Cultural Identity and Modernization in Asian Countries

Cultural Identity and Asian Modernization

Robert M. BELLAH

The problem posed by this symposium to commemorate the Centennial of Kokugakuin University is a central one for Japan, Asia and, indeed, for the whole world. How to reconcile cultural identity and modernization is a question that every nation and every people has to face today. I am interested that the document "Towards Cultural Identity and Modernization in Asian Countries" poses this question from the point of view of kokugaku[Glossary: kokugaku] (national learning) which is of course central to the very existence of Kokugakuin University. "kokugaku" has an indelibly Japanese sound and, of course, means a specifically Japanese tradition. Yet the document seems to hint that there might be a more generic or universal meaning for kokugaku in the sense that every nation has a national learning, a kokugaku (Amerika no kokugaku), that is, American cultural identity, and particularly the place of religion in that cultural identity. Whether this transformation is my own life as a scholar is due to some kind of influence from Japan, kokugaku or Shinto, I cannot say. What the document seems to be calling for is an interchange between the various kokugaku of the Asian countries to see whether they might learn from one another, whether the study of one's own particular cultural identity might not be enhanced by a knowledge of how others are struggling with the same problems. This seems to me a very interesting way of putting the question and to pose a good balance between the particular and the general or universal aspects of the study of cultural identity.

The issue is posed very sharply in the document's discussion of Session B: Traditionalism and Modernization. The push for modernization an Westernization elicits three responses: 1) the attempt to eliminate tradition as an obstacle to modernization; 2) bitter resistance to modernization considered as a threat to tradition; and 3) various efforts to accommodate the two. When the issue is posed so sharply it is easy to see why any effort to deal with tradition, or even cultural identity, might seem reactionary. Various terms which attempt to state the issue, such as kokuminsei (national character), kokusui (national essence), kokutai (national structure), and even kokugaku have a vaguely right-wing, conservative or reactionary overtone in this context because they seem opposes to modernity. On the other hand, "modernization" (kindaika) has for a long time in Japan and increasingly in other countries had a doubtful, a far from entirely positive, overtone. Perhaps this symposium marks a moment when we can begin to look at these questions without ideological rancor.

It seems to me a step in the right direction that the document on the whole eliminates the word "nation" (koku) and speaks instead of cultural identity ( whether minzoku bunka and "cultural identity" are the same thing could be discussed). The problem with the word "nation" is that is contains a profound ambiguity. On the one hand, it designates a people with a shared history and a shared identity. On the other hand, it designates a modern nation-state. In the former sense cultural memory, continuity and integrity is of the essence. In the latter sense the economic, political and military power of the nation-state is of the essence. The "nation" in the latter sense has often subordinated, manipulated and exploited the "nation" in the former sense. "Nationalism" is a correspondingly ambiguous term, for it is often not clear whether it means pride in one's history and cultural identity or pride in the power of one's nation-state. It is worth remembering that the term "kokugaku" pre-dates the emergence of Japanese nation-state and that the "koku" of "kokugaku" refers to national history, national literature and national identity but not to national state power. Indeed Yanagita Kunio and other 20th century inheritors of the Tokugawa kokugaku tradition were profoundly uneasy and at times bitterly critical of the modern Japanese state when it exploited traditional culture, folk belief and Shinto for its own ulterior ends. Modern nation-states in the West and in Asia have from time to time cloaked themselves in the mantle of national cultural identity at the very moment that they were destroying genuine traditional culture in the effort to centralize and enhance state power. In this sense modern nationalism has often been more an enemy to a genuine cultural identity than an expression of it.


"Tradition" as a category of sociological analysis has been used most frequently as a simple contrast term to "modernity" and as such has taken on almost a pejorative meaning. Even the greatest of all comparative sociologists, Max Weber, tended to use the term "tradition" in a quite restricted and largely negative way. Traditionalism for Weber and for much of modern social science refers to a situation where one takes the past uncritically as a model for unimaginative imitation. Nothing new arises from tradition. Only when tradition is broken through by rationality or charisma is change possible.

But there is reason to believe that that is a singularly narrow and unhelpful conception of traditional which is only marginally applicable to pre-modern societies. Even non-literate societies are seldom stagnant in the way that the term "traditional society" usually implies. Here "cultural identity" is a useful synonym for tradition, especially since "identity" does not have the pejorative implication in modern social science that tradition does. "Identity" is a term most often used in psychology. To say that a person has a strong sense of identity is to say that that person has integrity, coherence and continuity so that he or she is able to maintain a consistent life pattern with overall purposes and meanings. " Identity confusion," on the other hand, refers to a person who lacks such coherence, continuity and purpose.

Modernization is not a substitute for tradition in this respect, although it sometimes claims to be. Modernization is concerned with what Weber called rationalization, that is the increase in the effectiveness of means, but not with ends. Modernization is concerned with the increase of wealth and power which are the chief means necessary to achieve human purposes. It is one of the pathological possibilities of modern societies that they can take the accumulation of wealth and power as an end, thus turning what is inherently a means into an end. Most of the destructive potentiality of modern society arises from this error. It is one of the major functions of tradition in such societies to point out this error and insist on the importance of those ends that are genuinely good in themselves, with which all the great religions and philosophies of mankind have been concerned.


Ideally the relation between tradition and modernization should be a dialectical and ultimately a harmonious one. A viable tradition should continue to guide individuals and societies in their quest for what is truly good, and modernization should simply supply more effective means for that quest. The slogan "wakon-yosai" (Japanese spirit, Western sciences) suggests such a harmonious solution. But, unfortunately, neither in the West nor in Asia do we find much more than a semblance of that harmony. Often there has been overt conflict between tradition and modernization and often when there seems to be harmony something else is going on beneath the surface. I will argue then that a right relation between tradition and modernization is difficult to attain, precarious when attained, and in today's world is largely a hope rather than a reality. If we would attempt to think about a right relationship between tradition and modernization we might begin by looking at some of the kinds of relationship that have actually occurred in history.

In the 19th century in several Asian countries (earlier than that in several Western countries ) we do actually see "bitter resistance to modernization" coming from defenders of traditional culture. In China through much of the 19th century and well into the 20th there was an oscillation between accommodation and compromise on the one hand and bitter resistance on the other. In Korea an almost complete hostility to modernization persisted for a long time and contributed to the vulnerability of the society to outside intervention. Japan was of course the great exception where modernization began under traditional auspices. But even there we find more that a few examples of bitter resistance. The picture of an embittered kokugakusha, disillusioned with the new society for which he had so ardently worked, in Shimazaki Toson's Yoakemae, is one of the most poignant moments in modern Japanese literature. Once we would have dismissed all these bitter resisters out of hand as hopeless reactionaries. Now we may want to ask whether they did not see certain things about modernity that the compromisers overlooked.

The next kind of relationship between tradition and modernization that I want to discuss is one I have already alluded to in my remarks about nationalism. This type of relation is one which uses one or more aspects of tradition to build the power of a modern nation-state. In China we can detect some rather inept efforts in that direction during the late 19th century. The most obvious Chinese example, however, is Chiang Kai-shek's effort to use a conservative Confucianism, what we might call state Confucianism, to build his Kuomintang (Kokuminto) regime in the 1930s and later. A certain kind of Confucianism had long been an instrument of state power in East Asia and so it was natural that modernizers would again attempt to use it in that way. While Confucianism was less central in Japan than in China, Japanese modernizers used a kind of state Confucian ideology in building the Meiji emperor system and then in more extreme from during the 1930s and 1940s. Shinto in the from of state Shinto[Glossary: kokka_shinto] was also mobilized for the purpose of state building during the same period.

Finally we might mention that Park Chung-hee more recently in the 1960s and early 1970s used a conservative Confucianism to provide ideological support for centralized and autocratic state power. In all of these examples we may say that an outer respect for tradition was belied by exploiting tradition for the ulterior motive of building state power. This is not to say that building a strong state was not important under modern conditions, though the tendencies of strong states to become not merely the defenders of national independence but oppressive within and expansive without must also be noted. But whether the end was good or bad is finally beside the point. When tradition becomes a means to an end it is subverted whether the end is good or not. The core of all the great traditions is religious -- I would include Confucianism in that generalization. Confucianism finally based its concern with moral virtue on the pattern of heaven. But when religious tradition is used for ulterior ends, as Japanese Buddhism was by the Tokugawa Shogunate in the effort to control thought and eliminate Christianity then the religious end is subverted and the tradition is deformed. East Asian Confucianism, Buddhism and Shinto all suffered from this kind of deformation at some point in modern history. It is worth noting that the People's Republic of China may not be entirely an exception to this generalization. It has seemed bitterly anti-traditional yet in some degree it has used rather explicitly the tradition of Legalism (hôka) and, indeed, while openly attacking Confucianism, it has often relied on attitudes that seem directly inherited from state Confucianism.


But we have seen more recently in Japan and several countries on the " Asian rim" a rather new phenomenon that requires analysis. In these societies the early modern authoritarian state has been either eliminated or greatly mitigated and tradition has been freed from direct state manipulation. The various East Asian traditions, far from withering away, have flourished in the atmosphere of greater freedom. The new religions in Japan are only among the more obvious examples. Confucianism, Buddhism and Shinto, as well as, in some cases, Christianity, have found receptive audiences and maintained a vitality that some theorists of modernization might find surprising.

Even more interesting is the fact that these now relatively autonomous tradition seem to provide some of the moral stimulus to the amazingly successful economic modernization which has characterized Japan and the Asian rim for some time now. The spirit of the people, their work ethic, their social discipline, their ability to cooperate, have been important in the stunning economic success of the region and all are more or less rooted in one or another aspect of the tradition. Indeed one might now go so far as to speak of "bourgeois Confucianism" rather than state Confucianism. The loyalty, devotion and hard work inculcated by Confucian ethics, and more or less seconded by the other traditions, including folk religion, are now turned from the support of military authoritarianism to entrepreneurial expansion. We seem to have an ideal situation where tradition and modernization are supporting each other while maintaining a harmonious and stable society. Since most other advanced industrial areas of the world are experiencing severe difficulties, this phenomenon has attracted more and more attention. The United States used to be admired, by Alexis de Tocquevillere for example, for maintaining a balance between religiously based mores and economic success, but more recently that balance doesn't seem to be working so well. So more and more Japan has replaced the United States as the most exemplary modern nation, as, in a word, Number One.

We may ask, however, whether the present happy relation between tradition and modernization in East Asia does not have some problems of its own and whether we may expect the present success to last indefinitely. There is, of course, the obvious fact that Japan and the Asian rim countries are perhaps more dependent on international trade than any other nations in the world and so very vulnerable in a period of world-wide depression such as we now seem to be entering. A period of extended depression would itself test the vitality of the relation between tradition and modernization presently existing. But even without so dramatic a test we may ask a few questions. To what extent have the newly autonomous "bourgeois" Confucianism, Buddhism and Shinto really freed themselves from the fact that they are being used as means to ulterior ends? Do the traditions really set the agenda and provide the major social vision in Japan and the Asian rim, or does economics still dominate? Is the purpose of society to provide a context within which to lead a virtuous life as defined by Confucianism, Buddhism and Shinto, or is the purpose of society to provide a constantly accelerating GNP? And is a constantly accelerating GNP compatible with the traditional understanding of the ends of life?

Rather than deal directly with those very difficult questions (I will return to them briefly at the end of this paper ), I would like to ask another question and consider its answer. Does the rapidly accelerating economic modernization undermine the very traditions that have provided moral and religious motivation for its success? This question was asked long ago about Protestant Ethic by Max Weber. He asked whether the very success of the Protestant Ethic would not eventually destroy a genuine Protestant religiosity and replace it with "mechanized petrification" and an "iron cage." Let us take the example of the Japanese salaryman over the past several decades and ask whether the newly prosperous life he enjoys does not threaten his hold over tradition.

We must note at once the very real advantages: the greater variety of goods, the opportunity for travel, the improved medical care, and so forth. But we can also see that certain traditional patterns of life are threatened. The family home, however small, was traditionally a work of art. It contained a garden, however tiny, and involved a way of life, far more than Western domestic architecture, that allowed for a participation in the seasonal round of life that was deeply ingrained into the Japanese spirit. It is simply impossible to reproduce that way of life in an apartment building. The rooms are almost all Western style with permanent walls. There is no garden, though perhaps there is a balcony with a flower box. The flow of life between night and day is quite different from that in a Japanese style house. Children are apt to have their own private rooms where they must study night and day. Television dominates the living room. There is apt not to be a family shrine, so that children do not grow up in familiarity with the practice of ancestor veneration. Furthermore, apartment dwellers, as in the West, are apt to be strangers. Neighbors may be hostile when small children make noise. The neighborhood atmosphere of the old Japanese city and town is attenuated or entirely destroyed. Finally the husband and father is even more a stranger than was traditionally the case, for now he must work late and travel long distances between home and work. Under these conditions it is hard to see how the traditions that have made the parents hard workers and cooperative citizens can be handed down intact. Children will learn, as they do in the United States, that the accumulation of things and the expression of one's own feelings are the meaning of life. One wonders how long the vaunted work ethic and social discipline will the survive.

Further, it is unlikely that the older pattern of living can ever again be reproduced on a large scale. The cost of land in Tokyo and other metropolitan areas has increased astronomically. Middle class families cannot any longer look forward to the old style of life. They will spend their days in apartments, condominiums (mansions) or other such dwellings. Of course many things can survive under these conditions, but I still think it is worth considering how heavy the toll on traditional values will be. Needless to say that the tie to the countryside, which has been so important to Japanese until just a generation ago, it fast disappearing. There is no longer any "home village" (furusato) for most Japanese. This greatly weakens the hold of Shinto, which is so closely linked to particular geographical location. The situation is worsened when we remember that urban shrines no longer have the old linkage to their neighborhood. A transient population does not feel the same ties as the old urban residents.

We have long been told how the Japanese work-group has been able to transfer the old loyalties of family and local group to the new industrial situation. But if the old loyalties are collapsing what is there to be transferred? As yet the signs of weakening are few. But we can hardly look to the future with complacency.

I do not wish to imply that nothing has filled the widening gap. The new religions have tried to adapt to the new urban conditions with more that a little success, as Fujio Ikado and other sociologists of religion have pointed out. Perhaps this is the way of the future. Still, the new religions are subject to their own strains and attrition. Too often they have based their appeal largely on the promise of success and prosperity. In a society where success turns out to be ironic, and its cost very high, the new religions too may be trouble.

In closing I would like to point out that the East Asian traditions are very old and very deep. They contain some of the profoundest reflections on the human condition known to man. Perhaps they still have much to say to us about the ends of life, Perhaps the period when they can be used as means for modernization is coming to an end. Both the successes and the failures of modernization raise fundamental questions about the meaning of life. Perhaps we are approaching the day when the traditions can set the end and modernization can be reduced to providing the means, and, where it undermines the ends, modernization itself might to be brought under control.