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Lost in Syndication: The Case of the Hatoyama Essay

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I've been centrally embroiled in a fascinating controversy involving an essay published in a Japanese magazine by Yukio Hatoyama, the soon-to-be prime minister of Japan, that caused a big stir when excerpts were published abroad, especially in the United States, which in turn caused a bigger stir back in Japan. Hatoyama's essay extolled the virtues of "fraternity" within societies and among nations, criticized the excesses of US-led globalization and mused about the fate of the dollar and a possible future East Asian community.

The old reflexes that set in motion this latest lost-in-translation episode suggest that neither the tendency toward insularity in Japan nor arrogance in America have quite adjusted to the new realities of the interconnected global age.

First, the facts. When I learned of Hatoyama's essay, entitled "My Political Philosophy," which appears in the September issue of the Japanese magazine VOICE, I immediately asked my associate in Japan to obtain permission to translate and syndicate an excerpted reprint worldwide. The Global Viewpoint Network of Tribune Media Services (formerly the Los Angeles Times Syndicate), which I edit, has 35 million readers in 15 languages through scores of the world's top newspapers.

My associate faxed over a letter to VOICE explaining that Global Viewpoint appears in as many as 100 papers worldwide. We received permission from the editor of VOICE, who in turn checked with Hatoyama's office, which agreed and provided the English translation. "VOICE and Hatoyama's office are happy for you to run an excerpt on Global Viewpoint," my associate e-mailed me. "Please mention VOICE."

Our abridged version of the essay was published across the world, from El Pais in Madrid to O Estado de Sao Paulo in Brazil to the Gulf News in the Middle East to the Bangkok Post, among others. In the US it ran in the Christian Science Monitor and the Huffington Post. When the International Herald Tribune picked it up, it was posted on the New York Times website, which they share. In all cases it was clearly noted that it was excerpted from the essay in VOICE. If there was any confusion about "excerpt" and "syndication," it resulted from a good faith misunderstanding all around.

(Despite some complaints in Japan that the abridged version gave short shrift to Hatoyama's idea of "fraternity," the fact is that El Pais, O Estado de Sao Paulo and the Bangkok Post -- you couldn't get a broader spread -- all used the word "fraternity" in their chosen headlines).

As the contents of the essay wended its way into awareness in the US just as the Democratic Party routed the LDP with a landslide in the August 30 election, it elicited a strong reaction from some "Japan experts" (mostly unengaged former diplomats in think tanks), neo-conservative magazines such as The Weekly Standard and some Japan-watching blogs. Most critics seemed shocked at what they regarded as a surprise bout of insolence from a normally indolent ally. Used to obsequious mumbo-jumbo from the Japanese political class, these critics apparently found it hard to swallow the straight talk about America's shortcomings as an economic model or about the relative decline of American power noted in the essay. In effect, they seemed to consider it a slap in the face of all those Americans who had just bought Toyotas through the "clunkers for cash" program.

As the ripples of this stir made their way back to Tokyo, meek diplomats scurried into apologia mode while others in the media hastened to blame Hatoyama's naivete for letting ideas meant for domestic consumption become splashed across the pages of the global press. Hatoyama and his staff expressed extremely agitated surprise that his words had shown up in the on-line edition of the New York Times, the very heart of the American establishment. By week's end, the "kerfufflle," as one analyst called it, was front-page headlines. Hatoyama felt compelled to put in a call to President Obama to affirm the centrality of the Japan-US alliance in the new government's foreign policy.

All this in itself is indeed surprising. Doesn't everyone get that today we live in a global glass house? That in a world tied together by social networks, the Internet, YouTube, web journalism, innumerable blogs and even print syndication, anything you say in Japan is going to be heard everywhere else?

(Kurt Campbell, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Asia and the Pacific said in a phone conference with the Pacific Council on September 10 that, from what he could tell, Hatoyama had prepared the essay for a "narrow audience" in Japan during the campaign and didn't imagine it would get such enormous circulation worldwide. In any case, he said, power now imposes a different discipline than campaigning).

The reaction of US critics was surprising in a sillier way. Who hasn't criticized the excesses of American "market fundamentalism" or the damage done to "local economies" by globalization, as Hatoyama did in his essay? When Barack Obama was a community organizer on the south side of Chicago he sought to help those who lost their manufacturing jobs because of globalization. He won the presidency by campaigning against the unregulated fat cats on Wall Street whose greed and irresponsibility brought the US economy to ruin.

In Europe, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy -- not to be speak of Brazilian President Lula --have all railed against American-style capitalism and sought to curb derivatives and hedge funds. As I write, the European Union, led by France and Germany, is preparing to put tight reins on compensation and bonuses for the big bankers when the G-20 meets in Pittsburgh. Indeed, is there a world leader today who doesn't criticize market fundamentalism?

Some in the US scored Hatoyama as "nearly anti-American" because he said in his essay that, after the war in Iraq and the financial crisis, America was losing its preeminence, trying to hang on to its dominance while China was trying to assert its power, and Japan was caught in between. I remember no similar outcry, to take one of many examples, when French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner uttered this biting epitaph of America's once lustrous image: "The magic is gone."

Within a decade, Hatoyama guessed, the dollar would no longer be the prime reserve currency -- something a UN commission has actually recommended and China's leaders, who are also America's bankers, have spoken about openly. While pointedly reaffirming the centrality of the US-Japan alliance to East Asian stability, Hatoyama also voiced the hope that, as in Europe, one day an East Asian community would replace suspicion and conflict among nations of the region. Every time the ASEAN nations get together, for example, isn't that is all they talk about?

Only Americans with an outdated sense of US supremacy could quarrel with the obvious. Hatoyama's great crime, I suppose, was merely to be the last to say what everybody knows. I suspect however, that President Obama himself pretty much shares Hatoyama's general worldview about the market and society, and about "fraternity" in an interdependent world. This is certainly the sense I got when the Global Viewpoint Network syndicated Obama's op-ed before the last G-20 summit, "A Time for Global Action." Also, having been photographed reading Fareed Zakaria's "Post-American World" during the campaign, Obama surely appreciates Hatoyama's description of the shifting balance of global power.

Clearly, as this controversy exposes, both Japanese insularity, which in my view has deepened in the "lost decade" of stagnation, and the stubborn remnants of American arrogance need a reality check.

In the information age, no country is an island anymore, not even Japan. Geography is no longer destiny. Though a far younger nation, America's adjustment won't be any easier. As Lee Kuan Yew, the godfather of Asian modernization once put it to me, "for America to be displaced, not in the world, but only in the Western Pacific, by Asian people long despised and dismissed with contempt, is emotionally very difficult to accept. Americans believe their ideas are universal. This sense of cultural supremacy will make the adjustment most difficult."

Of course, as Kurt Campbell said in the Pacific Council call, and I agree, it is in the US (and global) interest that this be a "trans-Pacific, not a Pan-Asian" century.

Both new leaders,Yukio Hatoyama and Barack Obama, have big visions. That is a hopeful place to start in unwinding the old reflexes.