Globalization and Indigenous Culture
[Table of Contents]

The Paradox of Globalization: Uniformity and Differentiation

SASAO Michiyo

1. Introduction

With our entry into the last decade of the twentieth century, the world system has undergone a noteworthy process of overall reorientation called "globalization." As global dividing lines previously maintained by the Cold War structure (those between East and West, or North and South) have collapsed and become invalid, we have seen an accelerating process whereby the frameworks of race, community, religion, and culture have begun to disappear. On all levels, we see phenomena related to trans-regional movements or the infringement of borders, together with a process toward greater uniformity on a global scale.

At the root of this globalization phenomenon lies another revolution that is advancing apace, namely, the large-scale shift in the forms whereby information is organized and transmitted, the fundamental restructuring of communication networks producing the high-level information revolution. This revolution in communications is clearly accelerating the process of globalization.

The "information age" refers to society at a period when information itself becomes a more valuable commodity than raw materials or energy, and social development hinges on the production of information value. This does not mean merely that people are enabled to gain instant access to global information, but also that the forms whereby information is organized and structured are undergoing simultaneous transformation.

Under these new conditions, the modern intelligentsia, who previously possessed a privileged role as transmitters and organizers of knowledge, have lost that privileged status with the appearance of "mass culture" and other patterns of intellectual structuring. In this way, the framework of the intellectual class is crumbling and being relativized. In other words, globalization at very least indicates that the conventional worldview based on the modern nation-state is no longer valid, and that the various frameworks of "modernity," the frameworks maintained by individuals and societies have already collapsed. Contradictions and disparities largely masked by the Cold War are now making themselves visible as issues which cannot be accommodated within conventional intellectual frameworks. And it precisely because such newly exposed contradictions, disparities and dilemmas cannot be comprehended under conventional frameworks that the world today finds itself in disarray and confusion.

Against this background, we should begin by "taking stock of the present situation" --- a motif forming both the original impetus and prime objective of the Symposium. It is certain that the advance of globalization is rapidly transforming traditional and ethnic cultures, and in the midst of this historical crisis, the Symposium was designed to confront several issues, including the task of assessing the impact globalization is having on traditional cultures, to consider ways in which ethnic cultures are reacting to globalization, and to debate the significance of and possibilities for academic studies which attempt to project the future of ethnic and cultural identity within each respective ethnic culture.

2. Religion

The first day of the Symposium was dedicated to an Asia Session, featuring presentations which dealt with the current status of globalization in East and Southeast Asia from the perspectives of (1) religion; (2) language, information, and culture; and (3) family and community. The presentations on these themes were delivered respectively by Nobutaka Inoue, Feng-fu Tsao, and Hock-Tong Cheu.

As Professor Masaki Onozawa later pointed out in his comments, Inoue's presentation differed from those of Tsao and Cheu in its basic understanding of the nature of the globalization phenomenon. In brief, Inoue described globalization as an entirely new transformation occurring in the world, one which should be distinguished from the common processes of modernization, Westernization or internationalization which Asia (including Japan) and other non-Western countries have experienced.

In contrast, presentations by Tsao and Cheu located the process of globalization on the same line extending from Westernization, modernization and at times, colonialism. As was later pointed out during the open discussion, the social conditions of the so-called advanced nations like those affiliated with the OECD are very different from those found in the developing nations. In the same way, Japan enjoys a special position among Asian nations, situated on the forefront of information technology and particularly economic globalization. In any case, it appeared that considerable differences exist within one and the same Asia regarding the significance of globalization.

Speaking to the topic of religion, Inoue's paper was called "The Information Age and the Globalization of Religion." According to Inoue, momentous changes in the information environment brought about by the rapid development of computerized information technology has led to the sure appearance of globalization and "borderless" phenomena, not only in the areas of economics and scientific technology, but even in religion --- the sacred situated at the core of traditional and ethnic cultures.

Inoue emphasized that the phenomenon of religious globalization should be distinguished from internationalization, since the latter implies a process whereby the distinctions and structures of religious groups, or spheres of religious culture, remain even while deepening their mutual interrelationships.

In contrast, Inoue understands religious globalization to mean a radical reorientation of the global religious situation, within which spheres of religious culture originally established in close relationship to nations or ethnic groups are now transcended. Proposing the three perspectives of (1) organization; (2) doctrine, rituals, and activities; and (3) intellectual conditions, he then forecasts how religion will change with the advent of religious globalization, particularly in conjunction with the advance of information technology. Inoue suggests that the organizational forms developing with religious globalization can be classed into three major types, namely, "multinational," "networking," and "stateless." He then provides the new concept of "neo-syncretism" to characterize the state of doctrines, rituals, and activities within globalization.

"Neo-syncretism," Inoue claims, is different from conventional syncretism, in that the latter refers to a complex resulting from the mutual contact and interaction of multiple discrete religious traditions. In contrast, neo-syncretism describes a situation unique to the Information Age, whereby doctrines or ideologies are actively and deliberately assembled like a "patchwork" from information collected from other existing religions, even if the religions in question have no direct contact.

Inoue's observation that advanced information technologies characteristic of globalization will lead to changes in the intellectual conditions of the human relationship to religion form an intriguing forecast of the future, one which attempts to grasp the overall reorganization of world systems seen in globalization from the essential perspective of the organizational structures of human knowledge.

In Inoue's terms, as part of the information society supported by the condition of popular culture, a "user-oriented religious market" will gradually spread alongside the conventional church-directed "producer-oriented system." Under these conditions, not only is the distinction between "producer" and "user" obscured, but an "intellectual reversal of positions" also occurs, namely, an "intellectual popularization" which eliminates the gap between religious elites and laity. Based on these arguments, Inoue claimed that in the face of such advancing globalization, the very concept of religion, formerly situated within the context of specific societies and cultures, will be pressed to undergo transformation, and that the boundaries between religion and the secular will likewise become increasingly hazy.

In that context, Inoue noted that before making specific value judgments about these developments, it is very important to achieve an adequate understanding of the present conditions and orientations of religion and other world systems in the context of globalization.

Inoue's presentation elicited a great deal of discussion, in part because it involved both an analysis of and predictions regarding a totally new phenomenon which is currently developing in the world. During the open discussion, Leslie Bauzon and others directed questions to Inoue regarding exactly when religious globalization began, and how to discriminate the spread of new religions across national borders with globalization, from the earlier international spread of religious groups like Christianity or Islam.

Such questions likely arise due to a lack of clear perception of differences between globalization and internationalization, or else due to the presence of a perception that globalization and internationalization do not need to be distinguished.

In this context, it should be noted Inoue's concept of religious globalization takes up the problem of the situation arising a certain time after the religious market of each country has become relatively settled, namely, the conditions existing after the founding of the modern nation and its cultural identity, and the establishment of the various spheres of religious culture, in that way marking a clear line between the concepts of internationalization and globalization.

In that sense, it may be appropriate to say that the "multi-national type" of religion, which Inoue raises as one form which religious organization may take in the age of globalization, can be viewed theoretically as corresponding to religious "inter-nationalization," while the form of organization responding to conditions of globalization would be Inoue's "stateless type" of religion.

In fact, during the latter part of the period of open discussion, several exceptions and counter-arguments were raised to Inoue's characterization of globalization as being eminently a feature of the modern period and its information technology revolution. As a result, the discussion finally progressed to include a debate regarding the definition of globalization itself and what kind of process it might represent.

Given the lingering ambiguity regarding the concept of globalization itself, it was perhaps unavoidable that the Symposium debate was, as subsequent discussion showed, not always clearly focused. In that sense, Inoue's enthusiastic presentation, based on his aggressive definition of globalization, played an important role as one of the orienting viewpoints throughout the Symposium, and further spurred the participants to reconsider a number of extremely basic issues. Some of the questions raised included, "If the traditional and world religions were originally based on the principal of a country or ethnic group, how will they now be forced to change in the face of globalization?" "Although one hears of religious changes accompanying intellectual popularization, so long as religion deals with the sacred or ultimate values, will not religious interest continue to be focused on a limited number of traditionally crucial issues? If so, then can the final end of religious globalization really be called something so new?" "Under conditions of popular culture, if a religion lacks the focusing center of an individualistic leader or religious elite, if it eschews organizational forms and any ultimate value to transmit in the face of relativization, can such a thing really continue to be called `religion'?" and "Shouldn't we reconsider the concept of `religion' itself?"

Inoue emphasized that the "information age" will certainly bring about transformations to human culture and the world. Information plays the role of destroying the legitimations of the real world; in the information age, even the realm of religious mystery can be reproduced by machines.

Certainly, questions regarding the nature of the world and reality are of the most fundamental order, in the sense of focusing on the preconditions for all other inquiries. If so, then the introduction of things like "virtual reality" will likely force a qualitative and sweeping revolution of the worldview held by us moderns.

In other words, the transcendent occurs not as a phenomenon on the "other side" of sensory reality, but directly, within present reality itself. A possible result may be the commingling of religion with science and technology. The question thus arises again whether it is justifiable to continue to call such a phenomenon "religious."

Inoue points out that in the information age, the issue of how information is used becomes crucially important for religion, too, and in fact, some traditional religions are already responding to the wave of globalization by initiating efforts toward networking within their own sectarian organizations. And while he states it is too early to make evaluative judgments, Inoue's message includes an implied warning regarding the risks posed to religion by the information age.

On the other hand, comments by Onozawa Masaki and certain religious scholars present suggested that the changes accompanying the process of globalization should not be taken merely passively or with a sense of resignation. On the contrary, such changes should be viewed as simultaneously signaling positive processes involving the recreation or rebirth of human subjectivity through the creation of new culture, something which may occur in conjunction with the pursuit of self-identity. In their insistence that religion lives and breathes precisely within such creative moments, the views of these commentators formed a claim pointing to one understanding of the nature of religion itself.

Based on the above discussion, it is apparent that considerations about the directions in which religion is heading today can be expressed either as "the globalization of religion" or as "religion in the context of globalization." In short, the basic understanding and stance of each individual with respect to the religious realm led to subtle differences in approach. In any event, this discussion prompted anew the question of what makes religion uniquely religious.

3. Language, Information and Culture

Most Asian countries host to multiple ethnic groups have long experienced difficulties related to that ethnic and cultural diversity. A common crux of problems is the issue of how to reconcile national and ethnic identities, particularly in the context of the need to foster a new national identity among citizens, upon the establishment of a new, modern state. And such problems have become particularly evident in respect to the issue of language. How this issue is faring within the context of the current process of globalization formed the rationale for interest in the Language, Information and Culture section of the Asia Session.

Entitled "Preserving Taiwan's Indigenous Languages and Culture: A Discussion in Sociolinguistic Perspective," Professor Feng-Fu Tsao's presentation raised the issue of the problematic propagation of Mandarin Chinese by Taiwan's ruling ethnic group of Han Chinese, together with the rapid spread of English as a Language for Wider Communication (LWC). Tsao discussed the ill effects of these language policies from the perspective of the preservation of minority people's languages and culture, and based on his proposal for a new language policy.

As Onozawa pointed out in his subsequent discussion, Tsao's paper raised the problem of the decline of minor ethnic languages as a result of Taiwan's national policy of assimilation to Mandarin Chinese. Onozawa commented that this issue thus expresses a reiteration of the issue of assimilation, an issue that traditionally took the pattern of the relationship between state and minority groups, and which was inherent in the process of modernization.

In that sense, when considering Taiwan's language situation in the context of globalization, it might be thought more appropriate to place greater emphasis on the recent expansion of English, which Tsao proposed as a second factor in the disappearance of minority languages. At the same time, Tsao's argument represented an expression of concrete problems reflecting the current state of his own country, and issued a compelling challenge to globalization, understood by Tsao to mean "global expansion." In short, Tsao argued that the globalization represented by the global expansion of dominant cultures and languages includes the inherent threat of the erosion of minority ethnic cultures and languages, thus leading to his argument for the inevitable need for greater cultural differentiation and diversity.

Intimately concerned with the situation in the Philippines, whose seventy-five ethnic languages have made it difficult to settle upon a single national language, Leslie Bauzon proposed a practical question: what problems will Taiwan experience in adopting a bilingual education program like that proposed by Tsao, wherein children would be educated in a single national language in addition to the everyday vernacular of their own ethnic group? In response, Tsao suggested both economic problems and the difficulty in preparing adequate educational materials and teachers, but he expressed a positive attitude toward the solution of such problems.

Lilian Voyé likewise wondered whether such bilingual education might not produce a "double culture," and foment psychological problems. To this, Tsao responded that many of us today are already confronted with the need to orient ourselves in multiple languages, with the result that humans living in the modern world must study how to deal with just such situations.

Tsao finished his presentation with the words that it is impossible to expect ethnic languages and cultures to be saved through the efforts of nations and educational systems alone. The ethnic groups themselves should pay less attention to their mutual differences and instead unite together. In response, while admitting that minority groups were now indeed uniting around the world, Roland Robertson pointed out the intriguing paradox in a situation in which minority movements had no choice but to organize globally in opposition to "merciless globalization." As Tsao himself insists, the members of minority ethnic groups are now attempting to achieve some unification to oppose globalization. But if such cooperation is viewed as one part of the globalization process, we might come to the new conclusion that globalization is a process of making people aware of the necessity of mutual recognition of the diversities and peculiarities of human cultures and values.

4. Family and Community

The third paper in the Asia Session was presented by Hock-Tong Cheu on the theme of globalization and its effects on family and community. As was noted in floor comments during the general discussion Session, Cheu's thesis paralleled Tsao's in making very concrete comments about the situation of his own country. In particular, he presented an analysis and proposals from the perspective of the nation, namely, the ruling Malay group, regarding social problems which originated in the disruptive social processes of urbanization and modernization which preceded globalization. In specific, he noted the collapse of family and community which were generated in the process of the implementation of the New Economic Policy by the ruling Malays.

Certainly, the current unsound condition of the Malay family and community is typical of the process of modernization, industrialization and commercialization that occurred prior to the advent of globalization. But what is intriguing here is Cheu's claim that the Malaysian government's multi-cultural policy founded on "absolute values" --- adopted in response to the various problems of family collapse in present-day Malaysian society --- can actually be advanced by the aggressive adoption of globalization and high-level information and scientific technologies.

According to Cheu, the current Malaysian government considers that in order to unify multiple ethnic groups into a single nation, what is needed is a common core of "absolute values" shared by all groups. Further, as a means of recultivating those absolute values among the populace, the mass media and the technologies of information and science characterizing globalization should be given positive evaluation and encouragement.

Cheu's claim regarding the establishment of "absolute values," however, drew much debate, including the suggestion by Professor Voyé that it is theoretically impossible for such absolute or universal values to be, in fact, universal, in different societies and times.

In response, Professor Cheu raised the Malaysian example of "Rukun Negara," a national ideology consisting of five core values, and emphasized the existence of a core of shared values within all religious cultures.

In his presentation, Professor Tsao pointed out that if societies approach the new information structures of globalization with excess trepidation, a new global imbalance in the structural distribution of information --- a state of "information poverty" --- tcould result. He thus stressed the need for nations to take it upon themselves to adapt to the change to an information-oriented society. Such an imbalance in the distribution of information is indeed already visible, a new structure of human inequality particularly characteristic of the information society. This new inequality can be expected to represent a major problem as the process of globalization advances with the spread of the information society.

In contrast to Tsao's view regarding the destructive effects of globalization, Cheu emphasized a positive way to deal with both globalization and the advancing information society. What I think should be emphasized here, however, is that, whether deliberately or no, both presentations clearly pointed out that globalization is a process that exposes the need for mutual recognition of diversity and uniqueness in cultures and values. And based on these observations, it would seem more appropriate to understand globalization as representing a process of the integration --- rather than homogenization --- of cultures.

5. Conclusion

Perhaps because the Asia Session began without basic agreement on the conceptual contents of "globalization" itself, it became gradually clear as the debate progressed that discussants were frequently speaking past each other, without coming to grips with the others' understanding of the globalization process.

In the course of this discussion, Roland Robertson raised anew the fundamental issue of how globalization was to be understood; this question formed the framework for general discussion during the latter half of the Asia Session, which focused on when globalization first began and what actual processes were referred to by the term.

As noted earlier, Inoue Nobutaka's presentation included an attempt to distinguish globalization clearly from internationalization, defining the former as a uniquely modern process of the homogenization and universalization of culture and society which was parallel to the development of the information society.

Robertson, on the other hand, expressed the view that, in fact, globalization is what the world has been experiencing for more than the past two-thousand years. As a result of this discussion on the definition of globalization, it became clear that many symposium participants did not share Robertson's understanding of globalization as in effect, a long-term process of "global expansion" evident throughout history. In this sense, Westernization, the spread of Chinese written culture throughout East Asia, and the worldwide dissemination of religions like Christianity and Islam may also be included as parts of the globalization process. When globalization is understood in this sense, however, it becomes impossible to use the concept to grasp the peculiarities of immediate, present-day conditions.

What should be clear by this point is that the current state of globalization in the real world is one in which the very cultural notion of "what is globalization?" itself has yet to achieve fixed contents or the status of a self-evident proposition. In planning the Symposium, the Asia Session and European Session were intended as independent entities, based on the different backgrounds of globalization experienced by the two regions. Unexpectedly, however, this division served to reveal more explicitly the current lack of a unified perception of the globalization process. In other words, a great gulf exists between Europe and Asia, not only with regard to the perception of what the historical movement of globalization has caused and what kind of problems it portends, but also as regards the very fundamental perception of what the phenomenon of globalization itself is. That gulf, in turn, was displayed in the form of the different contents of debate actually produced in the two sessions.

One reason for that gulf may be differences in shared experience. Many countries of Southeast Asia are home to multiple, heterogeneous ethnicities and cultures, the members of which continue to suffer conflicts between their identities as members of particular ethnic groups and cultures on the one hand, and as national citizens on the other. The countries of Western Europe, on the other hand, at least share a common foundation of modern Western culture. Likewise, it might be said the gulf resulted since the sharing of common roots in modern Western culture allowed spontaneous propagation of the germ of globalization in Europe, while in East and Southeast Asia, it was always the anguished attempt to discover the originality and creativity of one's own native culture within the historical experience of non-native colonization, Westernization, or modernization.

In fact, it was apparent during the general discussion in the Asia Session that the process of globalization was frequently being confused with internationalization, modernization, urbanization or Westernization, or understood as an extension of those processes. While colonization, modernization or Westernization were the prime aggressive threats previously experienced by many Asian countries, those threats have today been replaced by the aggressive threat represented by the principle of control by a global economy. As result, for the many countries of Asia, particularly those with multi-ethnic compositions, the process of globalization is now perceived as carrying with it an oppressively threatening structure, not only to politico-economic systems, but culturally as well.

The problem is compounded by the fact that, while the process of modernization succeeded in giving play to indigenous features of ethnic culture and culturalism, thus making possible a variety of "particular modernizations," the notion of "particular globalizations" is in principle inconceivable, based on the inherent characteristics of the globalization phenomenon itself.

And in the course of the Symposium --- the Asia Session in particular --- it became clear that, from the standpoint of cultures to which it is not native, and insofar as such cultures exist, this new phenomenon of global culture teems with self-contradictions, spontaneously producing differentiation and diversity. In short, globalization represents a composite and paradoxical phenomenon, within which processes oriented toward uniformity, universality, homogeneity and relativity simultaneously expose processes of differentiation, particularization, diversity, and absolutism.

And finally, the fact that an overall theoretical grasp of the phenomenon of globalization unfolded rather during the second day's Europe Session may be ultimate evidence of the differences between Asia and Europe in regard to the fundamental understanding of the phenomenon of globalization, and the different ways in which that phenomenon is being confronted.

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$Date: 2001/05/15 05:58:52 $