The Foundations of Modern East Asia: Japan and East Asia in Historical Perspective

Mr Mon-Han Tsai (PhD candidate at Social and Political Science)

Sunday, 03 March, 2002; 7:30-9:30pm

Chetwynd Room, King's College

Is there an entity called East Asia? Is or had Japan been part of East Asia? Is 'sakoku' exclusively Japanese and what does sakoku mean? Is there something called Asian values? Is Japanese culture unique? What has really been going on between Japan and the other countries in East Asia and Southeast Asia in the past one thousand years? In this talk, I will first outline the formation of East Asia between 221B.C.E and 907 C.E. in which Japan emerged gradually participated intermittently. I will also delineate the nature, structure and history of this first phase of East Asian international system. The first East Asian system was open (to the external influences), cosmopolitan, multilateral, multiethnic, multicultural and fluid (movement of people). Second, I will propose a theory of the second East Asian international and political system that developed over long period of time from the Song dynasty (960-1279 C.E.) to the early Ming dynasty (1368-1644 C.E.) in reaction to the aftermath of the decline and fall of the cosmopolitan Tang dynasty (618-906C.E.) constitutes the foundations of modern East Asia and East Asian states. This second system reached its mature form and consistent pattern by the mid-17th century in 1639 when Japan adopted it while remained aloof. The second system remains closed, bilateral, controlled (trade), segregated (no intra-regional migration with exception of Chinese migration to Southeast Asia up to mid-20th century) as well as being mentally parochial and culturally homogenous. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, the impact of the Western imperialism and modernity in the 19th century, the spectacular rise of imperial Japan in the early twentieth century and the American hegemony in East Asia since the onset of the Cold War has not altered and has, in fact, reinforced the underlying structure and basic pattern of East Asia and East Asian states. However, in the beginning of 21st century, with renewed acceleration of globalisation and ever-closer regionalisation in East Asia, pressure and tension is being mounted on this remarkably durable system. I will end this talk by assessing the contributions and pitfalls of the second East Asian system historically and attempting to search for an alternative that would be meeting the challenges of the runaway world more effectively.