Sunday, November 4, 2007

Globalization as Tea

I am just finishing a week in Japan on a Center for Global Partnership and Ministry of Foreign Affairs sponsored delegation. A major theme of the discussions we had here was whether globalization and traditional culture are compatible. Some argued that Japan may be the best example of a developed, globalized economy that maintains strong traditions. Nevertheless, a lot of anxiety persists about it.

A revealing essay appears in the Daily Yomiuri highlighting this anxiety titled "'Headless monster' changing society." The headless monster is societal revolution and change that can come about without leadership, such as the blog-fueled movement in China that forced the closure of the Starbucks in Beijing's Forbidden City. An interesting, if not ironic, excerpt is here:

History has been full of fads and trends. It has not been unusual to experience one major social change after another with a majority of society quickly latching on to these new phenomena. Rumors, popular songs and fashions of the past can be seen as the works of headless monsters. But a new type of monster is now affecting social issues and politics as well, a situation that may be a new phenomenon.

This new century has seen the emergence of factors that are increasingly favorable for this new monster. First, we are seeing the death of traditional ideologies, which means that human beings no longer have a stable guides to follow even though they are still prone being swayed by latent feelings of anger and disgust. In China, the state's enforcement of communist ideology has been waning. Japan's Marxism-inspired political parties do not even bring up the name of Karl Marx anymore.

It is curious that the writer associates traditional Chinese culture with communism rather than Confucianism.

Yesterday, we spent the afternoon at a tea ceremony in Kyoto. The hosts, the descendants and disciples of tea masters, said that tea ceremony of today in Japan would be unrecognizable to its practitioners of hundreds of years ago. Society changes, culture changes, and tea adapts. It is, like a stream, not at all like the way it started although its essence remains. One of the tradition's characteristics is to balance formality with relaxation, rigidity with flexibility, so that a balance is obtained.

It seems to me that Japan's approach to globalization is instructive to those who can afford to learn. Adaptation and innovation have found harmony with a sense of fairness and tradition.

Photo by El Fotopakismo.

4 comments:

Clive said...

Don't be fooled by such inward-looking nonsense. Because of the insular nature of the society and the restrictive education system, most Japanese have an unrealistic view of the world they live in. This includes the belief that they have a unique affinity with nature. No one stops to point out the destruction wrought on the country's nature in the name of “development.” Read Alex Kerr’s “Lost Japan” for an insight unclouded by nostalgia and jingoism.

The same is true for tradition. Ever wonder why Tokyo is almost totally devoid of old architecture (please, not that old World War II chestnut again)? The original Imperial Hotel, built by Frank Lloyd Wright with local Oya stone, was cleared away in a blink of an eye when a more spacious building was deemed necessary. In Kyoto, the restriction on tall buildings that overshadow the city’s many temples has been ignored to the extent that any foreign tourist visiting that city today will question whether they are in Kyoto at all.

New Japanese apartments no longer even contain the obligatory tatami room that was until recently a nod to the country's past. Today's Japanese prefer "flooring" and beds over matted ground and futon. They also prefer toast and cereal for breakfast over rice and miso shiru. Throw a brick in Tokyo and you are almost sure to hit a fast-food restaurant.

When one compares Japan to many societies in Europe, it is difficult to see where these strong traditions are being "maintained." Money is what guides Japanese society. If the upkeep of a particular tradition is seen as economically beneficial, then that tradition will be reprieved. If not, then it’s sayonara.

Devin Stewart said...

Clive, great comment. I actually saw Alex Kerr give his excellent presentation years ago in Tokyo--complete with slides of cemented shores and ugly power lines. One of the themes of the tea ceremony was how temporary or transient things are. You give a lot of great examples of how things change. But can't culture persist and be meaningful throughout the generations without specific things intact? Values and abstract notions tend to be the most long lasting anyway, no?

It is ironic that you mention this "nonsense" as inward looking. I know what you mean, but most of the Japanese we met during this trip were worried about what they see as a recent tendency to look inward in the US--a worry I tried to ease. It is a bit risky when both parties misperceive the other. Will the alliance last?

Evan O'Neil said...

On a practical level, destroying old buildings in the name of development can have negative unintended consequences. Jane Jacobs argues in the Death and Life of Great American Cities that a mixture of building ages is necessary in a district to create healthy economic diversity, with niches for people and enterprises of various levels. Because certain types of structures will be economically favorable at any given time, new waves of development tend to be homogeneous. Homogeneity is boring and inconvenient, so neighborhoods eventually lose the very dynamism that attracted new development in the first place. I think that's a pretty interesting example of balance and change.

On an abstract level, some values and ideas persist because they are useful, others simply because they are stubborn. Society has always been headless in a certain way, probing new forms, relationships, and territories. But mob psychology is a different beast, a collection of headless monsters: unmindful individuals.

I don't think it's so surprising that Yamazaki cites Chinese communism as a traditional ideology. A lot can be forgotten in 50 years, two generations. In fact, China had advanced seafaring in the early 15th century but forgot that.

I do object somewhat to his assertion that new communications technologies will further erode concern for long-term problems. If everything is recorded these days doesn't it become easier to learn from the past? If people are now linked more by knowledge and shared interest than by geography and nationalism isn't it easier to foster social change, to birth headless angels?

Anonymous said...

I believe it is slightly too cynical to conclude that “money guides Japanese society,” as Clive comments. Then one might ask, which society today is not influenced by that same green factor?

I personally think that Japan and many of the growing states in East Asia are using the forces of globalization well for their economic advantage. However, a different scenario exists for many of the developing states in the same continent. It is lot harder for developing nation-states to adjust to foreign ideas, culture, and goods etc. and not lose a major part of their own “traditional” society. I do not think they yet developed the institutions needed to establish the balance between culturalization and economic modernization.

What is retained of the “traditional” Japanese seems questionable while looking at the exterior appearance of Japanese cities, especially Tokyo. [While visiting the city, I hardly missed any of the comforts of home; if anything, the streets of Shinjuku, Harajuku and Ginza seemed more chic. But if one moves away from the Eastern versions of the Western cities, a Japanese society unique on its own continues to exist in other parts of the island. As part of the study abroad program, we were shown various Shinto temples. The practice of Shintoism supports my perception that a culture will continue to preserve what is valuable to them, not necessarily at the expectation of gaining something from the act.] I am not ignoring the fact that many Japanese are going through an identity transformation; many are adopting the modes of other cultures to break away from the homogeneity that has characterized Japan for so long.

On that aspect, I do think that if Japan is to be used as a model of a successful globalized society, the state should be welcoming of immigrants. While being there, I did miss the pluralized environment that I am so used to at NYC. At the fear of losing the original essence of their culture, many developed states are unwelcoming of foreigners. I find such rigid policies from developed state ironic because they are willing to recognize the fluidity of movement brought about by globalization, yet they hope to restrain human mobility.