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Commentary | California Prospect / TOM PLATE

Economic Wobbles, Social Strengths

Americans should think twice before dismissing Asian values just because the region's economies are tanking.

April 21, 1998|TOM PLATE | Times columnist Tom Plate teaches in UCLA's policy studies and communication studies programs. E-mail: tplate@ucla.edu

At a Town Hall Los Angeles meeting recently, two crack management gurus--Thomas Iino and David Tong from Deloitte & Touche--spoke up on behalf of economically troubled Japan, chiding comparative doomsayers like me for under-emphasizing the basic strengths of the world's second-largest economy.

They observed that a nation's overall health is based on factors other than its current account surplus. Money, insisted these big-time money minders, isn't always everything (though Tokyo does remain the planet's No. 1 creditor). So forget about the ups and downs of the yen for a moment and concentrate on a different, steadier category: Japan's non-monetary social capital. When sociologists examine symptoms of societal disease, at least as measured by classic deviance data (crime, suicide rates, family breakdown and illegitimacy), Japan looks very healthy indeed. During a 10-year stretch between 1981 and 1991, which was put under a microscope by the University of Michigan's World Values Survey, overall levels of social deviance in Japan did not materially increase. They did in the West. As prominent sociologist Francis Fukuyama points out, "The incidence of social deviance has grown rapidly in virtually all Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development countries since approximately the mid-1960s, with the exception of Japan." Facts like these prompt one to hope that Japan's ability to fight social decay, whether explained by its ethnically homogeneous population or not, will help see it through the economic storm even as its politicians make a hash of economic policy.

In America, perhaps the most democratic of democracies but also perhaps the most materialistic, we obsess about our mutual funds while losing sight of our social account balances. We need to put our astounding but perhaps misleading material achievements in context by listening more carefully to sages like social scientist James Q. Wilson. "Today, we are vastly richer, but the money has not purchased public safety, racial comity or educational achievement," he writes in the spring issue of Public Interest. "The reason, I think, is clear: It is not money but the family that is the foundation of public life. As it has become weaker, every structure built upon the foundation has become weaker." Yes, Asia can learn a lot from the West and its International Monetary Fund, as it digs its way out of the current economic crisis. But we Americans should learn to better appreciate the values of family, loyalty and respect for elders, because in these areas Asia's long-term trends tend to be healthier than ours.

Because once-vaunted Asian economies no longer look like they are able to walk on water, some in the West have begun to mock Asian values. They claim Asian values are inherently authoritarian; in fact, Asian values and authoritarianism are not one and the same. Authoritarianism tends toward the regressive and constricting; Asian values, at their best, emphasize the family. loyalty to the group, keeping the ego under control--not exactly bad advice for America's "me generation." To be sure, Asian values can be perverted like any other. Nepotistic political networks in Asia are no more justifiable than family-based Mafias in America; family values should hardly be used to justify the repression of women.

A recent speech at a Korean American Coalition dinner in Los Angeles by California Supreme Court Associate Justice Ming W. Chin illustrated the Asian value system perfectly. Spurning the usual juridical discourse on civil or human rights themes that spotlight the rights of individuals or certain groups, this son of immigrants from China who financed their children's educations through their farming in America devoted his address to the Asian value of the family staying together, which, he joked, can sometimes be an even harder task than farming. But certain commitments are worth making as an investment in the future.

An important new study suggests that Americans get the message. A poll of registered voters in California, designed by Pacific Research and Strategies Inc. and Claremont McKenna College's Alfred Balitzer, revealed that more than half believe that Asian values serve to insulate Asians from many of the kinds of problems we have here in the United States. And--not surprisingly--68% said the U.S. should not impose its economic, social or political values on Asian cultures. Perhaps we should import a few of theirs.

Judging from recent stories about a new culture of violence in Japan, many Japanese may now want more of them, too. For 1996 and 1997, youthful rape, murder, arson and robbery arrests have materially increased. The Japanese are starting to wonder if Japan too is about to go the way of Western social deviance. It's smart of them to be worried, but panic is premature: Juvenile crime is still much lower in Japan now than it was in the 1960s. In this regard, America should only have Japan's new problem.

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