Cultural Identity and Modernization in Asian Countries

Some Indian Questions Soliciting Japanese Answers

Triloki N. MADAN

I would like to begin by asking way this question about cultural identity in the context of modernization arises at all. One answer is that it arises from the manner in which we characterize "modernization" -- or the core of the process of modernization -- as use of science and technology to solve problems of everyday life. To achieve this successfully, we also need to formalize work and to cultivate modern value orientations, leading to the emergence of a new kind of person -- the `modern man'. The transfer of scientific and technological know-how from the West to other parts of the world is considered to be more or less successful to the extent to which appropriate cultural changes -- that is institutional and value changes -- have occurred in the "recipient" country. Whether we like it or not, modernization has been a secondary process in the non-Western world -- it has been the effort to reenact the history of Europe in other parts of the world -- it has been, in effect, Westernization. Failure to modernize and breakdown of the process of modernization process have been attributed to adverse cultural milieus. This was, indeed, how the British explained the poverty and economic backwardness of their Indian Empire which made them so rich. India was said to be poor and backward because of other-worldly religions, stagnant village communities, a rigid caste system, the joint family, irrational attitudes to cattle, and so on. The paradox though is that modern Indian culture is in some ways more Westernized than modern Japanese culture; and Japan is, in Ezra Vogel's words, "Number One."

The Japanese experience in indeed very instructive, because you have become a front rank industrial nation, pushing back England, the original home of the industrial revolution, and other leading industrial nations, and you have done so without abandoning your cultural heritage, including many institutions, attitudes, and values. The earlier Western puzzlement about Japanese traditional methods of decision-making about matomari and ringo-shi have given place to expressions of serious interest and respect for them. In fact, Japan gave a big and deadly blow to the smugness of the tradition-versus-modernity view of the contemporary world. The Indian observer marvels at how comfortably you live in two cultural world -- that of traditional Japan and that of modern science and technology.

Now, how came this difference between Japan and India? It is said that a battle in the plains of Bengal in 1757, called the Battle of Plassey, laid the foundations of British imperium in India. It has also been said that better-made buns and better-sold textiles enabled the British to capture Indian militarily and economically. I would like to suggest that for India the battle was lost when in 1606 a Jesuit missionary, Roberto de Nobili, moved around in the ancient Hindu city of Madurai, dressed as a Brahman (Hindu priest), possessing knowledge of Hindu culture, but preaching Christianity. We lost our souls well before our territory or markets. Ultimately, all the processes were unified.

India modernized under the aegis of colonialism. The compulsion to modernize was external. The British did whatever they did to serve their interests first and only then, if at all, the interests of Indians. The railways and industry, in which Karl Marx put such enormous faith, arrived in India, but the nuts and bolts came from England. It was, however, the educational system which the British introduced in the country, to produce loyal, admiring the efficient servants of the empire, which influenced the worst cultural wounds. Before this educational system came to flower, highly gifted and self-educated Indians gave expression to the shizophrenia which British rule and the cultural impact of the West had produced. On the one hand, they admired the achievement of Western civilization; on the other, they resented the ignorance and arrogance that characterized the dismissal by the British of the cultural heritage of India -- particularly the Hindu and Buddhist elements in it. Consequently, admiration of the contemporary Western civilization was combined with an idealization of the past. Indian nationalism was grounded in both Western political philosophy and Indian history. Feelings of inferiority and defeat were sought to be removed by accepting the challenge of modernization. In the process a split occurred in the consciousness of these early modern Indian intellectuals: in a sense its authenticity and the authenticity of a response to the impact of the West was damaged.

If I may now turn again to Japan -- and I must apologize for my presumptuousness, for I know so very little -- what strikes me as the most outstanding feature of Japanese encounter with the West is the consciousness that characterized the choices that were made. The West did not invade or conquer Japan; it was, as it were, invited to Japan. Your choices regarding what to borrow and what to emulate point to practical rather than philosophical or civilizational concerns. The model for the navy was British; the model for the army was first French and then German; the model for the educational system was American; and so on. The eclecticism is striking, and far beyond anything such attempted or achieved in India. There were evaluations made, judgements about superiority and inferiority, but there was no sense of defeat or of being overwhelmed as in India. Your tradition of absorbing from foreign lands was, of course, a thousand years old: Chinese knowledge had found expression in Japanese applications since the 8th century A.D. Erwin Baelz, a German doctor who worked in the Tokyo Medical School, and who was one of the first European scholars to give detailed impressions of Japan in its early years of modernization, wrote in the ninth year of Meiji (1876) that the cultured Japanese were ashamed of their past. He recorded being told: " We have no history; our history beings today." What is important is, it seems to me, that this was a Japanese judgement about Japan? not comparable to the British judgement of Indian cultural traditions. It follows that your enthusiasm for the West and for the products of western culture, though almost total, was of a fundamentally different character from that of modern Indians, for we felt ourselves on the defensive and thus being pushed in contrary directions, viz. modernism and traditionalism. It may also be noted that I have used the expression "products of Western culture": this is important. The value-orientation and the reference groups remained Japanese.

All this is true and, as a contrast to India, instructive. But you too have had the strongest misgivings about the impact of the West. The reaction was, however, aesthetic and moral, not religious and political as in India -- or so it seems to us in India. Modernization was indeed seen by its Japanese critics as destructive of a whole way of life. This critical judgement was perhaps best expressed, though not internationally, by the manner in which you ignored European languages. This seems very important to me and deserves close attention. What I am suggesting is, whether it is likely that you shut out European categories of thought by continuing to live in the thought and value worlds of the Japanese tongue?

Your literary and artistic expressions of the critical attitude toward Western culture have been persistent. I am reminded here of the minor English classic, The Book of Tea, by Kakuzo Okakura, published in 1906, the late 19th century aesthetician. To an Indian it appears to be a veiled and poignant critique of modernization through an exposition of the tea ceremony as an expression of the Japanese tradition which is held out to the West as something to admire. The emphasis is no the positive ideal of aethetic tranquility -- a quality in the Eastern traditions which the West found deplorable. Remember all that rigmarole about Eastern mysticism and quietism, about other-worldliness and lack of achievement. He wrote; "In religion the future is behind us. In art the present is the eternal." Kindly note that he said nothing about the future, that is about modernization, except the fundamental criticism of it which is so subtly concealed in the observation about "art" and "the present."

I might also mention here Inazo Nitobe's work Bushido, the Soul of Japan, published in 1905, which eulogized the samurai way of life, the samurai ethic. It is a book which has continued to sell in thousands of copies in Japan since it first came out. The copy of the book I personally possess is form the 79th edition (1979) and I find that 13 editions had been put out in the previous ten years. What I am trying to convey here is that your attachment to a medieval value system, which is regarded as the quintessence of the Japanese world view, in the midst of your very impressive achievements as a modern industrial nation of the front rank -- this attachment is not nostalgia -- it is not empty romanticism or escapism -- it perhaps gives expression to something that animates contemporary Japan and is unaffected by modernization. The Kyoko historian Aida Yuji has spoken -- not wistfully but confidently and joyously -- of the ever-strengthening regression of the present-day Japanese into Japanese-ness.

The confidence and the joy I just mentioned are perhaps more characteristic of the older generation than of the younger. There are young intellectuals who have, perhaps, their doubts and anxieties, their second thoughts, about the present state of Japanese society and culture. Two best-sellers in Japan in the late 1970s were, I was told during a visit to Tokyo in 1979, Ezra Vogel's Japan as Number One, and -- kindly mark this -- John Kenneth Galbraith's Age of Uncertainty. I wish we could find out more about the readership of these two books. Is there a split in the consciousness? Of whom exactly? Of how many? Is the cultural schizophrenia, which I said afflicted the Indian intellectuals in the late 19th century, making its appearance in Japan?

You are, it seems to me, opening yourselves increasingly to foreign influences in areas of life that had earlier remained relatively protected. Simultaneously, you are seeking a new place of honor and influence in world politics. The products of Japanese industry are known and admired all over the world but you yourselves are still relatively less known than, say, the Americans. Since 1974 when the Japanese Government allowed Japanese tourists to go abroad freely, the Japanese presence has, however, become visible more than before.

What seems equally important to me is what is happening in Japanese scholarly circles. You are seeking closer ties with scholars elsewhere and, as a means to this, you are speaking and writing in English and, to a lesser extent, in other languages. A young Japanese social scientist specializing on South Asia, told me in 1979 that he had written a review of a major work on India, by a senior Japanese scholar, in which he had criticized the senior colleague for writing his magnum opus in Japanese and not in English. Now, this must be very unusual -- I mean both the nature of the criticism and the manner of its expression. I am reminded of a conversation in1972 with a distinguished Japanese scholar, also a specialist on India; I complained to him that his excellent work was not available to us Indians because he wrote in Japanese. His gentle reply -- it was also a rebuke -- was that he wrote for those who read Japanese. But attitudes seem to be changing. And my question is: Will this drive or decision to have an impact abroad, to communicate better, to cultivate intercultural dialogues, to write in English and other foreign languages -- will all this weaken Japneseness? Is there a cultural identity crisis in the making for you? Or, is another scenario in the process of preparation? Writing in Asahi Shimbun recently, a Japanese commentator, Toshio Aoki, pointed out that Japanese was increasingly being spoken in the foreign offices and shopping centers of Western countries. He then cautioned that when a "local" language becomes an "international medium," the risk of "big-power mentality" taking shape is also present.

Now in India, we have had the crisis about cultural identity with us for centuries; but it acquired a new form and content following the encounter with the West. It is in this context that the dilemmas of a man like Jawaharlal Nehru appear poignant and the challenge hurled at the Western civilization by Mahatma Gandhi becomes a major historical event. It is not the content of this challenge which is so important as the intention -- a repudiation of the basic premises of the industrial civilization -- and the mode of expression. A Japanese historian, Minoru Kasai, in his published lecture on Gandhi and the contemporary world, has pointed out that Gandhi is as relevant to Japan in her present predicament as he has been and continues to be India in hers. In fact, Kasai emphasizes the universal import of Gandhi's vision.

I may conclude by referring to a wise book, Japanese Culture, by the Japanese anthropologist, Eiichiro Ishida, published in 1974, in which he cautions against any oversimplified notions about intercultural understanding. He says that there would always be a residue of Japanese culture that would remain inaccessible to the Europeans, and vice versa. The same would apply to an Indo-Japanese cultural dialogue also. Will you ever quite get at the roots of our preoccupation with religion? And will we ever get hold of the mainsprings of your pragmatism? But India also said that, though difficult, intercultural understanding is worth striving for. The common element in the Japanese and Indian experience of the last hundred years or so has been our encounter with the West. Maybe we have significant things to tell each other about this experience -- about the agonies of refashioning cultural identity. Hence the great importance of the theme of this symposium.