Robert L. Sharp: Time zone nontariff barriers

03/27/2009 10:22 PM

03/27/2009 10:26 PM

One day in Tokyo I needed to find the home telephone number of one of my colleagues in the United States, so I called my head office in New York City, reaching the night watchman, who keeps such information.

The fellow wondered why I was calling in the middle of the night and I said on the contrary, it was the middle of my workday in Tokyo. "What day is it?" he asked. I said Aug. 9. He said "But it's only the 8th here."

He was evidently very impressed with this time zone phenomenon, seeing it as some kind of science fiction event, and turned to someone who was in the room with him, saying in amazement, "Far out, Leroy, this guy's calling from tomorrow!"

I could hear Leroy, the assistant night watchman, explain to night watchman No. 1 that this was why the Japanese are so economically successful -- because they had a head start on the rest of the world. People in Tokyo were already working on tomorrow while the Americans were still asleep in yesterday.

While different time zones might be considered one type of a nontariff barrier, I noted another time barrier during a recent trip to Japan, when I realized it took 10 hours to fly to Tokyo from Los Angeles, but it only takes eight hours to fly from Tokyo to San Francisco.

The world's wind patterns produce head winds that slow airplanes down when they fly from east to west, giving Japanese an advantage in getting to the United States, while it takes longer for Americans to get to Japan.

As a California boy, it was always a mystery to me why Japan and the Asian nations were considered to be in the "Far East" anyway, when I had to go west to get there. Thirty-six hours in a westward direction, to be exact, in my first propeller-driven airplane trip in early 1962, hopping across the Pacific one tiny atoll at a time.

Of course, this terminology reflects usages carried over from the time when England ruled the waves, and the entire time zone system was measured from the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, near London.

From England one traveled east to go to Asia, so the Arabic world was "The Middle East" and China and Japan "The Far East." Quite logical.

Using that logic, the United States is "The Even Farther East."

The mentality of defining places by the starting point also exists in American word usage. The eastern cities are referred to as "back east," by Americans, while San Francisco, Los Angeles, the Pacific Northwest and the Sun Belt States are called "out west."

For people raised in Texas, Arizona and California to call New York "back east," or Back Anything, even when they perhaps have never visited the East Coast, shows the cultural orientation that makes the East Coast the national focal point of the United States. We unconsciously never forget "back there" is where the original European settlers first arrived in this country.

This orientation (literally), and the fact the American political and financial capitals of Washington and New York are on the Eastern Seaboard, is why it has been so hard for Americans to take the emerging importance of the Pacific Basin seriously or quickly enough. We have been facing the wrong ocean.

That is changing, and is why, in spite of recent problems, forward-thinking businesspeople focus on the West Coast as the most economically important area in the years to come, regardless of current conditions.

This is because the West Coast sits at the crossroads of where the action is today and will be for many years to come, where the United States, Latin America and Asia intersect.

(This article is adapted from one published in the Japan Times Weekly International Edition 15 years ago.)

Robert L. Sharp grew up in Linden (population 1,000) and spent most of the following 30 years as an international banker in Asia including four years as a Naval officer in that part of the world.

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