Asian Study in Asia and the Role of Japan

Fei-Ling Wang

In this essay I briefly discuss the importance of Asian study and its underdevelopment in Asia. However, there have been considerable efforts and impressive achievements of the discipline especially in Japan. Finally, I will attempt to make some observations about what more Japan may do to help furthering Asian study in Asia.

Asia: Important and Unsettling

   The largest continent of Asia has never been more important to the prosperity, stability and peace of the whole human race. Asians have been breaking the records of economic development for decades. They have already developed major centers of industrial production, technological innovation, international trade and shipping, and capital accumulation for the world. From raw materials and energy (not just oil), consumer goods, machineries and home appliances, to high-tech electronics and entertainment products … Asia now truly supplies the whole world. It is here the international capital has discovered and enjoyed some of the most lucrative and freest playgrounds. The Asian dominance in world economy has just started and is fully expected to be even more prevalent as the world’s two largest nations of China and India are both growing fast in their economic capabilities.

   Culturally, Asia has always been a major force in human history. Some of the oldest civilizations can still be seen in today’s Asia and Asia has given the world its major religions of Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. Today, from Confucian ideology, Chinese characters, Japanese manga, Indian yoga, to fengshui and alternative medicine,… Asia offers so much and so richly to everyone, rivalries any other region in the world.

   Politically, however, Asia is largely unsettling with great potential for conflicts, misery and disasters. More than 60 years after the end of the last world war and nearly two decades after the end of the Cold War, Asia is still struggling with the shadow of both conflicts, neither has really been concluded here. The continent is deeply divided, featuring the great contrast of some of the most open, sophisticated and stable democracies with some of the most isolated, backward and abusive tyrannies. There has been no real peace in Asia in the past six decades as all of world’s major wars during that time have happened here: from the still unfinished Korean War, the ongoing issue of Taiwan, to the bloody war in Iraq, … to name just a few. Many, if not most, of Asian nations now have serious disputes with their neighbors over territories, history, memories and pride.

   By 2006, the troubled Middle East has been exhausting so much wisdom, patience, and blood; the unsettling South Asia are nuclearly-armed on the both sides; the newly-independent Central Asian republics are powerfully squeezed between religious fundamentalism and the growing cries for political democracy; the Southeast Asia, even with the impressive Association of Southeast Asian Nations, shows deep divisions and tremendous problems; and the East Asia is facing a very uncertain reconfiguration amidst unprecedented economic prosperity and the wild fires of conflicting nationalisms in every corner….It is in Asia, the world is indeed poised to witness some platonic shake-ups with profound global implications, making a tragic repeat of the 20th century world history still a high possibility.

Asian Studies: Underdeveloped in Asia

   Asian study, the endeavor to understand Asia academically and even constructively, is straightforwardly and self-evidently important. It is not just a scholarly subject of regional studies but also a historical mission of global significance. The institutional peculiarities, socioeconomic dynamics, political mechanism and cultural trends in Asia are still largely unrevealed or simply misinterpreted. Even for Asians themselves, to truly and thoroughly understand themselves and their continent still basically remain challenges unmet.

   It is indeed astonishing to see how undeveloped Asian study has been in Asia. There are more Asian study programs, centers, departments and publications in European and North American countries than in Asian countries themselves. Many Asian study institutions in Asia are actually only one or a few country-focused. There is a clear dominance in the field of Asian study by non-Asians outside of Asia. Fundamental questions about Asia often poorly unanswered as Asians themselves often seem to disagree about the basics such as their history and a few other tremendously important questions: Is there an Asian identity? Can Asians (or even East Asians or Southeastern Asians or South Asians) form one single entity of a common market, a community or even a union? Will Asians have to follow Western Europeans and North Americans by repeating their past? What are the main attributes and contributions of Asia in the globalizing world today? And, are Asians properly positioned in the international community in terms of representation, rewards, power and leadership?

   There have been many reasons for the underdevelopment of Asian study in Asia. Modern education and scientific research systems, methods and agenda, independent from the expedient political needs of the rulers, started late and developed slowly in Asia, as compared to Europe and North America. The Asians, basically the same race but composed by dozens of very diverse ethnic groups, have yet to subscribe to any true regional identity culturally, religiously or politically. Many of them are still struggling with nation-building and state-building challenges in an “imported” or imposed Westphalia system of international relations. Hence the very designation of Asia often means very little as an analytical concept geopolitically or even socioculturally ? it remains, in the eyes of many Asians, a concept developed by the European colonialists as in the case of the Western conceptualization of “orientalism.”

   With the exception of the relatively short but highly bloody conquest by the Mongols, when much of Asia was politically united, Asia has never been under a single socioeconomic, religious, or political organization before. The largest singular system in Asia, the Chinese world order, or “tian-xia,” at most just covered the East Asian mainland. The only close case of Asian unity has happened as a result of European-American colonization and dominance since the 18th century. In the post-colonial era, Asians have not developed any true Asian perspectives transcending the diverse ethnocentrisms, national centrisms and various political and cultural biases. Asian study in Asia, therefore, largely remains nationally based, country-specific, event and issue-driven, policy-laden, and often conflicting in values. Not many Asian study works in Asia are free from the confines of national divisions and have ventured beyond the scope of descriptive reportages and ad hoc policy projects.

   The underdevelopment of Asian study in Asia is truly remarkable when contrasted with Asia’s highly vibrant socioeconomic development and its vast potential for doing great good or horrific evil.

Good Efforts and Impressive Results: Exemplary Works at the University of Tokyo

   There have been noticeable efforts and impressive progresses in Asian study in Asia, despite the overall underdevelopment of the field. In Japan, the most developed nation in Asia, Asian study has had a great tradition and significant accomplishment. Without fruitlessly attempting in such a short essay a comprehensive examination of the academic works on Asia completed in Japan, I will just very briefly mention a few efforts in Japan that I believe are highly encouraging and promising.

   Based in the Institute of Oriental Cultures (IOC) of University of Tokyo, a research center with its broad coverage of Asia and its world-class reputations, Japanese and non-Japanese scholars have been working on an ambitious Asia Barometer Project since the beginning of the new century. With the financial backing and personnel support of many other academic institutions, governmental and non-governmental organizations in many countries, the Project has conducted surveys in several Asian countries on a set of highly informative and interesting questions in a time series fashion. The Project, only four years old, already promises ambitious data-collection that is truly cross-national and transnational in the study of Asia. A remarkable accomplishment of the project has been its consistent and conscious efforts to cover several cultural, religious and developmental zones of Asia in the same study. This is indeed a much needed approach to advancing Asian study in Asia and constructively facilitating the development of an Asian identity. The findings so far, while still being analyzed and interpreted, are already showing its richness in useful information about the countries surveyed, including some of the largest and oldest Asian countries like China and Japan. The Project deserves, and will certainly get, much more attention and at least a much longer, more in-depth review than this short essay. Given time and more efforts, and thanks to a new multi-year financial support from the Japanese government, the Asian Barometer Project may one day prove to be a good companion of the five-decade old Euro-Barometer Project, to gauge and help the changes and integrations of the peoples of Asia.

    Another good effort advancing Asian study in Asia, both academically and practically, has been the scholarly discourse on Asian Community (AC) or, more specifically, East Asian Community (EAC). First proposed by Asian scholars and leaders, Japanese and non-Japanese alike, as early as in the late 19th century, the AC or EAC ideas gained new momentum in the past decade as now almost all Asian economies are developing fast and along roughly the same path that was first adopted by the Japanese in the late 19th century and flourished after the Second World War, and increasingly becoming interdependent upon each other. With transnational and long historical perspectives, something often attributed to be an “Asian characteristic” in formulating ideas and polices, the study of AC or EAC is now rapidly becoming a widely supported effort in many Asian countries. The governments in Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo as well as in most capitals of Southeast Asian nations have basically all shown their support to the idea of integration of the region. Countries in South Asia and even Oceania are now also increasingly active in participating in the effort. The Japanese scholars have been especially active and productive on this issue. The recent (2005-2006) publications by the Japanese Association for EAC are some of the most excellent summaries of the state of art of the discourse. Indeed, few other efforts in Asian study by Asians can be as active and directional in playing a constructive role to shape the future of Asia as the academic discourse about an EAC. Being still a remote possibility, Asian integration and unification or, as it is known in Japan, a pan-Asian idea, may generate enough impetus and momentum over time and could one day rewrite the history of Asia and beyond. The Institute of Oriental Culture at the University of Tokyo, among other Japanese institutions, also is playing a leading role in this effort.

The Role of Japan: Some Observations

   Much, of course, remain to be done to greatly advance Asian studies in Asia. And it is certainly a mission and course of all Asians. But Japan, the most advanced nation in the region, can and should play more of its good role as a leader. With only limited knowledge about the field itself and even less awareness of the research agenda of the many Japanese scholars of Asian study, I will offer only some personal and very tentative observations here on how our Japanese colleagues, with their proven academic prowess and direction, may help, and lead, to advance Asian study in Asia.

   Like in international politics in general, Japan ought to show and assert more its good model role and its deserved leadership in Asian study, overcoming the neutralization effects produced by Tokyo’s political macho mask, namely, the offensive revisionist attitude towards history and the unnecessary and harmful fantasy of “non-Asian nation” mentality among some Japanese elites. Japan should, must and can defeat the often politically motivated nationalistic anti-Japan efforts in some Asian countries by proudly demonstrating how successful, advanced, diversified and Asian it has really been. It takes thoughtful, conscious and brave actions, and good Asian studies will certainly offer both the rationale and the techniques for that.

   Therefore, the first thing scholars based in Japan could do to advance Asian studies in Asia is to play as leaders of the Asian scholarly community, not just of the Japanese academia, and doing that in an assertive and thoughtful way. Japan would render the Asian peoples the best service if it could successfully promote its true image: a society that is highly diversified, developed and democratic yet still with well preserved cultural legacies as well as historical burdens (including some lingering and deeply-rooted bigotry and prejudices). More specifically, as an Asian success, Japan’s true lesson should rightfully promoted as a model example of learning form other peoples, of adapting through progresses and innovations while effectively preserving own cultural heritages.

   It is imperative to move beyond the misleading black-and-white images of war criminals, ethnocentric snubs and money-laden economic animals. Today’s Japan is and should be the model for Asians, not to be ignored and despised for its dark moments in the past and the acts of a few today. This is a major challenge to Japan, not just its Asian-studying scholars. But Asian studies certainly offer some of the best tips and hints about how. Japan must face its past truthfully and accountably hence help to answer the profound question how a large Asian nation can modernize, democratize, and advance like Japan without having to go through a repeat of Japan’s history of the 1920-1940s. Today’s Japan is a great Asian success; yet the power of Japan’s model and leadership role can not be fully realized and sustained before this question is well answered.

   On a lesser point, Japan could perhaps spend a bit more on positively promoting itself abroad especially in Asia, as one study concludes that Japan’s governmental spending for overseas promotion is only about one eighth of that in South Korea (and much of it is not spent in non-Asian countries). Japan should not be looked down upon by anyone today; but first the Japanese must stand tall and proudly righteous by taking the responsibility of facing history and behaving as an Asian nation, an Asian leading nation, which it really is.

   More of the existing centers of Asian studies in Japan could become truly regional centers for research and education of the study of Asia, as what is developing in the IOC at the University of Tokyo. With a long history and a remarkable collection of information and expertise, the IOC is well equipped to turn its ambitious mission and comprehensive coverage to greatly develop Asian studies in Asia. Indeed, the IOC is one of the very few academic institutions in the world that aims an integrated study of Asia: from the Arabic world to East Asia, from the classics to current international relations, and from arts to media. It is very encouraging to see the increasing foreign student body at the IOC and in University of Tokyo, it is also very exemplary to see the frequent visits by many foreign scholars and speakers there. The practice by some other Japanese institutions like Waseda University’s College of Pacific and International Studies, many of whose classes are offered in English, is worth enhancing. A conscious effort to increase the foreign undergraduate student population in Japan seems to be a new are full of promises.

   Two years ago, after 20 years of hard work, Japan finally achieved the goal of having 100 thousand foreign students studying in Japan. Right now, 93% of the foreign students are Asians and 64% of them are Chinese. This is indeed a remarkable success which should be sustained and accompanied by other efforts. The American universities have for long made efforts to internationalize their faculties and student bodies. There has been a strong effort in the leading American universities recently to internationalize their curricula and campuses. Japanese universities have made great strides in that regard but more still could be done. The recruiting, promotion and reward systems and incentives in Japanese educational and research institutions may need to be reformed to adapt to the globalizing world, for instance.

  Finally, Asian studies in Asia can be greatly advanced if the most endowed scholars in Japan, who enjoy the highest freedom of speech in Asia, could lead a charge to focus on some of the most pressing and most threatening issues in the field and hence performing a strong leadership role: Why radical nationalisms can be so potent and popular in today’s Asia, defying conventional wisdom and odds? How to head off a new shake-up in the region that could bring epic tragedies? And, of course, are Asians one people or many peoples? How different are Asians anyway from Europeans and Americans and what do those differences mean? What really takes for Asians to come together with means other than conquering with force?

    Asian studies must flourish in Asia, before Asia can be a better place (or perhaps several better places). Japan should and can do more and better to play a leadership role in that highly imperative and worthwhile endeavor.


Fei-Ling Wang
(Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania), is Professor of the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, USA (email: fw@gatech.edu). He taught at the U.S. Military Academy (West Point), guest-lectured at 15 other universities in several countries, and held visiting and adjunct positions in five universities in four countries. In 2005-06, he is a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Oriental Culture of the University of Tokyo.
Wang’s most recent books are Organizing through Division and Exclusion: China's Hukou System (Stanford University Press, 2005) and China Rising: Power and Motivation in Chinese Foreign Policy (co-editor, Rowman & Littlefield, 2005). His dozens of articles have appeared in journals and newspapers such as The China Quarterly, Harvard International Review, International Herald Tribune, Pacific Affairs and The Washington Quarterly as well as Aspenia (Italy), Diplomatie (France), Global Times and Strategy and Management (China). He has had numerous research grants and appeared in some of the world’s major news media.