The Backlash Isn't Just Against Japan

It's hard to miss the RobyUSA dealership on the outskirts of Marysville, Ohio. A huge American flag flies outside the glassy showroom of Chevrolets, Oldsmobiles, and Geos. Inside, General Manager Bradford K. Perrine is mulling over how he can take advantage of the Buy American fever sweeping the U.S. One idea: Roby could give extra discounts to employers who offer employees incentives to buy U.S. cars.

But so far, nobody's doing much of that in this West Central Ohio burg. This, after all, is Honda Country. Marysville is home to Honda of America Manufacturing Inc.'s largest U.S. plant, which every day churns out 1,500 Accords. All told, Honda has invested $2.4 billion in four Ohio plants and engineering facilities and employs 10,200 workers. And, as the region's largest private employer, it hasn't laid off a one.

Still, the area doesn't exactly trumpet its reliance on the Japanese auto maker. "Where the Grass is Greener," announces a sign as you enter Marysville, also the home of Scotts Co., the lawn care company. Neighboring Bellefontaine (pronounced bell-fountain) highlights its own claim to fame, the first concrete street in America, rather than its nearby Honda plant.

These days, those might be safer points of civic pride than the area's ties to Japan, as Buy American fever infects the U.S. The biggest outbreak? St. Louis-based Monsanto Chemical Co.'s announcement on Jan. 23 that it will give each of its 12,000 employees $1,000 toward a new car assembled in the U.S., Canada, or Mexico. This came on the heels of Los Angeles County's cancellation of a contract to buy trains from Sumitomo Corp. Then there was baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent's stone-cold reception to news that a 60% interest in the Seattle Mariners could be sold to a Japanese family.

For each Japanese company that might be fretting about the Buy American sentiment, there are stateside businesses looking for an opportunity. At a recent fashion mart in New York, retailers showed new interest in clothes made in the U.S. At Buick dealer Deane Automotive Center in Denver, foreign trade-ins are up. "They're saying, `We're going to buy American this time,"' says salesman Allan R. King. And Houston-based Brik Toy Co. had tried for two years to get Toys `R' Us Inc. to buy its plastic building blocks. Last month, tiny Brik got a yes. Toys `R' Us Vice-Chairman Michael Goldstein confirms that Brik's "made in America" label was one reason. Says Brik President John C. Brannan: "Vendors who turned us down are now giving us a chance."

The anti-Japanese sentiment is seen in Japan as not much more than a passing fancy. "It's a temporary phenomenon related to the recession," says Masamichi Hanabusa, chief spokesman for the Japanese Foreign Ministry. "There are ups and downs in any nation's sentiment toward its partners."

OUT OF CONTROL? But to some Americans, a certain divide seems to have been crossed. "There is a real danger in the coming year that this thing can get out of control," says a senior State Dept. official. Some U.S. employees of Japanese companies say that's already happening and that they're taking a lot of heat. "Three years ago, if I told people who I was working for, they'd say, `That's interesting,"' a manager with a giant Japanese trading company reports. "Now they say, `Why are you working for the Japanese?"'

Back in Marysville, that's not much of a problem. "The thing people say most to me is, `Are you hiring?"' observes one Honda employee. Besides, most Honda folks figure their cars are as American as those made by the Big Three, citing the 75% U.S. content that Honda says is built into each. Honda worker Janet Miller says she owns a Dodge powered by a Mitsubishi engine. "What's the difference?" she asks.

Some Marysville citizens even suggest that their neighbors could learn something from Honda. Harold "Sonny" South, who works on the Accord assembly line, attributes much of the company's success to an emphasis on team effort. "I'm afraid to say, America doesn't think that way yet," he says.

Not that these Japanese "transplant" workers are entirely unsympathetic to U.S. complaints of a closed market in Japan. And they were a little surprised to hear that a Japanese politician recently called U.S. workers "lazy" and often illiterate. But for some, there was truth to the charges. "It's unfortunate it was said publicly," says Sonny South, "but sometimes it takes a pretty hard-hitting [comment] to get the U.S. to wake up."