Economics, it is sometimes useful to point out, can hardly be analyzed at all if divorced from some basic cultural parameters. A recent academic gathering in Japan reminded us of just that.

The annual Shizuoka Forum took as its starting point the human element behind the flood of statistics, economic forecasts and analyses. How, in short, can the prosperity of individuals, as well as the harmony of figures, be achieved?

The 1998 forum, which focused exclusively on the Asian economic crisis, was enriched by hints for including and considering the cultural dimension as well the purely economic one. The latest forum, still basically a gathering of economists, considered the general theme of “Skills and Cultures in Asia.” The moderators and panelists, academics and prominent businessmen — mostly Japanese, along with some Japanese-educated Taiwanese, Koreans, Thais and Malaysians — had, of course, to treat many delicate economic, political and technical points as they examined issues such as new information technologies and their revolutionary impact, the complex notion of the “industrial cluster theory” and the dangers of the current situation in Indonesia. But at the same time they recognized the importance of the cultural element.

Speakers from Taiwan, in particular, emphasized not only the Confucian background and strong family network influencing business structures and undertakings there, but also the island’s colonial past (Portuguese, Dutch, Japanese), which accounted for its mixture of cultures and generally broader view of foreigners. A Chinese panelist also offered the extended family web and intercommunity cooperation as at least partial factors in the success of a booming industrial cluster in a remote corner of the province of Zhejiang.

Meanwhile, a Japanese former president of Yamaha elaborated eloquently on his company’s successful operations in Indonesia, which are based on a strong effort to understand and respect local customs, traditions, labor ethics — in fact the whole spectrum of cultural values in another Asian, but still foreign, country.

I could also adduce personal experience of business collaborations between Japanese and Thai companies in Thailand that proved similarly harmonious — and for the same reasons.It is to the credit of other giant Japanese business organizations that they, too, are becoming more sensitive to the need for expert cultural and sociopolitical advice on foreign countries before pursuing their business strategies abroad. Not only before, in fact, but also during the course of their overseas operations, with a particular emphasis on Asia as an entire proximate world, yet one immensely rich in diversity.

This kind of listing of sound orientations and happy experiences could be extended to other cases, in other countries. But the main topic concerning forum participants — beside labor relations — remained the fact that any abstract economic analysis, no matter how theoretically brilliant, will be flawed if it does not include a parallel interest in human resources as the foundation of all economic performance. The general sentiment among forum participants was that, obvious as this observation may seem, there is nevertheless a general need for greater consciousness of its implications.

In any event, the overwhelming impact of the new information technologies will eventually bridge the existing huge gaps of mutual cultural unawareness and misunderstanding between nations. If this external development is matched by a deeper consciousness of the connection between economies and the world’s diverse cultural and social values, hopefully the new millennium will prove a brighter era for humanity.

George Sioris, a former ambassador of Greece to Japan, is president emeritus of the Asiatic Society of Japan and president of the Center for Japanese and Asian Studies in Athens. He is a contributing adviser to The Japan Times.

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