As Culture of the Past Meets Ethnic Change

FRANCE and Japan are two countries unlike each other in many ways. They do, however, share a sense of history. There's a warmth about people who have lived in one place for generations. But what faces both countries is a changing future. I was reminded of this on a visit to the village of Sorde l'Abbaye in the foothills of the Pyrenees, near the Spanish border.

Sorde's claim to fame is its ruined Benedictine abbey on the banks of the Gave d'Oloron, a river known to the Romans, who built a military camp here complete with heated baths. During the Middle Ages, the abbey was a way station on the pilgrimage to the shrine of St. James of Compostello in Spain. At its height, the abbey ministered to 300 pilgrims a day.

In Japan, people still go on pilgrimages. One circuit on the island of Shikoku retraces the 88 stations commemorating the good works of Kobo Daishi, an eighth century Buddhist saint. Pilgrims don white cotton garb and straw sandals to make their circuit on foot across rice paddies, orange groves, and hills.

In France and Japan, the present intrudes on these souvenirs of the past. Farmers in both countries are up in arms against proposals they think will deprive them of their livelihood. Japanese agriculturalists, having had to open their land to foreign oranges, are dead set against doing the same with rice.

In Sorde and other rural areas in France, farmers are strongly against the Maastricht treaty, fearing it will allow a bureaucracy in Brussels to cancel cherished agricultural subsidies.

Further north, in the rolling fields of central France, agriculture is big business, but here in Sorde the family farm is alive and well, and even if you have less than a hundred acres, you can make a reasonable living growing a bit of this, a bit of that - corn, grapes, vegetables, or fruit. Houses are stone. Neighbors have known each other for generations. People still make their own sheep cheese, and the local melon melts in your mouth.

But there is fear this way of life may not endure beyond the present generation. Farmers are growing old, and their sons have difficulty finding wives willing to share a rural life. The same fear pervades Japanese rural households, to even a greater degree, because the size of the individual farm is one-tenth that of France.

If farmers could talk to each other across the divides of culture and politics, they would have little difficulty identifying their problems. But solutions are another matter. Why do farmers in developed countries, the so-called industrial democracies, produce so much - why must they be paid to keep land fallow, when across a wide swath of Africa, Latin America, and Asia hunger is endemic and famine seems never-ending?

Another question: Sorde is not far from the autoroute, the express highway coming up from Spain into France. On these golden days of early autumn, you will see wheezy cars coming up the expressway, belonging to North Africans who went home for the holidays and are now returning with their children and their bundles to assembly-line jobs in France. With foreign workers approaching 10 percent of the total French population, their presence has become a political problem, but without them the country's indus try would have to shut down. Can a people as settled in their own country as are the French readily absorb minorities coming from other races, other religions?

It's a question that's posed with greater force in Japan, which is so much more of an ethnic island than is France. In Japan the invasion of foreign workers is just beginning, and society's level of tolerance is showing itself to be much lower than in Europe. But the need to fill jobs unattractive to Japanese youth is, if anything, more acute, because these days Japanese young people are much more picky and choosy than their European counterparts. It isn't surprising to see a Pakistani on a rural constru ction site in Japan, or a Filipino bride on a remote mountain farm.

France, and Europe as a whole, is far ahead of Japan in terms of ethnic diversity. But compared to the United States and its salad bowl of ethnic mixes, the European experience is closer to that of the Japanese.

Whether it's keeping the family farm, or living with ethnic diversity, history alone is no guide to the future. Solutions require movement away from the status quo. There is no way to go but forward.

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