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Of openness, tolerance and diversity

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Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama dreams of creating an East Asian Community.  But he does not yet have a strategy.  And he and his government are never too clear about which countries would be members.  Most particularly, they are not clear about whether the US should be in or out. 

When talking with leaders from many Southeast Asian countries, it seems clear that they would like the US to be most certainly “in”.  You even get the impression that some would prefer a Community led by the US, rather than one led by Japan or China. 

Amy Chua’s latest book, “Day of Power”, provides some historical insights on these issues which are worth pondering.

Like her previous book, “World on Fire”, Chua delivers a rollicking history, this time across seven world hyperpowers – Achaemenid Persia, Imperial Rome, Tang Dynasty China, and Mongol Dutch and British Empires, before finishing with hegemonic America.  Her thesis is simple, but powerful.  Chua argues that hyperpowers succeeded through being accepting and accommodating of cultural diversity, by being tolerant and co-opting the people they conquer.  They harnessed the skills and energies of the diverse people in their empires.   

You can quibble with the details, and many people have.  But as Emperor Claudius reminded the Roman Senate, founder Romulus would “both fight against and naturalize people on the same day”.   

Nazi Germany and Japan could not establish lasting empires because of racial and religious intolerance, and murderous policies towards their subjects.

But Chua's thesis of tolerance, diversity and inclusion has an unhappy ending.  Vast, inclusive and tolerant empires fall apart because they lack the glue, the political identity, to hold them together.  Nothing lasts forever.  Could this be the fate of the US, which rose to hyperpower status through openness, tolernace and diversity?  Could America have finally reached a "tipping point"?

Coming back to Japan, this country has not learned the lessons of its past in terms of openness, tolerance and diversity.  Many Koreans, who were forcibly moved to Japan, are still not Japanese citizens with voting rights.  The Korean government raised this issue with Japanese foreign minister Okada on his recent visit to Seoul. 

In the recent economic crisis, Brazilian migrants of Japanese origin, were encouraged to return home.  And the economic partnership agreement with the Philippines allows for a tiny, symbolic number of Filipino nurses to work in Japan.  More generally, despite some change in attitude and policy, Japan is still a very closed ethnocentric society, as well as being a quite closed economy.

How can you promote a regional community of diverse societies, when you have difficulties establishing an open, tolerant and diverse community at home?

By contrast, for all their failings, the US is almost a model of openness, tolerance and diversity, especially with respect to East Asia.  East Asia has very many large communities in the US who live very happily.  Much of East Asia's elite is educated in the US.  American markets are much more open to trade with East Asia than are Japan's.

In short, many East Asian countries are already very much a part of the American community and vice versa.  The most sensible community for most Asians would be an Asia-Pacific community, not an East Asian one.        

This is basically what US President Obama said when he came to Japan -- "As a Asia Pacific nation, the United States expects to be involved in the discussions that shape the future of this region, and to participate fully in appropriate organizations as they are established and evolve." 


“Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance – and Why They Fall” by Amy Chua.  Doubleday.  2007


Remarks by President Barack Obama at Suntory Hall, Tokyo, Japan, November 14, 2009