The Return of "Asian" Values

A new book published in Japan has reignited the debate over "Asian" values. But it is a mistake to reduce religious beliefs – or freedom, for that matter – to their instrumental role in sustaining capitalist economies.

A provocative book written by a Japanese mathematician has reignited the debate about whether there are specifically “Asian” values. As yet untranslated into other languages, The Dignity of a State by Masahiko Fujiwara is an emotional plea for a Japanese “special path.” In particular, it argues that liberal democracy is a Western invention that does not fit well with the Japanese or Asian character.

The reasoning is peculiar, and seems to revive a nineteenth-century critique, usually associated with Nietzsche, that Christianity (and Islam) produces an acquiescent or even subservient mentality, in contrast to the heroic virtues of classical antiquity or of warrior societies, such as the world of the Japanese samurai. Likewise, according to Fujiwara, democracy overemphasizes reason, another Western construct. “But we Japanese,” he writes, “don’t have a religion such as Christianity or Islam, so we need something else: deep emotion.”

Many non-Japanese Asians will dislike most or all of Fujiwara’s message, for they will hear unpleasant historical echoes. After all, there is no reason to believe that Asians share a particular yearning for authoritarianism, or that, say, Chinese pro-democracy movements are insincere stooges for Western interests.

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