JAPAN'S INFLUENCE ON AMERICAN LIFE There's more to it than team building and sushi. The Japanese are changing Americans' self-image -- and inspiring an urge to learn.
By Stratford P. Sherman REPORTER ASSOCITES Mark D. Fefer and Jung Ah Pak

(FORTUNE Magazine) – REMEMBER when America was the greatest country in the whole wide world? After World War II a euphoric sense of supremacy -- No. 1, by God, and proud of it! -- seemed the birthright of U.S. citizens. But the feeling has faded, and even the whipping America gave Saddam Hussein couldn't quite bring it back. The changed mood accompanies a new respect for the Japanese, who rose to mastery and power while Americans were horsing around with LBOs, credit cards, and cocaine. Suddenly, all around the U.S., Japanese are settling in as neighbors, classmates, and employers -- over 200,000 at last count, with more coming all the time. Many are executives whose decisions affect thousands of workers. Unlike earlier arrivals on these shores, these people have no intention of becoming Americans. They come not as immigrants, but as expatriates -- and conquerors. Japan has much more to offer than the business ideas, such as just-in-time manufacturing, that already have altered the habits of many U.S. corporations. What most Americans don't yet see is Japan's deeper effect on their society. The barriers of language and race are formidable, and Japanese expatriates often seem more eager to fit in than impose their culture on the U.S. But buy a round of drinks for the patrons at Rumors, a dimly lit bar on the outskirts of Lexington, Kentucky, and they'll talk your ear off about Japan's growing influence. The bar is a few miles down the road from Toyota's Georgetown plant -- where 68 Japanese, 3,650 Americans, and a whole lot of robots build the Camry sedans that J.D. Power & Associates rates as the nation's top-quality auto. Rumors is a blue-collar hangout where customers keep their caps on while they drink -- beer, mostly, and Seven-and-Seven. Country-western music videos play on the cable TV; tacked to a rafter over the bar is a bumper sticker with an American flag that reads TRUCKERS FOR THE TROOPS. These country boys aren't about to start wearing kimonos, but they are remarkably cosmopolitan and aware. Bartender Sam Thurman, 31, who wears one earring, a black T-shirt, and shorts emblazoned with the words ''Rude Dogs,'' is a house framer by trade who works at Rumors to evade unemployment. ''The Japanese come in here sometimes,'' he says. ''They're down-to-earth people, and they've proved that they have a lot of good ideas.'' Counters Buck Arnett, 31, a union pipefitter who was working 60-hour weeks at a Dow Corning plant before being laid off in April: ''I don't like the Japs.'' But when asked why Japan so often bests America in business, Arnett doesn't flinch: ''It's our own damn fault.'' The others all nod and raise their brewskies in agreement. ''Hell, yes!'' they say. THAT RECOGNITION represents a turning point for grass-roots America. Says David Halberstam, whose book The Reckoning explored U.S.-Japanese competition in autos: ''It's the end of an illusion we've had since the Battle of Midway, that if America does it, it's the best.'' Now Americans are asking themselves why they can't do as well as the Japanese. When folks in Kentucky and elsewhere first saw Japanese companies clobber their U.S. counterparts years ago, many reacted as if the Japanese had landed from Mars, equipped with some kind of extra-smart mutant genes. But as greater numbers of ordinary Americans meet Japanese face to face, many respond just like Barbara Tinnell, 26, a team leader at the Toyota plant, who has spent six weeks in Japan on training tours. Says she: ''From how good they're doing you almost expect the Japanese to be superior people -- but they're not different, really.'' Perceptions like hers are priceless because they imply a responsibility to measure up. But how? Americans like Tinnell are finding one answer in the Japanese management practice of kaizen, or continuous improvement -- and in the enthusiasm for learning that is the real force behind it. Japan's towering achievement in manufacturing is the sum of countless small advances by individual workers and companies. For Americans raised to regard learning as something that happens in school, that is a profoundly new way of looking at things. The 1987 film Tampopo illustrates the Japanese attitude. The picture (available on videocassette) tells the story of a widow who runs an unsuccessful noodle shop. Inspired by a customer's fierce criticism, she painstakingly masters the art of making ramen soup. That's all there is to the plot, but it plays like an adventure. How different from, say, Rocky, in which the hero spends most of the time bulking his biceps. JAPANESE-STYLE learning typically involves lots of personal contact. For Americans, there is now more opportunity to meet people from Japan than ever before. Japanese companies currently employ over 400,000 people in the U.S. Some 35,000 Americans are taking college-level courses in Japanese, and enrollment continues to rise. Over a million Americans visited Japan in 1990, 40% more than five years ago, while three million Japanese sojourned in the U.S., mostly as tourists or students. Japan's expatriates are spread all over the U.S. More than a third live on the West Coast, particularly in California, where 20% of all Japanese-owned U.S. factories are located. Roughly a quarter have gathered in New York City and nearby suburbs. The rest are scattered in smaller groups from Wyoming to Georgia, where Yamaha makes golf carts. The Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Georgia has almost 300 members. In California, where the influx of Asian peoples began more than a century ago, the influence of Japanese expatriates is diluted and blurred. They compete for attention with newcomers from countries as diverse as Cambodia and Peru, and with a large and well-assimilated population of Americans of Japanese descent. To see signs -- often contradictory -- of what lies ahead, one must go to towns like Fort Lee, New Jersey, and Georgetown, Kentucky, where, in an atmosphere of awkward affability, Japanese and Americans are learning to live together. A disproportionate number of the Japanese expatriates around New York City have gathered in a couple of suburbs. In Fort Lee, across the Hudson River from Manhattan, Mayor Nicholas Corbiscello remembers the day when the only Asians he saw there were the people who pressed his shirts. Now 15% of the students in the public schools are citizens of Japan. That figure understates the Japanese presence, since many of the children transfer to Japanese schools in New York City after fifth grade. ''I don't think there's any question that the Japanese will change America. I've seen a change right before my eyes,'' says Alan Sugarman, Fort Lee's superintendent of schools. He is a fervent believer in multiculturalism, the idea that ethnic groups can no longer be expected to abandon their distinctiveness in the traditional melting pot: ''We can't stampede newcomers into being Americans anymore.'' But that's okay, he says. The Asian kids' diligent study habits set the standard for everyone else, leading American students to work harder. Achievement scores in Fort Lee are rising, and 90% of high school graduates go to college, vs. 75% in the mid-Seventies. Japanese and American cultures often clash. That is the case in Scarsdale, New York, where a fifth of public-school students are from Japan. Unlike Fort Lee, which includes diverse ethnic and immigrant groups, Scarsdale is wealthy, homogeneous, and somewhat stunned from the sudden influx from Japan. American and Japanese adults there lead mostly separate lives, in part because the expatriate group is large enough to sustain itself. Like U.S. expatriates of an earlier era, who earned the epithet ''Ugly Americans'' by herding together in ignorance of local ways, the Japanese are most comfortable with one another. THE CHILDREN have no choice but to meet and compete at school. A college sophomore, who says he didn't often speak to the Japanese while at Scarsdale High, draws this broad lesson from his experience: ''Racial tension between Asians and Americans is just inevitable.'' Principal Judy Fox is trying hard to promote harmony: Scarsdale High is preparing a course in Japanese language and culture, has put Japanese-English dictionaries in every classroom, and hired ''bias-reduction consultants,'' who encourage students to talk out their differences. The efforts, though well intended, have yet to bear fruit. ''I don't think students here know much about Japanese culture, considering how many Japanese are here,'' remarked senior Jimmy Zednik, 18, who said he had spent a year in Yokohama. Indeed, a recent visit to the school -- during an ''International Day'' festival, as it happened -- suggests that only a few American students mingle with the Japanese. The kids gathered in the gym at lunchtime to sample foods of their ancestral lands, from Africa to Korea. The U.S. table, offering pretzels, potato chips, and brownies, attracted almost nobody, while the Japan table, serving noodles and sushi, was mobbed. But when Americans and Japanese sat on the floor to eat, they stayed apart. Asked about the apparent conflict, an American girl gestured to a nearby Asian, saying, ''She's my friend.'' Replied the Asian: ''Yeah -- but I'm not Japanese.'' Across the room, a group of young Americans eagerly confessed their racist feelings to a visitor, all the while chowing down on Japanese food. Their bluntest remarks don't deserve to be printed, but the sources of their anger are plain. ''They're smarter than us,'' said one, pointing with his chin to some nearby Japanese. Added another: ''You hear your parents talking about how they're taking over.'' A few feet away, Futa Sakamoto, a ninth-grader, sat with a group of Japanese. He said he does mix with Americans but wishes his schoolmates were more friendly: ''We'll change, but the Americans don't want to.'' Part of the trouble, his companions acknowledge, is the language barrier that encourages the Japanese to stick together. Yoshi Ito, 15, gratefully remembered his experience as one of the few Japanese in an American summer camp: ''It was very nice to be alone. If there were more Japanese people there, I wouldn't learn.'' JAPANESE companies in the area are catching on to the problem. Hitachi, for one, now advises expatriate employees to spread out instead of congregating in the U.S. equivalent of the foreigners' ghettos that Japanese disdainfully call gaijin mura. The company also suggests that they take part in community activities, and the Japanese know how to take a hint: Yasushi Sayama, who was general manager of corporate administration before returning to Japan a few months ago, joined a local Lutheran church, even though he's not Christian. Compared with the tensions of Scarsdale, multiculturalism comes easy in the beautiful state of Kentucky. For one thing, there aren't that many Japanese living around Georgetown or nearby Harrodsburg, where Hitachi makes auto parts. Of that factory's 490 employees, only 14 are Japanese. The expatriates -- managers and engineers -- seemed to fit right in while eating lunch at the local Pizza Hut. The other great difference here is that the Japanese provide a powerful boost to the Kentucky economy, and the Americans likeliest to meet Japanese are those who work for them. In this unprosperous corner of the world, people are thankful just to hold a job. The Japanese are shrewd employers. In Kentucky, which lost many sons in World War II -- Harrodsburg has a memorial to victims of the Bataan death march -- the Japanese hire mostly young people with no memory of that war and little chance of finding a better job anywhere else. The Japanese can be more demanding than boot-camp drill instructors, but they pay well and reward outstanding performance. And the plants make products that sell, which translates into pride and job security for workers. Some become enthusiasts. Dean Lee has been promoted twice in his three years at Hitachi; only 27, he manages the plant's production planning. An intelligent man who holds a degree in industrial technology from Morehead State University, Lee sounds like a Moonie when he says, with conviction, ''We're an American company'' -- as if Japanese ownership and management counted for nothing. Working for Hitachi, he says, ''has just changed me totally.'' Among the lessons learned from his employers: patient deliberation in making decisions. Instead of just buying a car this year, Lee pondered his choices for four months before settling on a Mercury, which, he notes, uses Hitachi parts. He recently sold his house but plans to rent an apartment and carefully consider his options before buying again. John Beets, 35, a Toyota team leader, learned a lot by observing the Japanese at play. ''They know how to relax,'' he says, ''but a party or a golf game with them lasts two or three hours at the maximum -- then the schedule kicks in and they go off somewhere else. Now I tend to set schedules for myself more. I make sure I have flexibility but also try to get something done at certain points along the day.'' FOR Karen Satterly, 24, a born-again Baptist who assembles circuitboards at Hitachi, the lesson is more personal. In her high school she says many Americans felt inferior to their few Japanese schoolmates, the offspring of expatriate managers. When she joined Hitachi, she felt uncertain of her ability to meet the company's standards. ''The Japanese are such particular people,'' she explains. In time Satterly learned how to make the parts the precise way her employers want them. She's proud of her work now, and of herself. ''I think a lot of people feel inferior, and that tends to make them a little mean,'' she says. ''That's just something they have to overcome.'' Experiences like these are the essence of Japan's influence in America: an accumulation of personal discoveries, small in themselves, that could add up to something big.