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What is national prosperity?

This may seem to be a truism, but as a country prospers, its people experience a host of wonderful changes in their everyday lives. Today, in light of past travels, I would like to write about the changes I perceived in the Russian Far East and China, where I recently attended conferences.

At the beginning of October, I spent about one week in Khabarovsk in the Russian Far East. I had initially planned to spend at most three nights and four days there for the two-day conference and a seventieth birthday celebration for a friend of mine, but this turned out to be difficult with only two direct flights a week from Japan. As a result, I had a very full week that was packed with lectures to students, hospital visits, a TV appearance, and topped off with an evening concert and a weekend picnic.

My relationship with Khabarovsk in the Russian Far East began when I treated children with leukemia who came for treatment at the National Children's Medical Center here in Japan. This was during the economic hardship of the Soviet era, and medical treatment also suffered under these difficult conditions. But as might be expected from a resource-rich nation, the medical expenses were promptly paid in cash.

Nevertheless, this arrangement was not easy to maintain in many respects. We came to think that rather than bringing patients from Khabarovsk to Japan, it would be more practical to exchange physicians and work together to raise the quality of medical treatment available. This led to exchanges with pediatricians in Khabarovsk. As a result, I have visited the city at least four times: twice during the Soviet era and twice since 2000 after it became part of the Russian Federation. During this period, pediatricians from Khabarovsk, including the friend of mine, have visited Tokyo twice.

It is commonly known that the shift from the Soviet era to the present-day Russian Federation has been accompanied by increasing prosperity. The city of Khabarovsk has also become clean and beautiful. Department stores offer a wide array of merchandise and are filled with customers. In another impressive sight, the onion-shaped domes of the churches now gleam golden. And please excuse my noting that the lavatories in universities and hospitals had become cleaner, too. But most of all, people walking in the streets now wore beaming smiles. When I first visited, professors' salaries were not always paid on time, and the situation was so bad that once while drinking vodka, people even joked that a Japanese occupation would be preferable, which was hardly funny.

I have easily been to China more than a dozen times, including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong, Hankou, Hangzhou, Changchun, and Changsha. First, it was to attend conference on pediatrics, in particular, those related to allergies, and recently, in connection with Child Science. In the past several years, I have been to Shanghai more often, and this time, I spent three nights and four days there at the beginning of November for the Child Science Exchange Program.

There is no question that China has now emerged as a leading economic power and its economy will soon overtake that of Japan. When I first visited China soon after the economic reforms in 1978 as a specialist in pediatric allergology, I stayed at the Beijing Hotel. The lights were dim. The receptionists just chatted and ignored the guests. For a first class hotel, the facilities and service were terrible. The city had more bicycles than cars and poverty was still very visible.

In the 1980s, I visited Beijing as the chairman of the International Pediatrics Association, together with some directors. Our purpose was to meet with the representatives of the China Pediatric Society to persuade them to join our association. At that time, only hotel conditions had improved a little. The International Pediatric Association Congress of Pediatrics was held in China in 2001 and the Olympic Games were held in 2008. As China internationalized, Beijing and Shanghai developed into beautiful, lively metropolises. The hotels were bright and clean, and the people working there provided service with a pleasant attitude. There were cars everywhere in these busy cities. And, as in Khabarovsk, people in the streets were smiling and well-dressed.

But, on this trip to Shanghai, my overall impression of the city left me feeling that this prosperity was somehow not quite what I saw in the Russian Federation. Construction projects were in full swing everywhere in preparation for the Expo 2010 Shanghai. Although impressive high-rise buildings had sprouted up all over like mushrooms, prosperity was not seeping into the narrow alleyways where ordinary people live. As a nation, China is a leading economic power in the world, but when its population of 1.3 billion people is taken into consideration, it falls below the top 100. Perhaps this explains what I saw.

As a matter of fact, it was the same with Japan. My generation, born from the mid-1920s to mid-1930s, experienced poverty before World War II, chaos in the aftermath of defeat, and the high growth period starting in the 1960s that has led to prosperity. When I recall the changes that took place in food, clothing, and housing at the time, Russia and China seem to be undergoing the same process. Japan's present economic situation is the subject of much talk these days, but I hope that we will be able to maintain our prosperity and that it will be shared by each and every citizen. No doubt, the people of Russia and China feel the same way.

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