When his name came up at a diplomatic reception recently, one of his young Foreign Ministry colleagues feigned a wince. "He's giving us faceless bureaucrats a bad name," he said. The assembled group laughed. "But he's going places." Indeed he is. In August, Ogura became Japan's ambassador to Vietnam, where he will have a chance to show how putting Asia first works. After his time in Vietnam, he is expected to be the next deputy foreign minister in charge of economic affairs, which would make him Japan's chief negotiator in the U.S.-Japan trade talks.
Before he left for Hanoi, I asked Ogura what he meant by the restoration of Asia. "For a long time," he began, "Asia has been a concept created by Westerners." It has been a place to be plundered, a place of romance and the exotic, a place to be colonized and a place to civilize and convert. But no longer. Asians are creating their own positive identity, he says, and have developed values that they should transmit to the rest of the world.
What are these Asian values? Many of them are in flux and only just emerging, Ogura says, and, interestingly, spring from American influences. Others have to do with the importance of family, the relationship between the individual and the group. Still others will flow from what he calls the Asian system of capitalism--in which government and business cooperate and exports are emphasized--that is developing in the democratic industrialized countries of Asia. Then there is discipline and order and hard work.
I remark that some of what he is saying seems to fit right in with the slogans about Asian values most vigorously expounded by authoritarian governments. It reminds me of Singaporean officials, for instance, reciting like a mantra Asian values--respect for family, elders and the common good as opposed to individualism, for example--that are supposedly opposed to and better than Western values.
Ogura claims his argument is more complicated than that. It has more nuances. He says his main point is that Asian values have become entwined with Western ones. "Asianism used to be promoted by those who wanted to hold onto tradition," he says. "But now it is being expressed by those who are the most internationalized, the most Westernized."
Ogura believes that the Japanese have absorbed and made their own such concepts as democracy, rule of law and individual rights. The Asian renaissance, he says, is of an Asia that has already embraced Western ideas. Yet, he says with a gentle smile, Asians have begun to wonder what happened to the model--America. "America's culture and political system has long been admired and cherished in Japan and all over Asia. But something has changed. There is now disquiet over what's going on in America. The American values they cherish seem to be disappearing and that has caused a lot of soul-searching. It's made us think, what are we? Where are we heading? What is our identity?"
The conflicts in Ogura's version of an Asian identity will be played out when the Japanese decide whether Japan will try to alter its dependence on the United States for security and whether Japan will push to create an Asian trading zone. But Ogura is confident of his country's new direction. "Just as Asia has been Americanized in the years since the end of the war," he says, "now it's time for America to be Asianized."
Yukinori Yanagi has staked out his own territory: His art explores the symbols and myths and forgotten chapters of Japan's national story. In a museum north of Tokyo, his version of a red Japanese passport was laid out recently on a gallery floor like an enormous carpet. In Yanagi's rug, the petals of the gold chrysanthemum, the symbol of Imperial Japan stamped on every passport, are not clustered in the center, but strewn helter-skelter. Under each petal, he has woven the question "s/he loves me?" or "s/he loves me not?" in the languages of the Asian countries Japan invaded during the Pacific War.
On the white gallery walls surrounding the passport rug, Yanagi hung four oil paintings depicting battle scenes painted during the war by some of Japan's foremost artists. When the U.S. occupation forces arrived, they confiscated by the dozens propaganda paintings like these, and for most of the decades since, the canvases showing victorious naval battles and troop landings have been locked in a storeroom at the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo.
While we were there, young museum-goers, many clad in black-on-black attire, slipped off their shoes before stepping on Yanagi's altered symbol of nationality. His art is putting questions of nationality and identity literally underfoot and is rummaging through closets many would prefer remain closed.