A Peaceful Fourth of July at Pearl Harbor

08/06/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Honolulu - Watching the spectacular Fourth of July fireworks light up the evening sky over Honolulu a few hours after touring Pearl Harbor naturally evokes memories of the Japanese surprise attack that triggered World War Two sixty-eight years ago.

Ironically, those memories coincide with concern about another Asian country's threat to this Pacific island paradise as President Obama, who was born and spent much of his youth on Hawaii, ordered the U.S. military to be prepared in case North Korea launched a long range ballistic missile in the state's direction, as it threatened to do.

Thankfully, it turned out to be little more than saber rattling by North Korea, as it test-fired seven short-range missiles that fell into the Sea of Japan, and the only explosions over Pearl Harbor and Waikiki Beach were those that drew oohs and ahs of appreciation from more than 50,000 Hawaiians and visitors like me.

Nevertheless, the latest bellicose action by North Korea served as a stark reminder of America's role as a Pacific power that must be prepared to respond, both to military threats and economic competitors throughout the vast region, whether from China, Japan, North and South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Indonesia or Malaysia. (Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou was met by protestors opposed to a possible reunification with mainland China during a stop[over in Honolulu Sunday on his way home from Panama, where he attended the swearing-in ceremony of newly-elected President Ricardo martinelli.)

But the greatest challenges the U.S. faces in the Pacific, absent some irrational action by the nuclear armed North Korean regime, remains an economic one.

That was brought home to me during a ten-day trip to Japan with five other American journalists, while six Japanese journalists visited the U.S. at the same time. We visited five cities - Tokyo, Shizuoka, Nagoya, Kyoto and Osaka - while the Japanese journalists visited Washington, New York, Cleveland and Cleveland. The trip was sponsored by the East-West Center in Honolulu and Nihon Shimbun Kyokai, the Japanese newspaper Publishers and Editors Association.

We met up with our Japanese counterparts last week at the East-West Center on the University of Hawaii campus to compare notes, and I think it's fair to say that both the Japanese and American journalists were surprised by some of the things they learned.

Speaking for myself, I was surprised to find a deep sense of unease and uncertainty about the future among the Japanese business executives, government officials, journalists and ordinary citizens we met with as Japan struggles to emerge from a decade of depression while trying to compete in a severely depressed global economy.

Even as Japanese consumers continue their free-spending ways, corporate giants like Toyota and Sony are incurring record losses for the first time in many years and facing more losses in the future. At the same time, Japan faces a serious demographic challenge as the result of a decline birthrate and aging population that will reduce its population from a peak of 128 million in 2004 to only about 90 million in 2055, and a working population of 84 million in 2005 to 46 million in 2055, according to projections by the business organization Kaidenren.

As a result, Japan's vaunted lifetime employment policy is being undermined by rising pension and healthcare costs, causing many companies to lay off contract workers for the first time, and probably fulltime workers in the future.

"There's an expression about the Japanese economy called the 'convoy system,' which is a fleet of ships that proceed at the slowest pace and nobody gets left behind," explained Noriko Hama, an economist and professor at Doshisha University's Graduate School of Business in Kyoto. "That's when Japanese business and society used to operate before the global recession.

"But it's no longer a convoy of ships. As we came into the era of the global economy, Japanese companies realized the convoy system isn't working because it's turned into a fleet of ships sinking at the pace of the fastest sinker."

There's also the problem of the changing role of women in the workplace as Japanese business culture makes it difficult for women to balance their professional and personal lives, further exacerbating the declining population problem.

As for the Japanese impressions of what they heard and saw in the U.S., I was not surprised by their reaction to their visit to Detroit.

"I was shocked because everyone I saw was quite depressed," said one Japanese journalist who was making his first visit to Motor City. "There were hardly any cars in the four lane highways and many buildings were empty. The stores and entertainment facilities and drugstores were all gone. The city unfortunately had lost its functioning as a city."

His harsh judgment of Detroit probably would have been even more harsh had he talked to executives of bankrupt General Motors and Chrysler, but the Japanese journalists weren't able to meet with them. Perhaps just as well, because even with Japan's considerable problems, its auto industry remains reasonably healthy and more likely to recover than its U.S. counterparts.

Overall, I came away with the feeling that, despite its many problems and insecurities, Japan is better positioned to compete in the global economy of the 21st century, than the U.S. That was the biggest surprise of all for me on this, my sixth visit to Japan.