Cultural Identity and Modernization in Asian Countries



How are the people of Asia dealing with questions of cultural identity in the face of their common experience of historical change due to modernization? The objective of this symposium, as conceived by the organizing committee, was to debate the significance and potential of academic attempts, applying the concept of comparative kokugaku[Glossary: kokugaku], in order to discover such an identity in traditional Asian culture.

As our first theme, we took up the question of religion and secularization in Asia. We considered the possibility of discovering a positive role or direction for successful modernization. We took the theory of secularization from the field of the sociology of religion as a key to understanding the past form and circumstances of various religions responding to modernization. We then proceeded to debate how those religions found positive meaning in the secularization and secular values forming the basis of modernization.


Prof. Berger, who gave one of the keynote addresses on the opening day, "Secularity -- East and West," first pointed out how the Asian rim, including Japan, is the only non-Western area of the world to have succeeded in economic modernization. He introduced his theory concerning the reasons for that success, based on analysis of the role of the positive evaluation of secularization affirmed in Confucian, Buddhist, and Shinto thought.

This theory was, however, questioned by several panelists in Session A on the second day of the symposium. Doubts were based on the socio-historical character of religions in countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines, and Japan, but the discussion procedure did not allow sufficient comparison of models. Needless to say any discussion of such a problem requires considerable mutual understanding on the part of participants from various religious backgrounds. It became clear that valid comparisons of social implications of different religions in different societies depend on cooperative field research on an international basis.

The third day of discussions on "Traditionalism and modernization" (Session B) was more fruitful. There was a more direct connection between the subject and the theme of the symposium; it was also valuable as a theoretical preface to Session C on "The Humanities and National Identity." The three speakers discussed the characteristic features of modernization in Singapore, Korea, and Japan by way of explanations of how problems of national, cultural identity relate to questions of traditional religion, language, and worldview. After an exchange of opinions with the two commentators, the afternoon discussion developed a wide range of opinions concerning the specific selection of aspects of traditional culture and policies toward their institutionalization. It is interesting to note the comparatively smooth progress of the discussion, despite the fact that the chairpersons were prepared to intervene to insure that the exchange of opinions was based as much as possible on concrete examples. The dominant opinion was that, even when speaking from an academic point of view, people may base their debates on only certain selected aspects of traditional ethnic culture to be institutionalized in modern society, but they themselves are limited in their views by their membership to a restricted traditional society of a certain generation, and as such their actions cannot be condoned.

But looking back on that discussion, Prof. Berger, who submitted the proposal, ventured the theory that this may have been no more than a sociologist's deep but personal impression of social change. According to his research, sociology, as one of the modern sciences, cannot help but relativize values and therefore sociologists must atone for the crime of one-sidedly weakening the strength of the traditional culture which should serve to control modernization. And in order to atone for that crime, the sociologists must take the responsibility to select aspects of traditional culture to retain and carefully strengthen its social value. When you consider the modern character of the humanities, it seems that anyone concerned with modern academics, including kokugaku, must take that personal responsibility and have the courage to choose what aspects of traditional culture to transmit.

The open discussion at length concluded that the universal contemporary question, how to control the process of modernization in order to avoid the destruction of the human race, is a problem not only for Asia but a global theme stemming from the crisis in traditional culture.

Prof. Bellah, in his keynote address on the first day of the symposium, touched this point in his observations on the theme of the event. He mentioned how Christianity in the West, while contributing to economic modernization, is now paradoxically losing its social influence. He suggested that bourgeois Confucianism and Shinto likewise have contributed to economic modernization in East Asia, but that likewise these religious traditions are also beginning to lose their power to give meaning to people's lives.

Indeed, it is our responsibility to make every effort as scholars to be aware of this crisis, to rediscover human culture in the wide sense of the dimension of ethnic tradition, and to restore the balance between tradition and modernization. As Prof. Bellah stated in his keynote address, if the rediscovery of ethnic culture is the purpose of kokugaku, surely its efforts will result in international recognition of its significance.


Session C, held on the fourth day of the symposium, was devoted to deliberations considering the potential of kokugaku, from an international perspective.

The three speakers introduced the question of cultural identity and outlined the history of research in ethnic culture in four countries -- Japan, India, Korea, and Thailand -- by way of the process of modernization at the level of the state. Since India and Korea represent former colonies, whereas Thailand and Japan have always maintained independence, this contrast pointed up the differences in problems of cultural identity in different countries.

The question of cultural identity in India was described as revolving around the fact of the country's colonization by Britain -- the spiritual dilemma of the people's admiration for Western culture conflicting with their consciousness of their own indigenous spiritual culture. Japan may be said to have skillfully combined Western and traditional culture and to have succeeded in economic modernization, but it was suggested that the Japanese face instead a major crisis of spiritual culture, shadowed by material prosperity. Korean identity was described as being born from the people's resistance to colonization by Japan. The motivation to recover a sense of culture is seen at work in research in ethnic studies; while there is said to have been a tendency toward subjectivity, more objective research is expected to follow.

Thailand and Japan both maintained national independence throughout the course of modernization. The role of the imperial system was noted as contributing to the preservation of national identity, but the discussion focused rather on the question of cultural studies. It was pointed out that in Thailand, the role of the humanities in higher education is emphasized as a method of handling the harmful influences of tendencies toward materialism and superficial Westernization which accompany the process of modernization. It was emphasized that it was possible to use the educational system's reinterpretation of Buddhism, Islam, and other aspects of ethnic culture to indoctrinate the young people of Thailand with specific features of traditional culture. The Thai speaker's statement that comparative studies in the humanities could lead to a secularization of Buddhism, that is to say a rediscovery of the secular content of early Buddhism, was particularly noteworthy. In the discussion on Japan, the differences between pre- and post-Meiji kokugaku, especially the academic character of "New Kokugaku," were pointed out. Emphasis was placed on the necessity, since kokugaku has reemerged from its temporary repression after the war, for exchange and comparison in major fields of research in ethnic studies overseas. As Prof. Bellah pointed out in his keynote address, kokugaku developed before Japan modernized. We must remember that it was already considering the question of the cultural identity of the Japanese people from the beginning, and thus was able to maintain a position for the internal comparative study of the modernization which followed.

Finally, in the open discussion that followed, there was an exchange of opinions that might be called reflections on the whole symposium. (1) One participant commented that the function of the humanities to rediscover ethnic culture depends on the spontaneous efforts of those involved, the bearers of that culture, and that therefore traditional culture is not the kind of matter to be simply selected out on some theoretical basis. (2) Another was critical of debates on actual culture which do not take into account its connection with society. (3) Another participant questioned the basis for criticizing modern materialistic culture and favoring the spiritual culture of the past; this person expressed doubts concerning the logic of the judgment of the superiority of such a past culture.


It was my role, as representative of the sponsors of the symposium, to give a few closing remarks and express our gratitude to all the participants. I focused my remarks on two points. The first was the theoretical problems encountered by scholars of ethnic culture, problems which came to mind in evaluating the success of the symposium. The second was a justification for the sponsors' decision, which may strike one at first as odd, to invite Western scholars to give keynote addresses to preface discussions on cultural and academic problems in Asian society.

First, our basic motivation in planning this symposium was an interest in comparative kokugaku. Our central concern was for limitations in the value of the humanities due to a lack of awareness on the part of scholars of their own cultural and generational biases. Scholars of the humanities, prior to becoming scholars, are each born into their respective ethnic cultures in their respective generations. It is a fact that human culture has never been universal. It has always been particular and relative. It is only natural that, even if scholars of the humanities aim for universal relevance, ideas and treatment of problems are bound to occur among scholars from different cultures and generations. Especially a field like kokugaku, which aims at the subjective rediscovery of ethnic culture, demands mutual respect in the comparison of subjective interpretations of culture conducted by humanities scholars East and West, to further the development of that universal relevance. In that sense, this symposium was valuable as a forum for the exchange of ideas on the historical existence and value of the humanities.

I then proceeded to explain by way of reference to my concept of religions of communities, the rationale behind the sponsors' plan for this symposium. The structure underlying the religion of the community in Japan, that invisible religion, is based on the festival to summon a god, a marebito[Glossary: marebito], or guest from outside the community when facing a crisis threatening the existence of the community. The group of kokugaku scholars sponsoring this symposium, likewise sensing a crisis in Asian ethnic culture, especially Japanese ethnic culture, organized this festival and invited marebito from the West with the power of their ways to revitalize our traditional ethnic culture. In the words of a participant in Session B, Japan is a country of commercialists, and the guest, or customer, is god, and at this international symposium, we welcomed scholars in Asian studies from the West as we welcome a god to one of our festivals. These were the words I spoke at the closing of the four-day symposium.


The symposium was followed by a three-day study tour, attended by eight scholars from overseas and five members of the executive committee. The group visited the Ise Shrine[Glossary: ise_no_jingu], Tenrikyô Headquarters, and the Taisekiji of the Nichiren Shôshû (Sôka Gakkai) as a way of gaining some insight into the status of religions in Japan. A day after returning to Tokyo was devoted to the open exchange of opinions between the visitors and members of the committee.

It was our great fortune to receive such positive cooperation from individuals in such a wide range of fields who contributed to the success of every event in the program. One point in particular received favorable recognition from all quarters: that was the value of a forum allowing discussion and the exchange of research information on such an international level. We were urged to continue to plan such opportunities in the future. The need was also keenly felt for more concrete research, cooperative research on an international level, on the basis of this central theme.

We at the Institute for Japanese Culture and Classics, the sponsors of this symposium commemorating the centennial of the founding of Kokugakuin University, encouraged by our supporters' invaluable advice, express our fervent hope that we may continue to make further contributions to this endeavor.