East Meets West

In the new century, there are many complex challenges facing all of humanity, from tangible concerns such as healthcare, poverty, climate change, food and energy security to conflict prevention, as well as problems of how to address these issues at the global as well as local level. In such a global endeavour, synergy of knowledge and wisdom between different traditions, communities and civilisations is as important as ever in coming up with better solutions. And Kobe could not be a more fitting place in Japan for a start of an important dialogue. Why is this?

Kobe, the host city of the conference, is celebrating 150 years since it opened its doors to the world in 1867, one year before the Meiji Restoration. Kobe has since become one of the leading Asian ports for trade alongside Shanghai, making its name in the early twentieth century as the international face of a modernizing Japan in a regional setting of Kansai that is both historical, innovative and outward-looking. It has one of the oldest Chinese and Indian communities in Japan because of this history, and has been home to many European and Russian (Jewish) émigrés. It has overcome the crippling destruction of its centre and port facilities in the 1995 Kobe-Awaji earthquake.

But there is more. If there is one place in Japan that represents the theme of this conference, “East meets West”, then it is Kobe and the Kansai area, 500 km east of Tokyo and Kanto, that is home to Kyoto, Osaka and Sakai. Kansai represents the inherent strength (sokojikara) of Japan as the vortex of the country’s cultural, political and commercial activities for nearly 13 centuries. In the old days, Kyoto and the older capital Nara were repositories of the religion, knowledge, technology and civilization that reached Japan by way of the Silk Road. In more recent times, Sakai, one of the oldest port cities near Osaka and the birthplace of Senno Rikyu, the grand tea master, traded with the Spanish and Portuguese. Sakai was the main manufacturer of guns in sixteenth-century Japan. Osaka has been the biggest commerce centre since Edo period Japan, pioneering in futures trade and giving birth to many large trading houses that would provide the social capital for rapid industrialization in the Meiji era. Even though the capital has moved to Tokyo, Kansai continues to flourish in this rich cultural heritage and tradition of innovative thinking, as a place where the East mingles with the West over time and space in ways that Tokyo cannot match.

The symbolism of Kobe and Kansai is important to Japanese identity as it faces its own post-industrial challenges since the economic slump. The key to Japan’s renovation and continued relevance to the world is to rediscover and reappraise our own history of modernization with a view to opening up to and engaging with the world in a more dynamic way.

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Posted by IAFOR