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Monday, Jan. 1, 2007

JAPANESE PERSPECTIVES

Dreaming of a Japan of United States


A time to dream impossible dreams. The New Year holiday season is surely such a time. And one such dream might be a Japan of United States.

It was Jacques Chirac who remarked that what the European Union should aim for is not a United States of Europe but a Europe of United States. While Mr. Chirac's ultimate vision of Europe sounds a bit like Vladimir Putin's Commonwealth of Independent States, it still seems like a more sensible goal for Europe than a copycat version of the USA.

The shape of unions is actually quite an apt topic for 2007. The European Union has just welcomed in two new members: Bulgaria and Romania. It is now a union of no fewer than 27 diverse members. Many people wonder how much farther east the EU's borders should extend.

2007 is also the 300th anniversary of the Act of Union between England and Scotland that created Great Britain. This is also the year when Scotland might just hold a referendum on independence from the U.K., depending on the outcome of elections the Scottish parliament has scheduled for May.

No region in Japan aspires to independence from the nation. Not yet, anyway. As an impossible dream, though, the idea has its attractions. The nation could at least become a bit less Tokyo-centric.

The way things are now, it is a case of one general left standing at the expense of a multitude of dead foot soldiers, as a Chinese poet of the 10th century once famously remarked. This is typically the situation in the Kanto region where Tokyo is located. To be sure, there are many large cities in the Kanto area. Yet Tokyo is so overwhelmingly dominant that, with the possible exception of Yokohama, everything else is pretty much in total eclipse.

Things, however, are somewhat different in Kansai, to the west of the Hakone Mountains. Kansai is the land of not one but three dominant generals.

Kyoto, Kobe and Osaka each stand tall and lay claim to the first-among-equals position. As a Tokyo person who commutes to Kyoto for work, my loyalties have become somewhat complicated of late, but it has to be said that the Kansai trinity has its charms. Kyoto is the ancient Imperial city. Kobe is international and chic. Osaka is the kingdom of commerce and comedy. They each tend to regard the Tokyoites as the barbarians at the gate.

Yet for all that they have, with Tokyo as their common enemy, what they manifestly lack is a common cause.

A common cause is not to be confused with a common gain. When something represents gain, everyone wants it just for themselves. As such, there are limits to gain as a common value that is easily shared. Thus, Kyoto, Kobe and Osaka are constantly and fiercely in competition over inbound investment.

There is much talk about collaboration on attracting businesses to the Kansai area, but of such practice there is none.

"The business of the Community is not business but politics," said Walter Hallstein, the first president of the then EC commission.

Kansai has much to learn from Hallstein. What Kyoto, Kobe and Osaka need is not a common gain, but a common weakness. Something precious and fragile they are obliged to protect together. As was peace for Europe immediately after the war.

Should the Kansai trinity succeed in identifying such a cause, it could form a powerful counterbalance to Tokyo-dominated Kanto.

In that event, a Japan of United States would not be such an impossible dream after all.

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


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