ASIA is a community of hope - of unfulfilled aspirations. The realization came to me suddenly, more than four decades ago, as I was riding a trishaw in Burma's gently decaying capital, Rangoon.
It's a sense Japan's Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama appears to have caught as well, during his current trip to Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines. His is a journey of promises and of amends: promises that Japan, the most Westernized of Asia's countries, does still regard itself as part of Asia, as responsible for helping its partners grow into the kind of prosperity Japan enjoys; amends for the past - the brutal invasions preceding and during World War II.
On the latter point, Mr. Murayama has been embarrassed by one of his Cabinet ministers, who had to resign after telling a press conference that Japan was not the only one to blame for the Pacific war, and that one positive result of the war was the independence many Asian countries gained.
But Murayama is an honest man, devoid of affectation, and he seems to be striking the right note by placing the emphasis on how Japan can best cooperate with its Asian neighbors without neglecting expressions of sorrow for the past.
Back to that trishaw in Rangoon. I was on my first tour of continental Asia, my previous trips out of Japan having all been across the Pacific to the United States. Years earlier, I had read the art historian Kazuko Okakura's bold statement, ``Asia is one.'' But Asia was as much a mystery to me as to any European or American.
There was a sense of kinship in seeing people of my own color, particularly in East Asia. But beyond that, what, if anything, bound us all together? If Asia had been a sleeping giant, it was now awake. Where were all its enormously varied people headed? Into what would they channel their bursting energies? I asked myself that question in Hong Kong, in Bangkok, Calcutta, and New Delhi.
Rangoon was different from any of these cities. It seemed caught in a time warp. Politically, Burma was then in a democratic interlude between the departure of the British and the imposition of Ne Win's iron dictatorship. The gracious red-brick buildings of British colonial days looked down on leafy avenues. The Strand Hotel epitomized the fading splendor of the days of the Raj.
Around me were other trishaws, going their unhurried way, honked at by dilapidated trucks, or occasionally scattered by careening buses, with people hanging from their doors. I had spent the morning at a primary school in an outlying village, where the headmaster was teaching the English alphabet along with Burma's own round script. The eager look of the children stayed with me as I contemplated the streets through which I was riding, full of bustle and color.
Compared to neat Europe, or idealistic America, how vast, sprawling, untidy Asia seemed. I thought of China and India, the world's two most populous countries - China with 1.2 billion, India with 800 million. Both represent great civilizations that flowered when Europe was in the Dark Ages and America not yet born. Yet by the 20th century, Asia had clearly fallen behind.
Then, cutting through these musings, the thought came: Why yes, if Asia is one, it is as a community of hope, of aspirations for a new synthesis. The youngsters learning their ABC's might not be aware of it. But right in their own villages, they were being taken into a new world.
That realization has stayed with me all these years and has to some extent been confirmed as country after country fights - and increasingly wins - the battle with poverty and deprivation through education and through economic growth featuring new investment and increased work opportunities.
Certainly pockets of despair remain. But the dominant theme is one of hope - even in Burma, where students have risen repeatedly against military rule, and where Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Prize winner and symbol of the country's democratic aspirations, has started a sixth year under strict house arrest.
I spoke of a new synthesis. Though economic growth is not yet complete, the real challenge Asia faces is how to meld its own rich cultural heritage with the tides of Western science, Western music and arts, Western political and economic institutions, that have ceaselessly washed across this ancient continent for the past century and more.
It's not just a simple matter of keeping Confucian traditions, such as not being disrespectful to parents - as Singapore's prime minister recently advocated. Rather, it's how to bring about, in stages if need be, the revolution that Europe had to experience - freeing the individual from the dogmas of religion and hierarchy - before it could enter into its own world-girdling period of expansion.
There will be struggles and backsliding in the process. But in Asia, no less than in Europe and in America, it is not in the nature of man to be satisfied with partial victories. * This is Takashi Oka's final regular column for this page before taking on a role as adviser to Ichiro Ozawa, secretary-general of the Japan Renewal Party.