Basis For Apple-Import Restrictions Is Shaken —
Japanese Researcher’s Suicide Leads To Claims Of A
By Leslie Helm, Gale Eisenstodt
Los Angeles Times
JAPANESE BUREAUCRATS have long used the fear of fire blight – a disease that affects apple and pear trees – as a cornerstone of a trade policy that restricted apple imports from the U.S. Now, the discovery of a Japanese strain of fire blight has led to the suicide of the researcher who isolated it and to allegations of a government cover-up.
OONO, Japan – On the afternoon of Oct. 11, 1995, Akio Tanii staggered into his laboratory at the agricultural experiment station outside this small farming village. He was bleary-eyed and distraught.His colleagues were relieved to see him because his family had reported him missing and he had been under great stress. The 53-year-old scientist was sent home to rest.
Once there, he fell seriously ill. He was rushed to the hospital, where he died that night. He left a wife and two grown children. Police determined he had committed suicide by drinking pesticide.
His death passed without public notice. But according to Japanese officials, police, close associates and relatives interviewed here and in Tokyo, Tanii took his life after his research had placed him in the cross-fire of a heated agricultural trade dispute between Japan and the U.S.
Just two months earlier, Tanii had been listed as co-author of a paper presented by a U.S. professor that concluded that a distinct strain of the bacterium Erwinia amylovora – which causes a devastating disease called fire blight in apples and pears – was present in Japan.
In the world of apples, pears and trade diplomacy, that was a damning disclosure. Japan’s bureaucrats long had insisted that the nation was free from the disease. And they had used fear of its spread as a cornerstone of a trade policy that effectively barred apples imported from the United States, where the disease is endemic.
That claim began to crumble with the publication of the paper by Cornell Professor Steven Beer. Tanii’s collaboration with U.S. scientists made him a target for angry Japanese farmers and bureaucrats.Japanese Agriculture Ministry officials insist that the disease identified by Beer with Tanii’s help is not fire blight.Tanii’s tragedy illustrates how Japanese officialdom can bully those who stray from the sanctioned path. His story also suggests a pattern of bureaucratic dissembling among government officials and shows how politics
can pollute science when research becomes handmaiden to national and industry interests.
Friends remember Tanii as a quiet, gentle man and a solid, hard-working scientist. In the late 1970s, a lifelong colleague, Osamu Tamura, was asked by a farmers group to examine some diseased pear trees. He turned to Tanii, a plant pathologist specializing in bacteria, for help. After several years of research, the two concluded, in a paper published in 1981, that the pears were infected by a variant of Erwinia amylovora, the bacterium that causes fire blight.
A cousin of the bacterium that causes such deadly human diseases as the bubonic plague, Erwinia
amylovora is believed to have originated in America’s Hudson Valley two centuries ago. It made its way to Europe and then to the Middle East in the late 1950s and 1960s, causing extensive damage wherever it left its characteristic charred mark on trees. It typically is spread by sales of plant stock from infected areas. its characteristic charred mark on trees. It typically is spread by sales of plant stock from infected areas. As a purely scientific matter, Tanii’s results were significant because Japan at the time was thought to be one of five countries – including Chile, South Africa, China and Australia – free of the disease. As recently as 1974, the government had said published reports of fire blight in Japan decades earlier were inaccurate.But Japan’s Agriculture Ministry scientists told the pair to discontinue their controversial research. As recently as 1974, Japan had denied reports suggesting the nation had experienced fire blight decades earlier.
Although Tanii wanted to identify what he had found as fire blight, associates say, he agreed to call it “shoot blight of pear,” the name Japanese officials now use to identify the disease.
Tanii’s findings, like most Japanese research, were published only in Japanese and did not reach experts in the West. Because it appeared to affect only a few farmers and the research was being discouraged, Tanii and Tamura stopped their work on the disease.
They sent all but two of the strains of bacteria they had isolated to the Yokohama Plant Protection Station, a central laboratory where scientists said they would do follow-up research. Tanii never heard back from the lab.
In 1992, Beer, a leading expert on the disease, was reading an English translation of a Japanese textbook when he came across the description of a disease similar to fire blight. He contacted the author, who introduced him to Tanii.Tanii sent Beer the original strains he had isolated in 1977 and drove four hours to the village of Mashike to collect new samples from trees with signs of the disease.
Beer and his Cornell colleagues tested both the old and new strains Tanii sent him and concluded that while the bacterium was not as virulent as American and European forms, it did cause fire blight. And contrary to Tanii’s earlier findings, it could infect apple trees as well as pear trees.
Last August, Beer presented the findings at a plant pathologists’ conference in Canada. In the audience were several Australian quarantine officials. In response, the Australians quickly moved to bar imports of pears from Japan.
Investigating the matter, Japanese Agriculture Ministry officials sought out the Beer report and immediately focused on Tanii’s role as collaborator. “I asked Tanii-san for an explanation. I told him he should get his boss’ permission next time he does something like this,” said Usao Yoshioka, a section chief in the Hokkaido government.
Meanwhile, the Japanese Agriculture Ministry set out to eradicate the disease, ordering farmers to cut down all pear trees within 40 yards of the infected areas. Farmers were furious at what they and many Japanese pathologists believe was a politically motivated decision, not one based on the actual threat posed by the disease. When farmers asked why such drastic measures were being taken, officials pointed to the Beer report, which had Tanii’s name on it.
Tanii became a scapegoat. Farmers asked why he had taken samples from orchards without the owners’ permission. A farmers group talked of suing him. Associates say the hostility from farmers pained Tanii, who had spent his career helping them. He offered to resign.
On Oct. 10, he called his boss, Fujio Kodama, director of the department of plant pathology at the Hokkaido station, to say he had received a copy of a second article by Beer that was to be submitted to Plant Disease, an academic journal. Kodama said Tanii was afraid the article would add to the tension. Tanii was also concerned about his meeting the next day with a farmers group in which he was expected to apologize for his research. On Oct. 11, he committed suicide. A week after Tanii’s death, the Agriculture Ministry enacted an ordinance requiring that researchers who wanted to take a sample of the disease outside of the affected region get the permission of no less than the agriculture minister. That made it virtually impossible for Japanese researchers to cooperate with overseas scientists. After Tanii’s death, in a tense meeting at the Agriculture Ministry, it was decided that three government affiliated organizations would try to repeat Beer’s experiments. Most recently, Japan has argued that although the bacterium in question appears to be Erwinia amylovora, the disease it causes is not fire blight – a conclusion that experts such as Beer say is untenable.
TOKYO — The Boss is decked out in a batik shirt, plaid pants, gold medallion belt buckle, gem-studded Rolex and gold wristband. To his right is a wooden statue of a cobra ready to strike, a gold sake cup resting in its mouth as a charm.
The subject is the driver of The Boss’ white Mercedes, the man’s finger and how the driver sliced it off for having somehow failed his employer.
“As his oya (father), I think it was a stupid thing to do,” said The Boss, head of a family of less than a dozen Japanese yakuza or gangsters. But clearly he was moved by the old-fashioned gesture of loyalty. “He is very dear to me.”
Such gangster tales once touched a chord in tradition-minded Japan. But the stories are wearing thin.
The Japanese are awakening to the frightening reality that the yakuza have vastly expanded their activities. They now commit a majority of Japan’s murders. They chase families from their homes. They push uncooperative businesses into bankruptcy.
In the last few weeks, Japanese have been stunned and embarrassed by revelations that the Inagawakai and the Yamaguchigumi, Japan’s two largest crime syndicates, have borrowed hundreds of millions of dollars from major securities companies and banks in complex land and stock deals. The scandal has reached into the inner sanctums of Japan’s business elite, contributing to the recent resignations of the presidents of Nikko Securities Co. and Nomura Securities Co.
The new, more sober view of the yakuza is a sharp shift for many Japanese. The nation’s gangsters–of which The Boss’ Tokyo family is one of thousands nationwide–long have run gambling, prostitution, drug and extortion rings. The families, organized into crime syndicates, were considered a necessary evil.
Operating under strict, sometimes bizarre, rules and rituals–some of which protected ordinary citizens from their activities–the digit-missing, tattooed yakuza were believed to keep crime and disorder in check. The yakuza absorbed delinquents into well-disciplined organizations, it was said, and thus minimized street crime.
After World War II, police borrowed gangster forces to suppress riots by Koreans and Chinese, and they have continued to stay in close touch.
The yakuza now appear to be replicating the pattern of other organized crime groups, such as the Italian Mafia. “The yakuza are following the same path . . . , ” said Kanehiro Hoshino, a director at the National Research Institute of Police Science. Like the Mafia, the yakuzamoved from store-front protection rackets to illegal “victimless” crimes such as gambling and prostitution and are now setting up legitimate big businesses as fronts.
The financial and political clout of the yakuza emerges from police surveillance of the Inagawakai and Yamaguchigumi.
The Yamaguchigumi, Japan’s largest yakuza group, has grown five-fold in the last six years to 26,000 members. They have done this by swallowing smaller gangs, whose members have told police that the power of belonging to big-name organizations more than compensates for the large monthly payments they must make to their new leaders.
As for the Inagawakai, police investigations recently disclosed that their former leader, Susumi Ishii, had $250 million in such blue-chip holdings as Nomura Securities and Tokyu Corp., a private railway company.
Prescott Bush Helped
Local bosses also were impressed to learn that Hokusho Sangyo, one of Ishii’s investment companies, borrowed more than $250 million from Nikko and Nomura finance subsidiaries and used part of the money to buy two companies and a large piece of land in the United States with the help of Prescott Bush, President Bush’s brother.
“This is like Godfather Part III,” said Hiroshi Ishizuka, a chief superintendent in the National Police Agency’s Criminal Investigation Bureau. “They (yakuza) are using money to get into the mergers and acquisitions business.”
Police say Ishii, who retired last fall from the Inagawakai because he was ill, represents a new breed of financially savvy gangster who appears to be taking extortion to new heights by attacking Japan’s largest companies. Although it is unclear what Ishii’s interests were in the United States and in his stock holdings, Ishizuka said, “When it comes to yakuza we assume their intentions are evil.”
The Japanese are taking steps to tackle their organized crime problem. The Japanese legislature passed a new law this spring aimed atboryokudan (violent groups). Considered largely synonymous with yakuza, they are defined by law as groups in which a large proportion of members are ex-convicts.
Under the law, which takes effect next spring, police can, after one warning, arrest gangsters for doing little more than scaring away customers at a coffee shop by talking loudly, a tactic yakuza use to force shop owners to pay protection money. The law also forbids gangs to use their offices for three months after disturbances such as gang shootings. It seeks to bar gangs from recruiting minors and helps to set up centers for citizens to file complaints about yakuza activities.
While the law falls far short of America’s strong anti-racketeering statutes, Japanese officials see it as a way to turn off the yakuzas ‘ money and to crack down on crime syndicates.
“In the past, there was a symbiotic relationship between the police and the yakuza ,” said Kuniko Inoguchi, a Sophia University professor and police advisory committee member. “Many argued that yakuza control over young delinquents contributed to the low crime rate on Japan’s city streets. Now the yakuza are going international by connecting with the Mafia and Asian gangs. The police have decided that unorganized crime is easier to control than organized crime.”
But Yukio Yamanouchi, a lawyer for the Yamaguchigumi who recently spent a short time in jail for extortion, predicts that the main effect of the law will be to drive hard-core gangsters underground. And without yakuza families, he said, juvenile street crime may soar.
Tatsuya Suzuki, a former policeman and a commentator on yakuza , questions how serious the police are about breaking the gangs. “You go to Kabutocho (entertainment district) and you will see policemen saying ‘yes, sir’ to gangsters,” Suzuki said. “The yakuza’s roots in society are too deep to easily pull out.”
Ran Gambling Dens
Historians trace the yakuza to the 17th Century, when disciplined gangs ran gambling dens along highways. Today, police count 88,600 gangsters, all neatly organized in pyramid syndicates with each yakuza tied to a “father figure” through rituals involving ceremonial drinking of sake. While their number had been falling sharply since 1964, when membership in the syndicates peaked at 184,000, it inexplicably has been growing again.
Police regularly visit gang offices and have detailed organization charts of the syndicates. They have conducted surveys on their habits and activities.
Who are the yakuza ? Many come from communities that the Japanese historically have discriminated against, such as the Korean minority and the burakumin, social outcasts whose work–such as butchering and leather-tanning–was considered unclean for religious or cultural reasons. Younger gangsters are often supported by girlfriends or wives who work as prostitutes to launch their lovers’ careers.
Police said that 75% of yakuza have tattoos across their torsos; almost 50% have lost part of their little finger. Most say they were attracted to their work by the “cool” life of gambling and women. Gangsters don’t try to hide their loyalties. Of 453 imprisoned yakuzasurveyed by police last fall, 65% said they planned to rejoin their gang once freed.
The yakuza draw their strength from a society that operates on two levels: a surface level on which form is crucial and most adhere to strict social standards, and a hidden level on which almost anything goes. When conduct from the hidden level is revealed, it can ruin careers. Yakuza take advantage of this social duplicity to extort money.
One gangster tentacle that reveals the power of this kind of extortion are the sokaiya, shady characters who work with yakuza and take payoffs from corporations for controlling shareholder meetings.
Sokaiya pressure companies to hire them by threatening to reveal dirty secrets they have uncovered through their extensive contacts. After Japanese legislators passed a law in 1981 to address the sokaiya problem, the number of these operators fell from 10,000 to less than a tenth of that number. But many have continued to find other ways to extract money from companies with something to hide.
Satoshi Yamamoto–a leader of the Rondan Doyukai, a sokaiya group–said the sokaiya have survived, for example, by publishing magazines that threaten to print negative stories if companies don’t pay up.
In a poll conducted last fall by the national police agency, 40% of 2,000 companies surveyed said they had been contacted by extortion groups; 33% of those contacted said they paid amounts ranging from $1,000 to $724,000.
Although not all sokaiya are also yakuza, Yamamoto said both groups function by “doing the dirty things that companies can’t do themselves.” The groups, for example, may “persuade” a customer not to complain about a product.
Yakuza have also diversified. Many work for real estate developers who want to get rid of tenants who are viewed as obstacles to new building projects.
Many of those activities will be illegal under the new anti-gang law. But The Boss, bejeweled in his Tokyo unit, is unfazed, saying, “I have a lawyer to guide me” on the legality of any new ventures. And, he added, his tactics are now more subtle: He won’t run bulldozers into people’s homes to force them out as gangs once did. “I get friendly with them and persuade them to negotiate.”
Business opportunities remain abundant. The Boss, who asked not to be identified, said many borrowers have been forced into his arms by the current state of tight money. He said that he will lend as much as $1 million with the right introductions. But his men will wait days in front of a borrower’s home to collect, and he warned that there is nowhere in Japan that debtors can flee to escape his gang.
$10 Billion a Year
Police estimate total gangster earnings at $10 billion a year, an average of $115,000 annually per yakuza. Some observers put the total as high as $30 billion. Local gang families send in as much as $4,000 a month to bosses, who, in turn, pass much of that sum up the line.
It is this money, in part, that Ishii of the Inagawakai appears to have used to buy stock in large firms as a wedge for extortion efforts. Police investigations may have halted Ishii’s attempts to use this tactic via his huge investment in Tokyu Corp.–using money borrowed from Nomura and Nikko in 1989, observers believe. (When Nomura was recently accused of lending money to Ishii without following proper procedures, its defense was that Ishii received special consideration because he was an important longtime customer).
Hokusho Sangyo, a company controlled by Ishii, hired Prescott Bush as adviser through its investment arm, West Tsusho. Munenobu Shoji, Hokusho’s president, told the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest daily, that he made the U.S. investments through Bush because the company’s gangster ties limited the company’s expansion potential in Japan. He believed that Bush would make a good adviser because “Bush is a financial consultant and knows many influential people such as the presidents of South Korea and the Philippines,” Shoji said. (Yakuza have extensive business activities in both those countries.)
Many believe that Ishii, besides involving the Inagawakai, also initiated the Yamaguchigumi into the world of high finance, as he helped the current leader of the Yamaguchigumi attain his post and has since worked closely with the rival gang.
While the expanded role of gangsters has alarmed police, it is the yakuza treatment of ordinary Japanese that has the public up in arms–with many turning to local officials and the courts in their campaigns against mobsters.
For centuries, the gangsters’ code forbade them to injure bystanders. But battles between yakuza groups increasingly have ended in casualties. In Okinawa alone, there were 28 incidents of gang shootings last fall. One proved fatal to a high school student repairing the fence at a gang headquarters. In December, the locals banded together and persuaded police to shut that office.
In another neighborhood, where residents used spotlights and video cameras to track visitors at a gang office, the targeted yakuza leader sued residents for infringing on his civil rights.
In Kyoto, the gang boss of the Kawamuragumi set up his office in an apartment only to begin blasting out walls, digging to build a new basement and using neighbors’ parking spaces. When residents complained, they were roughed up; one was taken hostage for days. Angry apartment dwellers finally fought back, filing a lawsuit to force the gangsters to give up ownership of the complex.
“For a long time, residents were too scared to speak up, (but now) we won’t feel safe until they leave,” said Mitsuko Mochizuki, an English literature professor at a nearby university. She owns one of the apartments and helped organize the residents late last year.
To encourage its residents to pursue legal action against gangsters, the town of Tokorosawa in Saitama prefecture recently offered to lend them up to $7,000.
The yakuza have countered with some moves of their own.
The Yamaguchigumi, for example, has sought to improve its image by advertising that its members have no involvement with illegal drugs. This campaign, however, flies in the face of police figures showing that a third of their drug arrests are of Yamaguchigumi members, who authorities insist are progressing from dealing in amphetamines to the business of importing cocaine.
Other gangster groups, meantime, have tried to gain greater public acceptance by making large donations to disaster victims. A Yamaguchigumi branch, for example, donated to relief efforts for a town damaged by the volcanic eruption of Mt. Unzen.
Signs Coming Down
The yakuza also appear to have recognized that they no longer can operate openly by displaying their names at their office entrances or sporting gang pins on their lapels.
“In Japan, the gangs put their mark on their offices as if it were a McDonald’s,” Yamanouchi, the Yamaguchigumi lawyer once said. Now, he said, signs are coming down and police will have a tougher time tracking the gangs.
Senior police insist they will destroy the yakuza. “We won’t get rid of them immediately, but we will gradually cut off their sources of income,” said Ishizuka of the national police. He said the next step is to introduce a money-laundering law much like that in the United States.
As for The Boss in Tokyo, he figures there will always be yakuza as long as people demand their services. He takes his greatest pride, he said, in having “persuaded” an uninsured driver who killed another motorist to support the dead man’s family. “These are things that can’t be handled by law or by the police,” he said.
The Boss added that the yakuza also will remain a part of Japanese society because there are always social misfits looking for a place to belong.
“Isn’t it true?” he called out to his driver with the missing pinkie.
“Yeah, I like it better when I’m with everybody!” the driver responded.
Media : All on Board for Miyazawa : An American joined the prime minister on his recent U.S. trip to see a kisha club in action.
April 27, 1993|LESLIE HELM | TIMES STAFF WRITER
ABOARD SPECIAL JAPANESE GOVERNMENT PLANE — As the jet takes off and heads across the Pacific Ocean for America, Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa leaves his spacious cabin at the front to say a few words to the reporters at the back.
The 33 members of the press group await him, holding flute glasses filled with champagne. “I see there are a lot of real veteran reporters on this trip,” says Miyazawa, adding that he wants to “build a relationship of trust (with President Clinton) so we can deal with most problems on the phone.”
Now it’s the turn of the leader of the prime minister’s kisha (press) club to rise and offer a toast. “We pray for your success in seeking to build a relationship of trust with America,” says the group leader as he lifts his glass. ” Kampai !”
” Kampai !” the reporters toast in turn.
Thus begins Miyazawa’s trip to the United States with press coverage handled by a band of respectful, almost loyal reporters.
When Miyazawa flew to Washington this month, he sought to present Japan as an open society ready to take up new responsibilities as an equal partner with America. But the kisha club Miyazawa took with him is an example of the special social institutions that sometimes can make Japan appear impenetrable to outsiders. And the trip provided a rare opportunity for an American reporter allowed to travel with the group to watch one of the more powerful of those institutions in action.
Close ties between reporters and the people they cover is hardly unusual in Japan. There are about 400 kisha clubs throughout Japan. They act as news cartels that grant members special access to the government agencies, political parties and industry groups they cover. In exchange, the reporters abide by an unwritten pact that commits them to avoid embarrassing the officials or ministries they cover.
Membership in the clubs is limited to a core group of mainstream Japanese daily newspapers. Non-members, which include magazine and small-circulation newspaper reporters, are excluded from briefings and press conferences, although foreigners are occasionally allowed in some clubs as observers.
The power of the kisha club is considerable. When Miyazawa gave a rare interview to a group of American correspondents shortly before leaving for Washington, his kisha club demanded that they be briefed about the interview as soon as it was over.
Each Jan. 1, the prime minister gives a special interview to reporters from his constituency in Hiroshima. The kisha club will only allow the interview on the condition that local reporters be forbidden to ask questions of national interest.
On the Washington trip, one thing immediately became obvious: The power of the kisha club does not translate into better or more critical reporting. Rub shoulders with the White House press corps and you are liable to get a stream of the latest irreverent jokes about the Administration. The questions to the President and his spokespersons can be blunt–even obnoxious. The Japanese reporters, however, treat their prime minister with kid gloves. “What demands do you expect from the American side?” Miyazawa is asked during a brief session on the plane. His response: “Clinton is trying to deal with his deficits so I expect there will be some requests.”
American reporters are eager to find an original angle on a story. The Japanese reporters huddle to make sure they not only agree on the important points but have the same quotes. “Sometimes what he says isn’t very clear so we discuss it among ourselves to agree on an interpretation,” one reporter explains.
There is little criticism of the prime minister. A few reporters grumble that Miyazawa’s cabin on this aircraft is bigger than their own living rooms, and that it represents a waste of taxpayer money. The $260-million plane, the largest Boeing produces, was purchased as part of Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone’s effort to cut Japan’s trade surplus. It was delivered in the fall of 1991 but has been used only twice. It contains a large conference room–but one that can’t be used because of the airplane noise. Japanese press reports include none of this detail.
In many ways, the traveling kisha club is no different than the typical Japanese tour group. On arrival, the group is invited by the Japanese Embassy to a steakhouse where a table is set for 40. The dinner is ordered in advance. The Embassy host explains that the restaurant has virtually every beer imaginable. But when one reporter orders Heineken, all the rest choose the same beer to avoid causing trouble.
At the Madison Hotel, the working press room set up for the kisha club reporters is a Japanese sanctuary. There are Japanese box lunches of rice and pickles. There are bags of rice crackers and cartons of sake. A special room has been crammed full of tax-free goods specifically aimed at the Japanese reporters.
The American aboard is ignored by the Japanese reporters until the morning after arriving in Washington, when the group is led into the Oval Office, where Clinton and Miyazawa are posing for photographers and TV cameras. “What did you mean, Mr. President, when you said that Japanese say ‘yes’ when they mean ‘no’?” asks a Japanese reporter, referring to a remark Clinton made to Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin in Vancouver this month.
“I don’t know whether to answer yes or no,” says Clinton. Then Miyazawa pipes up: “It reminds me of the song, ‘Yes, We Have No Bananas.’ ” Back in the bus, the reporters call on the American in their midst to explain the significance of the remarks.
The Japanese reporters, however, become clearly uncomfortable when the American colleague asks about a briefing that he discovers has been scheduled that evening with Miyazawa. They clearly don’t want him there. After negotiations with the group leader and the Foreign Ministry public affairs office, it is eventually agreed that the American may attend. The ground rule: The discussion is to be limited to domestic politics. No questions will be asked about Miyazawa’s historic meeting that morning with Clinton.
The kisha club jealously guards its prerogatives. At one point, the group leader calls a meeting to discuss a serious breach of conduct. A Washington-based Japanese reporter, they have discovered, has used information from a briefing in an evening edition instead of waiting until the next morning’s edition as the club members had agreed. It is decided that the club’s officers will determine what sanctions to impose.
Back on the plane and headed home, the champagne is poured again, and the prime minister is there to give his little talk. “Thank you for all your trouble. You must be very tired,” he says. “I have to say with respect to your reporting that it was not quite accurate in representing the situation,” he adds, suggesting that he and Clinton are not as far apart on trade issues as their press conference may have indicated.
Rather than get the prime minister to clarify his position, the group leader maintains the harmony by apologizing. “We are sorry if we may have oversimplified the issues, but please understand that we were writing under a tight deadline. And as you know, most of us are not well versed on economic issues.”
Evidently peace has been established, because shortly before the plane lands, the crew delivers a bottle of 17-year-old Scotch to each reporter as a personal gift from the prime minister.
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.”