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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Confucius: East-West, good-evil, right-wrong?



Still from “BKK Siam Square, Bangkok 03-12-02, 2002” | courtesy Beat Streuli (www.beatstreuli.com) and Murray Guy, New York

This summer, just three days before he was elected prime minister of Japan, Yukio Hatoyama published an op-ed article in the pages of the New York Times that ruffled more than a few feathers, both at home and abroad. “A New Path for Japan,” a critique of American-style capitalism and its failings and a call for a greater regional integration of Asian nations, was seen by many as a diatribe against the perniciousness of the selfish West and a sentimental, quasi-socialist embrace of the more benign, communally sensitive East. In a way it was.

Voices rose on both sides of the world – even before Hatoyama was officially elected. American commentators decried the weakening or potential collapse of the US-Japan security alliance, a postwar deal rooted in Cold War politics that has largely reduced Japan to a compliant host of American military bases and a reliable supplier of American consumer goods: America’s impotent little brother, or in artist Takashi Murakami’s formulation, a reconfigured “Little Boy” (from the codename of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima). Some were even snarkier, questioning Hatoyama’s fitness for governance and claiming his party would ruin Japan’s economy.

On the Japanese side, officials clamored to suggest that the article was never intended for publication in the Times, claiming the op-ed was a truncated version of a longer essay (true) whose original template was far more nuanced and America-friendly (debatable). At one point, rumors emerged from Tokyo that the article had been published by the newspaper without permission, raising copyright-infringement concerns and the suspicion that it had been leaked by members of the opposition party, whose very America-friendly members were on the verge of losing power for the first time (with one brief exception) in 55 years.

I happened to read the story in New York, where friends and colleagues who had no reason to know the name of Japan’s then prime minister were becoming increasingly aware that the nation was about to undergo an historic electoral and paradigmatic shift. But I found the borderline hysterical reactions on both sides of the world amusing and also intensely revealing. For what Hatoyama seemed to be saying to readers in the West from his soon-to-be-pulpit boiled down to this: We’ve tried your way. We’ve been trying it most strenuously since the end of the war. We’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly. But things have changed, and it’s time to do it our way now.

The principles of the “our way” Hatoyama outlines wouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with Japanese culture or with the broader tenets sustained in many Asian societies. Cautioning against “the dangers inherent within freedom,” he calls for a return to the Japanese concept of yuai: a sense of love, friendship and brother/sisterhood that binds communities together and gives them a sense of purpose, meaning and security. Contrasting this with the loss of human dignity resulting from an economic system in which “people are simply personnel expenses,” Hatoyama especially focuses on the need to shrink economic disparities and embrace a new era of multipolarity, in which no single nation – pointedly, neither the US nor China – holds all the cards.

Sound familiar? US President and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Barack Obama sounded very similar notes on the campaign trail and in his acceptance speeches: espousing the restoration of dignity to the American worker, the value and virtue of community-building, healthcare for all citizens and respecting all national leaders, be they friend or foe, in a multipolar 21st century world.

I suspect the overblown reaction to Hatoyama’s op-ed – anxieties and accusations in the West, denials and dust-ups in the East – ensued not because of his vision for Japan’s imminent new path, but because he clarified a paradigm shift that is now fully under way. The winds of change are today blowing East to West; the new path is already here.

Permit me, for a moment, to get philosophical about portability – specifically, the Sony Walkman, which celebrated its 30th birthday earlier this summer, exactly two months before Hatoyama’s election.

When the Walkman emerged in the US, massive, multilayer component stereo systems were still de rigueur in America, maximizing the sonic boom in your basement or bedroom, but also standing as a brute physical monument to your tastes and fiscal prowess. Visiting a friend’s home and admiring his chest-high monolith of stereo components was akin to oohing and aahing over the gleaming fins and fenders of his massive American car. The consumer product was an extension of the self, and size, not to mention price tags, definitely mattered.

To be sure, Japanese brand names soon edged in on the heft. Pioneer, Panasonic and, yes, Sony eventually displaced Magnavox and Zenith. But the arrival of the Sony Walkman and its successful penetration of Western markets heralded a new set of priorities. The Walkman didn’t boast of its owner’s wallet or individual acumen. Sleek and small, you didn’t look at it, you listened to it. It sounded, to early users at least, like a million bucks. It was an affordable inconspicuous and unobtrusive portable device. I shared tapes and earphones with numerous pals on school buses and in hallways and locker rooms. I was no longer showing off my equipment or expertise to a single visitor, but building a community through personal contact.

What I only dimly knew then, of course, was that the Walkman was produced by a nation low on national resources, limited in space and keen on reinvention. A nation much like the world we are all living in now.

Ten years ago American journalist T.R. Reid wrote a book called Confucius Lives Next Door, in which he tried to make a compelling argument for the West’s adoption of Asian ways. I read it when it first appeared and thought what many critics wrote: Are you crazy? His itemized lists of Japanese virtues read like a laundry list of American phobias: respect your elders, don’t question authority, do your work obediently, learn to live with adversity, don’t challenge the status quo.

But rereading the book now, ten years after its publication, I realize Reid was on to something, however poorly timed his analysis. We are living in a world of declining expectations and aspirations, so the cliché goes, but only if our goals are based on a dying paradigm. If we are living in a world of real possibility, where egalitarianism can coexist with capitalism, where selfhood doesn’t collide with community, then maybe Asia can show us where we’re going.

Shortly after September 11, 2001, my Japanese mother flew from Boston to Tokyo to visit me. Though her flight was nearly empty, she said she wasn’t worried. Once you’ve lived through relentless B-29 firebombing raids, as she did during World War II, you can bear one day of terror attacks and get on with your plans.

Together we flew to Okayama Prefecture in southwestern Japan to meet one of her cousins for a tour of the island-studded Inland Sea. Her cousin collected us in his new car, which he was clearly very proud of. It was a Toyota (of course), and a bit boxy in design, but it had a sleek dashboard with digital readouts that lucidly registered every atmospheric and automotive tick. The ride was smooth and the seats were comfortable, but every time he braked for a red light, the car’s engine simply stopped. It was entirely silent.

“This is a hybrid vehicle,” he explained, “a mix of electric and gas. It’s called the Prius. It’s the least wasteful car in the world.”

My mother peered back at me over the headrest. “Do you think this could ever be popular in America?”

I didn’t hesitate. “Never,” I said. “It’s too quiet.”

Americans, I believed, stake their claim by being loud, individualistic, even borderline obnoxious. Excess is the point – and is often prized and celebrated. A vehicle with tailored wings or Humvee mass has to purr, hum and roar when it stops and starts at a traffic light. This Prius, whatever its technological assets and environmental soundness, was simply too timid and conscientious for the bright and mighty West.

But that was then. Neither my mother nor her cousin nor I could have anticipated the absurdity and impotence of America’s ongoing “war on terror” and its increasingly Pyrrhic and pathetic invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq. None of us could have foreseen the economic collapse that has laid bare the rickety assumptions the American mythology of selfhood and selfishness was precariously erected on. And in the days after 9/11 we didn’t yet realize that the West and its romantically errant ways were fast becoming unsustainable: fodder for fools who still think the good life, defined by commerce, is forever.

What’s happening in America and in other Western nations is as simple as it is necessary: We’ve begun looking to Asian models for cues to shape our intertwined futures.

Today the Toyota Prius is one of America’s top-selling cars. Toyota can barely keep pace with American consumer demand, and the Prius comes with lengthy waiting lists. Today China manufactures every bit of clothing you and I own, with the possible exception of an Italian suit or French dress for formal occasions. Sushi is in the supermarket, chopsticks are at the ballpark.

“Asia is undergoing a renaissance,” says Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, speaking to me in downtown Tokyo about his decision to let a Vietnamese-French director, Tran Anh Hung, film his novel Norwegian Wood. “The entire region has changed because we now have money and power. And we do things differently than the West. It’s a different sense of time, sound and vision. This is a tremendous opportunity for us to be leaders rather than followers.”

Asia is far from perfect, of course. The cronyism, corruption and lack of transparency that have plagued regional politics, for example, need to go. And to varying degrees many Asian societies have incorporated positive values we associate with the West: critical independence, selfhood, entrepreneurship and thoughtful irreverence. But is it time now, a decade after Reid’s book on the virtues of Confucianism, for the West to adopt some good news from the East: community, calm, reverence and egalitarianism? And do we even need the hackneyed binaries of East/West, good/evil, right/wrong, socialism/capitalism, or can we finally proceed without them?

As we move into the next decade of the new century, I propose that we in the West embrace Asia’s successful societies– not as exotic mysteries, but as new potential paradigms. The West has contributed to Japan in spades. There would arguably be no Osamu Tezuka, Hayao Miyazaki or global anime explosion without artists like Walt Disney and Max Fleischer, and probably no Walkman without the advancement of stereophonic sound technologies in Europe and America. Today’s laptops and iPods, cell phones and other mobile devices are better understood as products of Japanamerica: a hybrid source from which we’ve all benefited.

Let’s listen to our neighbors in the East. A culture that prizes quiet contemplation, self-abnegation, community and stability should not threaten us in the West. We can do better if we learn from one another. And with our entire planet threatened by extinction, we need to.

Roland Nozomu Kelts is the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the US. He is a lecturer at the University of Tokyo, a contributing editor for A Public Space magazine and a columnist for the Daily Yomiuri. His forthcoming novel is called Access.

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