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Globalizing the Regional, Regionalizing the Global: Mass Culture and Asianism in the Age of Late Capital

Leo Ching

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 that 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. . . . Arab chivalry, Persian poetry, Chinese ethics, and Indian thought, all speak of a single ancient Asiatic peace, in which there grew up a common life, bearing in different regions different characteristics blossoms, but nowhere capable of a hard and fast dividing-line.

Okakura Kakuzô, The Ideals of the East (1904)

From a few years ago, as I traveled to the countries in Southeast Asia, I began to hear increasingly a unique rock rhythm here and there. It is a rhythm distinct from the American beat, clearly a Japanese-made or indigenous rhythm. That is to say, although it is the same eight-beat, it is a somewhat different rock music with different feelings than that of the Euro-American. . . . It is estimated that two million people watched [the melodrama] Oshin in China. It was also tremendously popular in Singapore, Indonesia and Vietnam. . . .the children’s animated serial Doraemon is popularized throughout Thailand, Taiwan, Indonesia, the Philippines, South Korea and China. . . . What can be gleaned from these phenomena is the invisible and yet unmistakable commonality flowing within the blood of the same Asians.

Ishihara Shintarô, “No” to ieru ajia [The Asia That Can Say “No”] (1994)

Although nearly a century separates these two accounts of what could be called a supranational regionalist imaginary, there are similarities between them. Both describe a regionalist unity (Asia), and in each case it is a unity accomplished through the play of identity and difference. The putative unity of Asia is imaginable only through its distinction from some other putative unity (the Mediterranean, the Baltic, Euro-America). That is to say, difference is identity’s constitutive limit, or, Asia is not the West. Both of the above accounts are also deeply embedded within a Japanese nationalist ideology and share subtextually a celebration of the Japanese nation as the historical agent responsible for rejecting Western universalism, asserting Eastern particularism, and thwarting an expansionist modernity. Such an ideology, however, is endemic not to Japanese national monology but to a larger interrelational structure that ambiguously situates Japan with the West and within Asia, a relationality that arguably has persisted since the late nineteenth century.

The parallels between the discursive contents of these Asianisms, however, should not distract us from the different historical forms of their respective conditions of possibility.1 Okakura’s historical moment—one of emerging nationalism and nascent capitalism—generated and was generated by the specific aesthetico-cultural formations of diverging religions, philosophies, and high arts. These “ideals of the East” must be revitalized, restored, and reinforced, he argues, “for the scorching drought of modern vulgarity is parching the throat of life and art [in Asia].”2 If so-called high culture girded the unity of Asia in the era of high imperialism, it is mass culture in its intraregional formation, according to Ishihara, that substantiates Asianism in the postcolonial present: The popularity of “Japanese” mass culture (melodrama, animation, pop music, etc.) signals “commonality” and “resonance” within Asia today. This shift from high culture to mass culture is salient to mapping the continu-ities and ruptures between the changing geopolitical configurations of Asia, and it is vital to delineating the organizational and conceptual frameworks that make the regionalist imaginary thinkable in the first place. In fact, I would like to suggest that, instead of construing this shift as reflecting an evolution in the material base of production, it should be understood as an ideological formation that in the last instance signals the impossibility of the thing (the Asia of Asianism) itself. That is to say, as soon as the commodity-image-sound of mass culture becomes the fundamental form in which the putative unity of Asia is imagined and regulated, the internal contradictions of Asianism are suppressed for the sake of commensurability and compatibility within the global distribution of cultural power.

This is not to suggest that, in contrast, high culture articulates a more genuine Asianism; the articulation of high culture itself relies on the operation of the very binary structure (artistic sensibility versus scientific rationality, spirituality versus materiality) that a regionalist deployment of high culture seeks to dismantle. Nonetheless, as long as Asia is defined through its shared experience of exploitation and colonization, this aesthetics—situated as it is within the specific geopolitical condition that marked the global extension of Western imperialism— remains a powerful trope for regional solidarity. Furthermore, as long as high culture is defined in the forms of cultural mutation and hybridization that preceded the consolidation of national culture, it remains a conceptual means by which to momentarily transcend the historical predicament of Western imperialism. However, from the moment Japan establishes itself as the only non-Western colonial power (an identification process that I have elsewhere termed “not-white, not-quite, yet alike”), the radical discourse of emancipation is inverted and reorganized as a justification for Japanese imperialism in Asia.3

In what follows, I am concerned with the tendency to “regionalist thinking” in both economic production and symbolic reproduction under global capitalism. Why does the increasingly globalized world engender multiple regionalist associations? Are regionalisms the effects of or responses to global capitalism? How is a regionalist culture, or the conceptualization of such a culture, possible in the circuit of global culture? As a preliminary attempt to answer some of these questions, I heuristically employ the concepts of globalization and regionalization as tropes with which to articulate the cultural-economic contradictions of late capitalism. The body of the essay is thus composed of two halves that illustrate how each term modifies the other (“Globalizing Regional Economy” and “Regionalizing Global Culture”), the purpose of this organization being to convey the notion that the categories of the economic and the cultural are best apprehended not as mechanically determinate of each other, but as dialectically constituted and complementary in form.

It is my contention that, first of all, regionalism represents a mediatory attempt to come to terms with the immanent transnationalization of capital and the historical territorialization of national economies. Rather than being a corrective to global capitalism, regionalist reterritorializations underscore an invariable contradiction within capitalism itself. Secondly, I argue that mass cultural Asianism is a symptom of deeper structural and historical changes in the ways Asia is perceived as both a mode of production and a regime of discursive practice in the Japanese imaginary. If the earlier Asianism was conditioned on the unequivocal difference between Asia and the West, where Asia existed as the absolute other to the increasingly colonized world system—its exterior—in today’s Asianism that difference itself exists only as a commodity, a spectacle to be consumed in a globalized capitalist system precisely at the moment when exteriority is no longer imaginable.

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  1. For historical perspectives on Asianism, see J. Victor Koschmann, “Asianism’s Ambivalent Legacy,” in Network Power: Japan and Asia, ed. Peter J. Katzenstein and Takashi Shiraishi (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1997), 83–110; and the seminal article published in 1963 by Takeuchi Yoshimi, collected in Nihon to ajia [Japan and Asia] (Tokyo: Chikuma shobô, 1993).
  2. Kakuzo Okakura, The Ideals of the East: With Special Reference to the Art of Japan (Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Company, Inc., 1970), 244.
  3. See my “Yellow Skin White Mask: Class and Identification in Japanese Colonial Discourse,” in Trajectories: Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, ed. Kuan-Hsing Chen (London: Routledge, 1998).


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Public Culture is a reviewed interdisciplinary journal of cultural studies, published three times a year in Fall, Winter, and Spring for the Institute for Public Knowledge by Duke University Press. The journal's full archives are available online at

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