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Home > Media Reiews > Weekly Review Last Updated: 14:58 03/09/2007
Weekly Review #151: February 15, 2005

Japan and the Muslim World: The Dangers of Japan's Civilizational Model

John de Boer (Japan Fellow, Stanford University; Research Associate, GLOCOM)

An interesting interview with Yasushi Kosugi, professor of the Study of the Islamic World at Kyoto University, was published in the Jakarta Post on February 7, 2005 under the headline, "Japan Can Bridge Gap Between Islam and West." Professor Kosugi, regarded as one of the foremost experts on Islam in Japan, has consistently argued that Japan is in a unique position to introduce new, more balanced, perspectives on the Islamic world. Through his work he has encouraged a strengthening of relations between Japanese and Islamic peoples based on a "realistic understanding" of each other's civilizations. Although, Japan's participation in the occupation of Iraq has complicated Japan's image among Muslims in general, Professor Kosugi remains optimistic that Japan's recent history offers certain clues to outstanding questions that continue to plague relations between Islam and the West in particular.

The issue that professor Kosugi chose to focus on in the interview related to the debate on "modernization vs. Westernization." For over three centuries the West has claimed ownership over the blueprint for modernity. In many ways, Western policy makers and intellectuals have equated modernization with Westernization. This mentality was no more evident than in the colonial era where Western colonial empires justified their domination of Asia, Africa and Latin America in the name of "progress." Unfortunately, the discourse continues to be used today, as is evidenced in places such as Iraq.

As professor Kosugi points out, Japan's development proved that there was no relationship between modernization and Westernization. Japan succeeded in "modernizing" without forfeiting much of its cultural elements by appropriating Western techniques and technologies that its leaders considered useful and adaptable. Through a transfer of this "know-how" to the Islamic world, Kosugi argues that Japan can help remove the stigma that associates Muslims with words such as "backward."

This is certainly an important contribution that Japan has to offer, however, we need to be cautious. Before advocating emulation we must stop to question what "modernity" means in the Japanese context and recommend improvements. We must also not forget that although Japan did serve as the "hope of colored peoples" at one time it also used its modernization discourse to colonize and oppress hundreds of million of people in Asia, including Muslims, using extremely brutal measures. Despite a common understanding that Japan does not have a colonial legacy in the Middle East, it has done much to contribute to the colonization of Muslim peoples both directly and indirectly in the name of development and progress.

When considering what "modernization" means in Japan's context, the most common attributes raised include industrialization, economic development and democracy. I agree with Professor Kosugi that modernization has to respond to "the needs of the people," however, in Japan's case rapid industrialization and economic development has also had tremendous social consequences both within and outside its borders. Examples of the costs of industrialization include environmental disasters such as Minamata disease and Itai-Itai sickness (Mercury poisoning). It is also important to point out that, in general, women have been on the wrong side of Japan's "progress." Not only have they been left out of decision making circles, they have also been exploited as Japan's cheap labor source. Modernity for Japanese women has not meant political, social and economic emancipation. We must also try to learn from the mistakes of Japan's democratic system. Legitimate questions can be and must be posed when considering the fact that one-party has dominated Japan's political landscape over the past fifty years. Disillusioned and apathetic, many Japanese choose not to participate in the political process. A once politically vibrant populace has somehow become complacent and one cannot discount the networks that keep the Liberal Democratic Party in power as a cause.

Before we start promoting Japan's version of modernity to the Islamic world, we must stop to question what kind of modernity, democracy and development we would be promoting. Careful consideration needs to go into whether or not the systems promoted are meeting the needs of most, if not all, concerned. Furthermore, we must be conscientious of Japan's own history, which used "modernity" as a cover for expansion and domination.

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