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Public Culture 12.1 (2000) 233-257

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Globalizing the Regional, Regionalizing the Global:
Mass Culture and Asianism in the Age of Late Capital

Leo Ching

Asia is one. The Himalayas divide, only to accentuate, two mighty civilisations, the Chinese with its communism of Confucius, and the Indian with its individualism of the Vedas. But not even the snowy barriers can interrupt for one moment that broad expanse of love for the Ultimate and the Universal, which is the common thought-inheritance of every Asiatic race, enabling them to produce all the great religions of the world, and distinguishing them from those maritime peoples of the Mediterranean and the Baltic, who love to dwell on the Particular, and to search out the means, not the end, of life. . . . Arab chivalry, Persian poetry, Chinese ethics, and Indian thought, all speak of a single ancient Asiatic peace, in which there grew up a common life, bearing in different regions different characteristics blossoms, but nowhere capable of a hard and fast dividing-line.

Okakura Kakuzo, The Ideals of the East (1904)

From a few years ago, as I traveled to the countries in Southeast Asia, I began to hear increasingly a unique rock rhythm here and there. It is a rhythm distinct from the American beat, clearly a Japanese-made or indigenous rhythm. That is to say, although it is the same eight-beat, it is a somewhat different rock music with different feelings than that of the Euro-American. . . . It is estimated that two million people watched [the melodrama] Oshin in China. It was also tremendously popular in Singapore, Indonesia and Vietnam. . . . the children's animated serial Doraemon is popularized throughout Thailand, [End Page 233] Taiwan, Indonesia, the Philippines, South Korea and China. . . . What can be gleaned from these phenomena is the invisible and yet unmistakable commonality flowing within the blood of the same Asians.

Ishihara Shintaro, "No" to ieru ajia [The Asia That Can Say "No"] (1994)

Although nearly a century separates these two accounts of what could be called a supranational regionalist imaginary, there are similarities between them. Both describe a regionalist unity (Asia), and in each case it is a unity accomplished through the play of identity and difference. The putative unity of Asia is imaginable only through its distinction from some other putative unity (the Mediterranean, the Baltic, Euro-America). That is to say, difference is identity's constitutive limit, or, Asia is not the West. Both of the above accounts are also deeply embedded within a Japanese nationalist ideology and share subtextually a celebration of the Japanese nation as the historical agent responsible for rejecting Western universalism, asserting Eastern particularism, and thwarting an expansionist modernity. Such an ideology, however, is endemic not to Japanese national monology but to a larger interrelational structure that ambiguously situates Japan with the West and within Asia, a relationality that arguably has persisted since the late nineteenth century.

The parallels between the discursive contents of these Asianisms, however, should not distract us from the different historical forms of their respective conditions of possibility. 1 Okakura's historical moment--one of emerging nationalism and nascent capitalism--generated and was generated by the specific aesthetico-cultural formations of diverging religions, philosophies, and high arts. These "ideals of the East" must be revitalized, restored, and reinforced, he argues, "for the scorching drought of modern vulgarity is parching the throat of life and art [in Asia]." 2 If so-called high culture girded the unity of Asia in the era of high imperialism, it is mass culture in its intraregional formation, according to Ishihara, that substantiates Asianism in the postcolonial present: The popularity of "Japanese" mass culture (melodrama, animation, pop music, etc.) signals "commonality" and "resonance" within Asia today. This shift from high culture to mass culture is salient to mapping the continuities [End Page 234] and ruptures between the changing geopolitical configurations of Asia, and it is vital to delineating the organizational and conceptual frameworks that make the regionalist imaginary thinkable in the first place. In fact, I would like...


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