East and West: will the twain ever meet?

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

East is East, West is West: “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,” goes the first line of The Ballad of East and West by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936). Written in 1892, this poem, along with The White Man’s Burden (1899), is often cited as representing Kipling’s patronizing, if nor derogatory, attitude towards East. Although well recognized as the author of such popular works as The Jungle Book (1894) and Kim (1901), who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1907, Kipling was also a defender of British imperialism, which is understandable as someone who was born in Bombay at the time when India was known as British India.

If India represented East to the British, countries such as China, Korea and Japan belonged to the region at the far end of East, namely, “Far East”. Given that similar terms to denote “extreme east” exist in other European languages such as Dutch, French, German, and Italian, it is clear that China, Korea and Japan, despite their proud history as the developers of Eastern civilization, did not exist as familiar lands in the consciousness of Europeans, except as uncivilized people to be converted to the ways and means of Western civilization, until well into the twentieth century.

China, Korea and Japan are now very much in the consciousness not only of Europeans but also of people in other parts of the world, thanks to their remarkable success stories in the economic arena. Starting with Japan which accomplished miraculous economic growth in the 1950s and 60s, one country after another showed remarkable advances in the economic arena, with mini-dragons of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea and Singapore in the 1970s and 80s, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam in the 1990s, and, of course, China in the past two decades. As these Asian countries have become competitors whose products flood their markets, people in Europe and elsewhere have developed a new consciousness about China, Korea and Japan, which happen to be geographically located in the eastern end of the Eurasian continent. Does the “success” of these and other countries in Asia mean that West is now ready to accept East on its own terms? Will the twain finally be ready to meet?

Challenges and responses: While East and West do meet in the economic arena, albeit as competitors in the global marketplace, the contact between East and West has a long history going back many centuries, involving interactions between Eastern and Western civilization. Of the countries in Asia, India and China have played major roles in the formation and development of Eastern civilization. In particular, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism that came out of India and China have had widespread influence in the evolution of national civilizations in other Asian countries as well. However, the unfortunate fact of the matter is that when it comes to the interactions with Western civilization, both India and China had been subjected to the colonial rule by countries from the West.

Modernization, which would lead to the rise of Asian countries in the economic arena since the latter half of the twentieth century, began as Toynbeean responses to the challenges posed by their colonial masters or superior military powers from the West in the latter half of the nineteenth century.1 This explains why modernization for Asian countries has mostly been the process of catching up with the West, or “Westernization”. Japan was the first to embark on, and succeed in, the task of Westernization. For Japan, modernization meant the transition, politically, from the feudal regime of Tokugawa Shogunate to the constitutional monarchy under the tutelage of the Meiji Emperor and, culturally, from Buddhist and Confucian ideas to Enlightenment ideas imported from the West.

While it was a response to the potential military threat in the form of Black Ships that triggered Japan’s modernization, it was the real military conflict in the form of Opium War that triggered China’s modernization as a response to the challenges of Western civilization.  However, China, while experiencing a brief interlude of republicanism after the fall of the Ch’ing dynasty, reverted to the centralized command society that had been their hallmark ever since the unification of the country by the First Emperor in 221 BCE. As for Korea, modernization had to wait until the end of Korean War (1950-53) because of the colonization of the land by Japan, their neighbor to the east, and the invasion of communism from China, their neighbor to the west.

The first stage of the challenges from Western civilization—colonization and subjugation by powerful nations from Europe—thus triggered modernization in the form of the rise of nationalism in Asian countries. The second stage of the challenges from Western civilization involved the influence coming from the United States as the victor nation at the end of World War II. Asian countries actually did a good job of responding to the challenges from the United States, especially in the economic arena with their remarkable accomplishment in economic development, which some scholars ascribe to the application of Confucian ideas.2 The third—and latest—stage of the challenges of Western civilization is the social change triggered by globalization as all countries have been subjected to the challenges of global capitalism in the economic arena.

It is difficult to predict what form the responses of Asian countries will take, for the third stage of responses to the challenges of Western civilization is an ongoing process that is enfolding daily around us. Talks about the formation of an East Asian Community can be considered as one form of responses jointly pursued by Asian countries to the current challenges from Western civilization.

Varieties of social systems in the East: To say that Asian countries have succeeded in modernization in the sense of Westernization means, when interpreted from the perspectives of comparative civilization that views civilization as the product of a social system defined in the space of interaction among polity, economy and culture, that these countries have transformed their social systems into the kind of social system that prevails in Western countries. However, the degree of success in Westernization differs from one country to another. So does the character of the social system, reflecting the character of the traditional culture in each country.

The social system that prevails in the West is built around the three organizing principles: the principle of democracy in polity, that of capitalism in economy, and that of liberalism in culture. There is, however, no such uniformity when it comes to the organizing principles of Asian social systems.

While one adopts republicanism and the other constitutional monarchy, democracy is the organizing principle of polity in Korea and Japan. The same cannot be said of China, however, whose polity is based on the centralized state controlled by one ruling party.  When it comes to North Korea, the very use of the adjective “democratic” in its official country name of Democratic People’s Republic of Korea for what is in effect a dictatorial state ruled by one person is an affront to the idea of democracy.

Capitalism may be said to be the organizing principle of economic life in the East as well, to the extent that all countries now operate in the space of global capitalism. We may also include China and Vietnam here, for, despite the official status as socialist states, the two countries have been embracing the practices of market capitalism with their recent policy reforms—the open door policy in China and doi moi, or restructuring, in Vietnam. However, even in such capitalist countries as Korea and Japan, the degree to which the government gets involved in the conduct of economy goes beyond mere administrative guidance and regulation from time to time, ranging from investment projects to trade policies.

As for culture, Japan may be the sole exception among Asian countries in that it adheres to the principle of free speech, one essential component of liberalism, another being separation of church and state. However, even Japan sometimes appeals to the voluntary restraint of freedom of speech when it comes to reporting about the Imperial Household. Confucianism still plays an important role in regulating social behavior in countries such as China, Korea, Japan, and Singapore. While it is the idea of an autonomous individual that is cherished in countries in the West, what is cherished in the Confucian East is the idea of an individual whose identity is defined in the context of his/her social role in the family, the organization, and the society at large.3

Cultural conflicts in the East: Seen in the context of social systems, there is no uniform system that strikes out as a common model in the East. This is in contrast to countries in the West today where national differences are mostly subsumed under the common acceptance of democracy, capitalism and liberalism as the organizing principles of their social systems.  What we see in the East, instead, is a social system with unique characteristics in each country, reflecting its unique history as a country. Thus, China, with its need to maintain the cohesion of the country that stretches over vast territories, employs one party command system, which is the modern version of the imperial rule by the Son of Heaven. Japan, on the other hand, operates as a constitutional monarchy, based on its homage to the Imperial Household as a symbol for the unity of its people.

Needless to say, countries in the East do possess common cultural heritages such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. Islam and Christianity may also be added to the list, as they, too, play significant roles in some countries. However, how each of these religions or systems of thought is employed in organizing social life differs from one country to another, reflecting the differences among national cultures, formed during the process of evolution of these countries as modern nation-states.

It is one thing for Asian countries to form an economic community, a la the European Union, in order to promote free trade in the region for the economic benefits it promises. It is quite another, however, for these countries to form a cultural community, with the same sense of identity and belonging for all peoples in the region. The difficulty here lies with the enmity that exists among these countries because of their historical conflicts such as the Japanese invasion of the region during World War II, which is still resented and protested by its neighbors, and the increasing influence China now exerts to its neighbors as an economic and military superpower in the region.

 Globalization as the stage for meeting of East and West: Globalization is the latest stage where East meets West, not only in the economic arena but also in the cultural arena. “Global culture” of a sort is being formed and spread across national borders with the expansion of global capitalism. The new global culture is, in a way, American culture, to the extent that the United States is still the single most important player in the world of global capitalism. Represented by McDonald’s, it is the culture that promotes standardized products and services, the culture that builds human relations by manuals, and the culture that stresses the idea of rationalization even in such acts as eating.4 The question is whether Asian countries are ready to accept the encroachment—and destruction—of their national cultures by such global standard in cultural life.

Another factor to be taken into account is the spread of Fundamentalism and the so-called clashes of civilizations.5 Terrorist acts have already taken place in Asian countries, partly as responses to the threat of global capitalism. And there is no guarantee that such acts of violence will disappear with the formation of an Asian Community, even with the expanded network of policing and law enforcement across national borders.

In a world characterized by global interdependence, we can no longer afford to treat East and West as separate and incompatible civilizations, as was perhaps the case at the end of the nineteenth century as Rudyard Kipling suggests. The fact of the matter is that the two have already met in their histories and now meet regularly in the common space of global transactions in all areas of social life. If there is something that East can offer to West, it would be the idea of peaceful coexistence among humans as incorporated in such Eastern ideas as ahimsa, pratityasamutpada, and wu wei, which have universal relevance in the world today where East and West overlap and merge in a complicated web of global interdependence.

  1. Toynbee, Arnold, A Study of History, London: Oxford University Press, 1954.
  2. See, for example, Rozman, Gilbert (ed.), The East Asian Region: Confucian Heritage and Its Modern Adaptation, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991, and Tai, Hung-Chao (ed.), Confucianism and Economic Development: An Oriental Alternative? Washington: Washington Institute Press, 1989.
  3. See, for example, Bell, Daniel, East Meets West: Human Rights and Democracy in East Asia, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.
  4. See, for example, Watson, James L. (ed.), Golden Arches East: McDonald’s in East Asia, Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1997.
  5. Huntington, Samuel P., The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.