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Monday, March 28, 2005

JAPANESE PERSPECTIVES

The 'Vision Thing' comes to Japan in blurry fashion


"Your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your old people shall dream dreams, and your young people see visions . . ." (Joel, 3:1). This particular daughter is not up to much in powers of prophecy, but this does seem to be the season for visions in Japan.

Earlier this month, Keizai Doyukai (the Japan Association of Corporate Executives) came out with a proposal regarding Japan's role in today's world. Hard on its heels was the government's Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy, with its 21st-century vision for Japan.

The latter has not yet become official, but the outline of the final draft has made its way into the media.

What the two visions have in common is something of a charm offensive.

Collaboration and contribution are very much at the fore in the language of both. The Doyukai proposal waxes lyrical on Japanese soft power as the source of its ability to contribute to global harmony and prosperity. The Council, not to be outdone, emphasizes a vision of Japan as a "culture-creating nation."

The other element common to both visions is the focus on Asia.

Much of the charm offensive seems intended to impress our Asian neighbors. Greater economic integration in Asia is a running theme in both documents. Collaboration in East Asia is actually part of the title of the Doyukai proposal. Indeed, the Doyukai paper even goes as far as to say that Japan shouldn't hesitate to abandon the yen so a common Asian currency can be created.

All of this is really quite encouraging. Not so much because the visions are particularly visionary, but because they catch the mood of the nation. The people here like the idea that Japan now has a lot more to offer the world than just corporate warriors and economic animals. They like to see our amiably humanoid robots and spellbindingly creative animated films go forth and, yes, charm the world.

And all Japanese eyes are definitely being increasingly directed toward Asia. Even without the recent and utter fascination with Korean matinee idols, Asia has been the byword of the cool and trend-conscious here for quite some time.

That being said, there are nonetheless a number of points over which caution would seem to be in order. There is no quarrel to be had with the concept of an outwardly more charming nation. Of what I would like to call the ABCDs of nationhood, that is to say Affluence, Brains, Charm and Defiance -- Charm definitely deserves the top spot.

Yet charm does have to be a consistent thing. If you are all smiles on the one hand while you try to do things like build up your military might on the other, that becomes not charm, but hypocrisy.

Pursuing greater economic ties with our Asian neighbors makes perfectly good sense. Indeed the "Asianization" of Japan is something that I for one would very much like to see happen.

However, too much integration, especially when it is a politically contrived process, can turn out to be a potential breeding ground for intolerance rather than cohesion. That is the lesson that the Doyukai needs to draw from the European experience. It is looking for the wrong lesson in the wrong place if it regards the creation of the euro area as a crowning example of unity and harmony.

Integration through evolution is fine. Integration through excessive design becomes an imposition.

It is always good to have visions. But too much of a good thing begets indigestion. And indigestion gives people bad dreams. Not just old people either. That is as much as this humble daughter can humbly prophesy.

Noriko Hama is an economist and a professor at Doshisha University School of Management.


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