Japan Inc. Buys the Moon

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[This Commentary originally appeared in the February 1, 1990 issue of The Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel.]

CarosaCommentaryNewLogo_259Born in the 1960s, I might be called an Apollo Child. The term, of course, has nothing to do with any astrological myth. It aptly describes that first generation which fully expected to read of space travel as history, not as science fiction.

The intricacies and loftiness of heavenly flight glorify the post war success of America. NASA drove into our psyche the thirst for reaching ever upward. No problem – no matter how complex, no matter how new, no matter how large – lacked a solution.

Please don’t misjudge this zest for youthful idealism. While one can almost always solve a problem, one must recognize all solutions have a cost. Sometimes we simply cannot or will not pay that price. Landing a man on the moon, though, proved worth the cost.

The entire world (at least temporarily) dismissed practicality and rejoiced when Neil Armstrong stepped from the ladder of the LEM and onto lunar dust. Our nation celebrated the moment, the very pinnacle of American Achievement. Our way of life led the world to something greater, and the Apollo program provided proof.

But something happened. (Psychologists now refer to it as “The Apollo Effect.”) We got bored. We lost our ability to dream. Some may say we grew up. Others say we became complacent. Our expectation of success mollified our passion for conquest. The comfort of status and prestige replaced the inner desire to achieve. In less than a generation, we have transformed ourselves from test pilots to couch potatoes.

Last week, Japan Inc. launched its first lunar satellite. As in other areas, the Land of the Rising Sun has diverted its treasures to new vistas, displacing what WAS ONCE uniquely American domain. (For the curious, Nissan made the rocket. Yes, that’s the same company that brought your those stupid “human race” commercials and even more ridiculous Infiniti “Nice pictures, but where’s the car?” advertisements.)

Can it be that the last realm of the pioneer LIES in Japan? Will Asians finally take their place among the world’s great explorers by leading our species into space with a sound, practical and implementable space policy? Well, bully for them if they can. More so if they succeed.

I cannot fault Japan – or any other nation for that matter – for the current state of The American Way. Indeed, the democracies around the world have excelled because they have embraced the ideals and principles of freedom and self-determination. Even the communist bloc has begun to shed the archaic tradition of despotic autocracy.

To be perfectly honest, we must congratulate our worldly brethren for having the tenacity to climb out of the morass mankind has spent its history creating. We must also salute ourselves, or specifically, the generation or two before us. Those brave Americans committed themselves to the self-sacrifice necessary to propel the war ravaged word to economic self-sufficiency.

Maybe I’m a little sad because Japan’s entry into space exploration signals the end of another tower of American pride – a tower very close to my heart. But perhaps more significantly, I am saddened by the apathy many Americans, particularly younger Americans, display toward this event. We seem too easily pleased with ourselves and our yuppie toys to take on the bigger challenges of tomorrow. Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we shall die!

One wonders if America has the guts and the hunger to create a society capable of global competition. Notice we do not use the words “revitalize” or “rebuild.” While the traditional American Spirit itself must continue, yesterday’s ideas and solutions no longer prove fruitful. We must show the same resourcefulness as the generations before us. We, too, must innovate. We, too, must invent. We, too, must create.

These words of discovery are not foreign to Americans of history. Indeed, the actions embodied in these words have made our nation. Innovation, invention and creation all represented critical milestones well before Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. Someone, somewhere, started with the idea that the impossible could be accomplished.

Unfortunately, it appears most of those kinds of thinkers now live in or work for Japan. As the economic behemoth of Asia continues to grow, it has begun to take on more and more culturally stimulating projects. We recall last year the fervor created when Japanese investors paid outrageous prices for various words of art. We feel the pain when American icons become just another investment in the portfolio of Japan, Inc.

Again, don’t misinterpret this piece as Japan-bashing. The Japanese have every right to do as they please. To be perfectly candid, they have displaced America and continue to win in the game of world economy. Ironically, in terms of markets, America remains the largest. This means Japan has beaten us in our own backyard, where we supposedly have home field advantage.

Now comes the real challenge – the one that our political and business leaders seem most willing to avoid – “What do we do now?”

Clearly, if American industry hopes to compete successfully across the world, it must first learn triumph at home. Yet, while some of the more enlightened American companies have prosperously taken this approach, this rational statement is summarily booed down by a chorus of “They have cheaper labor costs,” “They are subsidized,” “They don’t allow us access to their markets,” etc…

Innovation. Invention. Creation. The world has matured significantly since the war-torn democracies called upon America to rebuild it. Today those nations, including Japan, have begun to stand on their own. America won. It achieved its greater, and selfless, objective. But, we cannot pack up our bags and unilaterally quit as leader of the free world. Yesterday, we led a pack of aspiring wannabes. Today, we must strive for the more difficult – though not impossible – task of leading our equals.

Last Week #43: Terror at the School Bus Stop – A True Life Story (Part III) (originally published January 25, 1990)
Next Week #45: Celebrate Freedom Day! (originally published February 8, 1990)

[What is this and why is here? See Interested in Discovering My Time Machine? for more details.]

Comments

  1. Chris Carosa says:

    Author’s Comment: Funny, but all we need do is replace “Japan” with “China” and this essay could easily be mistaken for one written today. This piece therefore represents a cautionary tale to all those who speak of America’s demise to the land of the Tiger Mama. Those would be the same people who fail to understand the America of history was forged from the restless resiliency of the Grizzly Mama.

    To better understand this, consider the audience to which the above Commentary was written. Most the readers back then were of the World War II generation. They understood the motivational merits of a sense of urgency. From this “necessity is the mother of invention” attitude, they, albeit modestly, recognized the greatness of their generation’ acheivements well be before Tom Brokaw thought of the clever title for his book. This older generation understood the limitlessness of possibility. They knew it because they lived it.

    Their often pampered children, on the other hand, did not. (Perhaps understanding this failure is why the WWII generation would never call themselves “great.”) Without the experience of pulling one’s self up by one’s bootstraps, the newer generations of today lack the confidence needed to achieve the improbable. Where is their Apollo? Their Normandy? Their Marshall Plan? They don’t ask what they can do for their country, they ask what their country can do for them.

    And so, confronted by the colossus of China, they see nothing but the inevitability of defeat. They see nothing but the failure of our institutions. They see nothing but what once was can never be again. And they’re content with the slow slide into the contemporary irrelevance of modern Europe. They, after all, lived the bulk of lives in the joys of Yuppie excess. At least they had it – once upon a time.

    But, America, take heart, we have our saving grace. They’re playing video games right now. They haven’t lived the bulk of their lives yet. And, assuming those video games are teaching them something our schools aren’t – they won’t accept the brick wall of “it’s impossible.” For them, there’s always a hidden key, always an undiscovered Easter Egg and, no matter how desperate the situation, always a secret passage that will lead you to safety.

    One more thing. In case you weren’t paying attention, Japan Inc. didn’t take over the world. Post War Japan had almost five decades of uninterrupted economic growth. But when its economy took a nosedive shortly after this article was published, it didn’t have the experience to understand how to recover. All those “American icons” it purchased during its heyday in the 1980’s were sold for pennies on the dollar in the 1990’s. Some say Japan still hasn’t recovered.

    And that should be a cautionary tale for China.

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