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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 15:04 03/09/2007
November 14, 2005

Is an "East Asian Civilization" in the Offing?

-- in the light of "Values and Life Style in Urban Asia: Asia Barometer Survey of 2003"

Akio KAWATO (Fellow, GLOCOM and Associate Professor at Tokyo University)

When I travel in East Asian countries today, I notice that the urban landscape designs of large cities have something in common ( to put it more precisely I feel there is an influence of Japanese designs), that people are dressed in a similar (American) manner, and that a middle-class society is now emerging in spite of the familiar problem of the vast income gap in Chinese society. The younger generation is now less collectivistic and apparently they have learned to live for their own benefit and not for the sake of their state. Producers, actors, and singers collaborate with each other, easily transcending national boundaries. In 2003 54,5% of East Asia's trade (Japan, South Korea, China, Taiwan, and ASEAN countries) was between East Asian countries themselves, and this indicator of the "horizontal trade" is even higher than among NAFTA member countries (47,2%) and as high as in the EU (58,1%). Perhaps we are now witnessing the emergence of an "East Asian civilization", with traditional moral and aesthetic norms at its basis and with Japanese and American pop-culture as its "seasoning flavor"

Recently a remarkable work has been published: "Values and Life Style in Urban Asia: Asia Barometer Survey of 2003" by Takashi Inoguchi, Miguel Basanez, Akihiko Tanaka and Timur Dadabaev (hereafter "Asia Barometer"). This is a compilation of social surveys in ten Asian countries, ranging from China to Uzbekistan. With its geographical range, diversity of questions asked, and thoroughness in its scientific approach the book is an outstanding resource. As this survey will be repeated annually and the results will be published in various languages, hypotheses can now be examined using the data offered in this work.

So, let us now see whether my proposition on the East Asian Civilization above can be endorsed in the light of the "Asia Barometer".

Homogeneity in East Asia

"Asia Barometer" demonstrates how East Asian people share various positive traits. To the question "Do you generally trust most people?" 55% of South Korean respondents answered "Yes". In China this indicator was 46%, in Japan 37% and in Vietnam it was 36%, whereas the average level in ten countries was a mere 30%. Prof. T. Inoguchi, the initiator of "Asia Barometer" contends that Asia can be divided into three zones of civilization: Confucianist, British colonial and socialist (that is in fact the Russian colonial). The results of the survey in "Asian Barometer" endorse his view and demonstrate that the Confucianist zone (Japan, China, Korea and Vietnam) may possess a higher grade of social integrity based upon mutual trust.

Today most people talk about the "huge income gap in China". However, in large cities like Shanghai things look different. I for one witnessed there a surge in the middle class, and "Asia Barometer" endorses my observation. To the question "How do you rate your standard of life in comparison to others?" 71% of the Chinese respondents (in large cities) considered themselves as average (and 68% of the respondents were content with life today). These figures are 72% and 53% respectively in South Korea, and 60% and 63% in Japan.

In East Asian countries religion is not much of a divisive factor in their societies. According to the "Asian Barometer" only 3% of Chinese respondents attach importance to religious affiliation in their relations with others, 4% in Japan, 18% in South Korea, and 19% in Vietnam, whereas in India 57% of the respondents do so and in Malaysia the ratio is even higher at 65%.

Probably thanks to these positive qualities East Asian countries are the most popular nations in other parts of Asia. Throughout Asia, Japan is considered to be a country which "exerts positive influence upon them" by 57% of the respondents, China by 48%, and South Korea by 45%. These "magnificent three" are followed by India, the fourth country, with only 26%.

Heterogeneity in Eastern Asia

Naturally, not all values are common to East Asia. Japan is "peculiar" in Asia as the least authoritarian. In China, for example, 91% of respondents trust their government in Beijing (the survey was done in 2003), whereas only 18% of Japanese responded in this way.

Urbanization and industrialization started in Japan far before other East Asian countries. Urbanization and industrialization of a society sever traditional human ties: local ties, kinship and the system of mutual support and dependence. In Japan 52% of respondents still attach importance to local ties, whereas in other countries the level is no lower than 82% (However, the level of dependence on kinship is rather high in Japan, too.).

China is outstanding in Asia as a country, where an overwhelming majority of the population do not associate themselves with Asia. While 42% of Japanese respondents, 71% of South Koreans, and 84% of Vietnamese consider that their country belongs to Asia, only 6(!) % of Chinese respondents answered in this way (though, as is the case throughout Asia, their younger generation associates themselves with Asia on a greater scale). Probably for the Chinese, China is China and the word "Asia" may mean for them the periphery.

I stated above that East Asian countries enjoy a high esteem in other Asian countries. However, it is the East Asian nations who have the lowest opinion of each other. Only 26% of South Korean respondents and only 30% of Chinese see virtue in Japan. Of the Japanese respondents, only 24% possess a positive image of China, and of South Korea, 29%.

Therefrom I can make a tentative conclusion: a new "East Asian civilization" might be gradually brewing. It is a remarkable step forward from the recent past, where the stages of economic and social development in major Asian countries used to be too diversified. Homogeneity is one of the preconditions for unity. However, homogeneity is not a guarantor of peace. Two world wars occurred among homogeneous European countries, and in Asia there are too many potential stumbling blocks for unity. East Asian countries should endeavor to overcome historical enmity. Otherwise, feuds among them will be easily exploited by outsiders.

This does not mean that East Asian countries unite together in order to guard the vested interests in their society and to maintain their collectivist and authoritarian values. Their society and particularly the younger generations are changing. We should join forces to build fair societies in which a decent standard of living is secured, with a small income gap, and in which each individual can guard his or her dignity as a human-being, free from servile dependence on the government, rich relatives, and local bosses.

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