products worth buying,” says Takuma Yamamoto, chairman of Fujitsu Ltd. One professor calls America a “vegetating nation,” while another suggests condescendingly that the United States should “become a premier agrarian power–a giant version of Denmark.”

That’s a sampling of the grim views of the United States from a small but influential group of Japanese businessmen and intellectuals. They say America is plagued by crime, poverty and drugs, its families are disintegrating and its children are illiterate. It is a power-hungry country that can destroy Iraq but is incapable of balancing its budget. Its industry is uncompetitive and its executives a bunch of “crybabies” who make no real effort to get into the Japanese market.

“There is something wrong with American society,” says Kazuo Ogura, director general of the cultural affairs department at Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and one of America’s harsher critics. “The United States used to be a model for us to emulate, but now that sense is gone.” Even Japan’s Americanized youngsters, Ogura says, have grown anti-American in their thinking.

In its gentlest forms, this view represents a sad, almost nostalgic sense of loss over America’s fall from grace, a sort of Paradise Lost.

At its worst, the attitude exudes open contempt for America and its people. Japanese have even coined a word for it: kenbei. Literally, it means a gut-level dislike of America, as distinguished from the more commonly used term, hanbei, or anti-American, a term used to describe the Socialist Party’s ideological opposition to Japan’s military alliance with America.

Magazines have trooped out Japanese from all walks of life to comment on such themes as “Why is there kenbei today?” “Can we love Americans now?” and “Why I hate Americans.” Shintaro Ishihara, who once shocked Americans with outspoken comments against the United States in his book “The Japan That Can Say No,” now seems tame by comparison.

“The quality of this contempt is new in writings about Japan,” says Chalmers Johnson, political science professor at UC San Diego. He suggests that the views are widely held by Japanese opinion-makers and that the resulting “emotional friction” may suggest that “Japanese and Americans do not want any longer to be allies.”

The rising feeling of kenbei is really no more than a step in Japan’s process of growing up, counters Seizaburo Sato, a University of Tokyo professor and author of a confidential Foreign Ministry study on the kenbei phenomenon. “The youngster (Japan) is getting stronger while the father (America) is getting older and, like sons so often do, he rebels,” Sato says.

Unlike the hanbei Socialists, those of the kenbei persuasion recognize that Japan must continue to depend on America. As Sato puts it, “The son rebels, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t need his father.” But what is disturbing to some observers is the sense that kenbei has spread beyond intellectuals and reached the young people who, while always ambivalent about Americans, have generally had some warm feelings toward them.

“When I get together with friends to talk, we are all kenbei, ” says Tsumoru Kobayashi, a 24-year-old reporter for Shukan Post, a popular weekly magazine, flushing somewhat in admitting the fact to an American. “We don’t understand why America should be criticizing us when we are economically stronger. Who do Americans think they are?”

Kobayashi says many of his corporate friends even want Japan to break off the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty and get rid of the American bases, although he thinks that is going too far. “If there is more Japan-bashing as a result of the Pearl Harbor anniversary, the kenbei could get much worse,” Kobayashi says. “People are hypersensitive about criticism right now.”

Ivan Hall, professor of political science at Gakushuin University in Tokyo, says the growing belief that America is in decline makes it particularly hard for Japan to swallow criticism from across the Pacific. “The humiliation of having to follow America was made bearable by the idea that America was the model. When that model is slipping, it’s confusing and unpleasant,” says Hall.

It is far from clear how widely this feeling has spread. In a survey last summer conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun, this country’s largest daily newspaper, 24% of those polled cited America as the greatest threat to Japan’s safety compared to 21.8% who cited the Soviet Union. Yomiuri’s pollsters say, however, that a more recent poll is more positive about America and suggests that those earlier fears were a temporary reaction to America’s aggressive role in the Persian Gulf War.

Japanese in surveys have for years consistently rated America the most trustworthy nation, and they continue to do so. Japanese still like the openness of Americans and their willingness to fight for such ideas as the environment and political freedom.

Nevertheless, American officials say the kenbei phenomenon is not something to be ignored. “With the President’s visit coming up, it is obviously something we should look at,” says a U.S. official, referring to President Bush’s trip to Japan in late November.

“Japan’s tendency to draw paranoiac interpretations feeds on itself and can develop quickly,” says Hall, who adds that America needs to act soon if it is to stamp out the sentiment before it leads to “an emotional break” between the two countries.

The United States needs to launch a public relations campaign, suggests Katsumi Samada, a director of the Socialist Party’s policy board. He notes, for example, that consumer groups have linked moral corruption in America to the inappropriate use of chemicals on fruits and have used the argument to fight against imports of fruit.

One wild card in the equation is Kiichi Miyazawa, the veteran politician expected to be Japan’s next prime minister.

“Miyazawa is somewhat anti-American,” says one political observer close to Miyazawa, who notes that unpleasant experiences with Americans after the war gave the politician an “inferiority complex.” Unless Miyazawa’s hard-line statements against Japan-bashers in the United States are balanced by a recognition of what Japan must do to change, the observer adds, “he could be dangerous; he could reinforce the sense of chauvinism and nationalism.”

Observers on both sides of the Pacific fault the Japanese media for overplaying Japan-bashing in the United States. The press focuses on such rhetoric in America to such an extent that it sometimes appears to Japanese as if the U.S. Congress does little else but criticize Japan.

One publication ran a cover expose that cited “confidential sources” in Washington who argued that last summer’s string of Japanese financial scandals were all arranged by the CIA in order to undercut the power of Japan’s Ministry of Finance.

Environmentalists, too, are portrayed as conducting a vendetta against the Japanese. When American environmentalists criticized Japan for overfishing certain types of tuna, Japanese weeklies exploded in outrage.

“What, Don’t Eat Tuna!? Outrageous!!” screamed the headline of an article in Shukan Bunshun, a respected weekly magazine. “Finally they are bashing our food culture,” the article complained, quoting a wholesaler who predicted: “Soon they will ban fishing, and then all Japan will be ruined.”

Glen Fukushima, a former U.S. trade representative now with AT&T in Japan, says Japanese reporters often prod Americans into making outrageous statements. As early as 1989, he recalls, reporters were fishing around for anti-Japanese congressmen to make inflammatory comments regarding the 50th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

But it is not just press reporting on America that is responsible. Japanese cringe at the way Americans have boasted of their victory over Iraq and of the failure of communism.

“Americans are just too arrogant,” says Hirotaka Toyokawa, a young science writer. “What we don’t like is their self-righteousness. They think that justice is always on their side.”

Toyokawa is among the more enlightened of the America critics. He believes that the United States should gradually drift in the direction of less individualism by cutting huge executive salaries, while Japan should gradually shift in the U.S. direction, toward greater emphasis on individualism.

There are also more eccentric explanations for kenbei , suggesting that it has cultural roots that cannot easily be yanked out. Shu Kishida, a professor at Wako University, says that using a Freudian approach to history, he concluded that ever since Commodore Matthew Perry forced Japan to open its gates to trade over a century ago, the spirit of the Japanese people has been split–between an outer self that obeys and follows America for practical reasons and an inner self that responds emotionally to the American invasion of Japanese culture.

“Once in a while, that suppressed feeling of hostility explodes, as in Pearl Harbor,” Kishida says. “Now it is still being suppressed, but it is breaking loose. If something bad happens, it could come out.”

Many of the attitudes toward America grow out of Japan’s own sense of its historical uniqueness and cultural superiority. Europe has music, philosophy and art, Nosaka the novelist says, then adds cheekily, “By the way, my boy America, what do you have?

“Since Poe and Faulkner, all the culture you’ve come up with is McDonald’s hamburgers,” Nosaka says.

Like that of many America-bashers, Nosaka’s resentment is drawn from prewar propaganda and from the days of Japan’s defeat. Since Japan was “abused and brainwashed” by America after the war, he asks, “how can Japan ever love America?”

Nosaka and his allies believe that Japan must maintain friendly ties with America. But his rationale is revealing: “You have to be careful to a wounded lion.”

Many of the criticisms of America strike a responsive chord because they touch on long-held stereotypes of Westerners. Frequent Japanese media reports of Japan-bashing in the United States, for example, grow out of prewar views of Westerners as devils, argues John Dower, a historian at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. That same stereotype surfaces in Japan’s post-Gulf War view of America as war-loving.

Much of the criticism is directed more broadly at the West rather than specifically at the United States. America is the target because “America is the immediate edge of the fist that is hitting them,” says Hall, the political science professor, referring to U.S. efforts to force open Japanese markets.

Another cultural trait that feeds this sentiment is the Japanese tendency to look at relationships in hierarchical terms. With Japanese talking of the American economy as “a big ship which has turned off its engine and is just coasting,” few feel that there is any reason to follow America’s lead.

“We have entered an age when Washington must look to Tokyo for money to fund a war and the U.S. defense industry would face a crisis without Japanese technology,” says the Foreign Ministry’s Ogura, who argues that for the two nations to get along, the United States must accept that mutually dependent relationship.

Some of Japan’s criticism represents a natural result of an attitude that once viewed the United States as something of a paradise. Much of the rumination is over the “good old days” when America was strong and its values were still like those found in the TV series “Little House on the Prairie.”

Jiroo Ushio, chairman of Ushio Electric, recalls being impressed by the orderly, religious, peaceful nature of American life when he studied there in the 1960s. Even then, he says, students who were friendly when he plodded along awkwardly in class suddenly became hostile when he received better grades. Jealousy, he suggests, is also the reason America is now turning sour on Japan.

Michiko Hasekawa, professor at Saitama University, waxes nostalgic about the good old days when Glenn Miller could be heard on the Far East Network, the military radio station. Recently, while watching a World War II movie, she felt an instinctive bitterness at the sight of American soldiers raising the flag over Iwo Jima. Since then, she says, “I can relate to America with a kind of distant yearning as it once again becomes an enemy.”

Some of the complaining represents insecurity on the part of Japanese who feel they now must play a world role but don’t feel ready for it, says Ogura. “Japan is not yet ready to take action, and the result is a lot of frustration that is projected onto the United States,” he says.

But these days Japanese are quicker to attack Americans and American culture and complain of the incessant badgering for Japan to open its markets, change its business culture and even change its American-imposed constitution so it can send troops overseas. There are some who now suggest that Japanese should not be spending so much time studying English but should be focusing on Asian languages.

America’s changing portrayal of itself has also had an effect here. American movies are still very popular in Japan, but they present a different picture of life than they did 20 years ago. Where Hollywood once showed an America of middle-class homes in the suburbs and people living happy lives filled with trivial problems, today’s movies portray inner-city war zones, police violence and family strife.

And increasingly, Japanese have begun to talk of differences in values over such fundamental issues as free markets and human rights. Should the United States be preaching free markets when it cannot make its industry competitive? Should America be speaking of human rights when its own citizens are not safe in their streets?

When Americans pushed Japan to liberalize its financial markets more quickly, Ministry of Finance officials quickly responded that America was in no position to give advice, considering the way it handled its savings and loan debacle. When America pushes Japan to develop product liability laws, commentators warn that Japanese courts will be tied up in nonsense lawsuits of the sort that U.S. courts must endure.

Ultimately, much of Japan’s ill will toward the United States grows out of a sense that Americans have never made a sufficient effort to understand this nation’s complex culture. An American visitor sitting at a sushi bar recently was taken aback when the sushi chef thrust a large chunk of blood-red meat in front of his face.

“Take some of this–it’s whale meat,” the chef said in a challenging tone. “You know why the whales have disappeared? It’s because Americans used up all the whales for dog food.”

When the American visitor ordered the whale and downed a plate of it, the chef’s hostility eased somewhat. “We have to get you Americans to eat this sort of thing,” he said patronizingly. “Then you’ll understand.”

Leslie Helm

About the Author

Leslie Helm

Leslie Helm was born and raised in Yokohama, Japan, where his family has lived since 1869. He has worked as Tokyo correspondent for Business Week and the Los Angeles Times. It was during his years abroad that he adopted two Japanese children and began the research that would result in Yokohama Yankee. Helm is currently editor of Seattle Business magazine. Leslie graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a B.A. in political science and an M.A. in Asian studies. He attended the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism on a U.S. Japan Friendship Commission fellowship. Helm is currently editor of Seattle Business magazine.

Translate »