ALFRED BALITZER Special to The Japan Times The town of Kanab, population 4,500, is located on a two-lane highway between Zion National Park and Lake Powell in southern Utah. The country is filled with breathtaking scenery — tall, lonesome bluffs, massive rock formations the color of copper, natural stone bridges — one through which you could fly a 747 — and the largest lake in the western United States. It is also a place where I discovered a bit of Japan.
Traveling down the highway after a long drive, I stopped at a local eatery that advertised sandwiches and frozen yogurt. To my amazement, on the menu, prominently displayed on the restaurant wall, was a selection of Japanese foods, including miso soup, sushi, tempura, “gyouza” and “oyakodon.” Experiencing a sense of wonder at how this bit of Asian fare had penetrated a small corner of rural America, I approached a young lady working behind the counter, pointed to the wall menu, and inquired in a somewhat excited voice, “do many people order this?”
In terms reminiscent of a Harvard MBA, she spoke to me about the “bottom line.” “We’ve got it on the menu,” she said matter of fact, “because people order it.” I learned from her that the items were placed on the menu because of the frequent Japanese tourists passing through the area — but also because “Americans order it just as much.” Not wasting a minute more, I placed my own order. Forgoing the sandwich and a frozen yogurt, I just had to try the miso soup and sushi.
Americans, for sound reasons, know something about Japan and what they know they like. In an important new public opinion survey recently conducted by Pacific Research & Strategies, 1,500 registered voters from all parts of the country were asked about their attitudes toward Asia, Asian values and the growing Asian population in the U.S. What the poll shows in clear and unmistakable terms is that the average American voter is far ahead of the nation’s elected officials as well as those self-appointed spokesmen for Asia relations when it comes to appreciating the importance of Asia in general and Japan in particular.
When asked, “Are American relations with Asia as important as relations with Europe or less important?” a whopping 85 percent of respondents said, “As important,” showing that the average American has a broader, more liberal view of the importance of U.S. relations with Asia than many of the most prominent members of Washington’s political class who still, consciously or subliminally, favor a “Europe first” policy. Why is this?
Nearly 30 percent of respondents said that trade with Asia affects their job or the job of someone they know. Average U.S. voters might not know the fine points of world geography or public policy, but they know their self-interest, and their self-interest tells them that trade with Asia provides working people with steady jobs and a better life. One should never underestimate the role of self-interest as a stimulus to global citizenship.
In addition to self-interest, U.S. voters like the goods that now fill their homes with Asian — largely Japanese — names on them. As part of a panel of questions on the unfavorable trade balance, respondents were asked, “Should we tell these countries (Japan and China) you can only sell as much to us as we sell to you and require them to but American-made products?” This view was frequently articulated in 1992 by then presidential candidate Bill Clinton as part of his “if you elect me I’m going to get tough on Asia” policy. Former U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor frequently reiterated it. A full 43 percent of respondents answered this question by saying “No,” while 7 percent said “Don’t know” — an astounding response given that the question seems to embody principles of fairness and patriotism. U.S. voters are also consumers. They like Japanese-made products and don’t want politicians messing around with their steady supply.
Beyond material considerations, the survey shows an extraordinary receptivity to Asian culture and values. A majority of Americans believe that Asians have values that protect them from the disabling social problems that Americans face at home, and 70 percent believe that Americans “can learn something useful from” the “philosophies of Confucius and Buddha.” Perhaps this is why nearly a majority of Americans (47 percent) believe that Japan is a special friend to the U.S. in the same way that Canada is in North America and England is in Europe. While it is popular to picture Americans as provincial dolts when it comes to appreciating other cultures, the survey demonstrates a remarkable cosmopolitanism on the part of average Americans — something that would have been unimaginable 100, 50 or even 25 years ago.
Although the survey provides good news for supporters of improved U.S.-Japan relations, it also contains several significant warning signs. For example, women by a large margin are consistently more asked, “If you worked for an Asian company, do you think your rights as an employee would be respected?” Fifty-six percent responded in the affirmative while 28 percent said “No” — the latter being composed mostly of women. Japan would be smart to send a women as its next ambassador to the U.S.
So, three cheers for Kanab. And while the miso soup was not as good as what I’ve had at some of Tokyo’s posh restaurants, its importance is not in the taste, but, rather, in the underlying economic, social and cultural changes that define the true meaning of the U.S.’ role as the world’s only “superpower.”
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