Staff writer

U.S.-Japan relations may hinge on grand strategic and economic issues, but for members of Japan-America Societies in both countries, often assimilating into each other’s cultures and creating programs to facilitate this absorption remain the priorities.

That was the consensus of many participants in the international symposium of Japan-America Societies in Fukuoka earlier this month. The three-day symposium was the second time ever that society representatives from across the United States and Japan gathered in such a setting, after initially meeting in Hawaii in 1995.

After the first two days, during which seminar panelists were often at odds as to where the Japanese economy is heading, the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty was discussed. Speakers were in agreement that the treaty is still very much needed for the security of both Japan and the overall region.

Taku Yamasaki, chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party’s policy affairs research council, voiced his support for the treaty, noting — along with Kent Calder, an adviser to U.S. Ambassador Thomas Foley — that the 1996 agreement signed between President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto also called for a joint action agenda.

The remarks of Yamasaki and Calder echoed the opening address by Foley, who talked at length about the importance of the treaty. Speakers said the strong speeches in favor of the basic tenants of the treaty were given partly to assure participants that influential observers’ recent criticisms of the U.S.-Japan relationship in the U.S. media do not represent orthodox thinking among Japan’s policymakers.

The speakers may have had in mind a particularly controversial article in the magazine Foreign Affairs by Edward Lincoln, ex-adviser to former Ambassador Walter Mondale and now a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.

In the article, which appeared a few weeks before the symposium, Lincoln suggested that by ignoring Japan, the U.S. could send a message that it is no longer regarded as an equal partner. In addition, some Japan scholars, especially Chalmers Johnson, author of “MITI and the Japanese Miracle” and a strong critic of the Japan-America Societies’ views toward Japan, recently have stepped up their calls for the U.S. to reduce its military presence in Okinawa.

Panelists and participants expressed the most concern on the state of Japan’s economy, however, largely because the sluggish economy is affecting the societies.

Several U.S. participants said the most notable effect of the bad economy is that Japanese corporations, especially auto companies, are having to cut back on their funding for local societies, forcing them to scale back activities.

In addition to discussions on grand, strategic issues, there were several symposiums on more personal issues, including youth, the family and volunteerism.

Japanese participants commented that the biggest challenge they face with the societies in Japan is getting American members to come to events. “I’ve been to events in Fukuoka where there were only a handful of Americans,” said Shinobu Kitagawa, a local student who attended the symposium.

Organizers said that they were extremely pleased at the high turnout, especially from the U.S., and that progress is being made in a number of areas, including Internet hookups between society members in the U.S. and Japan. “This is a major issue for us, because the American Internet is so much further advanced than Japan’s Internet, and Japan-America Societies in Japan have very little information that can be accessed by computer,” said Robert Marra, president of the National Association of Japan-America Societies.

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