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Saturday, Nov. 30, 2002

West Coast optimists say the sun also rises


LOS ANGELES -- Sometimes the only explanation for it is that there are two Americas. The East Coast America, with its dark cynicism and worldly seen-it-all sangfroid, sees Asia as mostly a problem and a threat. But West Coast America, soaking up its proximity to Asia and reveling in local Asian ethnicities -- and characteristically looking for the sunny side of things -- sees Asia mostly as an opportunity and an ally. It's usually that way.

Take the admitted riddle of Japan, the world's second largest economy with the potential to send the global economy into depression. Go to the East Coast, and it's hard to find experts with positive words about it. There, in the land of self-indulgent pessimism, Japan is a psychotic basket case, all serial syndromes of debt, political paralysis, aging demographics -- forget about it.

But on the West Coast, where people somehow manage to overlook even earthquakes, wildfires and mudslides, they've not lost faith with Japan. How could they? From Vancouver on down through Seattle, San Francisco, Honolulu and Los Angeles, more Japanese-Americans live here than anywhere outside of Japan; more people fly to Japan from here than from anywhere else; we mutually trade and touch base as if Japan were no farther away than, say, Cuba from Miami. For the West Coast, Japan is not "the other," as on the East Coast; rather, Japan is us.

As further evidence, consider the new report from the Pacific Council on International Policy titled "Can Japan Come Back?" It's an ambitious West Coast overview of Japan, a year in the making and seamlessly stitched together by a group of well-traveled business leaders, savvy academics, connected politicos and brainy think-tankers mainly hailing from the West Coast.

"Yes, Japan has gigantic problems," said the PCIP Japan task-force chair Pete Wilson, the former two-term California governor. "But it is a good bet that Japan will be back." And that's West Coast optimism in a nutshell.

But while the study is irresistibly West Coast in tenor and thrust, it's not stupid: It comprehensively details and analyzes the pressing economic, political and social reasons why Japan should (and well could) fail big time. These are the obstacles so often repeated, over and over again, within the Beltway -- but almost to the exclusion of contrary data. Not out here: Rather than just hopelessness, the West Coast report sees Japan confounding its critics and regaining its economic form and political stature.

Perhaps, suggested Wilson, a wise old Republican owl who's nobody's fool, the report does lean a bit too heavily on the sunny side of the street, too hopeful that some kind of "shock therapy," as the report terms it, will jar the Tokyo political establishment into action, and underestimates the dark side of Japan's rising nationalism. But, as Wilson puts it, "Japan is a country whose importance is often underestimated in the United States." Is the West Coast suggesting that too much undue pessimism about a country in so much trouble will only add to its woes, especially if that pessimism comes from the world's leading economy and that country's former conqueror?

How imprudent, then, is it to look for positives? Thus, consider the virtual youth movement in the Japanese Diet, which propelled the reform-minded Junichiro Koizumi to the premiership. Consider, too, that for the first time since the postwar era, women account for more than 10 percent of Diet members. And witness the dramatic rise of nongovernmental organizations that have been all but absent from Japanese political culture.

Japan is less a beaten country than one with an underutilized people. Look to the probability that Japan will liberate women and offer them workforce equality, eventually shake up the political system and ultimately reform from within. Young Japanese will demand this.

And why write off Koizumi as a fad politician? The report rightly praises "Koizumi's decisive action" in his unprecedented dispatch of naval forces to the Indian Ocean in support of the U.S. antiterror effort: "This must be regarded as exceptional, even pathbreaking." Sure, the Koizumi government's popularity has slipped from historic highs; even so, on its worst day it remains Japan's highest approval-rated government in memory.

The Pacific Council on International Policy, which organized, sponsored and promoted this fresh look at Japan, openly bills itself the "Western Partner" of the East Coast-based Council on Foreign Relations. That's too bad. The general negativity -- if not relative indifference -- of the East Coast to Asia is not something the Pacific Council should ever wish to partner with. It'd be better to think of those New York and Washington boys on the Council on Foreign Relations as nothing more than worthy debating partners. Let the debate truly begin -- and why not start with Japan?

Tom Plate, a UCLA professor, is a columnist with The South China Morning Post, The Straits Times and the Honolulu Advertiser. Copyright 2002 Tom Plate


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