Cultural Crosscurrents Buffet the Orient

An influx of Western products, ads, and TV programming has Asians worried that their values could be lost and has spurred a rethinking of what it means to be Asian. Today the Monitor continues a series on the competition for regional influence.

THE streets of Hanoi were once the hottest battleground in the cold war. American B-52 planes dropped bombs on the Vietnamese capital, and anti-aircraft gunners fired back.

Two decades later, however, what's falling from the sky over Hanoi is the ``Larry King Show,'' ``I Love Lucy'' reruns, and other foreign programs, beamed down by satellites that Vietnam cannot attack.

And in the small, private shops of Hanoi, a black market in pirated videotapes has sprung up, offering such films as Oliver Stone's ``Born on the Fourth of July.''

Like other Asian nations, Vietnam has discovered that an end to the conflict over Communism has opened up a new contest over culture and values.

Before Vietnam opened itself to the world, shed its Soviet patronage, and adopted free markets in the late 1980s, the only high points of foreign culture in Hanoi were Russian art books and Cuban modern-art exhibits. Now it is flooded with Japanese comic books and karaoke, Hong Kong television dramas, French fashion, Chinese cultural goods, and of course, Hollywood movies (although a Jane Fonda Workout videotape is still not to be found).

All over the region, rapid progress in trade, technology, and travel has combined with the demise of the cold war to create a whirlwind flow of ideas, people, and pop culture. Social values are being reshaped in undetermined ways that have made Asian leaders uneasy.

``Asia today is politically, and all the more culturally or vision-wise, a vacuum,'' says Prof. Arifin Bey of the Kanda University of Foreign Studies in Indonesia. ``It is waiting for an alternative to what the cold war was.''

The new flux of culture, mainly from the West, has also helped to bring Asians closer together. ``There's a lot of synergy from Australia to Korea to Tibet,'' says Tommy Koh, chairman of Singapore's National Arts Council. ``There's a cultural renaissance in East Asia.''

Singapore's Information Minister George Yeo said in September that the Chinese tradition of celebrating with mooncakes can be spread to ``promote new Asian spirit.'' The lunar festival, he told a group of ethnic Chinese businessmen, can become as international as Christmas.

Chinese-language television programs now flow freely to ethnic Chinese communities in almost every Asian nation. Intra-regional tourism has also taken off. Japan led the way in the late 1970s by making it easy for its citizens to travel abroad. Korea did the same in 1989. Even tiny, landlocked, Communist-run Laos recently allowed its people to travel, if they can afford it.

A new musical revue called Fantasia, touring the region, represents a new attempt at intra-Asian culture. The revue, which brings together Singapore actor Dick Lee and Japanese director Komei Sugano, deals with a man caught between East and West and with Western stereotypes of Asians. ``If we [Asians] don't change the way we see ourselves,'' Lee says, ``the rest of the world won't either.''

The new intra-Asia cultural scene is sometimes anti-Western. ``There's a push to reinvent what it means to be Asian, without accepting the Western definitions,'' says political scientist Chua Beng Huat at the National University of Singapore. ``Instead of seeing the West as superior, Asian intellectuals are playing up the faults of the West - the homeless, the deficits'' - defining what Asianism is not, rather than what it is.

A new pride has arisen among those East Asian nations that have achieved fast economic growth. ``Until recently, many of these nations were seen as no-hopers.'' says Dr. Noordin Sopiee, head of the Institute for Strategic and International Studies in Kuala Lumpur.

But any attempt to confront the West in its cultural dominance with a form of ``Asianism'' would be meaningless, claims Yamazaki Masakazu, a Japanese author. The West, he notes, has had a 400-year head start on expanding its culture abroad.

Mr. Yeo suggested in a recent speech that Asians should accept the best of their Western heritage and try to manage the tension between East and West.

Perhaps the most powerful cultural influence in Asia these days is television commercials, which often are more popular than the programs. In rural areas, especially, commercials for Western-style products can have a dramatic impact.

In the early 1980s, for instance, Indonesia experimented with commercials on government TV, but they created such an unbearable consumer stampede for hair shampoo and other ``luxury'' items among Javanese village women that the ads were pulled.

``Although the Asian advertising industry has been following the steps of `American style' advertising from the United States, where advertising is advanced, there are growing trends calling for new advertising based on `Asian values,' '' says Akira Tsuji of Japan's Advertising Association.

A new style of TV commercials tries to grasp the soul of Asia, says Bhanu Inkawat, chairman at Leo Burnett, Ltd. in Bangkok. One ad in Thailand, for instance, shows a young man giving up his most prized possession - his Wrangler jeans - to become a Buddhist monk.

``Viewers are becoming sophisticated, and the [advertising] industry must keep up with the exploding media culture in Asia,'' says Jamie Pfaff, creative director at Leo Burnett in Singapore.

Because of its history and diversity, Asia can accept many kinds of new culture. But ``it is too difficult to say what is Asian - Confucianism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, or Catholicism?'' says Prof. Suchit Bunbongkarn of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

The region's diversity and past hostilities have prevented the building of a common culture, as in Europe or Africa, according to Choe Chung Ho, a communication professor at Yonsei University in Seoul. If the region could find some cultural unity, he suggests, it could produce the first truly global culture.

In November, Japan launched an initiative to promote cultural exchanges among Asian nations, including joint efforts to preserve historic monuments and traditional performing arts. Asian nations ``should not lose our inherent cultures amid dramatic economic and social changes,'' says former Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, who proposed the exchange idea last January. Tokyo plans to sponsor a regional conference on the issue in 1994. The government also plans a new push to export Japanese culture.

Already economically dominant in Asia, Japan is looking for cultural leadership, partly in response to Western criticism of its own culture.

Just 20 years ago, a trip to Southeast Asia by a Japanese prime minister triggered riots in Indonesia and Thailand. But with the coming of age of a generation of Asians who never knew World War II, Japanese popular culture now commands a considerable presence. Nintendo games, Godzilla movies, and Japanese-built golf courses are now well accepted.

Japan is seen as ``culturally spineless,'' says Sithichai Yoon, editor of The Nation newspaper in Bangkok, but it should still try to become a ``stabilizing cultural force'' in Asia.

In the Philippines, the Japanese comic-book superhero robot Doraemon is a smash hit. In South Korea, which until recently banned Japanese culture because of Japan's 35-year occupation, sushi and Japanese singers are becoming popular.

In 1992, former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone drew negative reaction when he proposed a ``grand Pacific Common House for Cultural and Economic Cooperation,'' because his idea triggered memories of the attempt by Imperial Japan 50 years ago to create a ``Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere'' of its occupied neighbors.

In the late-1980s, Japan's economic success brought it under attack from the West for its cultural differences, such as Japanese emphasis on social principles of harmony, antiindividualism, nonverbal communication, a mercantile collusion in business, and worker dedication to a company above family, health, and universal ethics.

Japan fought these attacks by labeling them with the racial term ``Japan-bashing.'' But many Japanese leaders and intellectuals also set out to prove that Japanese behavior was not unique, but rather part of a greater Asian whole.

``Japan is important to redefining Asianness,'' says Dr. Chua. ``It's a model for how a country can modernize without losing its culture to the West.'' Japan has built its prosperity without either internationalizing its culture or advocating anti-West cultural nationalism.

Eshun Hamaguchi, a professor at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies in Tokyo, claims that much of East Asia observes a value system he calls ``relationism,'' or a recognition that human relationships are valuable in themselves as well as beneficial to the individual.

Japan has also tried to promote its language in Asia, despite an overwhelming demand in the region to learn English. In Hanoi, for instance, the Japanese Embassy pays selected Vietnamese to learn Japanese at an above-average salary. China and South Korea top the list of Asian nations with the most students of the Japanese language.

Many in Japan advocate an alliance among Asian nations that use Chinese written characters. Such nations range from Singapore to Korea, with an estimated population of about 1.5 billion people.

Still, many Japanese leaders know that Japan's culture lacks universal appeal. The purchase of Columbia Pictures by Sony Corp. in 1989 and of Universal Studios by Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. was seen as an admission that Japan needs to buy into successful American culture.

But because Western culture came to Asia in the past with proselytism and colonialism, many Asian leaders remain wary of allowing it free flow. Attempts to filter foreign culture appear to be failing, however, as technologies advance.

Imported images from the West remain popular with Asia's emerging middle class, partly due to the allure of material wealth. One irony is that many Asians see Western wealth as decadent, even though that wealth was created out of the Protestant values of hard work and self-denial during the industrial revolution. ``Most Asians don't absorb Western culture as Westerners do,'' says Chua. ``If they see sexuality in a movie, they see it as looseness, not freedom.''

Foreign culture can only be partially filtered by government, says former Singapore Foreign Minister Lee Kuan Yew. ``Up to a point, you can block or limit cultural exchange,'' he says. He advocates instead that a country should improve its own culture first. ``You should not abandon your basic pattern of culture, because there is a real danger of de-culturalization, of losing your own basic values, without absorbing the essence of the other culture,'' he says. ``Culture does not consist of only customs, forms, external manifestations. There's an inner spirit to it, which holds a set of values into a coherent whole.''

A flooding of a local culture by technologically more advanced cultures is no ``unconditional improvement,'' he says. ``It may destroy these local cultures just as [white Americans] have overwhelmed, say, the [American] Indians.

``A culture is something that develops indigenously from within a family, to a tribe, to a clan, to a society, into a civilization. It comes with mother's milk. It's how people have been able to protect their integrity over the millennium.''

Mr. Lee, now a senior minister, notes that he attended a British colonial school, but was raised in the culture of a Chinese extended family. ``Ideas, values of right and wrong, behavior within the family, behavior to friends, behavior to authority - they were not taught in school,'' Lee says. ``They sprang from the home.

``Before you destroy that by showing how Americans live - what they do with their governments, how they fix each other up or help each other - a little thought may show it's not helpful to destroy what is basically good and will help people retain their dignity and integrity.''

In the past few years, as satellite TV has become more popular, Singapore has ``loosened controls and offered more choice of outside culture,'' says Mr. Koh. ``Our strategy now is [to] bring in cable TV and offer more choice in order to compete with satellite.''

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