Harsh U.S. criticism of Japan over trade and defense issues has provoked a potentially dangerous reaction. Growing numbers of Japanese are concluding that they have little in common with the West and are insisting that their true interests lie with Asia after all.
Not only are they wrong, but they also run the risk of reviving the kind of pan-Asianism that emerged in the late 19th century and eventually led to a war of aggression in China and across the western Pacific.The problem is one of identity. Is Japan truly Asian? And what is Asia, anyway?
The term "Asia" was coined by Europeans to refer to the vast expanse of land east of Greece. But unlike Europe, which has a certain communality of culture, Asia is so diverse that it defies any single cultural label. Describing Japan as an Asian country amounts to little more than saying that it is not American, European or African.
When Japanese speak of Asia, we are usually thinking of East Asia, the region from Japan to Myanmar, and ignoring everything from Bangladesh westward. We identify very little indeed with the people or cultures of India or the Middle East.
Why, then, do we never call ourselves East Asian or Northeast Asian, instead of just Asian? The answer lies in the inconsistencies that complicate our feelings toward East Asia.
We have reasonably healthy relations, chiefly economic, with the countries of Southeast Asia. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahatir Mohamad has even proposed an East Asian economic group that would tie the region's economies more closely to Japan while excluding the United States.
Northeast Asia, on the other hand, is a diplomatic mine field. China and the two Koreas remain extremely wary of Japan, despite centuries of close cultural connections.
Looking around the Pacific, we now have more in common, politically and economically, with the United States, Canada and Australia than with any of our East Asian neighbors. Our principles of free markets and democracy have made this a "Western" country. That is something to be proud of, a great achievement that few, if any, Japanese would denigrate.
Those who seek to stress their differences from the West are really trying to disassociate themselves from the United States. Japan-bashing has given birth to dislike of America, or "kenbei," which is directed so intensely at our role model of the past four decades that Europe is all but forgotten.
The U.S. version of Western civilization is an exception rather than the rule. Its market economy is far less regulated than either France or Germany, and its people have never shown an interest in the democratic socialism that caught on so strongly in Western Europe after World War II.
All too often, differences between Japan and the United States are accentuated by simplistic comparisons. Too strong a focus on the big cities, for example, highlights the contrast between the relatively orderly and peaceful life of Tokyo or Osaka and the dilapidation of downtown Washington, D.C., or Detroit. What about the good life of the leafy American suburbs?
Japanese critics of U.S. corporate culture and the work ethic have also overlooked the commitment of so many Americans to voluntary activities in the community.
As the world's two largest economic powers, Japan and the United States naturally have disagreements and conflicts of interest. Contact inevitably creates a certain amount of friction; that is no reason to give up on each other. It is good to be liked, but it is far more important to be taken seriously.
Japan has reportedly become very popular in Peru since the election of President Alberto Fujimori, who is the son of Japanese immigrants. But we could never afford to make Peru the focal point of our foreign policy, even if Peruvian opinion polls show Japan as the most liked country. We would be just as wrong to turn our backs on the United States, our closest partner, in favor of Prime Minister Mahatir and other newfound friends in Southeast Asia.
Japan's earlier flirtation with Asia, the pan-Asianism that flourished in the 1930s, ended in disaster. Then, too, Japanese were reacting against encroachment by the Western powers, not out of any fellow feeling or love for the rest of Asia.
Japanese pan-Asiansists appealed to the pride of the Chinese and other Asians in their long history and rich culture, but they believed that Tokyo had a duty to lead the region into the modern world. That idea soon degenerated into an ideological justification for expansionism, and Japan later developed a habit of attacking neighboring countries when they refused to follow its lead.
Japan needs to build its foreign policy on coherent values, not on emotional reactions and ill-founded appeals to pan-Asian sentiment.