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We took a jet plane to the next century.
When our thoroughly American family of five moved from the wide-open spaces of Castle Rock, Colorado (population 7,600), tothe noise, rush, and crush of teeming Tokyo (population 27,600,000), we knew that we were in for a long journey, in more ways than one. The trip itself seemed endless--it took two taxis, four buses, two airplanes, one train, one subway, and more of those assembly-line meals on little plastic trays than I care to remember. Our flight to Tokyo took off in July and didn't land until August. While this was actually just a quirk that came from crossing the International Date Line, we all felt as if we'd been traveling for a month or more when the jet finally came to a stop at Narita International Airport. Still, we didn't realize how far we had come until we got settled in Asia and began to look around.
For a family that had previously considered it fairly exotic just to cross a county line, the prospect of moving to a vastly different culture had an element of adventure to it. Ever since my bosses at The Washington Post had asked me, a few months earlier, to take over the paper's Tokyo bureau, we had been eagerly studying the life skills that we would need in our new home: eating soup with chopsticks, washing at the public bath, greeting people with a polite bow, taking a child's temperature in Centigrade, and so forth. But on that August afternoon when we finally landed at Narita and took our bearings, we felt deflated. The place looked depressingly ordinary. It was an airport, after all, a vast sea of concrete with planes from United and Northwest and British Airways tooling around and people with big orange fans in each hand guiding the planes to their parking spots. In the terminal, there were crowds of travelers and lots of signs, primarily in English, leading us to Customs, Baggage Claim, and the like. The PA system was broadcasting announcements in English as well. For this we packed up all our belongings and traveled halfway around the planet? We've been here, we thought. We've done this.
Fairly quickly, though, it became clear that this wasn't just another airport--or at least, not an airport like the ones we knew back home. Those workers out on the tarmac, guiding the planes, pumping fuel, unloading luggage, weren't dressed in the standard jeans and T-shirts; they wore neatly pressed gray uniforms, maroon neckties, and white gloves. And when our jet successfully steered up to the landing gate and came to a stop, the entire uniformed crew lined up on the tarmac beside the plane to give us a deep, respectful bow of welcome. As for the signs and PA announcements in the terminal, they were in English, but not the sort of English we knew back home. The first poster we spotted, just inside the door at International Arrivals, said, "Welcome to Here!" We found this friendly, if a little strange. When we boarded the shuttle bus to get to the train station, a chipper tape-recorded voice welcomed us again, in English, and said, "We hope you enjoy your life on our bus." Friendly, but a little strange. My favorite sign, on the wall of the Narita Airport train station, had a delicious ambiguity to it: "We are glad you could come in Tokyo," it said. Was this just a mistaken English preposition, or something more suggestive?
Over the next few weeks, as we adjusted to life in the new land, we found many more indications that Asia really was the distant and different place we had imagined. The countryside really was marked by patch after square patch of pale green rice shoots rising from the paddy fields beside bamboo groves swaying gracefully in the breeze. A couple of times I saw farmers in round-brimmed straw hats bending over the rice crop, knee-deep in mud--an image straight out of my junior high world geography text, circa 1960.
As we settled in Tokyo, and began traveling to Osaka, Seoul, Singapore, and the other major cities of East Asia, we relished the sights and smells and flavors that seemed to match our expectations for a place called The Orient. We bought fried octopus and roasted ginkgo nuts on the street. We rode that notorious commuter train out of Tokyo's Shinjuku station--our kids called it the pancake train--where polite conductors with white gloves really do push you onto the train, jamming three hundred riders into a car built to seat fifty. In almost every big city we found impossibly crowded, noisy, bustling, fragrant, and delicious Asian bazaars--tightly jammed collections of tiny shops, stands, or handcarts stacked with goods, with runners in rice-straw hats weaving through the crowds, pushing wagons filled with fresh fish or bunches of bananas or color TV sets or cases of sunglasses or massive burlap sacks full of rubber bands.
These places were incredibly fun and colorful--and great shopping as well. On Petaling Street in the old Chinese section of Kuala Lumpur, I bought not one but two solid gold watches for a total price of $8. Genuine Rolex, too--the salesman told me so. In the marvelous Nandaemun Market in Seoul, where youthful waitresses slithered through the crowded alleys with five lunches, on five separate trays, stacked neatly on their heads, some guy sold me a brand-new pair of Nike Airs--a $180 pair of running shoes--for $13. As he pocketed my money, the salesman decided to come clean. "Actually, they're not really brand-new," he told me, in a half whisper. "Actually, they're not really Nike, either."
But for all the sights and sounds that came straight out of the textbooks and the travel guides, we also found something, in East Asian countries in the 1990s, that we hadn't expected. We found ourselves smack in the middle of a fundamental shift in world history--a basic realignment of global stature and political power that will change the way the world has worked for the past five hundred years or so. To use a phrase we heard time and again, we found ourselves in the Asian century.
Anyone who spends some time in Shanghai or Singapore, in Taipei or Tokyo, can see and feel the new era emerging. Whether we like it or not, the familiar world order we have all grown up with, a world dominated and controlled by the nations of Western Europe and the United States, has come to an end. Today, the countries of East Asia consider themselves just as important as the traditional Western powers. They think they have just as much right as Americans and Europeans to run the United Nations, the World Bank, the Red Cross, the Olympics, and all the other international organizations that have always been the preserve of white Westerners. After centuries of indoctrination from Christian missionaries and education in Western universities, the Asians now argue that they have valuable lessons to teach the rest of the world.
And they're right.
By the simplest measures--size and wealth--the Asians already outrank the West. East Asian nations have more people than the West. They have more money, too; of the three richest countries on Earth, as measured by total output, or gross domestic product, two are in East Asia. (The United States has the highest GDP, followed in order by Japan and China, with Germany and other Western European democracies trailing behind.) The Western media paid enormous attention to the currency crises and economic disasters that hit some East Asian countries in the late 1990s. From reading this coverage, you'd almost think that Asia's economic growth was over, and that the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Malaysians, etc., were going to revert to their traditional role as water bearers and rickshaw pullers for rich whites. This is evidently an appealing notion to some people in the West--but it is wrong. Even after the series of crises that began in the summer of 1997, almost every East Asian country continued to record higher economic growth rates than the Western powers. Even after years of recession, Japan still has the largest foreign currency reserves in the world--which is an economist's way of saying that they are sitting on about $200 billion of our money. The world's second-biggest stash of foreign currency is in Taiwan.
The economic and political transformation that has turned East Asia from a bystander to a major player in global economics and politics has been studied and chronicled and heralded under various grandiose titles: the "East Asian miracle," the "Asian renaissance," the "Asian ascent," the "Rising East." Not surprisingly, business and government leaders in East Asia like all these terms. But the one they seem to prefer for this reshaping of the globe is the "Asian century," embracing the belief that the twenty-first century will be the time when East Asian countries use their wealth, population, and power to stand equal--at least--to the Western nations that have run the global show for so long.
There's a certain logic to the claim that we are about to enter an Asian century. The timing is right, for one thing. The Asian "economic miracle" began in the closing decades of one century, and despite the setbacks of the late 1990s in some Asian nations, it will reach full flower in the first decades of the next one. For another, the end of the twentieth century marks the end of Western colonialism in Asia. On July 1, 1997, with less than three years remaining in the twentieth century, Great Britain returned Hong Kong to China. That left just one last sliver of Western colonial rule on the Asian continent. And on December 20, 1999, this last remaining colony--the enclave of Macao, across the Pearl River delta from Hong Kong--will revert from Portuguese to Chinese control. That means Asia will enter the twenty-first century free of foreign governors--for the first time in five centuries, Asia will be fully Asian.
The financial and political aspects of the Asian century--the story of the East Asian financial miracle and the ups and downs of Asian economies--have been the topics of many reports, studies, and books. This is not one of them.
This is a book about a different miracle. It's about another way of looking at the vaunted Asian century. For what my family and I noticed most as we traveled around this newly industrialized, modernized, and prosperous part of the world were social, not economic, indicators. We found a general state of civility, of stability, of public safety. We found, in short, what has been called East Asia's social miracle. This other miracle is probably more important, and certainly more instructive, than anything the Asians have achieved in the economic sphere.
By many of the standard measures of successful societies, the nations of East Asia have been extraordinarily successful: They have the safest streets, the strongest families, and the best schools in the world. To wit:
The rates of murder, rape, kidnapping, assault, mugging, robbery, and theft in almost all Asian countries are vastly lower than the comparable rates in most of the rest of the world. In the late 1990s, the United States experienced a fairly remarkable drop in rates of vio-
lent and property crime; murders in the United States, for example, dropped from about 25,000 annually in 1993 to 19,600 in 1996. But even at these reduced levels, the per capita rates of violent crime in the United States are ten, twenty, in some cases one hundred times as high as those in the nations of East Asia.
There are murders, rapes, and robberies in Asian societies, but these events are much rarer than in the West. The "ordinary" precautions that have become part of daily life in the United States--bars on the windows, case-hardened locks, car alarms, staying inside after dark--aren't necessary in Asia.
In some cases--Singapore and China spring to mind--the Asian nations have achieved peace on the streets through draconian police measures: offenders may be beaten or locked away for years for minor offenses. But most of East Asia has managed to maintain admirably low crime rates without an overwhelming police presence. In Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Indonesia, the ratio of police to private citizens is much lower than in the United States. Criminal sentences are generally more lenient. The number of people in prison, as a percentage of the total population, is much smaller. And yet the rate of crime is lower than in any Western nation.
One of the reasons for the low crime rate in East Asian nations is the low rate of narcotic abuse. The percentage of addicts in the population is far lower than in Western nations, and thus the rate of drug-related crimes is lower as well.
Historically speaking, the crackdown on drugs is a fairly recent phenomenon. Asians have long been growers and users of opium and other narcotic plants. The traditional Chinese word for "drugs," in fact, is a compound of the character for "grass" and the character for "pleasure," suggesting that ancient China understood opium thousands of years ago. But today the old traditions of drug use persist only in a few areas, including the region on either side of the Thai-China border.
As with other forms of crime, the low rates of drug use result from heavy-handed police work in some Asian countries. Anybody who has flown into Singapore's airport will know this; as the plane nears touchdown, the flight attendant makes the arrival announcement: "We will soon be landing in Singapore. Please put your seat backs and tray tables in the full upright position, and please remember that anyone caught bringing drugs into Singapore will be sentenced to death."
But in most of East Asia, the main reason for low rates of drug use lies with the people, not the police. They have decided not to tolerate drugs, or drug users. We lived in Japan during the fervent "sa-kah boomu," or soccer boom, when the entire nation seemed to be crazy about the sport of soccer, and world-class soccer players were treated as matinee idols throughout the archipelago. (The American influence is so strong in Japan that the Japanese have adopted the American name, soccer, for a game that is called football in most of the world.) Perhaps the height of this fascination came when Japan qualified for the 1998 World Cup finals, and a series of practice matches was scheduled between Japanese teams and the veteran World Cup players from Argentina. When it wasannounced that the Argentine national team was coming to Japan, every ticket for every game sold out within minutes. Then, just days before the series was to begin, Japanese immigration authorities announced that the greatest Argentine soccer star, Diego Maradona, would not be granted an entry visa. He had been convicted of drug use a few years earlier, and nobody who has a record of drug convictions can be admitted to Japan--no matter how strong his crossing kick.
In a huff, the other Argentine players announced that none would play if Maradona was not admitted to the country. The Japanese stood firm; so did the Argentines. The long-awaited series was canceled. The national sense of disappointment was palpable. And yet, the Japanese media and fans overwhelmingly supported their government. "I was really looking forward to that game," said the famous TV commentator Chikushi Tetsuya, holding up his now useless ticket on his evening news show. "But soccer games won't do us much good if we let ourselves become a society that tolerates illegal drug users."
Marriage: Once two people marry in Asian societies, they are a family. And family is a such a powerful concept that Asian couples are much more likely to stay married than couples in the Western democracies. Japan probably has the highest divorce rate of all the East Asian countries (I say "probably" because the official statistics on such matters are foggy in some parts of the region) but still ranks well below Western nations on this score. About 16 percent of marriages in Japan end in divorce; the figure is close to 50 percent in the United States and around 30 percent in most countries of Western Europe. In other East Asian countries that report family statistics, fewer than 10 percent of married couples seek divorce.
As with crime, this is a function more of social attitudes than of law. Divorce is legal in all the East Asian countries and is generally easy to achieve, if the husband agrees (a legacy of the traditional notion that a man should be free to leave the wife when he wants to but a woman is not free to leave her husband without his consent). But couples don't split up. This is not because every Asian marriage is made in heaven; rather, couples feel a responsibility to make a union work as well as possible. Maintaining a stable family is still considered something of a duty owed to the society as a whole.
Those who do get divorced tend to be ashamed of it, which is the key reason people don't do it. In Japan, a man or woman who is divorced is known as a batsu-ichi, which is to say, "a one-time failure." I've never met anybody in Japan who was divorced twice, but my unabridged Japanese dictionary says that such a person would be a batsu-ni, or "a two-time failure."
Millions of Americans had an opportunity to view the culture gap in attitudes toward marriage one evening on the Larry King show. It was "Japan Week" on Larry King Live!; the talk show host and his wife had traveled to Tokyo to focus on America's most important Asian ally. On his first show from Japan, Larry's guest was a highly respected Japanese newscaster, Tamaru Mizuzu. Tamaru-san had been invited on the show to discuss recent developments in Japanese politics. As is his custom, King did almost no research before the taping, about either the topic or the guest (he told me later that this no-preparation rule makes him a better surrogate for the audience when the tape is rolling).
For that reason, King was visibly stunned when the Japanese political analyst walked onto his set, just seconds before shooting was to start. Tamaru Mizuzu is a gorgeous woman, partial to elegant designer suits cut well above the knee so as to favor her long, perfect legs. Larry King took one look at this beautiful woman and her beautiful legs and forgot all about Japanese politics. "Well, Tamaru, uh, how's the social life here in Japan?" he asked. "A woman like you, must have a busy social life."
Now it was Tamaru-san's turn to be stunned. She has reasonably good English, and had in fact practiced a few English sentences--about the political situation in Japan--before coming to the show. But this totally unexpected turn of events threw her completely off kilter. "Well, I, ummmm, uh, ummm, I . . ." she stammered, groping for something, anything, to say in response to this off-the-wall question.
King tried to help out. "Oh, I'm sorry, Tamaru," he said graciously. "You must be married, right?" This question threw the Japanese newscaster into deeper despair. "I was umm, umm, umm, uh--" was the only answer she could produce. "Oh, Tamaru, I get it," King went on in his peppy, casual way, slipping a thumb under his suspenders. "You're divorced, right?" This was clearly the worst question of all from Tamaru-san's point of view. She flashed red with undisguised anger, and spat out a reply that essentially ended the interview: "I'm not talking about that." King quickly turned to another guest and asked about U.S.-Japan trade friction.
I joined Larry King and his production team at a restaurant after the taping, and it was clear that this veteran interviewer was concerned about the painful glitch in the interview he had just conducted. "What happened with Tamaru?" he kept asking. "I mean, hey, I really didn't mean to set her off like that." I explained that Tamaru-san was in fact divorced, that she had been criticized for selfishness in the fan magazines when she broke up with her husband, that this was considered a serious detriment to her broadcasting career, and that it was embarrassing for a Japanese person to talk about such a thing. "That's so strange," King replied. "Why would she make such a big deal out of a divorce?"
King then introduced me to his wife, Sherry, noting that they had only recently wed. I learned later that she was Mrs. Larry King number six. Larry and Sherry were divorced shortly after the visit to Japan.
Children: If marriage is deemed to involve fundamental responsibilities, parenthood is considered even more important. In East Asian countries, virtually every child is raised in a family with two parents; grandparents, aunts and uncles, and other relatives are frequently living in the same home, although that pattern is changing somewhat as populations become more mobile. But the conviction that every child deserves a mother and a father at home remains solid.
This, too, is borne out in statistics. There are few broken homes in Asian societies, and almost no births out of wedlock. In the United States, somewhere between 30 and 35 percent of all babies are born to single mothers. In the countries of Western Europe, the figure ranges between 20 and 25 percent.
In East Asia, 1 percent (or less, in several countries) of the babies are born to single mothers. This is not to say that every Asian family is ideal. But just about every Asian family is a complete family. The social problems that seem to be connected to a high rate of broken homes--crime, social stress, and dire economic straits for single mothers--are not problems for Asian societies.