Fleeing The Past?

Fifty years later, Pearl Harbor still colors relations between the U.S. and a Japan that has yet to come to terms with its history

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- For Americans, the day Pearl Harbor went up in smoke was Dec. 7. For Japanese, on the other side of the International Date Line, it was Dec. 8. A small point, perhaps, but one with symbolic dimensions. It illustrates how the two giants focus differently on their shared history. Americans remember Dec. 7 as a day of infamy. Japanese, when they think of Dec. 8 at all, tend to dismiss the date as mizu ni nagasu: water under the bridge. Many Americans see Japan's economic juggernaut as a continuation of war by other means. Japanese protest that they are tagged as rapacious when they are merely successful. When Wall Street recalls that Tokyo time is 14 hours ahead, it wonders if Japan has cornered the future. Some Japanese consider that they might be running away from their past.

The two societies agree on one important thing. Fifty years after the Pacific war's outbreak, they wonder whether they are on some critical new collision course. A broad range of Americans, knowledgeable and temperate ones at that, see Japan as insensitive and arrogant. Washington is abuzz these days not about Japanese car sales and real estate purchases in the U.S., but about what is seen as a budding growth market in Japan for blatantly anti-American screeds.

Readers of U.S. newspapers and magazines have noted a new word: kembei, a telescoped term roughly translated as "resentment of America." They have seen reports of querulous Japanese best sellers like The Japan That Can Say No, journalist Shintaro Ishihara's provocative manifesto of his country's superiority in all ways over the U.S. They have seen a screenwriter, Toshiro Ishido, quoted as exclaiming, "I have nothing but contempt for America!" and an unnamed Japanese professor predicting that the U.S. will become "a premier agrarian power, a giant version of Denmark."

To a nation that brought democracy to Japan and still guarantees its defense, those are not only ungracious sentiments but fighting words. They seem to confirm the implications of occasional opinion surveys that reflect a new degree of threat both countries sense in each other. Gennadi Gerasimov, the former Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman, phrased the development in a joking way last year. On a visit to Washington, he said "The cold war is over, and Japan won." In some views Japan is already achieving economically what it failed to win by force of arms: a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

If all that were true, Pearl Harbor's anniversary might mark an ominous ! turning point in trans-Pacific relations. But truth has a way of being much less dramatic. If Japan is shifting much investment and production to its Asian neighbors, it is doing no more than U.S. multinationals have done for decades. Japan's economic output may top America's GNP in 10 years if current growth rates persist, but large numbers of Japanese who struggle with skimpy retirement benefits and cramped homes still look up to the American way of life. Kembei books amount to little more than curiosities. The very term kembei is so new as to be virtually unknown.

A poll figure that foreigners rarely cite is the share of Japanese who like and admire the U.S., which has long ranked No. 1 in Japanese eyes. Last month, in a Yomiuri survey rating public trust in various countries, a record 56.3% of Japanese gave the U.S. the top slot. When Americans are asked the same thing, 13.5% pick Japan.

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