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Friday, Nov. 30, 2007

Culture as a common asset

Politics (political phenomena) has become disconnected from culture (cultural phenomena) in East Asia.

In 2002, a South Korean schoolgirl was run over and killed by a U.S. military armored vehicle, prompting students to take to the streets of Seoul for candlelit protests against the United States. Yet this campaign of political anti-Americanism did not turn into an anti-American cultural trend, as these same students continued to wear jeans, eat at McDonald's, drink Coca-Cola and watch Hollywood movies — all potent symbols of American culture.

Unlike in some Middle Eastern nations, political demonstrations against the U.S. did not translate into anti-Americanism in lifestyle and culture.

A similar phenomenon has been seen in South Korea's relations with Japan. In 2005, when the dispute between the two countries over the sovereignty of the island of Takeshima (Dokdo in Korean) became a political and diplomatic issue sparking indignation among the South Korean public, Korean youngsters still flocked to Japanese rock concerts.

These phenomena show that political nationalism, at least in South Korea, is now easily marginalized and does not affect the whole of society or an entire bilateral relationship. (In Japan, the resolution passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in July criticizing the Japanese government over the "comfort women" issue was completely marginalized in politics, not to mention culture, and barely had even a temporary impact on Japan-U.S. relations.)

Turning to China, even when the visits by then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to Yasukuni Shrine were causing intense political and diplomatic friction between China and Japan, Japanese manga, anime, fashion and other forms of youth culture continued to gain fans in China in another example of a superficial fissure between politics and culture. One might even say that cultural exchanges acted as a kind of safety valve during a time of political and diplomatic tension.

The flip side of this fissure between culture and politics in East Asia is that specific cultural phenomena sometimes become entwined with extremely powerful political currents, resulting in intense politicization.

In 2004, for example, when South Korean celebrity Cho Young Nam wrote a book titled "Nagurikorosareru kakugo de kaita shin-Nichi sengen (A Pro-Japanese Declaration Written in the Knowledge That I May Get Punched to Death)" at a time of Japan-Korea political tension, he was labeled "pro-Japanese" and was barred from appearing on TV.

This is an example of an author's activities, in the form of an essay, being imbued with excessive political significance within some quarters.

The incident in which Japanese exchange students at a Chinese university performed a play poking fun at Chinese people, sparking nationwide condemnation and broader hostility to Japan, was another example of a trivial cultural happening being excessively politicized.

There are some examples of cultural activities becoming extremely (albeit temporarily) politicized within very limited quarters and turning into political issues, while cultural exchanges serve to contain political friction. These two aspects of culture and politics stem from the two sides of cultural activities in the international community.

On the one hand, cultural exchange is, in a sense, a process in which parties discover and reaffirm their shared sensibility, values and interests, and feel the will to create something new based on common ground. On the other hand, cultural exchange can also be a process in which parties emphasize their differences and attempt to stress their uniqueness by asserting themselves while rejecting the other.

It is for this reason that, in the international community, commercial cultural activities backed by huge capital outlays trigger absorption and demand as well as revulsion and antipathy.

Affirming the common cultural ground shared by different countries leads to the discovery of new creativity, while maintaining each country's and ethnicity's uniqueness and discovering differences opens up a path to creative endeavors.

How can these two contradictory faces be reconciled in international cultural exchange? There is one answer: Cultural phenomena historically regarded as unique to a single ethnicity or state must be viewed as part of humanity's common cultural heritage. The uniqueness of a given cultural form must be viewed within the context of this universality.

In politics, therefore, what is important is not to stress the uniqueness of the culture of one's own country and to clamor for this to be transmitted to the world, but to consider one's own culture as a common asset of all humanity and to devise methods for sharing it with others.

The need for people to view their own culture as an asset to share is not unique to East Asia, but the political leaders of East Asian countries must take particular care to understand it, because the countries of this region have a tendency to slip into cultural nationalism.

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

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