When in trouble, attack the Japanese. That’s the ugly new rule in American business and politics. Its most recent practitioner is Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan.

“Happy New Year!” Lujan huffed. “A Japanese company now owns exclusive rights to do business in Yosemite.” Lujan referred to Matsushita Electrical Industrial Co.’s purchase of MCA Inc., which owned the Yosemite and Curry Co., the exclusive concessionaire at Yosemite National Park.

Hysterically ranting about the Japanese buying up America, Lujan said, “I don’t think it does any good to siphon our money overseas.”

That was a curious claim considering that the Curry Co. didn’t fit into Matsushita’s business plans, and the Japanese company had early on announced its plans to sell the concessions to an American company. Matsushita even offered to put the Curry Co. into escrow until it found a buyer and to donate all profits during the transition period to the National Park Foundation, a nonprofit group that funnels private money into the park system.

Since Lujan went out of his way to point out that he didn’t buy Japanese cars or stay in Japanese-owned hotels, it’s tempting to blame his outburst on racism and xenophobia. But while that is surely part of the answer, there was another, more practical, reason for Lujan’s tirade.

For the last two years, Lujan has distinguished himself by his complete lack of knowledge of the responsibilities and activities of the Interior Department. Toward the end of last year, Washington insiders openly speculated about how long he would remain in office. EPA chief William Reilly, a longtime friend of President Bush’s, was said to be after the Interior job. And Lujan couldn’t have been pleased to see the forced resignation of Education Secretary Lauro Cavazos, another cabinet member noted for his lack of accomplishments.

So Lujan unleashed his New Year’s Day surprise. It seems to have accomplished its purpose. Lujan got a lot of press. True, much of it was negative, but Lujan finally seemed to be doing something. He joined a growing list of Americans who use Japan bashing to mask their own failures or lack of ideas.

After watching the Democrats lose the White House by two consecutive landslides, Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) made Japan bashing the cornerstone of his 1988 presidential campaign. While Gephardt didn’t get his party’s nomination, he did garner plenty of free publicity and a reputation for toughness that helped him become House majority leader a year later.

After his company’s sales declined for three consecutive years and profits plummeted, Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca starred in a series of commercials that spent more time attacking Americans who buy Japanese cars than touting Chrysler’s virtues. Iacocca went on to express even stronger anti-Japanese views to seemingly every interviewer in America.

Chrysler’s sales didn’t go up, but Iacocca reinforced his image as a tough businessman. Some criticized Iacocca for being xenophobic, but no one asked embarrassing questions about the doomed Chrysler-Maserati luxury car, Chrysler’s failure to develop a new mid-sized car, its ill-fated purchase of AMC, or Iacocca’s multimillion-dollar salary.

Similarly, Lujan’s campaign was a success. Matsushita agreed to sell the concessions to the Park Foundation for $50 million-well below the Curry Co.’s estimated value of $100 million. And Lujan got to keep his job, at least for now.

Japan bashing, like any racist outburst, poisons political debate. But it works. Until Americans decide that we won’t tolerate any form of racism, until we hold the Lujans and Iacoccas of the world responsible for their failures, until we stop rewarding the Gephardts for their xenophobia, Japan bashing will continue. And we will have only ourselves to blame.