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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 15:04 03/09/2007
September 13, 2004

Japan Should Seek "Maritime Civilization" in East Asia

Heita KAWAKATSU (Professor, International Research Center for Japanese Studies)

Japanese civilization is unique; differing from Chinese and other civilizations. Japan should review its history of failures whenever it attempted to penetrate the continent, and should play a key role among East Asian countries with which economic ties are strengthening to seek a "maritime civilization", utilizing the sea as the means of communication encompassing the area extending to Oceania.

Japanese civilization different from China's

Samuel P. Huntington, in his book "The Clash of Civilizations", states that there are seven civilizations in the world. Among the seven, four are in Asia, namely Japanese, Confucian, Islamic, and Hindu. Because of the 9-11 incident and the wealth and arms built up by China, recent discussions on the theme of civilization have focused heavily on whether Western and Confucian civilizations will collide. Another theme within that context has been whether these civilizations possess the means to avoid such collision and to co-exist.

Often ignored is the fact that, as explained above, Huntington classified Japan as one distinct civilization among the seven, implying that the presence of Japan in the modern world is larger than many Japanese believe. He correctly points out in the preface of the Japanese version of the same book that "Japanese civilization differs from Chinese civilization at the fundamental level. It also differs from Western civilization. Japan has modernized, but has not become a part of Western civilization." The notion often expressed in Japan to denote the close relationship between Japan and China that "only a narrow band of water separates the two", or "people are of the same race and use the same writing characters", is an illusion. Japan differs from China in the basic framework of civilization. The idea that Japanese civilization is unique and differs from others should be reinstated.

Recently, a concept to combine Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia into one East Asia is gaining force. By the same token, the expression "ASEAN plus 3 (Japan, China, Korea)" has become routinely used to indicate and promote closer relationship within the region based on already strong economic ties extending to political and cultural fields. East Asia has rapidly increased its presence during the last quarter of the 20th century, taking part in comprising the trilateral world along with Europe and North America in this 21st century.

A community without economic cooperation is a fantasy, but a community without political vision has no strength, and a community without cultural ideals would not last long.

This is a study for a framework from a Japanese point of view of an East Asian civilization to be established in this century.

Historical perceptions of Japan

East Asia was first recognized by the Europeans in realistic terms through the book "Il Millione" (The Million - The Travels of Marco Polo). Most of the book is devoted to description of China, and information on Japan is less than 1% of the whole. But that small piece of information ignited the adventurous spirit of Christopher Columbus. He sailed to search for the "golden island of Jipang" and lead the way to the Age of Discovery."

"Golden Island" was hyperbole, of course. But by sheer coincidence, Japan during that period was when mining development was boosted, resulting in a country with a large holding of gold on an unparalleled scale. Japan was in fact rich with gold at the time.

Memories from the Age of Discovery were present in the mind of Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry when he visited Japan in 1853 with gunboats in an attempt to open up the isolationist country. In his report, with the long title "Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan, Performed in the years 1852,1853, and 1854, under the Command of Commodore M.C. Perry, United States Navy, by Order of the Government of the United States, " Perry writes that the US has executed a part of what was intended by Christopher Columbus. He added that it was he, Perry himself, who realized the desires of Columbus to bring Japan into the sphere of influence of Western civilization.

Perry had evidently considered the US a part of European civilization. Then did he consider Japan barbaric? The answer is definitely no, as he writes in his book also that Japan, while forbidding communication with other countries, had acquired a certain level of civilization, sophistication, and intelligence.

In fact, he knew before reaching Japan that Japanese people were intelligent and had a sophisticated civilization. This was because he had, before sailing for Japan, read descriptions of Japan written by people such as Kempel and Siebold when they caught glimpses of Japan in the Edo era. Every Westerner visiting Japan in the Edo era expressed their admiration and respect for its civilization.

Image of Asia ruined in 19th century

Images by Westerners of Japan and the rest of Asia differ considerably. The image of Asia by Westerners in the 19th century is that Asia was far from civilized. There are countless number of comments by notable scholars such as G.W.F Hegel, Karl Heinrich Marx, and Leopold von Ranke expressing disdain for Asia.

It was not like that in the 18th century. The Ottoman Empire was the tutor for Europeans, acquainting them with tulips, gardens, coffee, and diplomacy. As exemplified by the Turkischer Marsch by Mozart, Turkey was a subject of adoration. In France, most Enlightenists were admirers of China, and Chinoiserie was a fashion among the upper ranks of society.

In 17th century Europe, Indian products were trendsetters, and the 16th century was when voyagers set out to East India -- East Asia in today's terms -- in aspiration for riches. Thus until the end of the 18th century, Asia was an object of envy for Western countries.

The image of Asia flipped from positive to negative around the turn of the 19th century. Through experiences such as the industrial revolution in the UK, political revolution in France, cultural revolution in Germany, and the independence of the US, Western countries saw the emergence of a modern society, nurturing the people to acquire a strong sense of self-consciousness, which in turn made them look down upon other regions and their peoples.

Japan's Edo era was a civilization based on beauty

The only country to be able to withstand the generally contemptuous eyes of Westerners was Japan. Japan saw the Western countries as the "great powers," i.e. civilization based on power. On the other hand, the essence of Japan's civilization was, just as Commodore Perry described, in the intellectual ability of the people and the refined society, not in the display of power.

Observations and reports on Japan by Westerners following Perry were collected and organized by scholar Kyoji Watanabe into a comprehensive document. According to the materials, almost every Westerner expressed their admiration for the beauty of Japan -- its natural scenery as well as the people's lifestyle -- during the Edo era. Civilization in Japan was based on beauty. Then the charm of Japanese civilization was introduced to the West, it affected the aesthetic sense of the people, and it ignited a fad for "Japonism."

Why was Japan able to cultivate a civilization based on beauty? While other civilizations, including Chinese, could be characterized by their history of destruction of nature, Japan built its civilization by developing while utilizing its forest and water. Caring for the forest and stabilizing the soil became the source of rich and clean water, and controlling the water flow resulted in the rich and productive land. At the mouths of numerous rivers where clean water flows into the sea grew backlash, or estuarine water zones, where rich fishing grounds were generated. Mouths of rivers were also where harbor towns were set up to be interconnected through a dense network of seaways. Although it is written in Kanji (Chinese Characters), in Chinese there is no corresponding word for the Japanese "tsu-tsu-ura-ura (every small port and every small sectors of the sea close to them)". Japanese scenery is typified by "tsu (small ports)" connected by "ura (small sectors of the sea close to land)."

Geographical possibilities for cooperation

Readers may recognize here that indeed, "ASEAN + 3" countries are geographically located to constitute this relation of "tsu-tsu-ura-ura." Of the trilateral regions comprising the present world, both Europe and the Americas are continents. In East Asia, Japan is an elongated chain of islands, Korea is a peninsula with three of its sides facing the sea, the focus of development in China is in the coastal region, and most ASEAN countries either are islands or have long coastal lines.

The term East Asia evokes the sense of it being largely continental because of gigantic China. But the area where economic cooperation is being strengthened is not on the continent but among the regions in or facing the sea. Call this Maritime East Asia. It is interesting to realize that throughout history, Japan's attempts to become too much involved in continental Asia turned out to be a failure whenever it was sought. Bearing that in mind, Japan should seek to play a leading role in establishing a maritime civilization in Maritime East Asia.

To the South of Maritime Asia is Oceania, which is strengthening its economic ties with Asia. There are countless islands stretched in the shape of a crescent Between Japan and Oceania, forming the largest archipelago on the globe. The cultural diversity within the region is vast, but there is one thing in common: the sea.

The sea in the modern era is not just a part of nature but also a subject of activities of human beings. What seem to be issues of conflict with China such as marine and seabed resources could become a common interest in terms of conservation and maintenance of the sea. It is thus worthwhile to seek a maritime civilization comprised of beautiful islands from the Maritime Asia to Oceania, forming the Fertile Crescent of the Sea, in the aim of establishing the West Pacific Tsu-tsu-ura-ura Union.

(The original Japanese article appeared in the August 17, 2004 issue of Nihon Keizai Shimbun.)

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