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What Donald Trump really means when he hates on Japan

A postcard commemorates the end of the Russo-Japanese War. The yellow tiger represents Japan as it seeks to conquer the world.
A postcard commemorates the end of the Russo-Japanese War. The yellow tiger represents Japan as it seeks to conquer the world.
MIT Visualizing Cultures Project

During his recent presidential campaign announcement, Donald Trump didn't hide his distrust of foreigners. Presumably as part of his campaign promise to "Make America Great Again," Trump bashed several of America's economic partners, most notably Mexico, China, and Japan.

Distrust of Mexico and China is fairly standard for Republicans. The right is generally critical of Mexican immigration, for a mix of xenophobic and political reasons — in the GOP, there is a (falseassumption that an influx of Latino immigrants would swell Democratic voter rolls. As for China, the GOP has long distrusted the rising superpower, and sees it as a major competitor to America's global standing. But when it comes to Japan, Trump's criticisms seem outside the norm, at best. Most Republicans view Japan quite favorably — more than most Democrats, in fact.

Furthermore, none of the fears — reasonable or otherwise — that motivate anti-Mexican or anti-Chinese bias apply to Japan. Japanese immigration to America is almost negligible, and the country's economy is currently faltering; both Japan's GDP and GDP growth lag behind China and the US.

But this wasn't always the case. Although many Americans forget it, it wasn't so long ago that Japan was poised to overtake America as the world's largest economy. Trump's rhetoric really seems to belong back in the '80s, during the heyday of Japan's economic might. Take this quote: "So many countries are whipping America . . . I respect the Japanese, but we have to fight back." It sounds like a lot of what Trump said during his announcement speech. In fact, it's from a graduation address of his in 1988.

What did Trump actually say?

Well, a lot. Let's start with his remarks when he launched his 2016 presidential campaign on June 16. It had a lot to do with cars.

We allow Japan to sell us millions of cars with zero import tax and we can't make a trade deal with them - our country is in big trouble!

Posted by Donald J. Trump on Friday, 25 April 2014

Referring to the Japanese, Trump stated, "They send their cars over by the millions, and what do we do? When was the last time you saw a Chevrolet in Tokyo? It doesn't exist, folks. They beat us all the time."

While it is true that Chevy doesn't exactly have a strong following in Japan — they sold only 597 cars total there in 2014 — it's not as if the company doesn't exist in Japan. It even has a pretty decent Japanese website.

Japan-bashing is nothing unusual for Trump — and the Japanese auto industry seems to be a pet peeve. Last year, he told the Daily Mail that "Japan is not being nice to us ... We take in millions of their cars, hundreds of thousands of cars every year." It hardly seems to be Japan's fault that Japanese car brands (notably Subaru, Toyota, and Honda) rank higher than American cars on the American Customer Satisfaction Index.

"The computers, the cars, this and that," he continued, "and they won't let us sell food over in Japan?" Perhaps Trump is referring specifically to rice tariffs, which were a sticking point during the TPP negotiations. Otherwise, I can personally confirm that American food — from Doritos to steak — is available in Tokyo supermarkets.

What is odd about Trump's fearmongering is that it seems so out of place, given Japan's current economic state. Like many other countries, including the US, Japan is still recovering from the recession. The country's rapidly aging population — about a quarter of the population is over 65 — threatens to hurt the economy as wage earners decrease and health-care costs rise.

Currently, America spends approximately $49.8 billion on auto imports from Japan. But while that might seem like a frightening amount of money, the Japan-US automobile trade deficit has shrunk relative to America's overall deficit. In 1986, Japanese auto imports accounted for 23.6 percent of America's overall international trade deficit; by 2012 that number had dropped to a mere 7.1 percent.

Perhaps Trump's prophesies for the Japanese economy made sense in the mid-'80s — as the graph below shows, Japan had nearly caught up to America in terms of exports, despite being a significantly smaller country. However, in the past 15 years or so —and particularly in the last four — the gap between American and Japanese exports has widened significantly.

All in all, it seems as though Trump's fears of Japan aren't especially warranted, at least in this day and age. It's as if Trump has been frozen in the 1980s, when alarm over Japan's so-called "Yellow Peril" — the fear that Japan would economically overpower the US — was at its height.

What exactly was the Yellow Peril?

Understanding the myth of Yellow Peril really means going back to the 1910s, during the peak of Japanese immigration to the US.

By this time, Japan had successfully routed Russia in the Russo-Japanese War — a war more important for its symbolic consequences than its geopolitical ones. The fact that an Asian nation could beat a white, Christian, European nation was seen as a precursor to the rising "Yellow Peril" of Asian might.

MIT Visualizing Cultures Project

In this postcard responding to Japan's victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, a lecherous man, representing Japan, looks on as the nude and virginal white woman, representing Russia, cowers at his mercy. (MIT Visualizing Cultures Project)

Despite a need for unskilled farmhands in the western United States, local farmers viewed Asian immigrants — particularly Japanese and Indians — as threats to their jobs. Steps were taken to protect white American interests, and California banned land ownership by these two ethnic groups. In 1917, the US passed an immigration act that established most of Asia (including Japan) as a zone barred from further immigration.

While race clearly played a role in these early Yellow Peril fears — the "yellow" being a reference to the supposed coloration of Asians — it is worth noting that racism merely seemed to compound already existing economic fears. The stance against immigration and land ownership, for example, were explicitly rooted in economic concerns. These appear to be the early rumblings of what we see in Trump today — a panic that another country, especially an Asian country, might overpower the American economy and take American jobs.

Of course, anti-Japanese sentiment was also prevalent during World War II — but with a different motivation. The fear was no longer that Japanese Americans would steal jobs: it was that they were somehow in cahoots with the Japanese military.

After Japan's defeat in 1945 — which Trump seems to overlook during his speech when he asked, "When did we beat Japan at anything?" — the threat was banished, and fears seemed to subside.

The bubble years and the new Yellow Peril

Fast-forward several decades, to Tokyo in 1985.

Donald Trump wasn't the only one making a name for himself. There are all sorts of exotic stories about life in Japan during the '80s: from gold-dusted sushi to sky-high real estate prices — the famous real estate "bubble." Rumor at the time was that the value of a single ward in Tokyo was greater than the land value of all of Canada. Just land of the Imperial Palace was once assessed to be worth more the entire state of California.

Japan Yellow Peril

Time magazine, 1987.

As Japan's economy increased, wealthy Japanese made a name for their country at international auctions. A Japanese insurance company purchased one of van Gogh's famous "Sunflowers" paintings for what was then the highest price in the world: $39.9 million. These auction battles might have been an impetus for Trump's animus — in 1988, an anonymous Japanese investor outbid him for a piano featured in the movie Casablanca. Even the piano's original owner, a Beverly Hills dentist named Dr. Gary Milan, seemed unhappy: "I'm a little unpleased that it's probably leaving the country," he stated, before noting that the growing Japanese interest in auctions "doesn't make me real happy."

Part of the fear, no doubt, could be attributed not only to Japan’s power but to its amazing ascent following the war. Japan managed to co-opt American capitalism and seemed to improve it — ditching America's free-market notions for a closely allied public and private sector. It was a slap in the face for hard-working American Dreamers like Trump ... and it was also working. In 1985, Japan alone accounted for about a third of America’s $148.5 billion trade deficit.

But money wasn't the worst of it; it was also about symbols. In 1989, when Japanese corporation Mitsubishi bought a controlling stake in the Rockefeller Group, the New York Times mourned that the "centerpiece of America's most renowned metropolis is about to pass into foreign ownership," while reminding readers of the threat Japan posed to American autonomy: "Japanese companies already own 30 percent of downtown Los Angeles and much of Honolulu." When Sony bought Columbia Pictures that same year, it was accused of defiling an American cultural icon.

There was particular concern surrounding the Japanese auto industry. In 1988, Japan accounted for about half of America’s entire automotive trade deficit. In order to attract customers, American car dealers resorted to embarrassing attempts at fearmongering and racism, essentially not dissimilar to what Trump was doing during his speech. In a reference to the Rockefeller Center purchase, Pontiac dealers in New York released the following ad in 1990 (starting at around 17:18):

Other car ads from the time presented montages of World War II imagery, as if the success of Japanese carmakers should, by some anachronistic logic, justify atrocities at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan's economic ascent was a surprise attack — the fiscal equivalent of Pearl Harbor.

The anti-Japanese hysteria in the US reached its climax at the brutal murder of Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American man beaten to death in Detroit by unemployed autoworkers because they believed he was Japanese. Although the two killers got Chin’s nationality wrong, the incident captured the fear and anger blue-collar America felt toward the growth of Japanese industry.

Are Trump's fears valid today?

Of course, the real estate bubble couldn't last forever. Starting in 1990, Japan's real estate prices began to drop, and dramatically so. In less than a year, Japan's Nikkei stock index lost more than $2 trillion, and the magic of the bubble years became a parable of excess and warning against the seduction of Western capitalism.

Since the bubble burst, anti-Japanese rhetoric has also subsided, at least among Americans who are not Donald Trump. Japan has by no means fallen into poverty, but the country's heyday is clearly over. Trump alone seems unable to let go, like an over-the-mill prizefighter reliving the rivalries of his youth.