East vs. West: An Ethical Dilemma

Japan And The West May Some Day Have To Adopt Singapore's Ways


By Gregory Clark
The Nikkei Weekly


The affair of a U.S. youth in Singapore sentenced to caning for alleged vandalism has seen more than just an outpouring of approval by Westerners worried about the breakdown of law and order in their own societies. It has also opened up a fascinating and much-needed debate on East-West cultural differences.

The Singapore side of the debate says that we in the West put too much emphasis on the
rights of individuals, and that our societies have become playgrounds for criminals.

Responsibility to society

Eastern culture, Confucian culture especially, emphasizes the individual's responsibility to society. Criminals are punished, not mollycoddled. Compare Los Angeles with Singapore or Tokyo, the argument goes, and you will soon realize which approach is superior.

But the counterargument by some Western liberals ialso interesting. The Singapore approach assumes that the state will behave with some responsibility toward individuals, and that clearly is not
always the case, even in Singapore. And can Tokyo be included as an example of the Eastern approach to law and order? As The New York Times has pointed out editorially, Japan does not rely on severe punishmerits to keep its society in order; it relies much more on persuasion and
guidance.

There is an answer to all this, but it depends on where we place Japan culturally. For decades
Singapore, and Lee Kwan Yew especially, have been trying to include Japan in the Confucian cultural bloc, so Japan's success becomes a model of Confucian success.

But anyone who knows Japan knows that the Confucian connection is quite weak. Compare the Japanese personality with that of the Chinese; and the differences are even more obvious-the Japanese are groupist and non-argumentative; the Chinese are individualistic and rationalistic. When it comes to things like intelligent town planning, legalism or job hopping, Japan arid
Singapore are at opposite poles. Singapore has all three, in abundance.

In Meiji times, Japanese intellectuals coined the slogan "datsu a, nyu o," or "leave Asia, join Europe." In part it reflected Japan's somewhat arrogant desire to be seen as an advanced nation. But it also reflected a strong sense of difference from the rest of Asia.

Japan's history-its long period of island isolation and feudalism allowing the gradual development of the nation-state and collectivist values-is much closer to that of the north European countries than to that of continental Asia (though there are similarities with offshore Asia). In attitudes toward the workplace, practical technology, craftsmanship and paternalistic management, Japan was also close to the north European model. Indeed, Japan seemed to capitalize on those values just as they were beginning to weaken in Western societies. It is no accident that Japan has had such success following the north European model of industrialization.

We see the same similarity in attitudes toward government. If Japan is also the one Asian country closest to the Western version of democracy, that is because history allowed both Japan and the West to develop the strongly instinctive sense of social contract needed to make democracy work.

True, Japan had until recently a rather paternalistic, corrupt and conservative form of democracy, as it was with us until about a century or so ago. But thanks to former prime minister Morihiro Hosokawa, that is beginning to change. Hopefully Japan will soon evolve to a mature form of democracy.


Bossy democracy

Ironically, all this is happening just as Western democracies are beginning to lose their cohesion. We are moving to an atrophied, ritualistic form of democracy, what some call a bread-and-circus democracy. Eventually we will probably have to move to the bossy kind of democracy found in Singapore in order to survive. The instinctive sense of social contract does not last forever.

The same is true for law and order. Anyone over 50 who was raised in an Anglo-Saxon culture will remember the day when we could leave our doors unlocked, when stores left their goods on open display without having to worry about shoplifters, when young people respected public property, when people assumed they could deal with each on the basis of some kind of trust and honesty.

In short, we lived in a society very much like Japan today. In the continental north European societies- Germany, Holland, Switzerland and Scandinavia-the similarities with Japan were probably even greater. Many in the West like to think that this sense of morality was due to the stronger religious mores of those days. In fact- and like Japan, where religious influence has always been weak-it was due much more to that feudalistic, instinctive sense of social contract.

The Japanese call it kuki, or atmosphere, the instinctive feeling that keeps a society together and headed in certain directions. In the West it is clearly disintegrating, both in politics and in the area of law and order. This is especially true for societies trying to assimilate minorities suffering low standards of living.

But even without this problem we would be in trouble. Too many people in our societies have learned how easy it is to ignore the kuki. They make a conscious and far from irrational decision that it is more enjoy

able or more profitable to break the law than to abide by it. In this situation the only answer is the Singapore answer-to make it much less enjoyable and less profitable.


Symptoms appearing

Japan too could eventually suffer the same problem. It too is beginning to suffer from the first outbreaks of vandalism and shoplifting. Its gangsters decided long ago that they could make a better living from crime. And as we used to do in the West, the authorities turn a largely blind eye in the hope that the nuisance will go away.

Maybe it will go away. Maybe in Japan the sense of social togetherness will prove strong enough to cope. But in the West at least, that has not happened.

To date, we Westerners have liked to think that our freedoms and democracy represent an ideal that the rest of the world should aspire to. When the communist experiment collapsed, some of us even boasted about the "end of history."

In fact, our particular model is highly transitory. Like the older civilizations that went ahead of us, we too will probably come to need authoritarianism and draconian punishments to keep our societies under control. The social contract, if it survives, becomes ideological rather than instinctive, as we see in Confucianist societies.

Some like to see Japan as a model which we can easily imitate. But Japan is where we have come from. Singapore is where we are headed, if we are lucky.



Gregory Clark is professor of Japanese studies at Sophia University in Tokyo.

Copyright 1994 Nihon Keizai Shimbun,

Inc. Reprinted with permission.

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