In Asia, Father Knows Best: Family Values in Japan and China

In Asia, Father Knows Best: Family Values in Japan and China

By Tom Plate
Pacific Perspectives Columnist

LOS ANGELES -- It's true that Asian values may not be all they used to be. But they still pop up now and again with the capacity to dazzle and astonish. It's possible to argue, in fact, that if Asian values remain a strong enough force over time, they could even mitigate emerging Asian nationalism.

Two recent Asian political dramas illustrate why.

In Japan, a few terrified private citizens returned home after an awful captivity ordeal in Iraq. But they were not warmly received -- they were hotly received! Why did you take matters into your own hands, ignore the government's advisory against going to Iraq and then get captured by kidnappers, who then demanded the withdrawal of Japanese humanitarian-forces from their country?

Had the victims been American you can only imagine the media psychodrama ("HOSTAGES: DAY 5"). But in Japan, a curious thing -- to the West anyway -- happened. The media downplayed the story, and the public reacted with antipathy. What's more, the government of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi not only refused to negotiate with the kidnappers (who eventually released the captives after intervention by Muslim clerics) but threatened to charge the "grandstanders" for the full cost of their return airfare to Japan.

Most Western observers were floored. That's because the West nurtures a culture of individualism and entrepreneurism. That's especially evident in our aggressive journalism (heroic correspondents “getting the story” against all danger) and in the rise of our civil-society nonprofits. In Japan, by contrast, the news media tend to react more as a group (or not over-react as a group), and the civil-society nonprofit sector is in relative infancy.

One reason for the difference between East and West is the former culture still has the capacity to reflect hierarchical values: in effect, father (the authority figure) knows best. And so when father is government, and the government strongly advises its people not to go to Iraq, and people go anyhow, then it's their fault and their problem.

Another splendid example of Asian values playing out in ways hard for the West to appreciate was over Hong Kong. China recently warned Hong Kong that its progress toward one-person-one-vote democracy would be very slow at best. Democracy advocates living in this Special Administrative Region of China (until 1997 a British colony) have been lobbying for elective offices by 2007-2008, a theoretical possibility under the territory's temporary constitution.

The warning was delivered by Tung Chee Hwa, the Hong Kong chief executive, on behalf of Beijing, to whose leaders he reports. But unhappy as the message was, it was scarcely shocking to many of the territory's 7.4 million inhabitants. Father, you see, had been upset lately.

Democracy advocates such as Martin Lee (whose upstart testimony before the U.S.  Congress had struck many Chinese as nearly treasonous) have been on Beijing's case to lighten up and permit a flicker of democracy (as indeed has been happening in many of the mainland's small villages). Precisely because father (Beijing) was being pushed in public, the curfew on the children would not be lifted -- at least not right away, and not until the children behaved themselves and gave father some respect so that he can save face.

From this cultural perspective, Japan and China (and much of Asia) are in ways as alike as different. And so, might the broad commonality of Asian values serve someday to unify the region and muffle self-interested nationalism?

Hah! Full democracy in Hong Kong will come sooner, scoff cynics. Perhaps, but talk of some kind of Asian regionalism did fill the corridors of the annual retreat of the Boao Forum earlier this month.

This is the Beijing-led retreat of two-plus thousand of the region's top leaders in south China. It has emerged as Asia's answer to the annual CEO glitz-arama show in Davos, Switzerland, put on by the more-Eurocentric World Economic Forum.

Its secretary-general is Long Yongtu, China's former chief trade negotiator, who has become, reports South China Morning Post correspondent Allen T. Cheng from Boao, an advocate of Asian regionalism. Might he even be in history’s line to become the "father" of Asian regionalism?

"We must not rule out the formation of an Asian community," the respected trade diplomat told the paper. "Whether from a China viewpoint or an Asia viewpoint, there is a lot of common ground."

Yes, there is. The average citizen in China was not as flabbergasted by the hostility of the Japanese public toward the go-it-alone hostages as the average citizen in the West. And the average Japanese is hardly surprised that China's leaders are putting the brake on self-styled democracy upstarts in Hong Kong.

Odd examples, perhaps; but good news is that these common Asian values might just serve as the launching pad for the kind of regional economic organization imagined by the visionary Long.

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Tom Plate is a professor of Communication and policy Studies at UCLA. He is a regular columnist for the The Straits Times -- and is syndicated through UCLA's MEDIA CENTER to papers througout the world, including The Honolulu Advertiser, The Japan Times, The Seattle Times, the San Diego Business Journal, the Korea Times and the Orlando Sentinel. He has been a participant member of the World Economic Forum at Davos, and is a member of the Pacific Council on International policy. The author of five books, he has worked at TIME, the Los Angeles Times and the Daily Mail of London. He established the Asia Pacific Media Network in 1998 and was its director until 2003. He is now founder and director of UCLA's MEDIA CENTER.

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The views expressed above are those of the author and are not necessarily those of AsiaMedia or the UCLA Asia Institute.