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Japan Has World Class Economy While Retaining Cultural Mystery

By: Kathy Diener

Date Posted: 2000-07-21

In our final profile of the countries that are attending the G8 Summit this week, we focus on the host country, Japan.

Known as "The Land of the Rising Sun," Japan enjoys a rich, unique culture and proud heritage as one of the world's leading civilizations. Isolated for centuries from the rest of world, its modern culture retains much of the mystery that has historically made it so intriguing to the West.

Japan is the world's second largest economy after the United States, and average income levels and standards of living are among the world's highest. Life expectancy in Japan is 83 years for women and 77 years for men, in both cases the highest expected longevity in the world. The country's successful economy is based largely on the export of electronic consumer goods such as cameras, computers, televisions, and sound systems.

Japan first opened its borders to foreign trade in the mid-19th century after nearly 200 years of isolation. The country began an intensive program of modernization and industrialization, as well as colonial expansion into other parts of Asia. By the early 20th century, Japan had secured a place among the world's great powers.

As a result of Japan's defeat in World War II, it lost all its colonial holdings, and most of its industry and infrastructure were destroyed. After a period of occupation by the US and its allies, Japan adopted a new constitution and quickly restored its wealth and prosperity.

Today Japan's government is a parliamentary democracy. Although the emperor is the functional head of state, his official status under the constitution is the “symbol” of the Japanese nation and its people. The central government holds supreme authority over all lower systems. However, Japan's 47 prefectures enjoy a considerable degree of autonomy over local affairs.

Okinawa, with an area of about 450 square miles, is the largest member of the Ryukyu Island chain of southwestern Japan. It was an independent kingdom until the 14th century when the island began paying tribute to China, and did not become part of Japan until 1879. Unlike the rest of Japan, which is largely homogenous in terms of ethnic composition, Okinawan culture is a complex blend of Chinese, Korean and Japanese influences.

Leadership

Yoshiro Mori, Japan's newly elected Prime Minister, was born in 1937 to a wealthy farming family in Neagari in the Ishikawa Prefecture. Both his father and grandfather had served as mayor of Neagari. Mori earned a degree in commerce from Tokyo's prestigious Waseda University and then spent two years as a newspaper reporter before pursuing a career in politics.

As an independent, Mori won a seat in the lower house of the Japanese parliament in 1969, and he has been re-elected ten consecutive times. During his first term, he joined the Liberal Democratic Party and has twice served as the party's Secretary General. He went on to occupy a number of cabinet posts, including the Trade, Construction, and Education Ministries.

Mori became Japan's prime minister last April, when his predecessor, Keizo Obuchi, suffered a stroke and fell into a coma. Obuchi died the following month.

In a recent news conference following the appointment of his new Cabinet, Mori promised that his government would concentrate on education reform and revitalizing the nation's economy.

Mori has drawn much criticism this year for several comments he made that were perceived as insensitive. In May he called Japan a "divine nation," centered on the emperor, which opposition parties said was a dangerous throwback to the aggressive, militaristic attitude of Japan's imperial era.

In January he was condemned for describing an awkward moment in his first election campaign by saying, "I felt like I had AIDS." He later apologized for that comment. Such gaffes have been blamed for his low popularity rating among Japanese voters.

Mori and his wife of 39 years, Chieko, have two adult children. A lifelong rugby enthusiast, he continues to play on government rugby and soccer teams at the age of 62.

Information Technology Will Be Central Theme of Summit

In recent meetings with other G-8 member countries, the Prime Minister has declared that Japan views this summit as the most important agenda in its foreign policy this year and will do everything possible to ensure its success.

Addressing the leaders of France, Italy, Germany and Great Britain, Mori outlined the key issues Japan intends to bring to the table. He stated that information technology (IT) will be the summit's central theme, with special emphasis on ways to avoid a "digital divide" between industrialized and developing nations. Similarly, the issue of debt relief will figure prominently in the talks, as participants focus their efforts on alleviating poverty in underdeveloped countries.

Japan further expects the G-8 to address issues such as inter-Asian stability, especially with regard to the Korean peninsula, and measures to reform the UN Security Council, on which Japan wants a permanent seat. Japan has also sponsored an initiative on controlling the spread of infectious diseases such as AIDS

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