Genealogies of Asia


back to issue

WHAT is Asia? Where does it begin and where does it end? Does it have either cartographic or intellectual boundaries; does it refer to a supra-regional community bound by spiritual, social and cultural affinities? Or, is it merely ‘this enmapped place [which] has never been more than a simulacrum of something that has no substance’ (H. Haratoonian),1 an invention of Orientalism and inseparable from Euro-American power over Asia (Edward Said, Orientalism). Geographical boundaries are drawn on the basis of political and intellectual principles and are not merely markers of natural boundaries. Yet these constructed identities and territories are not illusory. Increasingly the notion of an Asian community has become common currency. Politicians and intellectuals within Asia use terminology that comes straight out of the Orientalist lexicon and yet they use it to underline differences. Is this a post Cold War phenomenon where countries and regions are attempting to define a new conception of the international order?

Asian nations have during their long and complex histories forged a sense of self and territory that cannot be homogenised. These evolving identities have changed and developed in many ways, often in conflict and at odds with their neighbours. This history needs to be considered along with the mental categories imposed from the outside by colonial powers. This essay is an exploratory attempt to examine the processes that have shaped the way the peoples and nations of this region, Asia, have categorised their neighbours, and the world.

This history can be divided into three very broad periods, starting with the pre-modern when Asian nations came into contact with European powers and their knowledge of the world increased and began to alter under the growing hegemony of the western powers. In the second period large parts of Asia were colonised, and even countries that were not fully colonised or independent, such as Japan, worked within a colonial environment. Japan created its own colonial empire and, therefore, had to redefine relations with its neighbours, as well as its own sense of being Japanese. In the third phase, after World War II, as the process of de-colonisation strengthened, the old verities of Asia and Asianness were questioned and discarded as new principles, such as Marxism or non-alignment, bound nations together in their search for equity and dreams of progress.

The last two and a half decades, a new phase, have seen a growing expression of Asianness and an assertion of difference based on values, cultures and religions that replay the colonial denigration with pride. While still evoloving, this phase is marked by growing economic and political power expressed in the formation of new regional groupings and the call for a greater global role. This enmaped place has become embodied. What are we to make of this?

It is with these questions in mind that this essay explores some conceptions of the region and the world articulated within Asia, in particular in India and Japan.


Europe and Asia: In classical times Asia was represented by the three rich kingdoms of Cathay, Cipangu and the ‘Indies’. The Renaissance adopted the Indies as a description for the lands east of the Indus that marked the limits of the Hellenistic world and 16th century European cartographers and the voyages of exploration began to define Asia by its present boundaries.2 European interest changed over the years. The European Enlightenment’s fascination for China was replaced by an admiration for India. This interest in Europe about Asia was in part a product of Romanticism and served as a radical critique of European society. Jules Michelet, for instance, saw Asia as ‘lofty Asia, the profound East.’

However, by the opening decades of the 19th century these views began to change and be appraised more critically. John Mill in the History of British India (1817) set the trend to see the region as ‘nations of eternal standstill’, or in terms of an ‘Asiatic Mode of Production’. In the period of colonialism, Orientalism became a ‘structure erected in the thick of an imperial contest whose dominant wing it represented and elaborated not only as scholarship but as partisan ideology.’3 However, this needs to be tempered by an understanding that by drawing attention to alternative conceptual schemes, the study of non-western societies has served Europeans as a way to critically confront their own countries.


The idea of Asia, in the modern sense, was formed during the colonial period but Asian countries categorised the region and the world in a variety of ways. Here, I will only look at India and Japan but the analysis could be extended to other countries in the region. Historically, different parts of the South Asian subcontinent have had links with countries extending from the eastern coast of Africa, to Central and Southeast Asia. The Himalayan barriers, while formidable, did not block all movement. It is through these routes that both Christianity and Islam came to India and Buddhism, as well as Islam spread, as did Indian culture and Indian products such as spices and textiles. Location within the Indian subcontinent, therefore, made interaction with certain parts of Asia more important; consequently there were multiple images of Asia and these in turn played a role in shaping a sense of India.

Colonial rule integrated India into the British empire; it also meant that Indian goods, traders and soldiers built connections with other parts of the empire. These connections were often in the service of empire, as not only officials, soldiers and traders but many others sought refuge outside to pursue their fight for independence. The dominant intellectual impact of a sense of Asia was seen in the assertion of eastern spirituality. These views formed part of a growing discourse in other parts of Asia where intellectuals and political movements found it an effective way to confront the West. Japan’s defeat of Russia electrified people in countries across the Asian region, but even before this epochal event Indian intellectuals had begun to see in Japan a source of what was possible if only they could break out of colonial bondage. Japan became a possible future.

In the years preceding Japan’s war with Russia, the Japanese art historian and ideologue of Asianism, Okakura Tenshin, visited India and his meetings with intellectual leaders such as the Tagore brothers and Sister Nivedita, served to initiate a dialogue that has continued, if rather sporadically, since then. Okakura wrote Ideals of the East while in Calcutta and Sister Nivedita, who wrote the preface, was among those who exerted an influence in shaping his ideas.


Let me take two examples, that of Aurobindo Ghosh and M. Visvesaraya, from among the many available to give a sense of how Indian intellectuals thought about their relationship to Asia and their role within this.

M. Visvesaraya, an engineer by training who subsequently became the Diwan of Mysore, went to Japan in March 1898 and made a close study of the country. He saw that education and economic development were of crucial importance. The principal need for a country, he argued, was to increase production and so raise the standard of living of the people, provide education for all, spread enlightenment and finally train the people so that their capacity for initiative and enterprise would be raised.4 Japan, he wrote, is doing this because the Department of Education’s objective was the ‘training of the native mind to European ways of thinking and working.’

Visvesaraya praised Japanese policies because they encouraged close cooperation between industry and government so that through subsidies and tariff protection industrial development could be nurtured. He pointed to the crucial role of information and how the Japanese government provided information about foreign markets to industry. He thought that Japan offered a model for India: ‘Since all industrial progress in Japan has been achieved in comparatively recent years, she offers to India the most direct and valuable lessons obtainable in material advancement and reconstruction.’ The nation, he argued was ‘the most effective unit of combination for securing to the people composing it the maximum benefit from their aggregate activities and efforts,’ and therefore India must cherish this spirit of nationalism and patriotism.


Aurobindo Ghosh’s analysis in his early political writings was grounded in a wider perspective of Asia. He saw each civilization as having long-term historical characteristics and noted that it was not just that Japan was able to transform herself but also that China was changing, and the only reason that India could not advance in equal measure was because she was enslaved. He argued that Asian nations had sources of strength that were greater than those of the European nations, and therefore their ability to resist and transform was greater. To understand these sources of strength it was important to recognise that the political ideals of the West were not the mainsprings of the political movements of the East.5


The real strength of Asia lay in the Islamic ideal of equality and the divine unity of man and spirit as expressed in the Vedanta. He identified the source of failure of European democracy in the fact that ‘It took as its motive the rights of man and not the dharma of humanity; it appealed to the selfishness of the lower classes against the pride of the upper; it made hatred and internecine war the permanent allies of Christian ideals and wrought an inextricable confusion which is the modern malady of Europe.’6 A movement of Asian democracy, he argued, can succeed only if it discards the illusion that it must follow Europe and forget this past, ‘for it is the dharma of every man to be free in soul. It is this ideal that differentiates the soul of Asia from that of Europe.’

Aurobindo’s vision of Asia was not just limited to Japan but encompassed China, Persia and Turkey amongst others. Like others before him, he argued that the Japanese have a ‘patriotic spirit and imitative faculties’ but went on to say that the Chinese strength lies in ‘grand deliberation, the patient thoroughness, the irresistible organisation of China.’7 It is the Indian genius that gets his fulsome praise, however, for he saw in it ‘an all embracing intellect, her penetrating intuition, her invincible originality’ and so if ‘the genius of Japan lies in her imitation and improvement that of India is in origination.’8 But he also examined and commented on the constitutional movements in Persia and Turkey and noted that their strength lies in ‘the preservation of their national individuality and existence while equipping themselves with the weapons of the modern strength for survival.’9


Aurobindo’s vision is of each nation having a distinct civilizational characteristic even while sharing common features that bind them into an Asian civilization and that to make the difficult transition from colonial rule to independence, it is necessary to have small groups of enlightened people take the lead as the common people could not have yet reached a level of civilization where they would comprehend this as well as the political dangers the new governments would face from the colonial powers.10

But even while he supports the independence of the colonised, he is ambiguous when it comes to the problem of Korea. Writing about Ito Hirobumi’s assassination by a Korean, he bemoans the death of a great man and writes that ‘Korea will gain nothing by this rash and untimely act,’ for Japan ‘will grind the soul out of Korea until its undistinguishable from Japan.’ He notes that a subject nation must attract sympathy but the Korean’s ‘have not the strength of soul to attain freedom.’11

In an editorial (1908), ‘The Asiatic Role’, he wrote, ‘In former ages India was a sort of hermitage of thought and peace apart form the world… Her thoughts flashed out over Asia and created civilization… It is therefore the office of Asia to take up the work of human evolution when Europe comes to a standstill and loses itself in a clash of vain speculations, barren experiments and helpless struggles to escape from the consequences of her own mistakes. Such a time has now come in the world’s history.’12


There were of course others, notably Rabindranath Tagore, who looked to Japan and its artistic heritage but it is important to note that they were part of an environment where India and its relationship with Asia was being discussed and debated. However, the over-riding motif was one of India as the repository and creator of civilization, whose duty it was to once again spread these benefits to others as it had done in ages gone by. Chitranjan Das wrote that while Asians share cultural ties it is India that has supplied the religious teachers of the world. For him it was the ‘menace which threatens all alike’, of western domination and racism, that was more important than the ties of ancient culture. He wrote, ‘Let the blacks, browns, and yellows of Asia meet together from time to time. Let them begin to share one another’s aspirations and sufferings. Let them unite in the search for the voice, which Asia has lost. Asia must find her own voice.’

The noted historian, Sir Jadunath Sarkar, advocated modernisation and wrote that we must not keep on emphasizing the peculiar heritage of the Aryan India of the past and instead embrace the spirit of progress. At the same time he was also president of the Greater India Society, established in 1926, to encourage the study of Indian influence and its revival in Southeast Asia. India as the source of civilization was never far off in the critical imagination of the times.


There were other voices that did not accept this idea of an Asian community. Benoy Sarkar, a sociologist who travelled through three continents over a period of eleven years, argued, ‘Neither historically nor philosophically does the Asiatic mentality differ from the Euro-American. It is only after the brilliant successes of a fraction of mankind subsequent to the Industrial Revolution of the last century that the alleged difference between the two mentalities has been first stated and since then grossly exaggerated.’ In The Future of Asia he wrote, ‘Hindustan first became what truly may be called the school of Asia. Kalidasa as the embodiment of Hindu nationalism is thus the spirit of Asia.’ This, he argued lays the basis for a ‘psychological groundwork that makes Asiatic unity a psychological necessity in spite of ethnological and linguistic diversities.’13

The one famous exception was, of course, Gandhi, who in his writings, notably Hind Swaraj (1909), was critical of the very idea of modern civilization. Gandhi argued that the East and West can only meet when the West has overthrown modern civilization. Yet even he would on occasion use the rhetoric of the East. When he first returned to India from South Africa, he wrote, ‘We shall move to our goal in the manner of the East, and not in the manner of the West, for we are of the East. We shall grow up in the beautiful manners and customs of India and, true to her spirit, make friends with nations having different ideals. Indeed through her Oriental culture India will establish friendly relations with the eastern and western worlds.’14 Here the notion of India as the mediator, earlier articulated by Aurobindo Ghose, re-surfaces.


Jawaharlal Nehru worked hard to promote ties with Asian countries, particularly China. He had supported China against Japan, and in 1938 helped to send a unit to provide medical assistance to Chinese fighting the Japanese. While working to build relations with Asian countries, Nehru was dismissive of the importance of Japan. In his conception of world history he saw Japan as a peripheral nation and argued that its history had became important only in modern times. Japan’s victory over Russia aroused pride in Asia, not only because of the defeat of a western power but also because it demonstrated the need to assimilate new ideas, as the victory was viewed as Japan having successfully adopted western science and technology.

After independence, Nehru was instrumental in convening the Asian Relations Conference in Delhi in 1947 where he said, ‘Apart from the fact that India herself is emerging into freedom and independence, she is the natural centre and focal point of the many forces at work in Asia. Geography is a compelling factor, and geographically she is situated as to be the meeting point of western and northern, eastern and Southeast Asia. …Streams of culture have come to India from the West and the East and been absorbed in India… At the same time, streams of culture have flowed from India to distant parts of Asia. If you would know India you have to go to Afghanistan and Western Asia, to Central Asia, to China and Japan and to the countries of South East Asia. There you will find magnificent evidence of the vitality of India’s culture which spread out and influenced vast numbers of people.’15

Here again India is the natural centre of Asia because it is the influence of Indian civilization that has shaped and formed the other parts of Asia. This despite the fact that since at least the 1920s, anti-Indian sentiment in Burma and Ceylon had been increasing and even during the conference there was a degree of India-China rivalry. Moreover, India had little contact with Thailand or the Philippines or Indonesia. There is never any sense of how these beliefs and ideas changed and transformed in their travels, and what entered India is seen to be absorbed without changing the essential elements that form India.

Indian Muslims were influenced by Pan-Islam and this was expressed in their sympathy with Turkey as it fought wars against Russia, Greece and Italy and the Balkan wars. The Congress also supported Egypt’s fight for independence and the Palestinians as they felt that British support for the Jews was part of a strategy to maintain a hold on the area and control routes to the Persian Gulf. One can debate the success of these moments but they certainly represented an attempt to find ways to build regional and ideological solidarity.


One strand in the conception of a newly independent India was that just as India had been the key of the British empire so too its independence would be the fulcrum around which the independence of other countries in the region would be achieved. The nationalist dream framed its vision of the world within the boundaries of the modern world. European imperialism had, despite colonial domination, brought into the basis of modern civilization; these universal principles were now available to societies such as India. European domination had created an Asia of new groupings for its purposes but these new solidarities could now be used in different ways. K.M. Panikkar’s Asia and Western Dominance was an expression of this modern, nationalist vision. An expression so fleeting that it has been largely ignored, though when published nearly a hundred years ago, it charted a new course.

K.M Panikkar was in Paris in 1925 where, along with Duong Van Giao, an Annamese Buddhist, he worked through the Oriental Society to correct the false propaganda about Asian countries and represent them at the various conferences held in Europe. It was on the basis of this vision, formed through working with Asian revolutionaries in Europe as well as through his involvement with the Indian independence movement that he sought to understand the causes of colonial domination not just through the experience of India but in the larger regional setting. In Asia and Western Dominance, India is the fulcrum on which this domination rests and he builds on this and continues the earlier views, such as those of Aurobindo Ghose.


The most important factor for Panikkar is that the French Revolution changed the relationship between India and Asia because ‘Negroes in Haiti, Tipoo in Mysore, Dutch radicals in Indonesia – all felt the ripples of this movement.’ It was, he argues, ‘the fear of the French that led to British expansion, but even more important, it gave the world a liberal tradition so that even the Dutch had to pay lip service to the interests of the Indonesians when they colonised them.’16 European ideas then, according to Panikkar, provided the Asian people with their first political ideology. For example, he sees Raja Ram Mohan Roy thinking in terms of ‘Rousseau watered down to meet Indian conditions.’17


European domination in its final phase provided advanced technologies and the introduction of modern skills, the first conception of a modern state to the Asian mind, and a notion of moral well-being, which found its most characteristic expression in missionary work. This was completed earliest in India and provided a model for the rest of the region. These elements of modernity, however, initiated a process that led to the dissolution of the older social structures. So for instance, railway construction began the destruction of traditional China. Asian state systems had been essentially bureaucratic and therefore ‘administrative’ and not political. Imperialism also provided an opportunity for ordinary people and not just the upper classes as before to travel, and young Asians now began to go to Europe. So we find Japanese, Chinese, Indians, Indo-Chinese going to London, Paris and Leiden.18

These new groups became a force for change and revolution. Nationalism for Panikkar was not a European product but a new doctrine even in Europe, and Asia was following much the same trajectory. In Europe ‘the doctrine developed mainly as a resistance to Napoleonic aggrandisement’; so in Asia as well it has developed as an ideology of resistance.19 Having located his idea of India and its position in the structure of empire, Panikkar argues, ‘If nationalism developed directly by resistance and indirectly by the recovery of historical sense and pride in cultural achievement as a result of western contact, the sense of Asianism is exclusively the counterpart of the solidarity of European feeling.’


His conception of Asia founded on resistance differs from that advocated by Okakura Tenshin, who located it within shared cultural and religious ideals. Panikkar argues that the idea of Asia has many roots. Asia is not just Buddhism, ancestor worship and family relationships; there is also a Pan-Islamic tradition and despite differences there are commonly shared ideals between Indians and Chinese. The solidarity of Europe gave rise to Asianess. In India where nationals of other European countries enjoyed no national rights there was a solidarity between Europeans versus the Indians. The social clubs were for Europeans not just for the English. European domination did not mean that all Asian ideas would be replaced by European ideas and institutions.

Panikkar argued that in languages and literature till about WWI there was no major break with the past and even Tagore, a product of Victorian culture, spoke with the voice of one nurtured on the epics of Vyasa and Valmiki. But since then there have been dramatic changes and now there is little concern with past traditions and the new art forms owe little to the past. This change in language is, for Panikkar, of far reaching consequences for it ‘represents a new semantic, a new world of ideas and thought.’ This world offers the possibility of greater interpenetration of culture made realisable because of the end of domination.


The fading of Panikkar’s vision of a modern Asia lies in the questioning of the modernist conception that underlay his writing. As Cold War politics divided the world into camps, alternative paths to national and regional security were sought: India found its future in non-alignment, China in Marxism as interpreted by Mao, and Japan within the U.S. military alliance. These positions generated their own compulsions and rivalry for leadership within the region. The U.S. presence in Asia and its war in Vietnam further polarised the region and shaped social and political agenda’s. Though the collapse of the USSR has helped to attenuate some of these compulsions, the emergence of the United States as the sole hegemonic power and a combination of economic and military policies that seek to define new rules of subjugation have generated a variety of responses.

The spread of a global cultural practice that subsumes differences within the dominant Euro-American system created the context within which assertions of Asian or other cultural/civilizational identities must be understood. It is within these debates that a new relationship between India, the region and the world is being construed. The contours of this new mental map are inextricably linked with the perception of India and its history. Have present relations within the region been skewed because of colonial legacy or do we need to go back to pre-colonial times to look at the pattern of intra-regional relations and perceptions?


Japanese understanding of the world has its origins in the classical three-country world view: Japan (honcho), the continent including China and Korea (Shintan or Kara), and countries beyond, including India (Tenjiku). While there was trade and cultural exchange with China, India seemed to represent a region somewhere out there from where Buddhism originated. The transformation of Japan’s world view and the exclusion of Tenjiku from its place of privilege reflects the growing understanding of the world that began around the middle of the 16th century as Japanese came into contact with European nations. The three-country world view, whether from a Buddhist or Confucian position, placed Japan at the borders of geography and civilization. Paradoxically this helped to strengthen the idea of Japan as a sacred land (shinkoku).

China and Japan are seen, and at times both have seen themselves, as part of the same cultural family, teeth and lips presenting a common face to the world. That, however, has more often than not seemed more of a literary flourish than an expression of unbreakable bonds. Relations between the two have historically been one-sided; with Japan a distant island on the fringes of Chinese culture and the flow of influence has accordingly been one way, mediated mostly by Korea.

Japan established treaty relations with China in 1871, but intellectually the process of disestablishing the Middle Kingdom and treating China as another country had begun earlier, and the idealization of China when far removed was replaced by a critical appreciation of Chinese limitations, and the realisation that Japan need not, indeed must not, take the path that China seemed to be set on. The importance of preserving national sovereignty was the most obvious lesson to be learned from a Chinese reality now increasingly familiar to the Japanese.

Japanese thinking on Asia in general (and for Japan this really means China), is generally categorised into two groups, ‘Transcend Asia’ (or Datsu-A), from Fukuzawa Yukichi’s famous essay of the same name. In it he argued that Japan must ‘transcend Asia, for Asia represented the old and the decrepit, and if it did not then it too would be sucked into torpor and overtaken by the western powers. The other group, ‘Revive Asia’ (or Koa) sought to link the survival and success of Japan with a revived China.


To a large extent the difference between the so-called Datsu-A and Ko-A positions is negligible when compared to the common understanding that both adopted, namely of Japanese superiority. The idea of an alliance (rentai) was, by and large, under the direction or leadership of Japan and not considered as an alliance of equals. Thus, for instance, the liberal-imperialist Ozaki Yukio (1858-1954), in Arguments for Preserving China writes, ‘The annexation of China is both in the interest of the Japanese Empire and for the welfare of the people of China,’ and if the western powers oppose this then they are ‘opposing the happiness of humanity. Further, they are opposing the interests of the world.’

The process of defending Japan required the outside world, but was inextricably linked to a redefinition of self and nation. This new redrawing of the physical and intellectual boundaries of Japan was carried out by building on earlier ideological traditions and using institutions such as the imperial institution for modern ends. The writing of a modern history of Japan was a double movement that excluded an orientalised Asia even as it made Japan the repository of all that was Asian. Soon after it came to know modern Asia, often through European eyes, Fukuzawa had formulated his call to transcend Asia.

The idea of an East Asian Community (Toa kyodotai), was built around the belief that a new intellectual order could be based on the spirit of science (kagaku seishin). It was the responsibility of larger ethnic groupings that had a historically progressive character to assist the progress of smaller and more backward ethnic groups.20 The tension between ‘leaving Asia’ (Datsua) or ‘allying with Asia’ (Koa) was submerged in the drive for empire and the creation of the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere (Daitoa).


Okakura Tenshin (1862-1913) articulated an early attempt to search for and define Japan’s past. Asia, for Okakura, becomes the frame that represented the colonial order and Japan’s successful transition to modernity pointed the way to the liberation of Asia. Okakura’s explorations do not present a tightly articulated agenda but partake of the ambiguities and contradictions inherent in the situation. His contribution lies not just in defining the artistic heritage of Japan and linking Asia through Buddhism and art, but in laying the boundaries of what it means to be Japanese.

In effect, even as Okakura talked of a common Asia, he was, through a shared aesthetic past anchored in Buddhism as well as through the progress of Japanese history, identifying the intellectual inheritances and heroes that created modern Japan. His analysis of Japanese history and Asia contributed to the intellectual discourse, and became the core ideas subsumed under the rubric of pan-Asianism that played and continues to play a vital role in shaping the way Japanese think of self and nation, and their relationship to the Asian region.


Okakura Tenshin’s cultural critique of western civilization was articulated in a notion of the West, Asia and Japan that has indigenous roots as well as is shaped by imperial/global influences. The creation of an Asia was carried out simultaneously with the formation of Japan as a modern nation state. Both of these concepts built on earlier notions, but were shaped and deployed in new ways to resist and assert an equality with that other overarching category, that of the West, as well as to assert dominance among those who had yet to attain ‘civilization’.

Japan, he argues, because it has preserved its independence and is the repository of Asian culture, has a responsibility to lead Asia. ‘The task of Asia today,’ he writes, ‘then becomes that of protecting and restoring Asiatic modes. But to do this she must successfully recognise and develop consciousness of these modes.’21 This was the task of developing the modes of Asian consciousness that he set himself.22 He defines these modes in the following manner: for India the religious life is the essence of nationality, China is a moral civilization and Japan has the spiritual purity of the sword soul. He writes, ‘In our history lies the secret of our future.’23 With Asia having been equated with Japan, it became the destiny of Japan to formulate the programme for defining Asiatic modes of consciousness, of identifying the essential characteristics of each part of the Orient, and integrating it within the framework of Japan. Japan’s history showed that it alone had preserved the elements of the past, its purity, and so could lead Asia.


Even as Asia needs to return to her traditions, these modes of consciousness can only be developed through an understanding of the actual. He writes, ‘We have wandered among ideals, let us awaken once more to the actual.’24 Opposition, therefore, had to be based on an understanding of the power of western countries. How is one to understand the power of European civilization and its hold over the world? Okakura sees this as the central question around which Asia can be reborn. European civilization, he argues, despite its powerful position in the world, is based on narrow principles, and so is in a historically inferior position. Yet, despite this inferiority, it has emerged as a powerful force and this is because of nationalism. The lack of territory in Europe, Okakura argues, led to the development of a very strong sense of nationality that has allowed the Europeans to over run the East, a civilization that has been based on tolerance and the ideals of self-sacrifice.25

It is, he argues, European technology that allows the unification of the nation state, and asserts, ‘Their very language, in which I am enabled to appeal to you, that signifies the unification of the East.’26 The only hope that he sees for Asian development lies in raising the patriotic spirit and a systematic preparation for war. It is this necessity to build an Asia that is nationalist that provides the reason for Japan’s leadership.


If Okakura‘s writing are implicated in the western colonial project of dominating the non-western world, as well as in the Japanese colonial project, can they represent a point of departure for questioning the domination of the West? Can we extract a concept of resistance that transcends his local limitations. Okakura has a unique position in Japanese history and his ideas and approach continue to serve as markers to demarcate positions in contemporary Japanese politics. The glorification of Asia that Okakura represents is identified with Japan’s imperial project and, therefore, condemned. But in parts of Asia his call for alternative modes of conceptualising and his search for a culturally bound unity provide a position to confront the West, a position that exercises a strong appeal.

It would be a mistake to assume that there was a single homogeneous view of Japan’s relations with Asia; there were areas of overlap. Okawa Shumei, who brought to bear an extensive knowledge of Asian countries and their philosophies, religion and history, defined the Asian people by their desire for liberation from the white man. Japan’s victory over Russia was in that sense a very powerful symbolic event and even though Japan ‘lost’ the peace, her victory reverberated through Asia precisely because the struggle between West and East had been defined by the West in intellectual and cultural terms. It is this strain of pan-Asianism with its liberationist impulse that was gradually marginalised in the interests of empire but never completely forgotten; it can be seen in the East Asian League founded by Kimura Takeo and Ishihara Kanji. But the demands of empire ensured that what incorporated a principle of liberation and a base for a regional identity was put to use to justify hierarchy and subordination.


The end of WWII marked a new chapter that led, with US support, to dramatic changes that rewove Japan’s social and political fabric, transfiguring a former enemy nation into an integral military ally of the United States. The single-minded concentration on economic development did lead to a remarkable improvement in the everyday lives of people and made the country a global economic power. However, Japan continued to remain quiescent in the diplomatic arena, or in the words of the Asahi journalist Yoichi Funabashi, ‘smiling, silent and sleeping’.

The growth of regional trading blocs and their transformation into more closely linked groupings has spurred the Japanese to cement their ties within the Asian region. As trade and investments increased in the post-war years, Japanese industry and business came to establish a greater presence in East and Southeast Asia and from the nineties in South Asia as well. The importance of oil supplies from West Asia also made the region particularly important for Japan. Japanese economic interests, as well as a growing need to build a foreign policy not totally dependent on the United States, provided a rationale for giving shape to these policies. But it was in the 1972 re-opening of U.S. relations with China that Japan became painfully aware of its interests and the so-called ‘oil shock’ jolted Japan into realising both the finiteness of natural resources and the need to reduce energy consumption. These multiple objectives lay behind the attempts to build ties with the Asian region.

The crucial adjustments to foreign policy were made under the Fukuda Takeo cabinet (December 1976-December1978) when Asia became the focus of Japan’s diplomacy as it launched an ambitious Overseas Development Programme (ODA). Japan was also forced because of the U.S.-China rapprochement, as well as the anti-Japanese riots in Southeast Asia, to conclude a peace treaty with China after Tanaka Kakue visited Beijing in 1972 that was finally signed in August 1978.


In Southeast Asia, expectations from the inflow of Japanese investments to the local economies did not match the reality as Japanese investments did not bring the expected higher levels of technology. The narrow hiring policies of Japanese companies made them less attractive as compared to European or American firms. This was true for India as well, its expectations from the Japanese after the deregulation policies of the 1990s was disappointing. Japanese reactions to Indian nuclear tests put an initial damper on their relationship, but once the U.S. accepted it, the Japanese have become much more receptive to the idea of increased political interaction. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has projected himself as a great friend of India and there is talk of building a strategic partnership. This, as commentators like Soeya Yoshihide underline, will have to be within the U.S. alliance.

The rise of China, as a major economic and political player, has changed the regional environment dramatically. The reforms initiated in China in the late 1970s, a quarter of a century ago, have been sustained despite scepticism about their durability and ability of the leadership to maintain political stability as it opened the economy. Moreover, economic growth has not just been confined to the coastal belt or to the main urban centres; despite the regional disparities, it is being pushed in other less developed parts, notably the western region.

This coupled with political stability has served to restrain and limit protest and political disruption such that China has now become a model for Russia to see how it could have managed a more successful transition from socialism and not created the enormous social and political upheaval that it has suffered from during this period. While social problems have not disappeared and continue to remain an important concern, China has become a major trading partner and target of investment. The emergence of China as a regional and global player will impact on Japan’s role in the region. The relationship between China, Taiwan and Hong Kong is still complex and how it plays out in the coming years will shape the regional and global contours. Coupled with changes in the Korean peninsula and a possible re-unification of the two Korea’s and their relationship with China needs to be factored into any consideration of Japan’s place in Asia.


In a sense, even more important over the long run, is the transformation of cultural interaction within this region and the impact it will have on shaping a regional identity. The last couple of decades or so have shown the enormous influence that Japanese culture has been exerting on the world. As Brian Moeran argues, Japanese influences on Asian popular culture are pervasive and need to be understood in the context of transnational flows.27 He asks how deterritorialised are Japanese people, technologies, capital, information, images and ideologies in the Asian context. His arguments are that Japan, by defeating the colonial powers, showed Asia that it was possible to stand up against the West and today’s flow of labour, as well as students, has created a group of cultural brokers who influence the socioscapes in their own countries.


In the field of popular culture, the Japanization of Asian culture has become evident. The popularity of Japanese popular music, animated films, film stars, fashion, as well as commodities is amply visible. The media is dominated by advertising images from Japan and Japanese food has become very popular. So if we move away from the high cultural standpoint, Japan has had a major influence on Asian culture.

The Japanese advocacy of Asian values built around a cohesive family, consensual social organisation, an emphasis on diligence and thrift, and a Confucian emphasis on group and community rather than the divisive individualism of the West, has become an ideal advocated by some groups, even though these practices have been severely undermined in Japanese society. These it would seem turn Orientalism on its head by asserting that it is precisely these values, seen in the past as backward and leading to Asian stagnation, which account for the resurgence of Asia. The advocates of Asian values represent a continuation of Japan’s imperial ideologies that sought to create a sense of community. Similarly, Asian values rather than representing or articulating an existing structure of thought, are really an attempt to provide the basis of a community that is yet to be realised.

Reinscribing Japan into Asia has a complex genealogy weaving many ideological strands into a dense network. It is as much a product of Japan’s indigenous traditions of exclusivity as it is of meeting the challenges of our times. Thus many scholars see the arguments for an Asian community as an extension or a natural growth of Japan as unique or Nihonjinron genre. Kobayashi Yotaro wrote in 1991 that it is vital for Japan to return to Asia, to re-Asianise to meet the challenge of a West that has unified. Similarly, Ogura Kazuo, a diplomat and major figure in redefining Japanese identity within an Asian community, argues that despite changes Japan still maintains universal values such as diligence, strong family ties, respect for the elderly, the individuals submission to larger group interests and spirituality. These values have been lost in the West and it is the mission of Japan and Asia to re-Asianise the West.28


It is easy enough to argue that the Asian renaissance or the Asian age are ways of ensuring Japan’s dominance at a time when the world is being divided into trading blocs. Asian values can also be seen as ways to stave off liberal demands for making governments democratic and answerable. I would argue that they also represent a crisis within liberal democracy and representative institutions. The decline or marginalisation of liberalism and the acceptance of the norms of a developmental state in much of East and Southeast Asia or the resurgence of religion as a way of organising political life point to the strong desire to address this crisis. The issues raised in these debates are complex and it would be wrong to minimise the often contradictory currents that compose them, but their general thrust is to the constitution of a new sense of community that preserves their local aspirations and histories while allowing them to be part of the global world of today.


To return to the question that I began with: What of Asia? Is it a colonial concept that has lost its meaning in the contemporary world? Or are we witnessing the emergence of a regional identity? Is there a need to redefine and reimagine this place? Are essentialist definitions of Asia as bound by religion (Islam, Hindu, Buddhist), ethical and value systems (Confucian, family), the market (Japan and the erstwhile Tigers) limiting? Do we need to reconsider the basis of other solidarities such as anti-colonialism and imperialism (the non-aligned movement, socialism), or do the non-state centred movements as represented by the World Social Forum point to new ways of reordering the world? Are there other affinities that link the people of this region? And what divides them?

We need to think of an Asia conceived not only as a geographical region but also as intervening in the transformation of global capitalism, or what Arlif Dirlik has called ‘critical regionalism’. Can Asia offer a credible alternative both in the social and political sphere, as well as in the cultural? For only then can it counter the hegemony of the United States and global capitalism, and as long as it cannot Asian regionalism will be locked into a global order over which it can exercise little control. These are questions that will vary with place, but they have an importance and in trying to understand these questions I have argued that it becomes necessary to look at the varied genealogies of the idea of Asia to understand the dynamics of contemporary interaction.


* See Brij Tankha and Madhavi Thampi, Narratives of Asia from India, Japan and China. Sampark, Kolkatta, 2005, for a more detailed treatment.



1. Quoted in Arlif Dirlik, ‘No Longer Far Away: The Reconfiguration of Global Relations and its Challenges to Asian Studies’ in Leo Douw (ed.) Unsettled Frontiers and Transnational Linkages: New Tasks for the Historian of Modern Asia, Comparative Asian Studies 19, VU University Press, Amsterdam, 1997.

2. The most comprehensive treatment of the history of cartography for this region is J.B. Harley and David Woodward (eds.) The History of Cartography, Volume Two, and Cartography in the Traditional East and Southeast Asian Societies, Chicago University Press, Chicago, as well as the work of Kazutaka Unno. See, in particular, his Japan, the Country of Wa, Zipangu and Great Japan as Seen in Maps (Chizu ni miru nippon wakoku, zipangu, dainippon), (Taishukan shoten, Tokyo, 1999).

3. Edward Said, Orientalism, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1978, p. 211.

4. For the subsequent paragraphs on M. Visvesvaraya see my, ‘Japanese Studies in India: Mapping the Contours’ in Asian Research Trends, The Centre for East Asian Cultural Studies, The Toyo Bunko, Tokyo, pp.47-61, particularly pp. 48-50.

5. ‘Asiatic Democracy’, Bande Mataram, 16 March 1908, in Sri Aurobindo Birth Centenary Library, Bande Mataram, Vol. 1, Early Political Writings and Speeches 1890-1908, Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, Pondicherry, 1972, pp. 757-760.

6. Aurobindo Ghose, ibid. ‘Asiatic Democracy’, p.758. Dharma should be read as duty or obligation. Its sense is closer to that of ‘way’ (michi) as in the ‘way of the warrior’ (bushido), than in that of religion in the western sense.

7. Aurobindo Ghose, ‘India and the Mongolians’, Bande Mataram,Vol. I. 1 April 1908, pp. 812-817.

8. Aurobindo Ghose, ibid., ‘The Asiatic Role’, Bande Mataram, Vol. I. 9 April 1908, pp. 842-845.

9. Aurobindo Ghose, ibid., Bande Mataram, Vol. II. Facts and Opinions, Number 6, 31 July 1909.

10. Aurobindo Ghose, ibid., Vol. II. Facts and Opinions, No.16, 9 October 1909, pp. 230-1; 247, 248.

11. Aurobindo Ghose, ibid., Vol. II. Facts and Opinions, 9 October 1909, pp. 256-7.

12. Aurobindo Ghose, ‘The Asiatic Role’, Bande Mataram, Vol. I. 9 April 1908, pp. 842-845.

13. Stephen N. Hay, Asian Ideas of East and West: Tagore and His Critics in Japan, China and India. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1970, pp. 259-260.

14. Hay, ibid., p. 282.

15. Hay, ibid., p. 294.

16. K.M. Panikkar, Asia and Western Dominance, Somaiya Publications, New Delhi, p. 316 (originally published by George Allen and Unwin, London, 1953, p. 316.

17. K.M. Panikkar, ibid., p. 316.

18. K.M. Panikkar, ibid., p. 319.

19. K.M. Panikkar, ibid., p. 320.

20. See Tessa Morris Suzuki, Re-inventing Japan: Time, Space, Nation, M.E. Sharpe, London, 1987, p. 100.

21. Okakura Tenshin, Ideals of the East With Special Reference to the East, John Murray, London, 1903, p. 131.

22. The Collected Works of Okakura Tenshin (Okakura Tenshin zenshu), Vol. 8, Heibonsha, Tokyo, 1981, p. 184.

23. Ideals, op.cit., p. 131.

24. Okakura Tenshin, The Awakening of Japan, John Murray, London, 1905, p. 131.

25. Ibid., p. 157-58.

26. Ibid., p. 160.

27. Brian Moeran, ‘Commodities, Culture and Japan’s Corollanization of Asia’, in Ian Reader and Marie Sodeberg (eds.) Japanese Influences and Presence in Asia, Curzon Press, London, pp. 25-50.

28. Kenn Nakata Steffensen, ‘Post Cold War Changes in Japanese International Identity: Implications for Japan’s Influence in Asia’, in Reader and Sodeberg (eds.) ibid., p. 149-150.