Yellow-Peril Journalism

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"Under present conditions we are virtually at the mercy of the Japanese," editorialized the Los Angeles Times. The Sacramento Bee, equally indignant, warned of a planned Japanese "invasion of industrial fields." And in a spirited appearance before a congressional committee, the Bee's publisher argued for "protective measures." The Japanese, he fumed, were after nothing less than "control of the country . . . through economic competition."

Those xenophobic outbursts were not made in 1989 but in 1920, during a time of "yellow peril" panic over Japanese immigration to the U.S. But they are not much different from the alarmed press comments that are now greeting Japan's continuing economic ventures. When the Sony Corp. announced in September that it would buy Columbia Pictures Entertainment, for example, Newsweek called the deal "the biggest advance so far in a Japanese invasion of Hollywood." An entertainment-industry executive quoted by the Washington Post thought the acquisition might be "bad for America," as did an economist who saw "a potential for propaganda."

Mitsubishi Estate Co.'s purchase of controlling interest in the Rockefeller Group last month set off even more worrisome reports. JAPANESE BUY HEART OF N.Y., declared the Dallas Times Herald. "The roll call of all-American icons falling into foreigners' hands added a new name yesterday," reported Newsday. "When the whole house is being sold off, it doesn't matter much that a cherished heirloom goes as well," sobbed the San Jose Mercury News. The Sacramento Bee carried a photo of "delighted" Japanese tourists gazing at the property now controlled by "their countrymen."

The less than subliminal message is that Japan Inc. is buying up America, a point underscored by the ubiquity of headlines portraying Japan -- as distinguished from Japanese individuals or companies -- snapping up American treasures. Similar coverage greeted OPEC in the 1970s, when Arab oil sheiks seemed ready to slap down their petrodollars and pick up America piece by piece. Yet even the most alarmist press scenarios of that era did not envision oil merchants daring to seize the home of the nation's Christmas tree.

Peter G. Peterson, an American involved in the Sony-Columbia deal, wondered why Sony's acquisition was so controversial, while an Australian firm's attempted takeover of MGM/UA "was mainly treated by the media as a minor business news item." Part of the answer, he suggested in the Wall Street Journal, is a "media pandering to American xenophobia and latent racism." Sony chairman Akio Morita, noting the U.S. Government's World War II internment of Japanese Americans, surmised that Americans still see the Japanese as "strangers."

Peterson and Morita have a point. When Australian Rupert Murdoch was taking substantial control of major American media properties (including Metromedia Inc. and 20th Century Fox), little was written about the dangers of media manipulation from Down Under. Reportage focused less on the fact that the predator was Australian (Murdoch has since acquired American citizenship) than that he was Murdoch. Nor did warnings sound when Canada's Thomson Newspapers acquired more than 100 papers in the U.S.

Reporting on Japanese investment has been peculiar for several reasons. One is that Japanese corporations are less open to American governance than American companies are to Japanese control. Also, Japan has been less than effusive in welcoming U.S. goods. Then too, no U.S. bureaucracy compares with Japan's Ministry for International Trade and Industry, an entity whose principal mission, some commentators believe, is to plot Japan's economic domination of the world.

Perhaps most troubling is that Japanese direct investment in the U.S. is not only three times America's investment in Japan but is also growing at a remarkable pace. According to figures compiled by the U.S. Department of Commerce's Bureau of Economic Analysis, Japan's direct investment (ownership of at least 10% of any one firm) in the U.S. stood at $53 billion in 1988, a 52% increase since 1987. Even so, Japanese direct investment was only one- fourth that of all Europe, about half that of Great Britain and roughly equal to that of the Netherlands. Nor was it any more one-sided than that of the Dutch. Neither Japan nor any other country imminently threatens to gain economic control over the U.S., whose nonbank multinational corporations have assets totaling well over $5 trillion.

Dismaying though the financial trends concerning Japan may be, economics alone cannot explain the current media attitude any more than the immigration levels of the early 1900s could explain the Nippon hysteria of those years. But modern-day Japan is hardly a suitable candidate for press pity. American reporters have a duty to be tough minded in their exploration of Japanese business practices. Yet publications have all too frequently reached for easy headlines and analyses that evoke some of the worse aspects of the yellow- peril era. That is unfortunate. For, to the extent that coverage of Japanese business is reduced to the 1989 equivalent of "Japanese plan invasion of industrial fields," journalism will be that much more diminished and readers that much less informed.