Saturday, 27 March 2010

Where is the 'the West'?

We often refer to 'Western Philosophy' or 'Western Culture'. But where exactly is 'the West'? Typically, by this term we mean more than a geographical area, as 'the West' includes not only Europe and the US but also Australia, New Zealand and possibly parts of South America!

But what about Japan? The reason that I ask this is that Japan seems in many ways more 'western' than 'the west'. It is arguably more technologically advanced; and if we view, with Heidegger, technology as the west's secret truth and 'historical destiny' then clearly Japan is part of this trajectory.

Moreover, the West is not only present in Japan, but Japan is now present in the West. Not only through the popularisation of manga etc either, but also through its industry - Britain has been the largest recipient of Japanese inward investment - and its management philosophies (such as just-in-time production, srong senses of corporare identification etc).

For centuries Japan was the west's cultural and intellectual other, but now it seems to defy the old occidental/oriental boundary. Japan is a cultural and philosophical hybrid.

So can we even legitimately refer to 'the west' anymore?

Neil Turnbull


  1. An island which has a unique cultural background that bears rather a distinguished way of Eastern philosophy, Japan is of great importance; I realized that Japan is a spiritual place, and yet instead of finding the relaxed Eastern way, we see diligently hard-working people in Japan. I reckon this is the historical impact of Shinto religion and Zen Buddhism, rather than the flux of Western way of life. Thereabouts, religion is a way of life, but secular, and thus in secret fueling the modernity of Japan. Not to mention that Atheism and Nihilism is also a void understanding for Japanese, because they believe in the "creation of meaning."

    When I was in Nagoya three years ago for the summer visit, I had the chance of observing the way of life thereabout. People are intimately polite; in particular the older generation, and they receive great respect from the young, which is a scenery rather non-existant in Britain or the US. Moreover, I could not help but to realize that teenagers are very curious about discovering the meaning life, hence their philosophical tendencies are greater than of Western teenagers. And for most Japanese people, the idea of self does not exist in life, but in the practice of Fine arts, and perhaps in meticulous working.

    But this is of Nagoya prefecture, where old ways and the very Japanese life practice is rather intact. Tokyo...that is a whole different world in a whole different category.

    It is true that Manga and Anime have been widely regarded by Western societies, and apparently even in Japan, it is a cultural force. Perhaps, it is only an example of how meaning is created, without creating the image of escapism, but making the very image a way of life. Sounds like something we are accustomed to see in the West, aren't we?

    Ugur Parlar

  2. It is easy to view Japan as in some way 'culturally unique'; but this is to fall foul of the 'Orientalist fallacy' by viewing Japan as the highest expression of the mystical/aesthetic/irrational dimensions of contemporary thought.

    However, the essential point is that Japan defies any simple categorisation into 'east' or 'west'. In the western imaginary Japan certainly symbolises 'the inscutable', but life in Japan today is highly consumer-oriented and overall pretty 'bourgeois'.

    It is also highly technological - the Japansese seem strangely at home in artificial and virtual worlds. To some extent technology is seen as complementary to nature and not its enemy. Is Japan then western or eastern? Maybe these categories have become rather old fashioned in today's compplex global world?

    Neil Turnbull