The new Silk Road

Over the past several years, institutes, programs and projects have been steadily rebuilding one of humankind’s most amazing wonders — the Silk Road. As the disparate pieces of the Trans-Asian Railway and Asian Highway gradually start to link up, Japan should ensure that it is not left out of the developments. By contributing to the ongoing renewal of the Silk Road, Japan could find an excellent way to connect with cultures from Xian to Venice, and rediscover Japan’s rich influences and past connections.

One of humankind’s most important arteries, the Silk Road sustained world commerce and cultural exchange for over 2,000 years. Stretching over nearly a quarter of the Earth’s circumference, the road formed the longest continuous connection in human history. Its importance in the development of a fascinating array of cultures, including Japan’s, is incalculable. Not only was silk traded, but gold, art, books, ideas and, according to one recent genome study, human genes. Without the Silk Road, Japan might have somehow acquired silk, but not Buddhism.

Instead of building another highway inside the country, helping reconstruct the ancient highway holds the promise of re-establishing traditional cultural, economic and social links.

The road that brought so much to Japan in the past is likely to bring even more in the future. That does not mean purchasing huge herds of camels, but rather ensuring that productive and practical links to Japan are smoothly in place. Planning for ports, harbors and smooth connections should not be delayed. Participation abroad will greatly benefit Japan’s image of international cooperation.

The Silk Road’s value is not simply historical. The future economics of this trade route may prove to be even more significant than in the past. Land links to all of Asia, the Middle East and Europe are an invaluable asset. The Pan-Asian railway would ensure a relatively free flow of goods, services and cultures. While some may say the last thing the world needs is another highway, transportation costs are estimated to be 20 percent less overland. The United Nations supports these projects as development in the broadest sense, but the benefits will disperse beyond the landlocked nations inside the Central Asian deserts.

By participating more fully in these development projects, Japan has much to gain. The intermingling of economies also helps to strengthen cultures, not just stimulate competition. Many Japanese may cling to the myth of cultural uniqueness, yet cultures are always composed of diverse influences and deep interactions. Japan may sometimes think of itself as an isolated group of islands out in the Pacific, but in fact, a great deal of give-and-take from all the countries along the road has always united Japan with the rest of Asia. The chance to re-establish these intercultural connections and to consider Japan as together, rather than apart, is invaluable to its future.

Already, large numbers of Japanese tourists are tracing the origins of Buddhism along the road. From the carved rock grottoes of Dunhuang to the Kuqa painted fresco caves, culturally minded Japanese travelers are exploring their trans-Asian artistic and religious legacy. Other international projects this year include world famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project. Though the cello may not have been an instrument carried along the original road, Ma’s worldwide concerts and recordings show how easily music from the roads’ diverse cultures can blend and enhance the others.

Beyond the economic practicalities, the Silk Road really serves as a vital metaphor for human commonality and cooperation. The term globalization has been much overused, but among the ancient world’s many wonders, the Silk Road genuinely exemplifies that concept. Long before travel and colonization on oceangoing ships, the Silk Road allowed a slow-paced exchange of language, goods and knowledge. Considering the worst forms of environmental and social exploitation in this day and age, the Silk Road seems a model in comparison.

One need not glamorize the past, but a vision of beneficial rather than destructive relations can start there. Though the Road also carried soldiers and thieves, diseases and dangers, the new Silk Road can potentially avoid past mistakes and expand the benefits of a smooth overland connection. The Silk Road encouraged an epochal shift in world power a thousand years ago, and it is poised to do the same again.

Though airplanes are the preferred mode of travel nowadays, and techie isolationists will no doubt prefer online fantasy games, a magnificent road through fabled lands still holds an extraordinary allure. Japan can overemphasize the small patch of water that separates the islands from the continent, or it can reconsider the road as leading right into the heart of the country. The choice may well determine the future travels of the nation.

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