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The Return of "Asian" Values

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.

But Fujiwara’s book has also revived an old debate about capitalism and the values that are needed to sustain it. That debate stems from the fact that capitalism, or the market economy, cannot simply go on forever, driven by an internal momentum or dynamic. Any of the basic proclivities that drive capitalism, on their own, are destructive of long-term success.