Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

I believe in self-correcting modernity
WATANABE Yasushi / Professor, Keio University

November 25, 2013
The West has led the "growth" in the modern age, but haven't Western values come to an impasse?
Whenever I come across such questions, I feel uncomfortable for the following three reasons.

1. The notion of "Western values" as a bundle is akin in its crudeness to its reverse equivalent, Orientalism in the West with all its prejudices against the East. It should be noted, however, that there exists among such values a solid tradition of skepticism about untrammeled linear "growth". It is the universities, foundations, research institutes and businesses in the West that are most enthusiastically engaged in research and development of alternative models for energy and resources supply, transport and urban development. Western societies have such "reflexive" aspects as will enable the introspective correction of the excesses of modernity. Whether on the right or left, those who disregard this redeeming feature of Western societies are not too different from those prewar Japanese ideologues who insisted on "Overcoming Modernity" in justification of the Greater East Asian War.

2. The average citizens in Western countries are by no means "growth" supremacists. I have spent nearly 10 years since graduate school in the Unites States and Europe, and was teaching last month as a visiting professor at L'Institut d'Etudes Politiques (SciencesPo) de Paris, a top-notch grooming ground for the cream of French élites. On the whole, the people that I have come across there are those who care about the subtleties of human relationships around them, probably respect the tacit wisdom of daily life nurtured through the ages, and live a simple and frugal life. The same holds true for the people in the United States, of which I have visited all the states except Alaska. I am inclined to feel that these are the people who embody "Western values".

3. Since the Great East Japan Earthquake and the Fukushima No.1 Nuclear Power Plant disaster, some schools of thought in Japan have argued for the negation of modern civilization or called longingly for a virtual return to pre-modern communities. However, the images that they conjure up are so loaded with emotion and devoid of reality that they are unlikely to elicit serious responses from people in the West, except perhaps as a polite diplomatic gesture. There was a time in Western societies when "savage tribes" were romanticized as the "noble savage". But that was only as a stock character in literature, and had no policy relevance.

For these reasons, I do not subscribe to the "West at an impasse" theory. Instead, I believe in the possibility of "reflexive modernity" as the ideal as well as realistic option. In the modern age, there have been periods in which "growth" was pursued single-mindedly, to the exclusion of women and the handicapped, and placing extreme burdens on the environment. However, it is also the modern age that is providing the logical and ethical support to the efforts towards the introspective correction of these excesses.

I obviously do not claim that Western societies are completely geared toward or are realizing "reflexive modernity". But it would be even dangerous to decide categorically that the West is at an impasse and long for a return to pre-modern or anti-modern bonds, in either fundamentalist or relativist terms. I have recently visited India, Vietnam and Uganda. These countries did not seem at all to have pre-modern or anti-modern aspirations.

Rather, what worries me about Western societies is the tendency toward "consumer supremacy" whereby, for example, "low price" is equated to "justice". This could result, more often than not, in the retailers' supremacy over the manufacturers and end up putting heavy pressures, in the name of "cost cutting" and "work efficiency", on the producers and workers on the low end of the spectrum. Naturally, this would destabilize the labor market and erode workers' rights. This has been a salient trend in the United States since the 1980s, but, given the advance of globalization today, who can be sure that Japan and other countries could remain immune to the challenge?

If we are to seriously contemplate saving energy and other resources, convenience stores may have to refrain from operating 24/7. But that would run against the credo of "customers (consumers) first" and would slow down the growth of the business. It would not be easy to resist the temptation for untrammeled linear "growth" in a climate of "consumer supremacy". However, many of us are "consumers" as well as "workers" at the same time. These two incarnations are intrinsically inseparable, and it would be unnatural and unhealthy to overemphasize the rights of one at the expense of the other.

What is needed is not just competition in prices and services. We should find ways to devise a system whereby there is sound competition for higher wages and better job opportunities as well. This is the question on which we should muster our wisdom before negating "Western values".

Yasushi Watanabe is Professor at Keio University Shonan Fujisawa Campus. The article first appeared in the Mainichi Shimbun Newspaper dated Novermber 11th 2013.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

渡辺 靖 / 慶應義塾大学教授

2013年 11月 25日











一般社団法人 日本英語交流連盟

English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > I believe in self-correcting modernity