US-China trade tensions: Lessons from the Walkman’s decade

Global Business


The U.S.-China trade dispute has raised fears of a full-blown commercial war. But trade battles aren’t new. If you grew up in the 1980s, there are some striking similarities with Japan during that period.

From Marty McFly blasting his dad awake with Van Halen at high volume on his Aiwa to Footloose’s Ren and Willard dancing to Deniece Williams’ Let’s Hear it for the Boy, Japanese tech was the sound of the 1980s.CGTN’s Owen Fairclough reports.

The Sony Walkman symbolized Japan’s global dominance in consumer electronics, yet the reminders are now found mainly in retro tech collections like Bob Roswell’s computer museum outside Baltimore.

Showing his original Walkman, complete with AM and FM radio, Bob says: “Now people can take their music with them hiking, to the supermarket…let’s go ahead and be plugged in,” and if the U.S. had cutting-edge gaming consoles like Atari, Japan had the games.

When I was growing up in the UK, my parents thought gaming was bad for me, so I spent the 1980s looking for every opportunity I could to play Pac-Man, the Japanese arcade game summed up that country’s technological brilliance.

But while it was dominating the gaming universe, Japan was locked in a trade battle with the U.S. that looked familiar to anyone following the current dispute between the U.S. and China.

Japan was accused of undercutting American manufacturing by flooding the U.S. with cars and microchips it effectively subsidized while blocking U.S. access to its own markets.

The U.S. retaliated with quotas on Japanese imports. The two sides eventually agreed to a solution; the U.S. lowered the value of the dollar and Japan raised the value of the yen to try to smooth out a growing trade imbalance.

Yet economists concluded this trade battle, intended to protect both countries’ economies, actually damaged them both.

“It was in the popular narrative that Japan was coming and we’d all need to know how to say ‘I surrender’ in Japanese. That dissipated because Japan became more of a stagnant economy,” said Dan Ikenson, a trade expert at the CATO Institute.

Even so, the parallels between Japan in the 1980s and China today are limited.

“Back in those days when we imposed duties on steel or voluntary export restraints on autos we weren’t hurting our own domestic interests,” Ikenson adds. “Now, today, 50 percent of the value of US imports are intermediate goods, capital equipment, raw materials; purchases that the US manufactures so they can compete in the global economy. So resorting to protectionism now is much more costly.”

As for Japan’s world-class gadgets, they were eclipsed by the smartphone revolution and never recovered.

“Cellphones have replaced all kinds of gadgets that the Japanese used to make,” says Bob Roswell. “And the Japanese just haven’t been players in that market.”

But Japanese cars are world renowned, and its gadget reputation lives on in movies like Transformers: when Sam Witwicky meets the Autobot Bumblebee, he muses, “[He] must be Japanese… definitely Japanese.”