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Monday, Jan. 16, 2006

Heretical to the Asia concept

The European Union is a community founded on the concept of Europe. This concept has been nurtured by the historical consciousness of Europeans to overcome national rivalries and to maintain European traditions. The process of consolidating such consciousness has, however, been accompanied by a process of excluding anything that is un-European -- that is, anything, whether political or religious, that deviates from the norm of being "European."

Christianity offers an obvious example. The Roman Catholic Church, in particular, has maintained its orthodoxy by excluding the heretical. One feature of monotheistic Christian civilization is the elimination of heresy.

This phenomenon is actually evident to a greater or lesser degree in all religions, but in historical terms it has not featured as prominently in Buddhism or Confucianism, for instance, as it has in Islam or Christianity.

The attitude of modern-day Europe to issues like human rights and the death penalty exudes this logic of eliminating heresy to protect European values.

When an extreme rightwing regime came to power in Austria, all of Europe vented its criticism. One could say that this reaction reflected more than just regret over Nazism and warning against the rise of new racism. It was in fact a part of the process of protecting European values by excluding the heretical.

Similarly, a move is afoot to revoke the observer status of the United States and Japan on the Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers over the issue of the abolition of capital punishment. This can only be viewed as a manifestation of Europe's refusal to accept as peers and include in its group those who violate "European values," even if they are developed, democratic states like Japan and the United States.

As the concept of Europe has taken root, Europeans have maintained -- in parallel with the exclusion of heresy -- a constant awareness of that which is un-European, the "other."

We must not forget that throughout its history Europe has affirmed its identity by juxtaposing itself with the other. The other was at different times Muslim culture, primitive societies refusing European enlightenment, non-Christian societies, autocratic communist states, U.S. Fordism, or even Japanese-style business practice.

Indeed, throughout its history Europe has needed an other, has created "others," and has built up its own identity in the context of its opposition to and contrast with the other. In this sense, the process of European integration has been an exercise of rejecting and pushing aside "others" as well as an exercise of assimilating different elements.

Asia, meanwhile, is not a concept that Asians made themselves but is, rather, something that Europeans invented for their own convenience. In modern times -- that is, after the collapse of the Chinese kingdom and the colonization of Asia by Europeans -- except for the shared history of anti-colonial movements in Asia and Africa, almost nothing has been done by Asians to exercise political leadership or organize a social movement for the creation of Asia as an entity, to conceive of an "other" against which to contrast it, to separate themselves from that other, and to deepen the concept of Asia.

Asia does not need the concept of "others" to consolidate the concept of Asia. In fact, "others" exist within Asia itself, rather than outside, due to rising nationalism in some Asian countries.

In addition to the elimination of heresy and the presence of the other, there is another important idea that Asian people have to bear in mind when considering the European community. This is the idea of overcoming nationalism. The concept that nationalism must be overcome has its roots in a history of fierce conflicts among nation-states.

European history consists of conflicts between nationalisms and antagonism between nation-states. It was the process of overcoming such rivalries that led to the European community. That effort was based not on the simple objective of putting an end to war but on the conviction that overcoming nationalism was vital to the creation of an interdependent world.

Turning our eyes to Asia, however, we see a divided Korean Peninsula and a China that still clings to the issue of Taiwan. Under these circumstances, nationalism remains a highly important rallying cry for national unification in East Asia, particularly in China and South Korea. There is no national or ethnic consensus that nationalism is something that must be overcome; on the contrary, there is every indication that emphasizing nationalism will remain an important element of these countries' domestic politics and foreign policy for some time to come.

Under these circumstances we should ask ourselves how an East Asian Community can be formed without overcoming nationalism. This question raises serious issues for the people of East Asia. In this context, Japan can play a key role as virtually the only industrialized democratic country in Asia, because it no longer needs such nationalism as a force for national unification.

Therefore, in the interests of all of Asia, Japan must refrain from resorting needlessly to parochial nationalism that serves no purpose other than to divert economic or political frustration onto others. East Asian neighbors of Japan should, on their part, refrain from using the question of the past damage inflicted upon them by Japan for the purpose of their own domestic political convenience or of diplomatic maneuvering vis-a-vis Japan.

People and nations in East Asia could, in their endeavor to reach a consensus for forming an East Asian Community, learn much from this history of forming the concept of Europe.

Kazuo Ogoura, professor of political science at Aoyama Gakuin University, is president of the Japan Foundation. He served as Japanese ambassador to Vietnam (1994-95), South Korea (1997-99) and France (1999-2002).

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