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June 19, 2010

Cultural exchange in the world of relativity

Theory of relativity in cultural exchange
(Below is the excerpts from my own speech at one conference on the role of cultural exchange in prevention and mitigation of conflicts)

I for one used to be a diplomat posted in past West Germany, Soviet Union, Russia, the U.S. and Central Asia. In Russia I was in charge of culture and public relations with a view to create a favorable milieu for the solution of the "Northern Territory" issue. After early retirement I have been travelling mostly in Asia, which is now the most important arena for Japan's foreign policy. I also opened an international Internet site www.japan-world-trends.com (It is in English, Chinese, Russian and Japanese) for mutual communication among world opinion leaders and for their mutual understanding. It is my own small attempt to prevent conflicts arising from wrong perceptions and understandings.
Today I will speak, drawing upon my own experience and observation.

Relativity of the Concepts
My first point is that the "state" is a man-made institution and may disappear at any moment. When I was posted in the Soviet Union, that country dissolved in front of my eyes in 1991 (my whole experience and observation at that time are crystallized in my epic novel, "Land of Legend...Land of Dream" published in Kindle, Amazon).

The second fact is that the culture is also a relative thing. I am an avid lover of European classical music, and even when I was posted as Ambassador in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, deep in the exotic Eurasian continent, I made it a rule to listen to Wagner's opera in midnight. However, there was a small Uzbek private house side by side with my residence, and that family kept animals: cow, donkey and chickens. One night at the romantic climax of "Tristan and Isolde", the cow was annoyed by the noisy love music and mooed very loudly in disapproval of the Western culture. I was shocked. She taught me that Wagner is not a standard in Central Asia, that culture is a relative matter and that we have to be humble in conveying culture to others.

Now let me expand myself on my points.

(1) Relativity of the "state"
Modern "nation state" was first formulated in England in the 17th century. It was above all a tool to collect taxes and soldiers, and thus to fight wars with France for colonies abroad. In today's warless society the nation state has become obsolete, and even tends to cause unneeded conflicts. On the other hand a modern state is prone to succumb to the populist pressure and to limitlessly widen the scope of social welfare to the point of un-sustainability.

Therefore, the "nation state" may have become obsolete and we may have no need to continue to think and act in accordance with this category. Then the "cultural exchange", which presupposes the existence of nation states, may also lose its efficacy. Indeed, there are multi-national states like the U.S., which survive peacefully with various races in it but without official "cultural exchanges" among them.

(2) Relativity of the culture and values--they change with development
When a bloody conflict is over, a concert of classical music or exhibition of modern arts could bring a fresh air and rest in people's mind. But in underdeveloped and clan-based society such high culture would not be understood. Those people need recovery of their ordinary way of life, connections with the bosses and their "tradition". In such a society support for reopening of a village festival would be much more appreciated. I wonder to what degree our current schemes for cultural exchange and economic assistance can respond to such down-to-earth needs.

There are many people in the West who allege that the values in the East and the West are so different that they will never find a common language. Other people point to the "historical enmity" between Japan, China and South Korea, saying that Japan will not be able to develop truly friendly relationship with the two others.

But culture and values do not stay in one place. We have to depart from static approach, because society is a dynamic creature and it changes as economy develops. In Europe, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan economic and social development fermented the so-called civic values. An attempt to forcibly impose modern values on an underdeveloped country would not produce desired effects. Such an arrogant approach will destroy social orders, on which the people depend in up-keeping their daily life, and bring about unrest.

The looks of the large cities in East Asia are drawing closer and closer. When you travel in this region, put up at a hotel, and look out the window in the morning, you sometimes cannot realize in which country you are currently staying. Architecture of the urban infrastructure and atmosphere which the people emanate have become identical.

Younger people are dressed in a similar informal American way, and most of them are very open and look free. They think about their future and not so much about their past. It indicates that Japan, China and South Korea are able to cooperate with each other.
By the way these changes in East Asia are well portrayed in the precious work by Japanese scholars, "Asia Barometer", which is a compilation of opinion surveys conducted (for more than five years) in major cities in East Asia (.https://www.asiabarometer.org/files/ABPS5.pdf#search='asia barometer') .

(3) Relativity of the religions
People tend to attribute unduly many things to religion. For example Central Asia, where I used to be posted as diplomat, is not well known in the world, but when people hear that the people in Central Asia are the Islam, they think that they have understood everything, imagining to themselves all negative human traits associated with the Islam. But the mind-set of the Central Asian people, authoritarianism, dependence, mutual suspicion and the lack of privacy, comes from not so much from the Islam, which came rather late to Central Asia, as from their long tradition and customs, underdeveloped zero-sum economy, where you have to depend upon your bosses, and the Soviet planned economy, where everyone had to depend upon the whim of the bureaucrats who monopolized all decisions. Religion is a reflection of the society where it grew. It will be a mistake, if we say that "Religion determines everything".

(4) Relativity of the individuality
Our discussion about cultural exchange seems to presuppose that all human beings are "individual" with articulate opinion and wishes. But in this world there are many societies where there are not such "individuals", and where people do not consider themselves as independent and individual existence. In such societies people live and die, simply performing pre-determined role as member of a family and as element in a clan structure. For such societies economic assistance would be more pertinent than "cultural exchange".

Measures should be flexible in the world of relativity
My discussion above shows that we cannot and should not find unequivocal meanings in such concepts as "state", "culture", "religion" and even "individual". All concepts have a wide range of meanings and they change with the time. Our efforts to establish a theory for the role of culture in prevention and solution of conflicts should take this simple fact into account. Probably we need to utilize the latest fruits of the "theory of complex system".
I am not an expert of this theory, so I can say only that we need diversified and flexible approach in determining effective means to cope with our task.

For example in developing countries our resources should be directed to education of teachers. I once visited a school in Tajikistan, to which our government gave funding for repair. The building was OK, but they had only one teacher, an old man in the village. If this "teacher" propagates his old negative convictions about the West, then our economic assistance ends up with helping reproduction of old society which hampered their growth. Therefore, as many as possible people in old societies should be exposed to the Western civilization (and not to its mere façade, but to its inner values).

When a conflict ends in a developed country where intellectual level is high, big cultural events like concert and exhibition bring the people to themselves and encourage them. But in parallel with such "macro" approach, we also need "micro" approaches, for example constant consultation with local cultural activists and assistance to them.
When we work on cultural exchange, we sometimes succumb to temptation to justify ourselves by organizing large-scale events. But just as today's advanced economy is shifting from mass-production to diversification, our job in cultural exchange can also be modernized a little, taking lessons from latest business methodology like marketing, production management and after-care.


Author: Toji Nakumura | July 7, 2010 10:45 AM

Very interesting and engaging!

Author: Akio KAWATO | July 10, 2010 1:17 AM

Thank you very much.

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