Nation and Region: Okakura Kakuzo, Rabindranath Tagore and Contemporary East Asia

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Thursday, February 9th, 2012

Thursday, February 9, 201211:00AM - 1:00PM208N, North House, Munk School of Global Affairs
1 Devonshire Place
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Reimagining the Asia-Pacific Series


On 16 September 2011, the still-popular Japanese band, SMAP (‘Sports, Music Assemble People’) appeared at the Worker’s Stadium in Beijing, their first concert outside Japan, and before a crowd of some 40,000s. The band had been invited to perform by Chinese premier Wen Jiabao in May, after previous attempts by SMAP to appear in China had failed: they were scheduled to appear in Shanghai in September 2010, but this was cancelled by the mainland Chinese organisers because of the political problem of a Chinese trawler that had been detained by the Japanese coast guard, among the most prominent of ongoing internecine clashes between the two major East Asian states over territorial disputes and Japanese history textbooks. The concert’s theme – designed to register Japan’s thanks to China for assistance rendered after the disastrous 11 March 2011 earthquake and tsunami – was ‘Do Your Best Japan, Thank You China, Asia is One.’

The last phrase, while obviously meant to invoke solidarity between Japan and the now re-emergent power China, was surprising in that it was a direct quotation of a(n in)famous proclamation by the art historian and curator, Okakura Kakuzo (1862-1913), from his book The Ideals of the East, with Special Reference to the Art of Japan (1903):

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 the 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.

Apart from the fact that Okakura’s thinking on ‘Asia’, controversially, had been co-opted by the mid-1920s by the Japanese military to justify an expansive nationalistic imperialism, his spiritual-cultural ideal of Asian oneness that was opposed to forms of Western thinking predicated on commercial and industrial ‘machinery’ was transformed into a diplomatic placebo that could contain commercial mass-cultural forms to calm intra-East Asian tensions. This presentation is an essay on the ideals or imaginaries of ‘Asia’ (and perhaps even different forms of subjectivity) that now exist in contemporary East Asia, as manifested primarily in the form of mass culture from Japan and South Korea that, despite the complexities of language boundaries that need to be crossed, seems to have reached translocal status in East and Southeast Asia, and think through the differences from the earlier imaginaries of a modern Asia that, in many respects, Okakura shared with Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). Once, the ideal of Asia included East and South Asia; now this seems less the case, as ‘Asia’ tends to mean ‘East Asia’ in regional discourse. What is notable, though, is that the exact commercial and industrial machinery that both Okakura and Tagore were critical of – in formats and form that could not have imagined in their lifetime – comes to be that which, in some respects, is in complex counterpoint to the East Asian region’s tensions. What then, the presentation will ask, is the ‘contemporary’ (or is that ‘postcolonial’?) region, as opposed to the modernities that both Okakura and Tagore either partially accepted or rejected as normative in the colonial era?

C. J. W.-L. Wee is an Associate Professor of English at the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He was previously a fellow in the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. He has held visiting fellowships at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi; the Humanities Research Centre, Australian National University; the Society for the Humanities, Cornell University; and the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and the Humanities, University of Cambridge. Wee is the author of Culture, Empire, and the Question of Being Modern (2003) and The Asian Modern: Culture, Capitalist Development, Singapore (2007), and the editor of Local Cultures and the ‘New Asia’: The State, Culture, and Capitalism in Southeast Asia (2002). Most recently, he co-edited Contesting Performance: Global Sites of Research (2010).


Aga Baranowska
(416) 946-8996


C. J. W.-L. Wee
Associate Professor of English, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

Takashi Fujitani
Dr. David Chu Professor and Director in Asia Pacific Studies; Professor of History, University of Toronto


Dr. David Chu Community Network in Asia Pacific Studies


Asian Institute

Centre for South Asian Studies

East Asia Seminar Series

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