Cultural Identity and Modernization in Asian Countries

Summary of Discussions: SESSION B


The countries of Asia have traditional cultures with long histories in religion, arts, and scholarship. How are these cultures to be evaluated within the context of modernization and how are they being continued and developed? This session, which was to focus on a concrete discussion of these issues, opened with some explanatory comments by the three speakers. In general, these comments were comprehensive in scope, suggesting the issues to be considered rather than adding details to the papers.

First, Mr. E. Kuo reported on the attempts to harmonize tradition and modernization in the pluralistic Singaporean society, Singapore is a society of immigrants, pluralistic in terms of ethnicity (Chinese, Malay, Indian, etc.), religion (Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, etc. -- Confucianism is excluded since it is bourgeosified and is noted a Confucianism of the national establishment), and language (four national languages and many ethnic languages). It is also a city-state with high population density.

Economically, a strong propensity towards secularization is conducive to modernization. At the same time, the weakening of traditional roots has fostered spiritual nihilism and epicureanism; the response has been as expansion of religious and moral education. In the schools it is necessary to choose a course in one of the world religions for study -- Buddhism, Islam, Hindu, or Christianity -- and Confucianism is also systematically included as part of the curriculum. This is a revitalization of traditional culture and religion in the interests of social and political unification; as such it is a highly significant experiment in which it should be possible to gauge the ability of a pluralistic city-state to arrive at a reconciliation of the tradition/modernization dilemma.

Next, Mr. Abito Ito discussed the case of Korea, a country which differs from Singapore and which is a rarity among the countries of the world in being ethnically homogeneous and in maintaining an intimate tie between political unification and the traditional value system. Korea's traditional culture is unique in having a two-layered structure. The "little-tradition" has consisted of native folk beliefs while the "great-traditions" of Buddhism and Confucianism have been actively and continuously introduced. In addition, Confucianism has yet to face a telling criticism, and social relations based on blood-ties are still a firmly entrenched principle. Since the 1960's, however, because of industrialization and urbanization, characterized by the movement of people from the villages to the great cities, there has been a conspicuous tendency for the masses to be cut off from both the traditions of Confucianism and folk belief. At present, Christianity is witnessing rapid growth, and some hold the optimistic belief that Christianity can alleviate the estrangement from tradition and stem the moral decline. However, it is problematic whether something without cultural roots can be an adequate substitute, and the weakening of the two traditional cultures is in itself a grave problem.

Third, Mr. Naofusa Hirai proposed to discuss the situation in Japan. He approached the subject of modernization from three levels -- technology, society and polity, and ideas -- and listed the main factors conducive to Japan's modernization: peripherality, this-worldly centeredness, the high degree of national integration, the spread of education, and cultural independence. After outlining the failure of colonial policy, the damage to traditional culture and moral views caused by defeat in the Second World War, and economic recovery, all of which followed the achievement of a certain degree of modernization, he proposed that the issue for today do not concern Japan alone, but are global problems centering on the advanced nations, In short, he emphasized the importance of transforming the quality of life towards spiritual fulfillment, the coexistence and co-prosperity of mankind, harmonious existence with nature, the overcoming of in-groupness, and the preservation of the dignity of humanity.

The remarks of the commentators, following those of the panelists, were for the most part directed to the contents of the speaker's papers.

First, Mr. R. Bellah, while affirming Max Weber's thesis that the core concept in modernization is rationality, addressed Mr. Hirai's paper. He pointed out that one of the problems facing Asia is how to distinguish between modernization and Westernization. Modernization as the pursuit of rationality certainly did not begin in the 19th century, but is as old as the history of humankind. In the West, modernization has introduced many new things, but at the same time it has come to destroy Western culture itself. For Asia if it is necessary to choose between Westernization and modernization, Westernization probably has a richer potential in human terms. Indeed, the most brilliant products of Japanese cultural history -- the literature of Natsume Soseki, the philosophy of Nishida Kitaro, and the revival of Shinran's teachings -- appeared when the effects of the inclusion of Western culture were felt in their most pure form. Thus, the integration of Western culture led to the further development of Japanese culture.

With regard to Mr. Ito's paper, Mr. Bellah expressed an interest in the recent popularity of folk culture in Korea, but he wondered whether this was not a museumification of culture; whether a culture living in the real everyday world was being treasured or whether it was just in the books of scholars.

With regard to Mr. Kuo's paper, Mr, Bellah expressed an interest in the possibility of the continued coexistence of the official language, English, and the traditional indigenous languages.

Next, Ms. Chie Nakane considered the characteristics of the three countries dealt with in the papers from the point of view that they are all societies in the Chinese cultural sphere of East Asia. All three countries are societies which are this-worldly centered, have not traditionally experienced the infusion of a strong religion into the center of society, and have a strong bureaucratic tradition. Of course there are differences among these nations, but the similarities are remarkable. In this regard also, in the case of Singapore, where the Chinese ethnic group comprises two-thirds of the population, there is some reason to question the low estimation of the traditional Chinese element in Singaporean culture just because there was no migration of the elite stratum. Culture should be considered as a whole, and it is not possible to distinguish between the elites and the lower strata. Further, it is necessary to consider that culture also has a dimension which is not on a conscious level; on this level, there is no need to be concerned that culture has weakened or has been lost. In this way, she raised the issue of the cultural level dealt with in the three papers.

The final commentator, Mr. Chang Chukeun focused his comments on his doubts concerning Mr. Ito's paper and recent trends in Korea. He felt that Mr. Ito's views overemphasized the sense of crisis concerning the discontinuity of traditional culture. This may seem to be the case when compared with the extremely simple religious situation in Japan (non-antagonistic coexistence of Shinto and Buddhism and an insignificant number of Christians), but the actual circumstances in Korea differ greatly. There is great diversity with Buddhism, Confucianism, and Christianity on an equal level, and a complicated mixture of folk beliefs. Thus it is not possible to speak in sweeping terms about the weakening of traditional culture. Especially since the beginning of the 1980s, there has been a reconsideration of the new movements of the 1970s and the policies for rapid economic growth. Out of this has arisen a significant movement which recognizes traditional culture anew and which aims for the development of both modernization and tradition. An institute for the promotion of culture and the arts has been established and there is a vigorous national trend to preserve and study folk culture. He thus suggested that the discontinuity of traditional culture is not going to be such a major problem.

The responses of the speakers to these comments were extremely concrete.

Mr. Kuo stated that the parallel existence of English and the ethnic languages in Singapore was a political policy and that the question of levels would be maintained in the future. Also, though it is true that the influence of Chinese culture is great, so is that of Malay, and simplification is not possible. Moreover, he counterargued that these ought to be considered "little traditions."

Mr. Ito emphasized that while it is certainly true that the non-conscious level of a cultural tradition is important, in Korea the symbols unifying the level of political consciousness are great. The dimension which raises to consciousness and conceptualizes this political consciousness, causes the fear of the destruction of tradition. He asserted that while this may be the view from Japan, optimism and anxiety are two corresponding aspects which are inherently unstable.

Mr. Hirai raised the issue of value standards with regard to the evaluation which determines that the most fruitful products of Japanese cultural history were spawned by Westernization. He added that a cultural tradition should not be considered only on the conscious level; it is necessary to consider what has been lost, what remains, and what has changed on various levels.

Following this, there were questions from the floor and responses. Mr. Noriyoshi Tamaru introduced the issue of using the categories of particularism and universalism in dealing with the theme of tradition and modernization. Mr. Minoru Sonoda raised question of whether the Korean government's policy of preserving folk culture might not actually have the effect of stifling the ability and efforts at self-support by the local communities, and whether this might invite the skeletonization of culture. However, the limitations of time precluded a through discussion.

This was due to the fact that in the second half, when the individual reports for the respective countries had opened up the possibility of a comparative inquiry, the chairperson, hoping to move further in this direction, appropriated time for Mr. Berger to propose some special issues.

Mr. Berger made two proposals. Although modernization without tradition is meaningless, to continue tradition in its entirety is impossible. The issue common to each country is thus, how to mix these two in an appropriate manner. Therefore, (1) in concrete terms, what elements of tradition should be selected, supported and recovered? And (2) for this purpose, how is institutionalization to be carried out and who is to take responsibility?

In response, Mr. Hirai answered that for Japan, it is plausible to conceive of a Japanese "great tradition," a system of values based on Shinto and a Japanized Buddhism and Confucianism. This base ought to be maintained and developed. As for the contents of this value system, one can mention, for example, an initimacy with nature, an association with groups, a view that there is a plurality of truths, a true heart, a sincere heart, etc. As for the question of institutionalization, it is proper that the masses be the actors; but from the principles of democracy it would be unnatural if the government did not participate.

Mr. Chang Chukeun stated that as a folklorist he would tend to stress folk culture. However, the majority of the Korean people probably wish to preserve what they consider to be the fine and good customs of Confucianism. He felt that his view that is was necessary to recreate Confucian ethics in order to bring out the potential of folk tradition, was that of a minority. As to who would assume charge of institutionalization, he maintained that no generalizations could be made.

Mr. Madan of India stated that the question itself was one that had been asked for over 2000 years without ever having achieved a clear answer. Thus a ready and simple answer is not possible. It is only possible to contemplate the words of one Sri Lankan: "The only possible to contemplate the words of one responsibility, a critical spirit consistent with self-awareness, and the courage to accept."

Mr. Pinit of Thailand emphasized Buddhist values and those cultural values which overlap in some ways with but are not necessarily identical to Buddhist values; that is, the value of freedom. The value of individualism, the maintenance of a harmonious attitude toward nature, the idea of respect for the elderly, and the importance of activism. In order to realize these values, all of the people of the nation must take part together.

The remarks of Mr. Mendoza of the Philippines were less a response to the question than a comment upon the nature of the question itself. He stated that this sort of question disregards the fact that we may not even be alive in twenty years and asks what we will be doing at that time. It is only possible to respond by indicating what values are being sought in the Philippines today and what direction we are striving toward.

Mr. Kuo's reaction was similar. In the first place, is it really possible for us to select particular elements from tradition; and even if so will we be successful? As a social scientist I cannot help but feel a great uneasiness in responding to this question.

Finally, Mr. Bellah pointed out that it was unrealistic to conceive of the culture of a country as unique and then only to attempt to select and institutionalize certain elements from within that culture. The current age is one in which all cultural traditions are being threatened. It is precisely now that we must ask what it means to live as true human beings. He argued that for this purpose it is necessary to consider how to control nuclear weapons and the mechanisms of the industrial economy, as represented by the appearance of robots which alienate and tend to dominate.

The question posed by Mr. Berger moved a step beyond abstract discussion. Perhaps it should be considered as having encouraged the resolute proclamation, in concrete terms, of the sort of selective action which should be taken from the standpoint of the people of the respective countries today. But the responses of the representatives of the respective Asian countries were not necessarily simple and clear. This was perhaps a matter of course; and the expression of doubt concerning the question itself, puts into relief the extreme difficulty of selective action for those who live within traditional cultures today. In this regard, the further recognition that this problem is not to be handled simply within the theoretical framework of tradition and modernity, but it is a question which bears directly on life itself, is of great significance.