The Coming U.S.-Japan Crisis

Television viewers in Japan saw an extraordinary news broadcast on the morning of July 2, 1987: nine members of the U.S. Congress were smashing a small Toshiba radio with sledgehammers at a press conference on Capitol Hill. The congressmen were expressing their anger at the Toshiba Machine Company of Japan, which had violated regulations of COCOM, the Coordinating Committee for multilateral export controls, by selling eight computer-guided multiaxis milling machines to the Soviet Union. The equipment permitted the Soviets to mass-produce a more silent propeller for their submarines and thus avoid detection by many of the current U.S. methods. One Pentagon official estimated that it would cost the United States some $30 billion to regain the technological superiority lost in the illegal sale. The sledgehammer scene, which was largely ignored by the American media, was shown over and over again in Japan, to the point where it now lodges uneasily in the collective national consciousness.

The anger of the congressmen was understandable. From the facts then available (and neither the Japanese government nor Toshiba Corporation, parent of the Toshiba Machine Company, has denied them), the security breach was considerable, and possibly irreparable. As seen from Capitol Hill, an ungrateful Japan, still spending only about one percent of its GNP for defense, still protected by American forces and a U.S. defense budget which consumes about six percent of GNP, was aiding a potential adversary for profit.

But the event triggered far more complex emotions on both sides, and reflected growing mutual frustrations. For many American leaders, Japan was already guilty of running up a huge trade surplus through questionable tactics while keeping its own market largely closed to American products. Spectacular advances by Japanese engineers in a variety of high technology fields raised the specter of losses in one after another American industry, following the fate of such industries as steel, television, automobiles, machine tools and, most recently, certain kinds of semiconductors.

Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to three free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis