In a recent article in The Japan Times, former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa dealt with a topic rather unusual for a politician: the importance of culture and the awareness of it in post-1970s Japan. I endorse his view wholeheartedly. A few years ago I wrote similar thoughts in one of the first articles in the series celebrat ing the 100 years of The Japan Times. Its title, “Tradition continues amid today’s change,” reflected my hope that a country with such a rich cultural heritage would strike the right balance in an era of all-out consumerism, and draw a new dynamism from its traditional roots.

Hosokawa rightly emphasizes the positive trend in various prefectures in Japan that are promoting local cultural activities. In my years as ambassador here, I had the opportunity to cross Japan’s rural areas during my visits to “shimai-toshi” (sister cities) connected with Greece. During those trips, I was always met with requests to help local authorities sponsor cultural events from abroad. (Incidentally, this led to the creation of “CAC 21,” or Culture Exchange Association Center 21, an independent organization that aims at coordinating and sponsoring cultural events from all over the world, in the prefectures of Japan and independent of parallel national governmental undertakings.)

The warmth and spontaneity of the local audiences as well as the dedication of those officials are admirable. Among many such endeavors, the yearly “Shizuoka Forum,” inspired by the prefecture’s dynamic governor, Yoshinobu Ishikawa, could be singled out as an outstanding example, involving not only scholars and panelists, but local audiences too.

Local participation in various seminars, panels and the like also occurs in other prefectural cities and should be commended and encouraged. We should also praise other academic encounters, either in Japan or in other places of Asia, such as a recent, interesting dialogue in Bangkok between a top representative of the International Monetary Fund and a group of Thai scholars. We should also place great hopes in the emerging second Ritsumeikan University at Oita, which aims at the 21st century and the Asia-Pacific region.

But in Hosokawa’s reminder that Japan needs a new consciousness in which “spiritual richness (is) more important than material affluence,” I find an echo of the very definition of civilization itself, if we think of civilization as a constant struggle against external forces and internal weaknesses, or as technical development in tandem with moral improvement.

Moreover, this trend and consciousness — independent of its fluctuations over time — illustrates an even more general issue, i.e. the need to examine economic phenomena, problems, crises and dislocations in conjunction with cultural parameters and without losing sight of the deeper political-social and cultural background.

The ongoing drama of the so-called Asian economic crisis tends to overshadow every other element affecting the broader spectrum of Asia-Pacific issues and perspectives. (For a start some points need clarification: Why is the crisis only “Asian” when Russia, Brazil, etc are involved? Why is it generally called “East Asian” when it started in and engulfed Southeast Asia? And why the one-sided emphasis on “economy” when so many other factors are interconnected?)

Thai analyst Apisit Buranakanonda stressed these dimensions, adding managerial and perceptional aspects while talking of mergers, acquisitions, restructuring and sour corporate marriages.

Corporate cultures must be harmonized and employees persuaded for acquisitions to succeed. It is precisely this “persuasion” that is founded on cultural values and applies in mergers and in the broader cooperation taking place between ailing economies and the IMF.

Economic problems assume primary importance in every corner of the planet. But can they be treated in a vacuum, in isolation from other important factors?

Some years ago, when I was ambassador to Japan, I recall a series of meetings in which there was a great emphasis — and endless discussions — on deregulation, trade frictions, economic forecasts and the like. Naturally, I could not find fault with that.

But what always puzzled me was treating these issues through a sort of prism of exclusively economic perspectives and often esoteric analyses and interpretations. On occasion, I ventured to instill some modest insight on more general, sociocultural considerations. This earned me the dubious distinction of someone whose candid remarks “derailed” most serious economic discussions.

Now, having ample opportunity to ponder things from the other side of the river, i.e., from the corporate angle, I often witness clashes or misunderstandings in private undertakings because of a lack of convergence of cultural notions and customs.

The conclusion of these stray thoughts becomes obvious: We need a tolerant spirit and a multidisciplinary academic approach to create and guide the generation of the 21st century and its leadership. We need, even beyond the academic framework, the supporting role of learned societies in the region, like the Asiatic Society of Japan, the Siam Society in Thailand and similar institutions in India, Malaysia, Korea and elsewhere, which have been magnificent testing grounds for the fertilization of ideas and unbiased interpretations of events. We also need the input of the think tanks that are scattered throughout the Asia-Pacific that efficiently prepare and often complement governmental approaches.

Culture may not be the backbone of the effort. But it will definitely constitute the background of all other dimensions of activity, individually viewed. And it will help further the relationships and understanding of young future leaders, our real hope for a better future.

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