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Thursday, Sept. 10, 2009

Words of wisdom from Hatoyama


It was just this side of comical. The leader of the new ruling party of Japan barely finishes acknowledging his Democratic Party of Japan's landslide win and a public relations disaster strikes. The result: an ignominious international climb-down.

What happened was not an ideal opening act for the next prime minister of the troubled country that boasts the world's second largest economy, after that of its ally, the United States. It might even have been called a really bad start. So let's see what went on.

Before the election, a Japanese magazine published an essay by Yukio Hatoyama, the soon-to-be prime minister of Japan and leader of the Democratic Party of Japan. It thoughtfully challenged some of the operational tenets of the "American century" (the previous one). "My Political Philosophy," decried the cold inhuman edges of globalization, raised (as have some in the Chinese elite and other global voices) doubts about the future global centrality of the dollar, called for a greater sense of shared opportunity among the nations of East Asia (and the world) and wondered how long Uncle Sam could remain the Big Global Bopper.

Had Hatoyama not been who he was (the next leader of Japan), and Nathan Gardels not been who he was (a whip-smart Los Angeles-based public intellectual and media entrepreneur whose Global Viewpoint Network has 35 million readers through many of the world's top newspapers), these not unreasonable thoughts, written in Japanese, would have remained in Japan.

Instead, Gardels arranged for an English translation and had his syndicate do its global information-technology distribution thing. Before long, the essay (or excerpts of it) appeared in important papers around the world.

Well, the shame, the disgrace! A Japanese leader should actually proffer an original thought or two — indeed, ideas that might not automatically reek of U.S. political orthodoxy! By midweek, Hatoyama was on the trans-Pacific horn, more or less bowing and scraping to U.S. President Barack Obama (who probably had to suppress a chuckle), and disclaiming any intent to question the fundamentals of the U.S.-Japan alliance. "The Japan-U.S. alliance is the axis of Japan's foreign policies," the impending new prime minister declaimed.

That's comforting, but first things first: Hatoyama shouldn't have apologized for anything! The fact is that many of us Americans have similar concerns about the brutality of unregulated globalization, about gross value systems that are entirely materialistic, about poor people with no health insurance, housing or prospects.

What's more, Hatoyama's essay was anything but bomb-throwing- revolutionary. It was, in fact, a polite and mild restatement of traditional Japanese values in an age when free-market fundamentalism have been uprooting social economies like suicide bombers have been terrorizing Western cafes. "Globalism," he wrote, "has progressed without any regard for noneconomic values."

He's right, and it should come as no global shock that a thoughtful Japanese leader would want to point this out. For a long time, Japan has been perhaps the most socialist of all capitalist societies. The hard work and aggressiveness were all present in that society; but so were deep social values that (for example) were reluctant to treat workers as easily disposable economic factors (i.e., laid-off or fired labor and who cares?) or to regard titanic and insulting income gaps between the elite and the common man as natural, desirable or ethical.

What's more, if the U.S. establishment is going to seize up into a paroxysm of paranoia every time someone suggests that the 21st century will not prove as American as the 20th century, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had better legalize medicinal marijuana for the elite's nerves quickly. As the well-traveled Gardels puts it, "Only Americans with an outdated sense of U.S. supremacy, or with vested special interests, could quarrel with the obvious."

And it is a plain fact that Japan's current dilemma, wrote Hatoyama, is to be "caught between the U.S., which is fighting to retain its position as the world's dominant power, and China, which is seeking ways to become dominant."

The China question does hover over Japan. It is quite true that the recent election was not a plebiscite about China in any immediate sense. Japanese elections, like almost everyone else's, tend to be driven by economic and domestic concerns. And Japan has an aging, worrying population. The bombshell landslide was a reflection of widespread worry. But how to relate to Beijing without eroding the relationship with Washington is now one of Japan's biggest — and most difficult — challenges.

Hatoyama should thus be proud of his essay, nothing else. In fact, it was rather nice to see a Japanese prime minister thinking outside of the box for once. We Americans ought to be able to handle critical thought, especially from friends and allies.

Syndicated columnist Tom Plate is author of "Confessions of an American Media Man."


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