Contemporary East Asia
& the Question of East Asian Civilization
Map of Contemporary East Asia
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Symbolic representation of American/Chinese relations
Chinese Communism & American Democracy
A Tale of Two Political Systems
The new Age of Globalization that followed the end of the Cold War (which was marked by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991) began on a note of exhilarating optimism for many English-speaking people — sustained by an unprecedented decade-long digital-revolution-fueled economic expansion in the U.S. in the 1990s — that a so-called “Washington consensus” centering around the model of free market capitalism had universally triumphed. Democracy, which was popularly (though mistakenly) assumed to be almost synonymous with capitalism, was spreading globally, and it was even predicted that “the end of history” had been reached, as liberal democracy and free market capitalism promised to become the final stage of human development.

Such predictions may still prove correct in the long term, but the Great Recession of 2008-2009 and growing economic inequality in the developed world have somewhat dampened enthusiasm. ... [E]conomic globalization sometimes benefits multinational corporations and technocratic multinational organizations that are not necessarily directly answerable to democratic electorates, while the looming rise of China — even thought it was made possible in the first place by the preexisting international order and in some senses validates its triumph — still poses a challenge to the “Washington consensus,” not least because the People’s Republic of China remains politically an unreformed Leninist system that shows no sign of embracing multi-party democracy. (HEA, 399)
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Eagle and Dragon with American and Chinese flags
Economic Superpower: US vs. China
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Comparison of North and South Korea on various statistics
The North & the South
A Tale of Two Koreas

Cover of Sheila Miyoshi Jager's Brother's at War

On July 27, 1953, an armistice was agreed to bring an end to a bloody three-year war fought between a divided Korean peninsula and the American and communist forces backing either side. Decades later, no peace treaty has been signed. Tourists who visit the demilitarized zone, or DMZ, that separates North and South Korea bear witness to the last frozen battlefield of the Cold War, a conflict that to this day defines and shapes the societies living on either side of the 38th parallel. South Korea has emerged as an economic powerhouse, a global trendsetter whose companies and pop stars are celebrated across continents and whose population is perhaps the world’s most Internet savvy. North Korea, on the other hand, is the least-connected place on earth, a nation built entirely on the propaganda and brutality of its totalitarian, post-Stalinist regime. TIME spoke with Sheila Miyoshi Jager, a professor of East Asian studies at Oberlin College in Ohio and author of the new book Brothers at War: The Unending Conflict in Korea, on how a 20th century war continues to influence 21st century geopolitics in one of the most strategic corners of the planet. (world.time/after the war)
The Kim Dynasty in North Korea
[W]hile South Korea is now a noisy democracy, North Korea is still hidebound by the rule of the Kims. Could the state exist without the dynasty?
I don’t think North Korea can exist without the Kim dynasty. The very fabric of its identity and sense of being is caught up in the Kim family. Kim Il Sung died in 1994 but is still revered as the Eternal President. Kim Jong Un is where he is today because he is Kim Il Sung’s grandson. When Kim Jong Un was introduced to the public in 2010, he adopted a lot of Kim Il Sung’s persona — his gestures, his hairstyle. He’s styled as a living embodiment of his grandfather. I don’t see North Korea actually existing without the Kim dynasty because the Kim dynasty is North Korea. (world.time/after the war)
Icon representing North and South Korea
Flags of North and South Korea
So if the Kims were to go, what prospects would there be for a kind of reconciliation and later unification?
That depends on what North Korea would look like after the Kim dynasty, and no one can see that far into the future. As it stands now, however, I don’t see the prospect of unification as a reality. How can the North open up to the South without losing control over its own people? The more the North Korean people know about the South, the less likely they are to put up with the conditions of poverty and repression at home. So any reforms that would push North Korea down the same path as the South can’t be accepted because that would mean the end of the regime. North Korea is thus in a catch-22 situation. Pyongyang needs drastic reforms to improve the lots of the North Korean people, but any reforms that would open up the country would lead to the demise of the regime. The way I see the end of the Korean War happening is that China [the North’s sole remaining major ally, which doesn’t want the North to fall into the U.S.’s orbit of influence] would shield North Korea from internal collapse while promoting incremental reforms under its shield. But North Korea cannot open itself up — the more its own people know about the outside world, the more fragile the state becomes. (world.time/after the war)

Icon representing North and South Korea

How does this all play out in the South? Is there much enthusiasm for unification?
If you look at internal polls, the interest in unification in the South has drastically waned. In the 1980s, the vast majority was in favor of it, but today, among the younger population, it’s something like 20%. So while the South talks about unification, the reality is that they think it’s going to be way too expensive. And among the younger generation, there’s a sense that they shouldn’t give up anything for the North.
       This past spring, when you had all these provocations from the North — threatening to make Seoul a “sea of fire” and so on — what you had in the South was complete indifference. South Koreans were shopping and going about their daily lives, not really paying attention. It was really the Western media that got all hysterical about the North’s blustering. That indifference extends now even to the human-rights situation in the North. North Korean defectors complain that they feel like second-class citizens — they’re not integrated into nor embraced by South Koreans. They know that the legitimacy struggle has ended and the vast majority of South Koreans are not really interested any more. This stands in stark contrast to North Korea, which is constantly fearful of the South. You can be sent to jail for whistling a South Korean tune or listening to a South Korean broadcast. There’s an extreme hypersensitivity to anything about the South in the North. (world.time/after the war)
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Modern Japanese woman with symbols of traditional Japan
Contemporary Japan
The Boiled Frog Syndrome?
Japan — here defined as the years after 1989 — faced an unusual set of challenges. Economically, a decade of economic stagnation, originally caused by a changing world situation and poor economic policy, appeared to be infinitely prolonged by political paralysis. Socially, the nation faced a disturbing youth culture, changing roles for women and a rapidly aging older group. Internationally, Japan appeared unable to play the major role that its huge economy might have suggested. Multiple disasters swept the nation, and yet the basic structure of the society remained intact. As Japan entered the 21st century, life still seemed good enough to keep things more or less as they were. (aboutjapan/ContemporaryJapan)
Bubble bursting
Shortly after the death of the Showa Emperor (Hirohito) in 1989, his son performed elaborate enthronement ceremonies meant both to reaffirm old traditions and proclaim the new reign era “Heisei” or the “achieving of peace.” Unfortunately the death of the old emperor [did not lead] to the desired peace. ... Almost immediately, economic problems struck. As noted in the “Postwar Japan” essay, the world’s major trading partners had agreed in the so called Plaza Agreement of 1985 to try and raise the value of the yen. This, it was hoped, would help control Japan’s huge trade surpluses by making imports to Japan cheaper and exports from that country more expensive. The plan did not work well, partly because Japanese manufacturers were able to buy raw materials more cheaply and improve productivity, and partly because the Ministry of Finance greatly increased the amount of money in the country. The result was a speculative “bubble” in which investors took out huge loans on overvalued property and assets, and stock prices soared. When the bubble finally burst after 1989, the stock market lost two thirds of its inflated value, many new homeowners had mortgages that were way too high and banks were stuck with a huge amount of bad loans. (aboutjapan/ContemporaryJapan)
Japanese demographic chart showing aging population
Behind all these problems lay the grim fact that the world had changed since the basic factors mentioned in the “Postwar Japan” essay’s explanation of Japan’s “economic miracle” first brought high GDP growth. Japan’s favorable geographic location, for example, was obviously still there, but other Pacific Rim countries — particularly China — were now taking advantage of the ample raw materials and rich markets of the area to export high quality goods. Cheap, imported technology was no longer available and markets were less open. The exchange rate was down, and Japan’s once vaunted industrial combinations (keiretsu) now seemed too rigid to respond to the demands of a rapidly changing economy. Worst of all, Japan’s population, once concentrated in the working age group, was now rapidly aging. When trying to plan how to try and help the economy out of the recession, the government also had to think about how it could take care of the very generation who had created the modern economy.

The aging of Japan’s society reflected profound social changes that were also taking place at this time. In the postwar period, Japanese women had been expected to graduate from high school or a junior college (rather than a more rigorous university), take a part time job until marriage at around 25, and then become both a mother of at least two children and a caretaker for her husband’s aging parents. Now Japanese women were eager to have a good education and, often, a career. They were claiming for themselves pre-marital sexual experiences once denied to “nice girls,” marrying later (sometimes not at all), and, though still at only one half the rate of United States couples, doubling the divorce rate. Government planers [sic] found it most worrying that this generation of women was having far fewer than 2 children, and hence not replenishing the nation. Given that older Japanese now had the longest life expectancy in the world, bureaucrats calculated that the number of workers per retired person would drop from an average of over 4-1 to as low as 2-1. How, then, could the government get workers to put enough of their wages into the rapidly depleting pension funds? Who would provide sympathetic home care for the aging? If public facilities were needed, how could they be paid for in a time of economic recession and heavy public debt?
Koreans protesting historical distortions of Japanese textbooks
Compounding this problem was a perceived crisis in education. As noted above, Japanese were shocked to discover that some of the scientists making the deadly gasses for the Aum Shinrikyo religious group were graduates of elite national universities; passing these tests had always been taken as a sign not only of ability, but also noble character. At lower levels, school bullying (ijime), refusals to go to school and even assaults on teachers, although low by American standards, were worrying. Ironically, just when US educators were trying to figure out how to raise K-12 standards, their Japanese counterparts were trying to lighten up the curriculum, tone down the rigorous college entrance exam requirements and end required half days on Saturday. The hope was to make school more enjoyable and from that, more creative. Unfortunately, many of the most ambitious students simply used the extra time to focus their studies on what was still needed for admission to a prestigious university.
Japanese punks
Meanwhile a counter culture appeared to be developing. Newspapers spoke gloomily of “free workers” (furita) who only worked for as long as it took to get enough money to take time off and have fun. Other stories spoke of “compensated dating” (enjo kosai) a system under which some young female students, eager [to] have enough money to buy the latest clothes and other fads they wanted, went out on paid dates — and often had sex — with older men. Even the girls (let alone the men) from seeming stable and relatively well to do families seemed to have trouble imagining that there was anything wrong with this casual barter of sex for material goods. Conversely, people who might be called “computer nerds” in the US or “stay at homes” (otaku) in Japan seemed to prefer sitting in front of a computer to having more personal interactions; indeed, some blamed the extraterrestrial fantasy, paranoia and violence of Aum Shinrikyo on the baleful influence of Japanese comics (manga) and animation (anime) videos. With juvenile delinquency rates up, GDP figures flat, official unemployment reaching at least 6%, “permanent employment” for elite males in good firms less assured, corporation executives forced to apologize publicly for corporate misdeeds and political figures unable to affect real reforms, Japan hardly seemed to be a happy place. (aboutjapan/ContemporaryJapan)
Otaku having formally marrying an anime character
Japan "Godzilla" icon
Cartoon of a content frog in a pot of boiling water
Cover of Alex Kerr's Dogs and DemonsHow on earth did Japan get itself into such trouble? Iida Hideo, a finance lawyer, describes what he calls the Boiled Frog syndrome: “If you drop a frog into a pot of boiling water, he will jump out immediately and be saved. If you put him in warm water, he feels comfortable and does not notice when you slowly raise the temperature.” Before the frog knows what is happening, it’s cooked.
       The Boiled Frog syndrome is what comes of failing to change as the world changes. Techniques such as tobashi (cf. p. 106) keep the water lukewarm, hiding disastrous mistakes. The policy of shoring up insolvent firms and wasteful government agencies at public expense creates no incentive for those in charge to rethink their mistakes. Meanwhile, the government croons the public to sleep with reassuring lullabies about Japan’s unique form of government by bureaucracy, and its superiority over the degenerate West, exemplified by Sakakibara Eisuke’s book Japanese-Style Capitalism as a Civilization. ...
Radical change will come only when conditions have grown completely intolerable, and in Japan’s case that day may never come. To put Japan’s financial troubles into context, we must remember that it remains one of the wealthiest countries in the world; the bankrupt banks and deflated stock market are not going to deprive most people of their television sets, refrigerators, and cars. From this point of view, Japan remains a reasonably comfortable place to live. (Dogs & Demons, 370-1)
Japanese teenager holding sign that says (in Japanese) "Halfway Done is Best!"
Chuto Hanpa
Halfway Done
Japanese teen asleep at a computer with the caption (in Japanese) "I'm not done...but I'm gonna have a nap"
The best word to describe Japan’s modern plight is Chuto Hanpa, which means “neither this nor that” — in other words, mediocrity. (Dogs & Demons, 371)
It’s a story of strengths inherited from the industries of the 1970s balanced against severe weaknesses in the industries of the new millennium.
Nintendo vs. XBox vs. PlayStation
Technology in Japan is good, but not nearly as good as was once thought; it’s “neither here nor there” — that is, Chuto Hanpa. Because of this mix of qualities, Japan will not crash. There is more than enough industrial power to support the population at roughly present standards.
On the other hand, given its deep systemic weakness in finance and technology, Japan is not going to boom. The long-term prognosis is for more Chuto Hanpa, with GNP growth slow, unemployment edging upward, and the debt burden mounting year by year. (Dogs & Demons, 374-5)
At the turn of the century, hopes for the future remain balanced between revolution and stagnation. Stagnation is most likely in the absence of a major shock to the system, such as a wholesale economic crash. But revolution could happen. The world is full of surprises — who would have imagined in 1985 that by 1990 the whole of Eastern Europe would have shaken off Communism? ...
Japan's Real GDP Trend
Japan's Real GDP per Working-Age Adult
Sadly for Japan, a crash is highly unlikely. The chances are that for the next decade or two there will never come a moment when the nation stares disaster right in the face. The water will remain lukewarm, and the public will sleep comfortably in a soup of Chuto Hanpa while the country slowly degenerates. When it comes time to carve the epitaph for “Japanese-style capitalism as a civilization,” the legend on the tombstone will read “Boiled Frog.” (Dogs & Demons, 378-9)
Tomb of the boiled frog
Icon representing East Asian Civilization (map of East Asia)
Symbolic representation of East Asian regions
East Asian Civilization?
East Asia may not be as cohesive and distinctive a region as it once was, and perhaps there is no longer any definable “East Asian civilization.” Modernization and Westernization shredded many East Asian traditions beginning as early as the late nineteenth century, and the mid-twentieth Cold War divided East Asia between competing outside ideologies and power blocs, whose legacies linger still. Recent East Asian economic takeoff, meanwhile, might be interpreted merely as an extension of a universally successful modern model. … Yet, over the whole of East Asia, the ghost, not so much of Confucius as of the entire East Asian past, still hovers, often invisibly but nonetheless powerfully, especially in the form of the extensively shared vocabulary among the East Asian languages. China (including Greater China), Japan, [and] Korea … are all very different places, but they also literally share many of the same words and ideas. And, if there is any one thing that does seem fairly certain at the start of the twenty-first century, it is that East Asia is once again, as it had been for much of human history prior to the nineteenth century, a major world center. (HEA, 400)
According to, the term civilization can be defined as “The society, culture, and way of life of a particular area.” Halcombe sketches out arguments both for and against the proposition that it is still meaningful to speak of “East Asian civilization.” Which argument do you find more convincing? Using specific examples from the course, explain why contemporary East Asia does or does not continue to share a sense of society, culture, and/or way of life that is sufficient to warrant the label “civilization.” Your paper should be at least 750 words and include at least three aspects of civilization that China, Japan, and Korea do or do not share. For more details on the paper requirements, see the Reflection on Contemporary East Asia Rubric.
Giant Confucius sculpture by Zhang Huan
Premodern East Asians happily marching (into the future?)