[Viewpoint] Confucianism and crises

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[Viewpoint] Confucianism and crises

Are Asian democracies best suited for dealing with calamities? For that matter, are there any real democracies in Asia? These are questions that have been bothering me as I have watched how Japan has coped with triple calamities.

When I first came to Asia in 1970, there were only a couple of genuine East Asian democracies - Japan being the first as a result of U.S. occupation two decades earlier. But within a short time, I soon realized Japan is really not so much a democracy as a collection of power groups that controlled the political-economic system to such a degree that few Japanese bothered to vote.

As an overseas student, I was introduced to Confucianism, the common philosophical bedrock of nations that make up the greater Sino cultural sphere of East Asia.

Of this group of nations, one might argue that Japan is not nearly as Confucian as its neighbors. So the points I will be making about Japan have even stronger parallels elsewhere in East Asia.

As a Westerner, I was always fascinated by how Confucianism lacks the concept of equality. When push came to shove, two “equals” must share a birth date - and even then, hours or even minutes became an important factor. The older person is recognized as the older sibling and the Confucian system of rights and obligations goes into effect.

Consequently, Confucian societies are organized as a series of competing, vertical power groups, some obviously much more powerful and significant than others. As such, Asian societies work remarkably well in maintaining discipline, harmony and the welfare of the people who make up each power silo. Where Asian societies tend to stumble is when it comes to spontaneous cooperation across horizontal lines, particularly if there is no clear cut dominance of one power group over another.

All of which brings us back to Japan in crisis. Since the earthquake a month ago, there have been renewed recollections of rescue dogs being held in quarantine upon arrival in Japan after the 1995 Hanshin Earthquake in Kobe. One ministry (read: power silo) was not willing to abrogate its authority to other ministries’ demands for suspension of petty regulations during the emergency.

Because of needless tragedies that resulted from inter-ministry squabbling in 1995, the Japanese did a commendable job in coming up with more logical emergency measures that have largely worked well in the wake of the March 11th Tohoku Earthquake.

But even a month later, logistics in the devastated area have been full of holes and a large number of homeless are essentially surviving in conditions one would not expect in one of the world’s most advanced and organized societies.

There are some very reasonable explanations for why. First there is the matter of property rights and concerns about finding the remains of the deceased in the rubble. But while in Western societies there are constitutional emergency powers available to an executive branch, in Tokyo there are relatively few organizations with the kind of authority needed to match the gravity of the crisis.

One explanation for this is there are still bad memories of the military coups of the 1930s that eventually led to the war, defeat and humiliation in 1945. But I would surmise that the greater roadblock is the various power silos are unwilling - or at least unable - to surrender their areas of authority for the greater good.

Japan is not unique. Even in the West, bureaucratic turf-fighting can get in the way of the common welfare, as we saw in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana. But in the U.S., though it stumbled badly in that crisis, there are institutions such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency that have learned to cut horizontally across bureaucratic boundaries.

We have yet to see this kind of governmental organization in Asia, and it is conceivable we may never see it. Confucian Asia cooperates vertically and competes horizontally. There are no nationwide political parties but rather large political blocks that tend to be anchored to regions and personalities rather than universal principles or ideologies.

In Asian democracies, national elections are really opportunities for competing power groups to get their man or woman ahead. This is partially true, of course, anywhere, but usually the common, Western voter is more likely to vote along party lines as defined by political philosophies rather than as an opportunist attempt to improve his or her group’s fortunes.

In Japan, the current calamities have ripped the kimono wide open. Japanese power groups are being challenged to cooperate beyond self-interests, which does not come naturally to them.

What we are watching on television is not only about Japan, but also about democratic Asia grappling with extraordinary conditions that defy the Confucian order of their societies.

*The writer is the president of Soft Landing Consulting Ltd.

By Tom Coyner
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