©1998 A.D. Sullivan
Japan's Last Gasp?
The Panasonic Personality
Clive Cussler's Japan
The Passing of Fotomat
Japan Bashing for Fun & Profit
These days, his face is broken,
a chunk of china with missing teeth
and callused hands,
sergeant screaming inside his head,
twenty years after Nam, Tet and Tao,
set in a jagged ying yang
tarnished with agent orange,
driving drunk dirt roads in Jersey
where the cops won't stop him
and he won't be mistaken for a hero.
Japan's last gasp?
When I was a kid "Made in Japan" meant cheap plastic toys or bad monster movies like Godzilla. Theirs were products to be avoided if possible, and disappointed over if found on a Christmas present. But during the 1960s, something changed. It started with companies like Panasonic and a product line of stereos that seemed to undercut in price American standards like Fisher, and yet provide a quality that eventually exceeded what we could make for ourselves on this side of the Atlantic. One Panasonic computer printer I bought in the early 1980s, for instance, lasted nearly a decade.
But the real revolution were cars. The Toyota and the Datsun invaded our market just as the German Volkswagen began to fade, and the oil crisis made smaller cars more desirable. My friend, who later criticized me for my lack of patriotism when I refused to boycott Japanese products, fell in love with the Datsun after owning a VW bug for years. He found the cheaper products improved his quality of life, the way most American's did.
This changed later when those same products seemed to undermine our society, a way of attacking us by using our own buying habits, more insidious than a nuclear attack, because we did it to ourselves.
Industrialists in the United States, who have been looking to undermine the Union Movement, jumped onto this perceived threat and began to mobilize forces to "buy American" products, even when many of those products were actually largely manufactured in other parts of the world, using unAmerican labor. And many of those people like my friend began to fall into line, failing to see that the world economy is dictated not by nationality, but by power brokers, and in this case, Japanese power brokers toe to toe with those traditionally used to ripping off hard working people.
Now with the so-called collapse of the Japanese economy, many of these same people tremble, thinking our country is next. While on one hand, they gloat over the idea that Japan's power is fading, they fear that power has grown so strong here that we now will fall, too, a continued victim to our love of luxury, little realizing that the same old powers that devoured us in the past, are doing so again, just using Japan as a convenient excuse to pick our pockets.
The Panasonic Personality
I never witnessed the bee-hive mentality of Panasonic when I reported on the place for the Secaucus Reporter. Non-employees hardly penetrated the 50 acre empire the Japanese company had set up in the middle of the Hackensack Meadowlands. Guards stopped you at the door, asking for identification. And even inside the marvelous glass world of the National Headquarters on Meadowlands Parkway, a visitor could only visit certain places, confronted with locks and doors never meant for him to unlock or pass through.
To the outside world, Panasonic painted itself with the best face possible, donating TVs to Secaucus Senior Citizens and valuable computer equipment to Secaucus students. Twice a year, Panasonic brought Secaucus student artists into the headquarters and displayed their works in the halls. Once a year at Christmas time, Panasonic encouraged the staff to hold a party in the cafeteria for the multiple handicapped from a local institution.
Yet each visit made me more aware of how alien a place Panasonic was, as if my stepping through the doors brought me into a whole world that wasn't at all American, despite the Occidental faces that rushed along its webwork of halls. I was never able to pin down the feeling better than that, except to notice the lack of emotion in the people I met during my visits, like actors acting out roles which they could not believe, mouthing lines that didn't come natural because they didn't understand the deeper philosophy behind the words.
Sometimes -- contrary to the rules by which I was admitted -- I would stop along one of the elevated glass-walled halls and look down into the Japanese gardens that filled the inner sections between the buildings, trapped little bubbles of green surrounded completely by building, accessed only from one door or another. And here, I would sometimes get a glimpse of the higher ranking staff members who flew in from Japan to monitor operations here.
Only once did I ever meet one of these dignitaries officially, and that at one of the art fairs. I recalled the man's proud expression as he paraded through the facility. He did not seem to notice how robotic his Occidental employees seemed, each eating the sushi out of company loyalty, each bowing his head as the important man passed.
Over time, I met those employee disaffected with the company, those Americans unable to strip themselves of their heritage for a pay check. One night guard suffered so much from the regiment, he lasted only a week. Another man, who headed their publications department, couldn't get anyone above him to make a decision about even the smallest detail without checking with Japan first. He left a few months later, infuriated. He recalled how the company paid by the month.
"I came in the first Monday of the month," he said. "It was the third, and they actually docked me two days pay."
Panasonic did not tolerate tardiness. A worker coming in after 9 a.m. waited at the security decks until a boss came out to fetch him. Promotions here seemed dictated by how well you adapted to the Japanese way of working, not by the usual American drive for success. You fit in or got out, operating as one bee in a larger hive with the queen situated 12,000 miles away, dictating every move of every worker, leaving little to personal initiative.
Those long-timers I met seemed bland and insignificant, singing always the virtues of Panasonic as if their whole lives depended upon their fitting in, and after years invested in a company where an occidental could only advance so far, it did.
Clive Cussler's Japan
Propaganda in the best seller market is nothing new. The largest subsidy publisher in the world for years has been the Central Intelligence Agency. While backing the books of Soviet dissidents has been a known fact. Less well known has been the CIA's part in publishing fiction.
During the 1950s, the CIA funded the publishing of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels in an effort to improve public perception of spies after significantly bad press during its early days. Since then, a combination of public and private funds has gone into the backing of many ventures, books and films in order to "sell" right wing agendas. Films like "Red Dawn Rising" and a host of MIA fictions are primary examples of these attempts.
In most cases, the characters in these books and films are flimsy, all-American supermen seeking to stop the communist menace. But over the latter part of the 1980s, the agenda changed. Films about drug cartels in Central and South America began to replace to anti-Communist fair as the Soviet Empire crumbled.
In an attempt to regroup the far right in the US and justify heavy military expenditures, new enemies have popped up in both fiction and non-fiction. Among these are Michael Crichton's "The Sun Also Rises" and Clive Cussler's "Dragon."
Like most books and films of its genre, the characters are stereo-typical puppets into whose mouths Cussler has inserted his Japan-bashing filth. The plot is largely a string of flashy scenes in which the characters are assaulted with varying disasters, from A-bombs exploding in the Pacific (in a Japanese plot to blackmail the United States) to underwater Earthquakes. Each event only superficially connects to the last in a series of crazy exploits reminiscent of the Perils of Pauline.
Cussler waves the American flag so often one questions whether this is a novel or a bullfight. His facts-- inserted to raise the peril of Japanese sovereignty over America-- are often wrong or distorted, and his villains simplistic and cruel without attempt at understanding the complexity of America's addiction to foreign money.
Those Characters who shout warnings about a Japanese takeover spout more slogans than the Republican Party and with the same one-sidedness. As is popular in Japan-bashing works of any kind, Cussler fails to note just how many Americans owe their employment to Japanese industries, or how the Japanese have saved the American economy. His love of Admirals and Generals and military hardware put him smack in the middle of right wing ideologues searching for an enemy. Unlike Fleming, however, Cussler's cliché ridden writing puts him on par with most college freshmen which could explain the need for the CIA to fund his fiction. No good editor would accept it without heavy government financing.
(after Li Shang-yin)
Hard to know, she is hard to part from.
Weathered petals flutter to the west,
Silkworms dangle spent,
Like coagulates in candle sperm.
My mirror clouds with whitening hair
And the round moon is like a gasp.
Her crypt is so close
A mole could bring me word.
I don't like the Japs any more than you do. My old man told me about it from the war. But that was then and this is now, and maybe we ought to refight the whole thing like you say. A new war might just get them out of this country and our factories back on their feet.
When they came into this town and bought the old RCA plant, we all thought it was over. The mayor himself came over to our place and begged us to work harder, vowing no one in town would go over and work there or buy anything they built as long as our factory still stood.
I think that gave us a boost. Hell, we figured if we Americans couldn't beat a few squint-eyed freak in head to head competition we didn't deserve to be in business anyway. And we really did put our backs into it, too, working harder than we ever did. In fact, we gave up our afternoon six packs for the cause.
Yet, when we came in the morning or left at night, we saw the lights still shinning over at the Jap plant. Those queer sons of bitches put in unheard-of hours. More machine than human, I thought at the time, and it left me with a tight feeling in my belly like we weren't going to win this war-- not with them working like they did.
They didn't have any union to make the company pay up either. And from what I heard, they actually loved their company and their work. And I think that scared me more than anything else.
I guess our company caught onto this and made some deal with our union. No wage hikes this year. Just till we beat the pants off those Jap clowns. Maybe we were stupid, but our pride was a bit bruised by having those Japs look so efficient. We all voted to back the union. By then, some of us actually believed it was World War Two again.
But that's when it all started coming out. While we were giving up wages, the bosses were taking hefty bonuses. Some other details showed up that we didn't vote on, like the reduction of our health benefits, and planned layoffs.
Sure, the Jap employees got less money per hour than us, but they had doctors to take care of them and their families, and the company found them places to live. And their Goddamn bosses didn't make half the salary our bosses did.
Sure we went out on strike. It was the only thing we could do to show we didn't approve of our bosses being in bed with the union. To hell with what the Japs were doing!
That scared our union officials back into line. And it made the company back off on some of its secret plans. Nobody was going to lose their job or their insurance. Though no one said anything about giving back our wages or taking bonuses back from the bosses.
But what we lost was more than money. Not one of us could look a boss in the eye after that, or trust him to mean what he said. And they went on and on blaming the Japs for screwing us.
We knew better and we couldn't put our hearts into our work any more, not even when the final figures cam out showing the Jap factory had out-produced us three to one
And their Goddamn workers were happy! Can you figure it?
That's why I'm working for Japs now-- and feel good about my work again. And you're asking me what's Japan's advantage?
The Passing of Fotomat
Back in 1982, I worked for Fotomat Corporation, which was then headquatered in California and largely an American innovation. I was one of those silly "Fotomates" sitting out in the middle of America's parking lots, reading cheap novels and eating bonbons. Rumors of a Japanese take-over were even then circulating, though less than a quarter of the corporation was at the time controlled by Japan. But the end of American domination was clear as new bosses shifted in the upper ranks, sending great and greedy plans down the pipeline for us to sell to our customers. Gimmicks to get people addicted to our service came and went, like bad lotteries to which people would not subscribe.
I was so sick of the constant changes that I wrote a long letter to the board of directors telling them to quit with the gimmicks and give people better service and prices. The primary complaint had always been how high priced our services were compared to those of K-mart and Shop Rite. The masterminds in the corporate offices, however, believed we were the Cadillac of photo developing and raised the prices rather than lowered them, and gave themselves a heft raise in the process.
My letter, however, raised some hackles in the corporation and sent several of its board members scurrying. They arrived at my booth one morning in several chauffeur-driven limos with my boss' VW Rabbit rushing to keep up. They, surrounding the booth, wanted to know what I'd meant by my letter (as if I was really a spy from Kodak trying to sabotage their business).
I wasn't surprised when they later announced a cutback in the company and moved their national headquarters East to Florida (leaving 5000 people unemployed west of the Mississippi). They would later move north from Florida to protests of 5000 more unemployed. Meanwhile, the American element sold its shares to Konica Film of Japan in order to save the shrinking company. But they were already too late and introduced one-hour service years after the competition had made Fotomat obsolete.
I note all this in passing because Fotomat booths have been vanishing before my eyes, places where I slept well, or spent many fruitful hours reading novels have been leveled for additional parking. Who knows, maybe if they had listened to this lowly employee back in 1982, they might still have been around-- or perhaps still an American company.
When President Bush vomited in the lap of the Japanese prime minister, a dangerous perception of American weakness was unleashed upon world opinion. With the collapse of the Soviet threat, a vacuum has formed in American foreign policy which enemies like Iran's Saddam cannot fill. But Japan is one of the world's leading arms manufacturers and, with reasonable press manipulation, could be shaped into a new enemy.
Questions about whether or not Japanese companies should be allowed to build the Los Angeles rail system or own an American baseball team are building upon the myth that they can't be trusted. Meanwhile millions of Americans are employed by Japanese owned companies while American Corporations flee for cheap labor in places like Mexico.
Walmart store commercials help the myth along by bashing Japan on TV.
SPR feels it should do its part to help create the myth of a new and common enemy abroad with the suggestion of a cultural boycott. No American literary journals should publish or promote the uncouth form of poetry known as Haku. We must reject their compact verse in order to promote more wordy and sometimes obtuse English and American poetry.
We must demand that Japanese literary journals publish their fair share of sonnets, epics and lyrical poetry! And, if we can, American poets should vomit as often as possible upon their Japanese counterparts.
Japan Bashing for Fun & Profit
My best friend confronted me with my lack of patriotism recently saying if I couldn't support America against the invasion from Japan why didn't I move out. This paraphrase of "America love it or leave it" from a thinking man showed me just how deeply the hate-Japan propaganda has gone in our society.
"We have to protect ourselves," he said, quoting facts and figures from Michael Crichton's novel "Rising Sun" as if it was the Bible, as if after the fall of the Soviet Union we had to have another external enemy upon whom we could blame all of our troubles. The call for "Buy American" getting more and more confused as American companies leave the US for places like Mexico and the Philippines.
The usually unspoken Japanese opinion of American work ethics boiled over in front page headlines when uttered by people high in Japan's government. Are Americans lazy? Have we grown fat though lucrative Union contracts and top management bonuses?
Most likely. The beer consumption of American worker seems in direct and opposite proportion to his production levels, and though we have reversed some of the damage done by shoddy output in the last twenty years, world opinion of American products has plummeted to the point where "made in America" has the same connotation as "made in Japan" did during the 1950s & 60s. It ain't worth buying.
At the new world's fair in Spain, American companies are refusing the label "American" because of this fear, preferring to be called "International."
None of this is Japan's fault. Yet we have focused our economic woes in its direction, creating the beginnings of an economic cold war that could rival the one just ended with the Soviet Union. Rather than looking inward and finding the cause of our declining productivity, we focus outward, never calling to task those companies which refuse to invest in American workers and American production.
Proctor Silex, for instance, was one of the first US companies to undercut Union workers in the 1950s by moving its production facilities into the rural south, allowing it to cut worker's wages in half-- as well as the quality of its wares. Within the last six months, it has announced it is moving again, out of the towns which it created and into Mexico, where the average salary is ten percent of an American's. Yet, Proctor Silex displays the American flag on its packaging. Is this not a contraction in terms?
Ford Motor Company has been building cars in Mexico for years, as has Chrysler and General Motors, and yet in the recent Presidential trip to Japan, it was their voices crying loudest about Japan no buying American cars. Don't they mean Mexican? General Motors announced the loss of 80,000 American jobs in a massive cut back of its US facilities. Within days of this announcement, plans were unveiled for the opening of plants in Poland. Are these still American cars? What about the unemployed Americans who can't afford to buy the cars they once built?
During the Reagan Administration, taxes were cut in order for US companies to retool. The idea was to help such corporations modernize in order to compete with such countries as Japan and Germany. But American corporations took the money and invested it in non-related industries, letting their old factories grow older and less competitive. USX was formerly called US Steel, but changed its name during this period because it refused to modernize. The money it received to retool the aging steel factories went into buying a chemical company. The president of the company said: "We're not in business to make steel; we're in business to make money."
Which means screw America!
Now, nearly ten years after their last best chance, American corporations are either abandoning America totally, or focusing blame for our crumbling economy on Japan-- which they lobby President Bush to make a sweet-heart deal with Mexico to send even more jobs south. Michael Crichton's book is only one example of people hopping on the bandwagon in order to profit from the hysteria. Whether intended or not he becomes part of the same type of propaganda machine which helped us into the economic mess in the first place. Will America boost its military-industrial complex at the expense of civil industry in order to combat the evil capitalism of Japan the way it did communism?
Wait and see. With Crichton as part of the myth-making machinery, we might well refight the second world war.
All work is by A.D. Sullivan except where otherwise indicated.
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