COLUMN

Foreign ownership and racial bias

When the traders and investors from Tokyo start dealing in greenbacks, many Americans get mighty nervous

FRED BRUNING April 30 1990
COLUMN

Foreign ownership and racial bias

When the traders and investors from Tokyo start dealing in greenbacks, many Americans get mighty nervous

FRED BRUNING April 30 1990

Foreign ownership and racial bias

COLUMN

When the traders and investors from Tokyo start dealing in greenbacks, many Americans get mighty nervous

FRED BRUNING

The Boeing Aircraft Co. will develop the proposed 767-X passenger jet without financing from the Japanese—a tremendous relief to the assorted economic swamis and marketing geniuses who warned of danger ahead. If Boeing were to swap technological data for investment funds, said critics, Japan would emerge as a force in the aerospace industry and that would about wrap things up for U.S. manufacturers. Naturally, the last thing we want to do is compete, one-on-one, with the Japanese—in outer space, on the ground, anywhere. We tried that with stereos and automobiles and, partner, it was no fun.

Whatever the reason, Japan does things right We can pontificate forever about the stringent qualities of Asian culture and the stay-inline approach of Japanese management. We can howl our heads off about protectionist policies and the link between government and industry in Japan. We can insist that the Japanese really aren’t happy folks—that they are driven, single-minded and, secretly, would prefer to be in the United States growing plump on root beer floats and fried pork rinds, but the fact remains that these dudes have the answer. Pride, craftsmanship, determination. Once upon a time, we had the answer, too.

That is the toughest part. We look at the Japanese and see what might have been—what used to be. Around the world, “Made in the U.SA” was the primo label. Now the world is watching Sony and driving Toyota and doing the weekly wash in machines by Toshiba The best we can do is slap another “Buy America” bumper sticker on the fuming four-door, mutter something about pocketbook patriotism and hope for the best

Instead of learning from Japan the way, ironically, that Japan learned from us, we prefer to keep slogging along as though it was treason to do anything else. We may not be moving ahead, but at least we are going nowhere on our own terms. Lee Iacocca can crow about “Advantage, Chrysler,” but who is going to believe the hype any longer? Chrysler doesn’t have the advan-

tage, nor does Ford, Jeep or General Motors. The biggest-selling auto in the United States is the Honda Accord—a car manufactured domestically by Americans using Japanese techniques. American workers aren’t stupid and inept Only their employers stand between them and success.

But we are a stubborn bunch, labor and management alike. A country that for most of the century thought of itself as pre-eminent—and don’t forget it—may have terrible difficulty accepting evidence of decline. Our instinct is to trash the opposition and complain that Japanese investors—avaricious, acquisitive and loaded with cash—are buying America wholesale. What’s happening here, we ask? Japan is hauling the place away, piece by piece.

Last year, Sony got hold of Columbia Pictures and it was as though Emperor Hirohito had shown up in our soup. “Japan invades Hollywood,” cried a headline in Newsweek. When the Mitsubishi Estate Co. grabbed control of a group that counts Rockefeller Center among its holdings, we went wild. The Japanese had appropriated the very soul of midtown Manhattan. The skating rink! The Christmas tree! It was too much. Andy Rooney, the CBS commentator who got blasted for alleged remarks aimed at blacks

and gays, joked with impunity in a syndicated newspaper column about “Lockefella Center” and suggested that the Japanese consider the “Gland Canyon” and “Mount Lushmore” as investment possibilities. “I’m vaguely antiJapanese,” announced Rooney. “Don’t ask me why. Just prejudice, I guess.”

So Columbia Pictures was gone and Rockefeller Center and then a Japanese firm offered $1 billion to bail out the U.S. company that owns 7-11. Now things were getting serious. What was more American than the 7-11 stores, those heavenly emporiums where, even at three in the morning, the shopper can come away with his filter tips or salami sandwich or container of Coke the size of a tropical fish tank? Wars have been fought over less.

No surprise then to find that a poll earlier this year showed that 25 per cent of Americans had “generally unfriendly” feelings towards Japan—up she points from last June—or that a survey taken before the upheaval in Eastern Europe indicated that most U.S. citizens saw the Japanese economy as more of a threat than Moscow’s military. “I no longer have to feel guilty about not trusting Japan and not particularly liking Japan,” said columnist Mike Royko of the Chicago Tribune. Of course he didn’t have to feel guilty. Japan was gobbling America like it was a hotdog at Wrigley Field. Royko was just protecting the franchise.

Here’s the odd thing, though. It turns out that Japan is not picking us apart The British have more money invested in the United States and Canadians hold 26 per cent of all foreignowned U.S. real estate compared with 15 for the Japanese. Only two per cent of America’s commercial property is in Japan’s portfolio and, last year, new Japanese investment in real estate declined by 11 per cent to $14.77 billion from 1988. As for Manhattan, the most notable usurpers hail from the Near North and not the Far East Yup, Canada owns 7.3 per cent of the Apple and Japan, 5.4.

No wonder there is talk of race being the issue. We say nothing when the British, Canadians, Dutch, West Germans, Swiss, French, Australians and Belgians arrive with chequebooks at the ready, but when the traders from Tokyo start dealing in greenbacks, we get mighty nervous. “A whiff of McCarthyism is in the air,” observed Fortune magazine in a February cover story. “Suddenly the Japanese have become the people it is okay to hate.”

Our bias is especially absurd because we need Japan’s money and we need it badly. Japan has cash it must spend. More than a few American businesses are starved for funds. If the Japanese did not invest in America, many analysts believe the Europeans would be reluctant too. Interest rates would rise, the economy would slow, the dollar would falter, inflation would push ahead. At that point our envoys would be parachuting into Tokyo with offers and apologies. It is in our best interest to quit the racist nonsense and acknowledge that Japan has become an economic force on the strength of ingenuity and hard work. It is also in our best interest to start asking what has be come of us.