Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Pacific Rim and Japan

Signifiers: Geography
Japan existed with self-imposed, near total isolationism for hundreds of years and did just fine. The culture was rich with its own traditions, religions, and politics. What’s more, it survived on its own resources with little help from outside countries. This isolationism was made much easier by the fact that the nation is a unified body of islands and doesn’t border any neighboring – or competing – countries. However, it progressed much slower technologically than the Western world because of this strict isolationist policy. So, when Commodore Matthew Perry forced Japan to open its doors for trade with the West in 1854 – and did so with Western firepower to back him up – Japan had little choice.
This influx of Western culture took Japan by storm. Commerce with the West went well beyond simple goods. The country was taken by storm with Western thought – particularly its philosophy, especially that of Germany. People like Hegel, Husserl, Nietzsche, and Heidegger caught on like wildfire and Japan began to forsake its own philosophies for those of the West. In fact, this was happening all over. The famous samurai became useless with the import of firearms. Also, the economic boom post World War II gave the Japanese a reason to embrace the Western lifestyle of nine-to-five jobs and business suits even more; never mind that America neutered them as a nation at the end of the war to “keep them in line.” And then there was a backlash.
A man with strong nationalist Japanese sentiments, along with several sympathizers, took over a Japanese building only to commit seppuku, the ritualistic suicide ceremony conducted by the samurai. There was also the Kyoto School, a school of Philosophy pioneered by Nishida Kitaro and Nishitani Keiji. While it didn’t totally abandon Western philosophy, it simply used it to illuminate the strong traditions found in Zen Buddhist that the Kyoto School sought to revive since its loss of academic support in the face of Western thinkers.
Much the same thing is occurring right now in the islands of the Pacific Rim. As Albert Wendt explains in his lecture, Pacific Maps and Fiction(s), these territories had been a self-sustaining body that operated as well as can be expected. They also developed their own rich and unique system of beliefs, culture, and traditions. Since they are islands, they were almost protected from the rest of the world and allowed to flourish and fall on their own. This was, however, until the European colonial age.
With this came white invaders who, with their sense of superiority, denigrated the people of the Pacific Rim until they were ashamed of their past and had only these Western ideals to cling to. Labeled as savages without significant culture, they were broken down to think everything that worked for them in their pre-colonized lives was inferior and wrong. Instead, they were forced to adopt European religion, habits, language, and practices; indeed, they were stripped of their unique qualities to the point where later generations weren’t even aware of their deep and significant history.
However, the islands too have initiated a revival of their native culture. Now that the reigning hand of the whites has been loosened (but not entirely relinquished), these people have begun to uncover and revitalize the world they used to have. Things like native language, tales, and religions are no longer points of shame but rather pride. Also, allegiance to one’s tribe is becoming stronger and inter-island dependence is once again becoming more and more prevalent despite the false boundaries established by the whites. The Pacific Rim, like Japan between the 1850s and 1950s, is once again finding itself amongst the wreckage left behind by invaders.

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