"When I was a kid, it was such a marvelous place," Junji Izumi said, poking disconsolately with his chopsticks at a dark red slice of raw tuna steak. "We would see it on TV, and it was like the shining light of the world. So rich, so free - it used to be a place where dreams came true."
The "marvelous place" that Izumi, a 39-year-old retailer, was lamenting in nostalgic tones at a teeming bar in this busy Tokyo suburb on a recent night is none other than the United States of America, a country that was once the stuff of dreams for nearly everyone in Japan - but evidently is no more."Yeah, it's sad now," chimed in 42-year-old Shogo Miyake, leaning over to pour a cup of hot sake for his friend Izumi. "To think that America would have to send its president over here to beg! To think that all those wonderful department stores in New York - even Bloomingdale's - have gone bankrupt! What is it - a lack of effort?"
That casual conversation between two salarymen, and the disparaging blasts of America-bashing from Japanese politicians in recent weeks, reflect a new strain in Japan's attitude toward its chief ally: a sense of disillusionment, even contempt, with the economically ailing country across the Pacific.
"The feeling that things have gone badly wrong in the U.S. is strong - much stronger since President Bush's visit in January," said Keio University professor Atsushi Kusano, who has been conducting polls with small samples.
The mixed emotions of sympathy and superiority that color Japan's view of the United States today have clearly made people more willing to criticize it out loud. Some worry that the seeds of dangerous nationalism are being sown; political scientist Nagayo Honma wrote last month that if Japanese come to see their country as superior in all respects, "then Japanese-U.S. relations will face catastrophe again."
But whether such a disastrous scenario is really in the making remains to be seen.
The Japanese are strongly conditioned to avoid confrontations; the elaborate ritual and stylized politeness of Japan's language and culture evolved to serve that objective.
As a result, the immediate Japanese reaction to the current volley of trans-Pacific name-calling has been to try to find some quick resolution, some way to quiet the immediate uproar. Meanwhile, resentment may be building, just waiting for the next bilateral blowup.
"The Japanese tend to suppress anger or resentment," said Tokyo University professor Takashi Inoguchi. "If the Japanese public keeps accumulating this feeling of resentment (toward America), it is bound to come out in some form."
In geopolitical terms, there is no sign that the Japanese government or public wants to break away from its long alliance with, and dependence on, U.S. leadership. The fear of divorce from the United States, of becoming "an isolated child in the world," as analyst Yukio Okamoto put it, is still the ultimate nightmare for policy planners and ordinary people alike.
In the business community, though, the changed mood has sparked a sharp debate about the goals of Japanese industry. The dispute centers on this question: Is Japanese industry so strong that it must change its ways to avoid wiping out foreign competition?
The Japanese are still edgy about doing or saying anything that might alienate the United States, their biggest market, chief ally and military defender. While recent criticisms by politicians reflected widely held views here, the critics felt the need to express groveling apologies to the Americans in each case.
The America-bashing is widely regarded as a clumsy mistake, and Japanese officials heave sighs of relief that "buy-American" sentiment appears to be sputtering in the United States. Newspaper and TV analysts blasted the America-bashers for exacerbating U.S.-Japanese friction.
"In the eyes of Western business executives," Hiraiwa continued, "Japanese businessmen and companies appear willing to sacrifice everything and think only of how to win when they compete. Shouldn't we relax somewhat and seek symbiosis with other countries?"
There are, of course, defenders of the Japanese way of business. Takeshi Nagano, chairman of another big business group, has been Morita's most prominent critic, asserting that Japanese workers are already highly paid and that raising wages further could prove disastrous.
"Japan has to export," Nagano said. "We manufacture products from the raw materials that we import, and most of the difference goes into labor cost. So we have to keep the ratio of labor costs at a proper level."
There is evidence - slim but unmistakable - that Japanese companies are adopting some of Morita's new way of thinking.
Toyota, Nissan and Honda have announced they will raise the prices of their cars in the United States by 1.7 percent to 5 percent, a change that could reduce their share of the U.S. auto market. Publicly, the companies attributed the decision to the strong yen, but industry insiders say a key goal is to help keep the Japanese share of the U.S. market from rising above today's 30 percent to some politically unacceptable level.
Is all this real, or is it just a smoke screen to fool Americans?
"I don't just dismiss it," said Clyde Prestowitz, a Washington analyst who has been a strong critic of Japanese trade practices. He said statements like Morita's "are interesting harbingers of potential, worth following."
But before the attitudes of the Japanese public change, something is going to have to happen in America to make Japan believe that the United States has its economic house in order.
"Of course America is still a country I respect," said Junji Izumi, still talking about this perennial topic at the suburban bar here. "At the time of the (Persian) Gulf war, America was the world's leader, the world's policeman. This is something Japan could never do.
"What Japan can do," Izumi continued, "is make cars as good as the old Ford Mustang. That used to be the state-of-the-art car of the world. Why can't America make cars like that anymore?"