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Thursday, Nov. 10, 2005

Cultural diversity strengthens nations

Special to The Japan Times

During UNESCO's recent biannual conference at its Paris headquarters, the United States remained adamant in its opposition to the conclusion of an international convention on cultural diversity. On the surface it appears that the U.S. position is mainly motivated by trade interests. The U.S. seems to be worried that this concept of cultural diversity might be abused to distort international trade. Many American negotiators recall that in the last stage of the Uruguay Round of trade negotiations, the French government, among others, insisted on cultural exceptions to the international convention on investment and free trade.

Meanwhile, the French and other Europeans are worried about the preponderance of so-called cultural industries controlled by American capital, typified by Hollywood's domination of the global film industry. They are seeking to safeguard domestically produced film, television, music, literature and art based on the argument that these representations of culture merit preservation for their own sake. The American opposition to the convention on cultural diversity appears to stem from concern over the means that governments may employ to protect local cultures when faced with large-scale inroads from foreign cultural industries.

American opposition to the convention, however, also seems to go beyond simple economics. Many Americans seem reluctant to recognize some of the concepts that underpin the importance of cultural diversity because, in their view, calls for cultural diversity are sometimes made as a way to oppose American cultural influence. As long as groups working to resist American ideals or principles employ cultural diversity as a catchword, it is quite natural for Americans to be reluctant to embrace this expression as a synonym for international efforts to protect the world's wealth of cultures and traditions precious to the entire human community.

What I find worrisome is not the general American reluctance to adopt this phrase but rather the underlying trend in contemporary American society of apparent opposition to the notion of cultural diversity. Specifically, there appears to be a movement in contemporary U.S. society to restore a more traditional form of American culture while simultaneously pushing back the inroads made by Hispanic and other cultures. A somewhat alarming thesis imagines floods of Mexican immigrants dividing and weakening traditional American culture. Whatever the intentions of those who expound them, the existence of such ideas suggests an undercurrent of thought in American society that seeks to restore a more homogenous vision of America, to the detriment of cultural diversity.

If this trend continues, and if cultural diversity is denied or neglected, it will endanger the development of human society, for diversity ultimately provides flexibility. One can easily grasp this link between diversity and flexibility by considering biological diversity in nature. Unless biological diversity is maintained, living species cannot survive climatic and ecological change. And just as biological diversity guarantees the survival of species in spite of environmental changes, so cultural diversity provides for the survival of human civilizations.

Unless we are able to maintain global cultural diversity, human societies may not be able to adjust to the sudden social and cultural changes of the present, much less those of the future. In order to safeguard the richness of human traditions, we must take measures to ensure the maintenance of cultural diversity.

Kazuo Ogoura, professor of political science at Aoyama Gakuin University, is president of the Japan Foundation. He has served as Japanese ambassador to Vietnam (1994-95), South Korea (1997-99) and France (1999-2002).

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