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Wednesday, July 19, 2006
A JAPANESE APPROACH
Cultural diplomacy in the Middle East
By KAZUO OGOURA
Political and economic stability in the Middle East is vital to ensure Japan's energy security and to reduce risks in the global economic system. In the interests of this region's mid- and long-term political stability, it is clearly desirable for "democratization" in the region to take root deeply and widely. The top priority of Japan's cultural diplomacy in the Middle East, therefore, must be to promote democratization by both direct and indirect means.
In approaching this task, however, Japan must recognize that democratization in the Middle East does not simply mean American- or Western-style democratization characterized by the introduction of electoral systems, participation in government by women and ethnic minorities, and secularization through the separation of politics and religion. Japan must be particularly wary of viewing the secularization of politics in the Islamic world as the goal of democratization.
To be sure, coloring politically motivated activities with a religious tinge in order to make the activities appear religious in nature is liable to cause misunderstandings of the religion in question and to warp the democratic political process. It is, therefore, preferable to avoid linking religion with politics in this way.
Connections among religion and political and social activities are a widespread phenomenon seen not only in the Islamic world but also in the Christian and Jewish worlds. The degree and nature of secularization that each society permits must be determined based on that society's own culture, history and traditions; imposing specific rules or ways of thinking from outside is, conversely, liable to encourage closer links between religion and politics.
Several real-world examples give a clear insight into just how delicate the issue of the link between secularization and the democratic process can be. Take the issue of discrepancies between form and reality. In Iran, for example, the administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was elected to succeed President Mohammad Khatami, came into being through a democratic process. In that sense, his election can be said to have reinforced the democratic process. In Iran, however, democratization has not necessarily gone hand in hand with secularization.
Nor does the secularization of society necessarily lead to the secularization of political process. As the histories of Iran and Turkey clearly show, the secularization of society and the secularization of political process do not always go together. Turkey has had a secularized political process since the rule of Kemal Ataturk, but it is questionable whether Turkish society is much more secular than those of other Islamic countries. In Iran, meanwhile, Westernization during the rule of the shah and the long traditions of Persia have helped to produce a society that is, in a sense, extremely secularized. Since the revolution, however, Iranian politics has been far from secular.
All of these examples raise complex questions about attempts to introduce democracy based on "Western" concepts into the cultural and social traditions of the Middle East. When conducting cultural diplomacy in this region, therefore, Japan must be sensitive to the issue of how Western ideas take root in societies with non-Western cultural and historical traditions. It must also take this fully into consideration when asserting its views or taking action regarding the Middle East and in the international community.
In practical terms, what Japan should do is make use of its own experiences, in particular by sharing with Middle Eastern countries the lessons from the successes and failures of its efforts to achieve economic development and political democratization while finding inspiration in its traditions. Through this process, Japan and Middle Eastern countries could come to a common understanding that modernization does not necessarily mean Westernization, and that they could share the tribulations they experienced in achieving modernization while at the same time controlling any anti-Western political backlash.
The history of the maturation of Japan's close-knit urban society in the Edo Period, campaign for democratic rights in the Meiji Era, and the Taisho democracy at the beginning of the 20th century clearly show that Japan's economic modernization and democratic political process came about not just through external pressure but largely through autonomous, proactive efforts by the Japanese themselves. Sharing these experiences with Middle Eastern countries may provide indirect support to the spread of similar autonomous movements in those countries.
If the above is one pillar of Japan's cultural diplomacy in the Middle East, another should be to communicate the independence of Japan's Middle East policies. It is particularly important to convey to the countries of the Middle East that Japan's policies toward the region are not necessarily the same as the positions of the United States or Europe.
To this end, while it is of course important to make known the true intentions of Japan's policies and to propagate Japan's cultural traditions, it is more important to enhance the capacity of the Middle East to receive and digest Japan's thoughts and culture.
Physical and historical distance means that the Middle East lacks the capacity to receive the messages conveyed by Japan. Consequently, the task of fostering the capacity, including intellectual infrastructure, to receive information or cultural messages from Japan needs to be tackled before, or at the same time as, the transmission itself.
Specifically, it is important for Japan to assist in the promotion of Japanese-language education and Japanese studies in the Middle East, and the construction of centers for those purposes, as well as to ensure that Japanese literary works are translated and Japanese films screened in the region.
At the same time, we must expand and strengthen the intellectual network between Japan and the Middle East. In view of the gulf that still separates the intellectual elite from the general populace in the Middle East, the first task is to gain understanding for Japan's thinking among the region's intellectual leaders. It is vital to promote intellectual exchange between Middle Eastern think tanks, journalists and opinion leaders and their Japanese counterparts, and to build a network of organizations that can serve as a hub for such an exchange. We must not forget that Japan needs to deepen contact not only with intellectual leaders who live in the Middle East but also with scholars, journalists and others who are based in Europe and elsewhere.
The third pillar of Japan's cultural diplomacy toward the Middle East should consist of a range of efforts to understand the hearts and minds of the people of this region. Views regarding Islamic and Arab thinking in the Western world and Japan are still plagued by misunderstandings and distortions, and Japan can play a role in correcting these misconceptions. In the minds of many people in the West, for example, Arabs are often viewed as a threat because of their perceived association with terrorism, while many people stress the great differences between Japanese values and those of the Arab world.
We should put more focus on commonalities by considering the common foundations of the Arab and non-Arab worlds, and the things that we share with the peoples of countries like Iran and Turkey. We should promote activities that serve this purpose, such as holding lectures to increase understanding of the Middle East, screening Middle Eastern movies and showcasing literary works from the region in Japan.
Western countries, including Japan, do not have sufficient understanding of what the general public in the Middle East thinks and feels, a situation that is not helped by the gap between the peoples and the elites of Middle Eastern countries. It will not be easy to hold dialogue with "ordinary" people in this region, but in order to gain insight into their thinking and understand them better, it is important to promote interaction, at the citizen level, in fields of interest to people in their daily lives, such as sports, music, literature and cinema.
Finally, in conducting its Middle Eastern policies, Japan must not forget its relations with Israel. The focus of cultural diplomacy with Israel should be on promoting the understanding and acceptance of the value of Jewish intellectual property among the Japanese, and the understanding of the value of Japanese culture among the Israelis.
Given the persecution and discrimination that both the Jewish and Japanese peoples have suffered within Western civilization -- albeit against different historical backgrounds -- we must also consider the issue of how the two peoples should share these historical experiences.
Kazuo Ogoura, a political science professor at Aoyama Gakuin University, is president of the Japan Foundation. He has served as Japanese ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary to Vietnam (1994-95), South Korea (1997-99) and France (1999-2002).