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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Toward a globalized Asia


As a result of globalization, intellectual frameworks and paradigms for forming cultural policies are shifting, especially regarding cultural activity in international contexts.

First, because cultural activity can now be diffused more quickly and widely across the border. As a result, culture, as part of a process of reconfirming and reaffirming identity, has become less geographically attached, and national and ethnic cultures are bound to be redefined.

Second, with innovations in technology and the spread of information technology, barriers and boundaries between different forms of art are being broken — for example, between fine arts and cinema, dance and theater and even between photographs and sculpture.

Third, the emphasis on facts and figures and on efficiency in today's society, combined with a growing popularization of culture, has brought a focus on the social significance of artistic activity. This has changed the relationship between artistic and other forms of social activity.

Of these three aspects of change, it is, from the Asian perspective, the first trend — namely, the borderless nature of artistic activity — that is the most relevant. In Asia, globalization and the process of redefining national culture are, despite some similarities, unfolding in ways that are vastly different from Europe and the United States.

Globalization has given Asia sudden exposure, thrusting it into the global arena and bringing up a pressing issue: how Asia will express itself in an international framework. This has provoked a redefinition of "Asian values," and a move toward forming an Asian community.

Simultaneously, we are seeing a "nationalization" of cultural activity, particularly in Korea and China, which is strengthening national identity. The Korean and Chinese governments are becoming intensely focused on transmitting their traditions and cultures and increasing their cultural presence across the globe. In Tokyo's Shinjuku area, a Korean cultural institute, larger than the Japan Foundation headquarters building nearby, is under construction. China, as part of a "Year of China in France" several years ago, organized a large-scale festival, in which all of Paris was awash with Chinese art.

In Japan, although not indifferent to promoting Japanese culture overseas, the government's involvement in cultural activity is dwindling in comparison to areas such as the environment and welfare. Government funding for the Japan Foundation, for instance, is decreasing by approximately 2 to 3 percent each year.

In the private sector, Japanese businesses are active patrons of art and culture as part of their CSR (corporate social responsibility) mission. However, regarding cultural activities overseas, their support leans toward "universal" (for example, classical, Western music) projects or local, community-oriented contributions and away from more "Japanese" activities.

"Japanese" cultural and educational programs such as research projects on Japan or Japanese language education, with the exception of some areas of Asia, do not particularly attract multinational Japanese companies who are patrons of art and culture.

What we see in the Korean and Chinese context on the one hand, and in the Japanese context on the other, represent two opposing currents emerging in East Asia. This has produced two reactions in Japan: (1) the "national" argument for challenging the Korean and Chinese states' cultural nationalism with a similar move; and (2) the more "global" thought that culture should be universal in its ultimate aim — in which case, the loss of some "Japanese-ness" is a necessary compromise along the way.

Although, at first glance, these reactions seem to represent two contradictory camps, they can coexist. If we look at the works of Haruki Murakami, or Japanese manga, anime, fashion or otaku culture, their global appeal is not so much the result of successfully promoting Japanese culture; rather, they are examples of super-modern Japanese cultural phenomena that has appealed to a younger generation around the world and has become a shared context for expressing their sensibilities.

If we shift the angle of view slightly, another effect of globalization on Japan could be that the very concept of Japanese "uniqueness" has become "globalized." To take Japanese architecture as an example, a popular theory used to be that its uniqueness (Japanese-ness) was epitomized in the shape of the roof or certain distinct "forms" of Japanese architecture.

But today the prominent theory is that the spirit or principle of Japanese architecture — namely, the concept of flexible division of space — should be considered as the essence of all modern architecture: What seemed before to be an exception is now seen as universal.

Perhaps, through the very pursuit and expression of its uniqueness, Japan is closer to finding a global perspective. Asia, through a similar process, might move beyond its region and become a global "Asia."

Kazuo Ogoura, a political science professor at Aoyama Gakuin University, is president of the Japan Foundation.


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