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FOCUS June 1997 Volume 8

Japan and Cultural Development in East Asia - Possibilities of a New Human Rights Culture

Kinhide Mushakoji - Meiji Gakuin University, Tokyo

The Origins of the Mainstream JapaNIEs Cultural "Order"

The mainstream culture of Japan and the East Asian Newly Industrializing (NIE) countries is characterized by its adoption of Western values related to economic progress and modernization through a process where the pre-existing Pax Cinica "majority"culture provided the necessary cosmological framework which enabled the states in the center of this region to integrate themselves more easily on the Western modern world system and "modernize"themselves more easily than others.

This cultural orientation accepts whatever cultural element perceived as "modern". It rejects "occults"and "occludes " all cultural values, attitudes, and realities which stress any kind of self-closure that refuse integration in the international division of labor. It deligitimizes all cultural attitudes and traits, and discriminates against all peoples whose lifestyle is seen as pre-modern, "traditional"and "feudalistic". This modern industrial culture is promoted by the states and the firms, or more precisely by the technocrats of both modern institutions sometimes called the "technostructure". A World culture is assumed, according to the "good message " propagated by the modernists, to be bound to erase all sequels of the past non-Western cultures as far as they constitute obstacles to the globalization of the market.

Now, the JapaNIEs model [1] seems to have taken a different direction. In Japan and in the East Asian NIE countries, this economic progress, i.e. industrialization-oriented culture, has been imported by these non-Western societies. And a process of exogenous development, inter-changeably called modernization, industrialization and westernization, followed. But this did not mean a total westernization of their culture, and has reinforced some of the pre-existing cultural elements inherited from Pax Cinica culture.

For the moment, Japan and the East Asian NIEs, which have succeeded in keeping at least some of their cultural traditions, are the only non-Western countries which are considered to have achieved, or are in the process of achieving, "development". The modernization theorists expect all other non-Western states to follow suit, but they assume that the traditional cultural traits will gradually disappear as these countries become fully modern. At the end, all of them will become fully modern, i.e., Western, adopting all the key values and institutions of the West both in their economic and political sectors.

However, it is clear, as it is more and more recognized by researchers of various disciplines, that Japan has industrialized but not Westernized. Its capitalism is quite different from the Western version, and is not based on the formal concepts of the individual, etc. It has accepted selectively only the concepts associated with the state, economic wealth accumulation, and technocratic rationalism. Even if the East Asian NIEs were to follow the path of Japan, they will develop quite different versions of capitalism - basically state-dominated, collectivity-oriented, and authoritarian - even though they build more or less liberal/democratic institutions depending on the cultural mix they work out between exogenous and endogenous factors. The same situation is true if other non-Western societies were to follow the examples of Japan and other East Asian NIEs. The examples of Japan and the East Asian NIEs cannot and will not be imitated. But their experience may provide some useful clues about the different problems the imitating countries will have to face, and the range of alternative cultural development they may choose from.

The adoption of western concepts and institutions by the non-Western societies, especially Japan and the East Asian NIEs, was highly dependent on the culture which pre-existed in each specific society. In general, the adoption process was:

  • highly selective often based on conscious choices by the state and the leading "modernizing"elite. For example, there has been combined effort by the state and the industrialist sector supported by it to "modernize"political and economic institutions, to "educate"the people to accept these institutions as part of the "national project" and to develop cultural patterns guaranteeing the good functioning of these institutions. This state-led process took place twice in Japan - following the Meiji Restoration of 1868 and during the American Occupation after Japan's 1945 defeat;

  • it is impossible to overlook the importance of cultural consonance [2] which determined the cultural elements accepted by the people. Western values and attitudes were accepted because they are in harmony with some of the pre-existing cultural factors of the society. To take again a Japanese example, inspite of the translation into Japanese language of works of encyclopedists, British liberals, Marxists and Anarchists, the mainstream Japanese choice rejected any moral system stressing individualism, liberty and social protest. Faithfulness to the existing power, social harmony, conformity, industriousness, dedication to the collectivity, in brief all Confucian values, were strengthened by the introduction of Western ideas including Prussian/German state-centered constitutionalism in political thought resembling Confucian emphasis on the state and bureaucracy, social Darwinist competition based on Confucian meritocratic principles, and hard work based on Confucian virtue of dedication. What were the pre-existing cultural traits which enabled Japan and the East Asian NIEs to make their selection? It was, in brief, the Confucian bureaucratic tradition that was constant with the Western bureaucratic culture and thus provided an ideal preparation for modern technocracy;

  • the selective acceptance of Western concepts and institutions was, therefore, not at all an unconditional and genuine "westernization". Under the cover of Western formal values and institutions, endogenous cultural values, attitudes and cosmologies survived often in "modern" reformulated manner. They are officially recognized when they supported the efforts of the state and of the "modernizing" elite to industrialize the society. Otherwise, they are deligitimized and forced to take an "occult" form. The political, economic and social life of these societies, developed a facade of liberal-capitalist and parliamentary-democratic institutions. But behind it, they kept alive cultural elements inherited from the traditional extended family values, ideologies, and cultural patterns often quite alien to the "modern" official values and institutions. For example, the Japanese political system and parliamentary "democracy", both in their Meiji and post-World War II versions, were based on pseudo-familial faction politics with strong communal roots, and boss/underling allegiance quite different from the individualistic modern political parties which solidarity is supposed to be based on the agreement among party members about a common platform;

  • different interpretations of the formal exogenous concepts, reformulated within endogenous cultural contexts, were held by different social forces and cultural schools of thought, and a complex dialectical process opposing them led to the emergence of quite a variety of versions of "modernity". It is wrong to imagine that a monolithic process of modernization took place. There have always been in these societies intellectuals, especially university students, constituting anti-systemic movements. Their open activities have been especially reported in Japan and South Korea. They also exist in other East Asian NIEs but under fierce suppression. Even within the established system, there was a certain kind of political cultural pluralism. For example, during the worst days of Japanese militarism, there was (aside from the official ultra-nationalists) a conservative political culture (though of a more rational version) even about the role of the "Emperor". We must not forget the pluralism which exists in different arts. In "modern" (i.e., Western style) fine arts and music, the painters and composers tried in different degrees to introduce Japanese themes and techniques. There were also artists who tried, though not always successful, to introduce "modern" concepts and developed new Japanese "koto" music and "avant guard" calligraphy. The popular culture developed musical styles using Western instruments and harmony to express their enthusiasm and sadness in coming to the big industrial cities;

  • the process of transformation in Japan and the East Asian NIEs were not self-contained in each of them but rather resulted from a complex interaction among domestic and international factors. The introduction of Western concepts such as "nation" , "freedom" , "democracy" , and "human rights" mobilized anti-systemic intellectuals and other social strata in the different periods of each country. Leading elites borrowed also European concepts to buttress their legitimacy through their interpretation of many of these concepts. In their case, stress was put on "nationalism" , "people" , "equality among nations" , "cultural identity" , etc. The national socio-political debate, when it existed, was thus based on Western modern cultural values; and

  • counter-movements regenerating traditional concepts, values and beliefs were also developed often across national boundaries. The Communist Parties constituted this as their rallying point. But there were also other regional exchanges among "liberal" intellectuals and artists. It is especially worthwhile to point out a new trend emerging across the borders of Japan and the East Asian NIEs. Even quite local-specific endogenous manifestations of identity are rapidly developing a common front across borders by formulating their common cause using Western modern universal concepts while stressing their common interest in developing "endogenous cultures and civil societies". New popular music fuse Western and endogenous rhythms and melodies.

From the Collapse of the Pax Cinica to the Post-modern JapaNIEs chaos

In order to look into the future of this multifarious cultural process taking place in Japan and in the East Asian NIEs, it is necessary to look back into history, and get the necessary insight into the background of the present process. This is where we have to look at the impact of the West on this region not only as a process of "modernization" - building up a new modern world based on modern Western values including universal human rights - but also the other side of the coin, the collapse of the pre-existing regional order - Pax Cinica.

The Chinese (Central Kingdom) Order contains two contradictory principles - the concentric order principle of the centralized authority of the righteous ruler, and the principle of the self-organizing nature of the society (and of nature) where the local communities develop their own communal life based on popular values and traditions relatively free from the central and centralizing authority (the Emperor). The former is universalist (all moral principles are derived from Heaven) and highly hierarchical, whereas the latter is egalitarian and particularistic.

If the regional process of modernization in the Asia-Pacific region, especially its most dynamic part composed of Japan and the East Asian NIEs, is based on consonant selectivity as already discussed then the most important contribution of Pax Cinica appears in isomorphism between the present regional division of labor centered around Japan and the East Asian NIEs, and the Pax Cinica division of labor sometimes identified as the "tributary system" .

On the periphery of Pax Cinica, Confucianism was officially adopted by the states and by the ruling elite proud of their Confucian knowledge (and supposed wisdom). As is well-known, the Meiji Restoration was legitimized as a "renovation" led by the legitimate ruler according to the Pax Cinica definition. This replication of China by Japan was especially clear during the World War II, when the mini Central Kingdom "project" of the "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere" under the rule of the Japanese Emperor was declared. It was but a poor replica of the past all powerful and magnanimous Emperor of China rule over the Central Kingdom with all its tributary states.

Nowadays, Japan does not officially claim to reproduce the concentric Pax Cinica as it did during the World War II. It is, however, the center with a concentric sub-contracting vertical division of labor. As was the case in the tributary Pax Cinica, Japanese ODA redistributes part of its accumulated "tribute" and covers part of the club goods of the region. Whereas the "Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere" (GEACS) was an official "project" of imperial/imperialist Japan, the present concentric vertical division created around Japan is, in a sense, the occluded GEACS. On the official discourse level, the Confucian concentric order idea is not professed as before, yet in the mind of the Japanese and of some of the East Asian NIE leaders such a model is kept secretly. The "gees flight" myth according to which Japan flies as the leading goose followed by the East Asian NIEs and their imitators is isomorphic with the concentric model with Japan as the center of the regional division of labor.

This Japanese version of the concentric Pax Cinica, in both its overt and occluded versions, has a basic difference however with its Chinese model. Whereas in the latter case the tributary states on the periphery were able to keep their own cultures, in the Japanese concentric order this freedom is not tolerated. The occupied territories during the World War II were forced to adopt all the Japanese values including the cult of the Emperor. In the present concentric division of labor, the sub-contracting firms in the semi-periphery and the periphery are now "more politely" invited to learn Japanese management and quality control. The sub-contractors do not have to adopt the cult of the Japanese Emperor, but they are encouraged to develop the cult of the father company, some even singing the company anthem every morning! This highly hierarchical concept of social order, presented as a universal base of all virtues (faithfulness, dedication, self-abnegation, hard work), has been praised by the researchers looking for the causes of the East Asian "miracle" as more useful than the Western individualistic moral principles. It must be noted that these hierarchical values are hardly able to provide the ground to accept egalitarian values such as human rights.

On the other hand, as we saw before, it is important for many reasons not to ignore the counter-Confucian influence of the Daoist traditions lato sensu. The Daoist traditions have not disappeared after the Western impact. They have been mixed with different "high culture" and "popular culture" trends which survived the process of modernization. Daoism played an important role, not only as an alternative cosmology (or more precisely cosmogony) to Confucianism, in facilitating the syncretism between Chinese thought and other cultural/intellectual traditions. Already when China broadened its cultural contacts with the surrounding civilized or "barbar societies, Daoism facilitated the integration of non-Chinese cultures to the Chinese, and vice-versa. For example, Mahayana Buddhism is known to have received a strong influence from Daoism, and some specialists believe that a Confucian China would not have been able to accept this Indian religion without the mediation of Daoism. Shamanism and Daoism have been mixed in the Japanese Shinto tradition, a religion which very name comes from Daoism.

Daoism combined with Confucianism constitutes the heart of the business ethos of the overseas Chinese communities in Southeast Asia and other parts of the Asia-Pacific region. Their family-based networks are animated by Daoist beliefs more horizontal than the Confucian vertical ethics. The Daoist syncretism permit them to adapt to the different cultures of the host societies. Their vitality is based on their adaptive flexibility, a characteristic which is lacking in Japanese vertical sub-contracting system which transfers down Japanese ethos attached to its technology and management. Daoism has been mostly subservient to the Confucian order, and the overseas Chinese communities are often feared and discriminated by their host state because of their past role in keeping the commercial ties of Pax Cinica even during the colonial days.

Daoism, however, has from time to time provided a basis for opposing Mandarin domination. The last manifestation of such a trend can be found in the Great Cultural Revolution under the leadership of Chairman Mao who tried to apply this historically legitimated principle even to correct the technocratic tendencies of the bureaucratic leadership of the Communist Party of China.

In brief, it is quite appropriate to say that the industrial dynamism of the JapaNIEs region can be interpreted as a state-led process of Confucian inspired process of industrialization. It is, however, insufficient to stress only this Yang side of the process, forgetting the Yin side which may have an increasingly important cultural message for the survival of mankind. [3] It is important to understand the impacts of Daoism, the other side of the Chinese cosmology. Daoism is flexible and open enough to generate syncretic discourses consonant with the traditional world views of the peripheral peoples of the Pax Cinica. It has also the advantage to legitimize the belief that Chaos was the Way and that it was in vain that the powerful tried to create fictitious order under its rule. This provided to the small and the weak common people a powerful counter-ideology to the power thirst of the bureaucratic and military rulers.

Now that Western modernism is put into question, the future of culture in the post-modern JapaNIEs world becomes interesting. If the present contradictions continue to get more acute, the post-modern world will, sooner or later, come to a bifurcation point where it will be forced to choose either to continue its official Confucian road to unsustainable development, or choose survival by stressing its Daoist tradition.

In the face of this approaching crisis, we should not replace the over-simplified myth of Confucian JapaNIEs cultural miracle by a simplistic praise of the enlarged concept of Daoism. It still remains a fact that the JapaNIEs world, like other regions, is faced with the problem of "sustainable development. The JapaNIEs cultural response to this difficult question is probably going to be influenced by the polarity between technocratic rationality Confucian style and eco-democratic humanism Daoist style. However, the polarity will appear, probably, in a quite complex way, not as a fight between two opposed camps. This is because Yin and Yang coexist in these societies in a quite complicated manner.

It is not our intention here to suggest that Confucianism is just a prefiguration of technocratic rational management with a basically pro-status quo position. On the contrary, this school of thought, in its original message, contains a theory of revolution through the change in the mandate from Heaven. This side of Confucianism has been quietly forgotten when adopted by the rulers of the periphery of Pax Cinica.

Confucianism rejects the Western"realist" view that might is right. It tells the rulers and the technocrats that they have obligations and have to be "virtuous". "Virtues" being defined not at all in terms of Machiavelli's "virtu". Many intellectuals in Pax Cinica countries have been non-conformist Confucian scholars. It remains, however, that Confucianism has a fundamentally "patriarchal" message. The good ruler and the mandarinate play a fundamentally Father (knows best) role. The Confucian pole in the JapaNIEs cultures is different from the Western pole of "power" based ultimately on brutal force. It is rather the pole of paternalism combining authority and power, carrot with stick. The "beauty" of this model is that it is based on a mandarin/bureaucratic wisdom which can easily be interpreted as technocratic rationality.

Daoism, on its side, has also many faces which, as we saw above, makes it an ideal attractor in the post-modern chaotic cultural situation. Despising technocratic rationality and the artificiality of modern technological culture, Daoism and the endogenous cultural orientations broadly associated with it, provide an ideal source of alternative cultural creativity. Many artistic trends from popular music to computer graphics are inspired by this pole of the Chinese cosmology. Post-modern intellectuals and artists of Japan, and now more and more of other East Asian countries, like the Daoist anti-paternalistic message, its playfulness, informalism, and insistence on the concrete existential process of life and death.

Even many "modernizers" in Japan and in the East Asian NIEs are Daoist in their own ways. Many Japanese business leaders practice the Zen meditation to counter-balance their busy business life. Chaos theory and fuzzy logic are a new fashion in Japan. Automation itself is becoming, in a certain sense, Daoist in its non-Cartesian logic. It is not only the "greens" which is a minority in the JapaNIEs world who praise the virtue of living in harmony with nature. This is not a new fad as it seems in the West, but rather a return to ancestral attitudes vis-a-vis life and nature.

This is why, the Yin/Yang polarity of the JapaNIEs societies will not develop into a battle between two camps. It will be fought, inside the government and the firms, inside the neighborhood communities (e.g., overpopulated cities) and families (the generation gap), and even within the mind of each individual.

The Post-modern Challenges and the End of the JapaNIEs Model

In brief, the cultural, social and political realities of the post-modern age will not leave stable the concentric center/semi-periphery/periphery hierarchy of the JapaNIEs model in the Asia-Pacific region. A chaotic situation will follow, met by an effort on the regional hegemon side to impose order by economic means first, but eventually also by political and military ones. Even if such efforts lead to temporary stand-stills, the regional system is bound to go beyond its JapaNIEs dominated phase into a more diversified phase. Whether this will become a creative chaos or lead just to disorder is still to be seen.

In any event, three trends seem to emerge in the Asia-Pacific region as it enters into its post-modern phase. Firstly, the Daoist trend will prevail over the Confucian, and the Pax Japonica which stresses the latter will gradually fade leaving the leading role to the more flexible variant of the Pax Cinica, i.e., the overseas Chinese networks. Secondly, this trend will encourage the emergence of different human values and social models based on the sub-regional cultures, and they will strengthen the endogenous initiatives of a Daoistic self-organizing style. Thirdly, this will create in the Asia-Pacific a less hierarchical (yet containing some factors of verticality) fuzzy structure which will enable the manifestation of different human aspirations and demands. Whether these can become the basis for a human rights culture depends on both the social dynamics involving the different sociocultural trends in emerging civil society in the region. It will also depend on how human rights can present itself as an open-ended and flexible normative system tolerant of the particularistic traditions. A new human rights culture in Asia can be built only if the universality of human rights can be enriched by the different local traditions which have built their legitimacy by fighting against prevailing hierarchical universal values. Whether this is possible or not is yet uncertain.

It depends on us to make the 21st century an age of human rights culture in East Asia.

End Notes

  1. The words JapaNIEs model refer to the process of modernization in Japan and the NIE countries sharing a common development model some say based on Confucian values of harmony, obedience, and hardworking dedication to the community. See Kinhide Mushakoji, Political and Cultural Background of Conflicts and Global Governance, in Kumar Rupesinghe and Michiko Kuroda eds., Early Warning and Conflict Resolution, New York, 1992.
  2. Cultural consonance theory points out the fact that cultural transfers tend to be selective, with the recipient culture introducing only cultural elements from the sending culture to which it has "consonant" elements, i.e., elements which are congruent with the transferred ones.
  3. The yin/yang opposition of Daoism versus Confucianism is a highly unorthodox attempt made by the author to explain their respective function within the Pax Cinica world. Daoism, to begin with, is broadly defined to include beside the thoughts of Lao Tse (Laoji) and Zhuangji and all the folk traditions and cultural trends associated with Daoism as a popular religion. Whereas Confucianism is a well-defined set of beliefs, values and rules with a centripetal authority structure. Daoism, broadly defined, is characterized generally by a diffused set of beliefs with diversified ideal and practical manifestations based on a centrifugal, local self-organizing, freewheeling ideological orientation.

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