Asian values again

by Terence MacNamee

In an article in today’s edition of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung German Japan expert Florian Coulmas talks about Asian values. There was, of course, a major discussion on this prior to the turn of the millennium. Yet he observes that Westerners still assume Western values are universal and should be the basis for the world order. In Asia too, people have long accepted it was that way. Japan fit this picture very well; it was eager to appear as a Western nation despite its geography, all the better to differentiate itself from its historic heartland, China. China itself has played the Western game up till now; it has followed the rules of Western business and the international order. Yet both in China and Japan, Coulmas finds, there has been a return to traditional indigenous values in recent years. In China it is the Confucian ethic, obviously, which seems to have become even more important to the Chinese leadership than Communism. But Coulmas sees the same thing happening in Japan. There is the same desire to go back to old values, which is expressed in the conservative movement for constitutional reform, but actually goes far beyond the desire to able to have a powerful army or to boost the political profile of the Emperor.

In spite of these parallel developments, Coulmas says, China and Japan are not likely to pursue a common path – the political and strategic rivalry of near neighbours keeps them apart. That means that the Japanese are not as attentive to Chinese language and culture as they perhaps should be.

Coulmas also concedes that young people both in China and Japan are mainly interested in the West. The question is whether this generation will not just assume that Western values reign supreme, and perpetuate the Western hegemony inside their own heads? Because hegemony is inside people’s heads, a matter of unquestioned assumptions about the world; it is not just a matter of political, military and economic power.

Yet this generation of Asian young people, like every generation, is imbued with the culture they have grown up in, their national culture, and culture has deep roots. Culture is what makes national “destiny”. To be sure, this was a Romantic idea in Europe and in the New World. But behind it is an undeniable reality, namely the bedrock of culture, which gives the nation its continuity, its underlying values, and its history. Deep cultural roots result in repeated scenarios like Japan alternately opening up to the outside world with unbounded curiosity and closing itself off in suspicious isolation – which has been going on for centuries. Countries keep on realizing their destinies in this sense in spite of what the outside world may think or expect. These are things on a time-scale much longer than any generation, and they shape each generation whether it knows it or not.