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National Agenda : Japan Looks Homeward--Toward Asia : The shifts in trade and culture are starting to affect relations with the West.


TOKYO — From Japan's government ministries to Tokyo's trendy youth districts, the scent of change is unmistakable: Japan--an unquestioned ally of the United States for half a century and a passionate student of Western learning--is looking to its Asian neighbors, the East.

The end of the Cold War eased the need for security ties with Washington, and Asia's spectacular economic ascent has intensified national debate over Japan's fundamental interests. Should it tilt toward its Asian neighbors or stay anchored with the West? In a sense, the debate goes to the heart of Japan's identity itself, long perched between its traditional culture and modern economic and political development.

More than a century after Meiji Restoration reformists turned West to modernize Japan--even discussing intermarriage to improve the racial stock--the identification with Asia is growing, overriding a sometimes bitter history of conflict and colonization.

Trade is exploding, growing twice as fast within the region as with the United States in the last five years. Government officials are voicing a growing desire to play a more active political role in the region and are being exhorted to do so by leaders such as Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed and Lee Kuan Yew, the former Singaporean leader.

As a result, more Japanese are beginning to assert an agenda of "Asian values" that could lead to differences with the West over human rights, labor relations and other issues.

Even the sacrosanct security relationship with the United States, a product of the American victory over Japan in World War II, is being reviewed. In a recent report to the prime minister's office, a group of defense experts advised supplementing U.S.-Japan security arrangements with new ties to the United Nations and with Asian nations.

And among Japan's relentlessly trendy youth, Asia is clearly in vogue. "Asia is Exciting!" the young women's magazine Crea declared in a cover story, underscoring the heightened interest in Asian languages, food, dance and travel--even boyfriends.

"Now when the once overwhelming U.S. presence in the political and economic spheres has diminished somewhat and the Cold War has crumbled, Asia is definitely assuming greater weight in Japanese policy," wrote Yoshibumi Wakamiya, an Asahi Shimbun editorial writer. "We may be coming to a crucial juncture that will finally straighten out the warp in Japanese views of Asia that goes back to the Meiji era."

But the deepening ties with Asia do not necessarily mean that Japan is downgrading its relationship with America. The United States remains Japan's single largest market and security shield, and Japanese officials vigorously stress that the ties with Asia are not being built at America's expense.

It is "patently clear that the zero-sum arguments urging Japan to determine which is more important to its interest--the United States or Asia-- have no meaning," Foreign Minister Yohei Kono declared earlier this month at the Shimoda Conference, an elite gathering of U.S. and Japanese scholars, politicians, journalists and business executives. Kono said the U.S. military presence, its long history in Asia and the growing economic interdependence are keys to the region's stability and prosperity.

The conference, held in the western resort island of Awashima, devoted its agenda to Japan's role in Asia and the impact on U.S.-Japan relations. In a move unprecedented in its 27-year history, Shimoda's organizers invited participants from China, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand and elsewhere in the region.

Gerald Curtis, a Columbia University political science professor who attended the conference, concurred with Kono. "The question of whether to leave Asia for the West or go back to Asia from the West is simply not the way people are thinking," he said. "Business and political leaders are quite comfortable with the idea of maintaining intimate relations with the United States and having close relations with Asia."

Others see a tilt coming in Tokyo's policies. Asia's ascent as an economic superstar and China's emergence as an even more formidable military and political power of the future contrast with the growing image of the United States as a declining power saddled with criminals, drug addicts and lazy workers. One of Japan's time-honored proverbs advises to "move with the powerful," and that, to some, spells Asia.

"I believe Japanese officials and the mass media are preparing the public for a disengagement from the United States in favor of the United Nations and Asia," argued Chalmers Johnson, president of the Japan Policy Research Institute and former University of California political scientist.

Johnson cites Japan's solicitous policy toward China, the recent defense report urging new security ties with Asia and the tremendous economic resources being poured into the region as evidence.

Whether he is right or wrong, such Look East sentiments are being increasingly aired.

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