There are compelling parallels between Washington’s conflict with Beijing and its battles with Tokyo 30 years agoby Guy de Jonquières / December 28, 2019 / Leave a comment
In July 1987 a group of Congressmen stood on the steps of the US Capitol and took turns demolishing a Toshiba portable radio with a sledgehammer, in a much-publicised gesture of furious frustration at what they considered to be Japan’s unfair competitive practices and its large and its stubborn bilateral trade surplus.
Like China today, Japan then was the target of a US trade offensive aimed at thwarting its inroads into American markets and at removing its barriers to US exports. And like president Donald Trump’s recent provisional settlement of his trade war with Beijing, temporary truces were procured by periodic Japanese agreement to buy more US goods and promises and to make—often largely cosmetic—policy changes.
Then, too, the main battleground was high technology products such as microchips and computers, in which Japan had rapidly acquired formidable strength that seriously threatened US industrial dominance. Furthermore, unlike China, Japan posed a growing challenge in other industries, such as machine tools and cars, at the expense of American competitors.
But the conflict was about far more than trade. Again, just as with China today, it was at root a battle between economic systems that pitted US free-market capitalism against a Japanese model that many Americans saw as relying on massive state planning and intervention orchestrated by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry—a body to which many in the west attributed superhuman powers—coupled with incestuous interlocking relationships that enabled companies to keep a largely closed domestic market to themselves.
A group of American authors, known as “revisionists,” argued, in books and articles, that the US could not compete with this system and that unless it found a way to fight back, it would become a mere colony of Japan. Their mood of near-hysterical defeatism was captured in Rising Sun, a best-selling novel by Michael Crichton, who wrote: “They haven’t succeeded by doing things our way. Japan is not a Western industrial state; it is organized quite differently. And the Japanese have invented a new kind of trade–adversarial trade, trade like war, trade intended to wipe out the competition, which America has failed to understand for several decades.”
Nor were American fears of a Japanese takeover confined to business and commerce. They spilled over into the military sphere when it became known that the guidance systems of US…