One American admired by Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone was the late John Wayne. Last year, during an interview in New York, Mr. Nakasone said that one reason he was such a fan of "Ron" Reagan is that "he reminds me of John Wayne."

But Mr. Nakasone has made a blunder that Mr. Wayne never committed in any western movie: He's shot himself in the foot, and the wound is serious.By suggesting in a speech to young members of his party that American achievements are being held back by the low intellectual level and educational progress of blacks, Hispanics and other minority groups, Mr. Nakasone has done more harm to Japanese-U.S. relations than all the Japan-bashing on Capitol Hill in the past couple of years.

"Japan is now a highly educated and fairly intelligent society," Mr. Nakasone told a meeting of the Liberal Democratic Party, "much more so than America on the average. In America, there are quite a few black people, Puerto

Ricans and Mexicans. On the average, it is still very low. . . .

"In America even now, there are many black people who do not know their letters."

There can be no doubt that the literacy level in Japan is very high, or that the Japanese educational system is superb - better than ours in many ways. It probably has been a factor in generating Japan's enormous trade surpluses. We should do our best to adopt the best features of the Japanese school system. And one must believe, sadly, that Mr. Nakasone's insensitive remarks about blacks and Hispanics are privately cheered by racist Americans.

But Mr. Nakasone unintentionally exposed a seamy side of the Japanese mentality. Japan is an exclusionary society that lumps all foreigners (gaijin) together as less worthwhile than the homogeneous Japanese. It is an arrogant attitude, exacerbated by male chauvinism that puts women down, as well.

When asked at the LDP meeting whether television is useful in promoting the level of intelli gence, Mr. Nakasone couldn't pass up the opportunity to suggest that women aren't as bright as men: "When women watch (me on TV), it seems they remember the color of my tie, but not what I said," the Japanese prime minister responded.

James Fallows, in the current issue of The Atlantic, writes of his distress at discovering, within the first few months of an assignment in Japan, that the Japanese consider themselves "inherently different" from other people, a pure "racial" group, and that they want to stay that way.

The Japanese language is one tool for exclusivity. Recently, when I tried out on a Japanese friend a few new, simple words I had learned, he smiled and said: "I think you have gone about as far as you should go. We Japanese believe that when you know too much of our language, you have too great a searchlight into our minds."

The painful part of Mr. Nakasone's diatribe is that it is not an aberration, or a careless slip of the tongue. It is representative of a widely held view among the Japanese, who regard themselves as superior to other races. Some months back, a member of the Japanese Diet said in an interview in Tokyo that America's economic problems not only reflected the dilution of the white majority by immigrants from Latin America and elsewhere, but a pandering to the elderly, whose pension rights drained too much wealth out of society.

"You will suffer the same fate as England. Your society is doomed for these reasons," he said.

As Robert Christopher and others have written, this attitude represents more than simple racism. "The central element in the Japanese sense of superiority is, I think, tribal rather than purely social. Convinced of the uniqueness of their culture, the Japanese also like to think that it is so subtle and complex that no one who was not born Japanese and reared in Japanese society can ever truly become part of it," Mr. Christopher wrote in ''The Japanese Mind."

In racial and cultural terms, Japan is said by scholars such as Mr. Christopher to be the most homogeneous of the world's major nations. At least 2 million Burakumin, ethnically not distinguishable from other Japanese, are herded in ghettos. Originally called Eta (full of filth), the Burakumin are outcasts presumably because they are descendants from those who engaged in non-Buddhist occupations such as leather working. And as is well known, the 750,000 Korean-Japanese in Japan are discriminated against in the same way blacks are discriminated against in the United States.

All this is extremely distressing to friends of Japan, who view the Japanese-U.S.partnership as crucial to world peace and prosperity and who have been trying to fend off the crude approach of protectionists. The protectionist-minded stand ready to cover up America's real inadequacies with restrictive quotas on Japanese imports into this country.

I fear that Mr. Nakasone's boneheaded speech has supplied the protectionists with live ammunition they will use with glee for years to come.

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