by Yoh Nakanishi
Immaturity of the Nation-State
East Asian societies share one general feature: none have been completely developed into a modern sovereign state or contemporary nation-state. This feature manifests itself in many ways, and each way has been influenced by geographical and geopolitical conditions unique to each society. The "external" sovereignties of East Asian countries are of course recognized by other countries, but "internal" sovereignty has yet to be recognized by the majority of citizens in these countries (though the extent of that recognition, too, varies from country to country).
It is not difficult to understand why top priority was given to the recognition of external sovereignty by foreign countries, and why the concept of internal sovereignty was given less emphasis, in the formerly colonized nations of Indonesia, the Philippines, and South Korea, and even in Thailand, a country that managed to maintain its independence. Even China, a country that considers itself to be "the center of the world" (Chuuka in Chinese), suffered frequent turnover in its dynasties, and faced continuous invasions by other Asian groups from western and northern regions. Not until the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949 did China become aware of being a "nation-state" and realize the possibilities of change. The fact that China, the biggest political and military power in East Asia, has had a passive historical role stands in marked contrast to the history of west European nations, which have developed in active competition with one another. This immaturity of the nation-state in East Asia played a role in the indifferent relations between the ruling class and the common people in each society.
Among the East Asian countries, Japan was able to retain its sovereignty and form a quasi-nation-state based largely on its geopolitical location, which foreign countries regarded as an isolated island in the Far East/Far North. In this regard, Japan's independence was not consciously established by its citizens. However, the lasting stability of Japanese society came to have great significance in the development of feudalism, which helped to construct "human relations based on land ownership and not on blood relations." Japanese feudalism (especially during the Tokugawa reign of the Edo period from 1603 through 1867) formed a system that connected rulers directly with the general public in each region.
Weakness of Corporate Leadership
In Japan, family-like corporations are modeled on a feudalistic family or a group of warriors. They are suitable for modern industries because the members (workers) of these corporations have a common understanding that they must obey orders from the top to the bottom and pursue technological efficiency.
On the other hand, corporations in the other East Asian nations lack this kind of "group consciousness." This is where Japan--which has been through the feudal era and brought aspects of it into the modern state--differs from its neighbors. In the other countries, hierarchic institutions comprised of an emperor/sultan/king, the bureaucracy, and the common people were obviously seen in pre-modern times. It was natural for the people to expect, as they do today, to aspire to higher positions (especially bureaucratic positions within the government) when modernity brought forth large gains in personal freedom.
The "non-group consciousness" of modern corporations in other East Asian nations manifests as a lack or weakness of leadership and management ability within the corporations.
In countries where both the nation and family strongly maintain "natural" ties, leadership in corporations cannot be established. Since workers in these corporations feel that importance should be placed on harmony and cooperation among themselves, they cannot build a unified and systematic "supervision-partnership" by themselves. Therefore, these corporations have entrusted business leaders coming from abroad (such as overseas Chinese merchants, or the managers of Japanese, European, and American corporations who have advanced into these countries) to be in charge of corporate management.
China's Jiating (family-style corporations) and Korea's Chaebol (industrial, family-centered conglomerates) have their own brand of corporate efficiency. But the bondage of blood relations that influences the inner workings of these structures hinders the modernization of management and technologies. These corporations are not appropriate to industrialization.
Dependence on Personal Relations and Closeness
One commonality East Asian countries share is that their markets are not visibly open. If the nation lacks stability, the people have a much greater need to rely on one another. And to foster mutual reliance, ethical factors such as honor, dignity, saving face, and courtesy are given priority. The economy becomes dependent on the mutual trust given between the people concerned, and as such, tends to be closed. For instance, China has what might be called a "chain" market, which is constructed from a series of two connected friends; the buyer and the seller on both ends of the chain do not know each other. On the other hand, Japan's "acquaintance"-style market encourages trade between people who know each other beforehand.
The Dual Structure of "Faith and Religion"
The concepts of faith and religion are also key in understanding the diverse peoples of East Asia, who practice many types of religion. Most East Asian societies have maintained a dual structure of faith and religion, a duality that might be described as "animistic faith in the spirit" and "world religion with established dogma." The dual structure can be also seen, for example, between Taoism, Confucianism, and Mahayana Buddhism (in China); Phi and Hinayana Buddhism (in Thailand); Hantu and Islam (in Indonesia); Anito and Catholic (in the Philippines); and Tong Ge Gut and the doctrines of Chu-tzu (in Korea). Those dual structures reflect the confrontation between "native" and "foreign," as well as the alienation between the "common people" and "rulers" that has arisen and that has been influenced by the immaturity of the nation-state.
In this respect, Japan--where native deities were systematized into the Shinto pantheon as the founders of the empire--has shown uniqueness. Shinto resurfaced in the Edo era, and contributed to neutralizing other foreign belief systems in Japan, including Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. Shinto has formed a crucial component of the national identity of the Japanese people.
Combinations of faith and religion show the uniqueness of all societies. A common characteristic in the East Asian dual structures of spirit seems to be retained in the affinities between the deities and the people in each society. In East Asia, deities do not have absolute dominion over humans. Instead, they are close to humans, and people tend to desire to be in accord with them. In western Europe, many people believe the biblical edict that "God created human beings in His own image." In East Asia, however, the lack of an "absolute" God and the intimacy between deities and the people described above made it difficult for them to liberate themselves from their gods to be independent persons.
Creating "Real" East Asian Societies
Japan is an East Asian country, but it has been geopolitically separated from the region. Japan has until now pursued its policy of "joining the West" while downplaying the importance of close relationships with the other Asian countries. On the other hand, however, "rejoining Asia" while downplaying the impact of the West would not be an easy task.
The future of East Asian countries has not been completely designed. No one doubts that East Asia will play an active part in the international community in the 21st century, but "development"--refined simply as the pursuit of economic growth--has become too much of a focus for the countries of East Asia, most of which have become obsessed by the pursuit of profits.
However, the situation is gradually changing. The necessity of much wider development not focused solely on economic pursuit--including education, medical services, social welfare, and environmental preservation--has been gradually recognized by administrators of developed countries. "Real" development must be pursued through the steady and honest deepening of mutual understanding not only at the administrative level, but also through the voluntary actions of individuals and groups.
Yoh Nakanishi is Professor of Policy Science at Hosei University, in Tokyo.