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Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa scrambled Tuesday to control the diplomatic damage done by his derogatory remarks about American workers, saying he did not mean to impugn Americans.

"I had absolutely no intention of criticizing American workers," Miyazawa told the House of Representatives budget committee Tuesday morning."I used the phrase `work ethic' to express the idea of a philosophy of work," he said. "My use of the word `ethic' may have caused misunderstanding, but that was not my intention."

But his statement fell far short of an apology and may only add fuel to protectionist fires in the United States.

The Foreign Ministry sought Monday to soften the statement, taking the unusual step of delivering a "comment" to the White House and the State Department expressing regret for any misunderstanding.

Despite that initial clarification, Miyazawa earned a light rebuke from the White House and the anger of American politicians.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Masamichi Hanabusa said that the thrust of Miyazawa's remark was intended to stress "the importance of producing things and creating values by the sweat of our brow in our approach to work."

But White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater told reporters, "I would say that the American work force is second to none, that the American work ethic is legendary and . . . any comments to the contrary are wrong."

House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt, a leading critic of Japanese trade policies, issued a statement saying Miyazawa "is wrong" about American workers.

"Americans work hard every day, and our productivity is higher than Japan's. I wish we could contain this dialogue to progress on eliminating Japanese protectionism rather than being side-tracked every week responding to some ignorant expression of Japanese racism or ill-informed `worker-bashing.' "

United Auto Workers chief Owen Bieber said Japanese officials were criticizing U.S. workers to cast aspersions on the quality of U.S. goods for competitive reasons.

"The Japanese are attacking U.S. workers not because we make bad cars but because we make good cars," Bieber told a UAW conference in Washington.

"Because the quality gap has closed, they are trying to protect the sales of their cars to the U.S. by quite deliberately casting aspersions and planting doubts about their Big Three competition."

The head of a leading Japanese car-maker also said there was no problem in the quality of U.S. workers.

"I have great confidence in American workers. Those working for us in our Tennessee plant are very serious, hard-working, well-motivated and eager for improvement," said Yutaka Kume, president of Nissan Motor Co.