The Voice of Asia?

©Terry Boardman       This article first appeared in the German magazine Info3 in September 1996


To paraphrase Karl Marx, a spectre is stalking the print rooms and media studios of the West today. It is the spectre of Genghis Khan, the ghost of the Yellow Peril: “the threat from the Far East”. Hardly a politician’s speech is complete without some reference to the dynamism of the Pacific Rim, and exhortations for greater national efforts to enable us to survive in ‘the competition with the dynamic economies of East Asia’. A hundred years ago, Asian intellectuals, whose heads, like those of their western counterparts then as now, were filled with Darwinian notions of the struggle for survival, racial competition etc were also imagining the day when a humiliated Asia would turn the tables on an arrogant Europe. In 1904, E.P.Dutton & Co., a publishing house in New York, published a remarkable book, “The Ideals of the East” by the leading Japanese authority on Oriental Archaeology and Art, Kakuzo Okakura (1). In the year which saw the beginning of Japan’s ultimately successful and tremendously significant victory over Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, a war in which the Japanese saw themselves very much as fighting back on behalf of Asia against western colonialism, Okakura’s book, which he wrote in excellent and richly artistic English, served as a rallying call to the elites of Asia.

It began with a simple, controversial and challenging assertion in just three words: “Asia is One”. Despite the seeming divide between what he called “the communism of Confucius” and “the individualism of the Vedas”, he emphatically declared that “not even the snowy barriers [of the Himalayas] can interrupt for one moment that broad expanse of love for the Ultimate and Universal, which is the common thought-inheritance of every Asiatic race, enabling them to produce all the great religions of the world [for him, Palestine was also, of course, an Asian land], 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.”(2) His book ends with the following words: “…today, the great mass of Western thought perplexes us. The mirror of Yamato [Japan] is clouded, as we say…We know instinctively that in our history lies the secret of our future, and we grope with a blind intensity to find the clue. But if the thought be true, if there be indeed any spring of renewal hidden in our past, we must admit that it needs at this moment some mighty reinforcement, for the scorching drought of modern vulgarity is parching the throat of life and art. We await the flashing sword of the lightning which shall cleave the darkness…the raindrops of a new vigour must refresh the earth before new flowers can spring up to cover it with their bloom. But it must be from Asia herself, along the ancient roadways of the race, that the great voice shall be heard. Victory from within, or a mighty death without.”(3)

Ninety years after the publication of Okakura’s rallying call around the standard of the putative unity of Asian art and culture comes another such call, this time focused on the more modern banners of economics and politics. “The Voice of Asia”, by the nationalist conservative Japanese politician and award-winning novelist Shintaro Ishihara, and the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Mohamad Mahathir, is not graced by the elegant writing style of Okakura, but these two would-be prophets of “the Asian century”, buoyed up by rosy economic statistics, confidently declare that the West is decadent and declining, the EU will fail, Japan will return to Asia’s bosom, and “Asia is resuming its central place on the stage of history.” Like Okakura, they assert that Asia is one: “Despite this diversity…the countries of the region fundamentally complement each other’s efforts to achieve growth, creating an atmosphere of cooperative inclusion rather than cynical exclusion. Economic development will make Asia a market in its own right.”(4) Japan is again seen as Asia’s standard bearer, though this time in the more modest role of “representative” at G7 Club meetings.

After the publication of “Japan as Number One” by the American academic Ezra Vogel in 1980 first fed Japanese hubris and deflated western egos, the East Asian economic miracle seemed unstoppable throughout the 1980s as Halley’s comet reentered the solar system. During its last visit, in 1910, Rudolf Steiner had spoken of the materialistic ‘impulse’ of this comet and had also given the important cycle of lectures on the Mission of the Folk Souls in which he spoke of the connection between the Mongoloid peoples and the Mars spirits.(5) Book after book in the mid-1980s proclaimed the triumph of Japanese business, but then as Halley’s comet began to withdraw from the solar system, western commentators started to reassert western (essentially Anglo-American) values; the ‘revisionists’ had arrived, led by Bill Emmott (now editor of “The Economist”) with his 1988 book “The Sun Also Sets”. We could breathe again, the West was best after all! The Asian miracle, they declared, was short-lived, and would soon blow itself out.

Meanwhile, hubris in Asia continued to build as one after another, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand, and now China itself, the new ‘tigers’ and ‘dragons’ and other fearsome beasts conjured up by the western media, paraded onto the economic stage. In 1990 Shintaro Ishihara boasted in a bestselling book “A Japan That Can Say No” that Japanese control of world semicondutor production, not to mention Japanese investments in America, meant that Japan was effectively in control of America’s destiny. In that same year came the dramatic collapse of the Tokyo stock market and the rapid appreciation of the yen. The Japanese bubble burst. Suddenly, Emmott’s forecasts seemed borne out as Japan the unstoppable settled into a recession from which it is only just emerging. Suddenly, the western media, their confidence recovered after the Gulf War and the ‘victorious conclusion’ of the Cold War, began to criticise ‘the Asian values’ trumpeted by Ishihara, Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore, Mahathir of Malaysia and others. “The East”, notably an unstable China, possibly aided by a renegade Japan, was now seen as ‘the threat’. Although all recognised the emergence of a threefold world order based on the dollar, the yen, and the deutschmark, a new bipolarity was being posited: the West versus the Rest, or Euro-America versus Asia (Islamistan + Confuciania, as the two leading organs of the English language elite, “The Economist” and “Foreign Affairs” put it (6)). “The West” now went on the offensive. Mahathir was pilloried by the western media in 1993 for daring to criticise western economic practices and for seeking to set up an East Asian economic forum that excluded America. It was against this background of a new-found western assertiveness that Ishihara and Mahathir wrote “The Voice of Asia”.

Unfortunately, however, their upbeat argument is replete with problems. Firstly, unlike Okakura, they actually make no attempt to include Asia west of Burma in their thinking; they are really concerned only with East and South-east, that is, with wealthy, Asia. In 1904 Okakura claimed “the Indo-Tartaric blood of this race [Japan] was in itself a heritage which qualified it to imbibe from the two sources, and so mirror the whole of Asiatic consciousness.”(7) At the end of their book, Ishihara recalls how he saw an elderly Indian man in Tokyo whose face resembled his father’s. “Some of my roots are definitely in India,” I thought… I suppose my own face is a blend of Indian and Chinese features.”(8) This is as close as the two men come to considering India.

Secondly, while speaking of world economic interdependence, Ishihara and Mahathir blithely overlook the consequences for the world and especially their own region should the West collapse under the weight of its own moral degradation, as the two are convinced it soon will. Thirdly, they ignore their own Asian spiritual traditions of Buddhist non-attachment and reincarnation and karma; they are mired in a very modern materialistic nationalism. The thought that an Asian might be reborn as a westerner and vice versa never occurs to them. For Mahathir, a Muslim, reincarnation is not to be considered, while for Ishihara, it means only a bond between the living and the dead which is commemorated by the regular observance of outer ceremonies, flowers on family altars etc. Human beings are thus seen by both men to be primarily locked into their respective racial and ethnic groups, which are to be defended at all costs.

The western revisionists are right to claim that East Asia has little new to teach us; there are no new ideas in “The Voice of Asia”. There is only a rather bluntly expressed appeal for fairness, tolerance, and an end to western racial arrogance and hypocrisy. Unfortunately, these claims go hand in hand with a certain spiritual arrogance on the part of Mahathir and Ishihara, which is unchanged in many Asian heads since Okakura’s day. For them, the West’s spirituality, Christianity, has failed to prevent the ethos of individualism from leading the West into a den of iniquity. Any sensitive Eastern reader of “The Voice of Asia” could logically come to the conclusion that the whole of Western culture, and especially, its spiritual side, has been nothing but a tremendous error! Much more helpful, however, is Ishihara’s quoting of former American diplomat George Kennan: “Any message we may try to bring to others will be effective only if it is in accord with what we are to ourselves, and if this is something to compel the respect and confidence of a world [the East] which, despite all its material difficulties, is still more ready to recognise and respect spiritual distinction than material opulence.”(9) This was essentially Rudolf Steiner’s view, namely, unless the West is able to offer the East something with spiritual integrity, the East will continue politely to despise the West, and ultimately, will attack it for its pretensions.

Certainly, the West will have to be ruthlessly honest with itself here. Rudolf Steiner was under no illusions about the essential nature of European, as opposed to Asian culture. In an especially profound lecture of 23 Sept. 1921 (GA 207) he chose to “place the facts before you as an utterance from the lips of an Oriental sage…you and these men of Asia will never understand one another, because, after all, with the Asiatic people everything has sprung ultimately from love; with you everything originates in fear mixed with hatred.” In the same lecture Steiner goes on to describe the fury of destruction that resides in the centre of each one of us where, behind the mirror of our memory, thoughts work down into the etheric body, and through it, work destructively on the matter of the physical body, enabling consciousness and Ego to arise on the basis of life. In that centre of destruction the earthly Ego had to be tempered. The knowledge of this centre of destruction bred fear in western pupils of the Mysteries which they were trained to cope with, but as the Mysteries declined, intellectualism failed to prevent such fears from sinking into the subconscious from whence they have ever permeated western men’s thoughts and actions. “In this western civilisation Man holds wrapped within him an inner centre of destruction and in truth the forces of decline can only be transformed into forces of ascent if Man becomes conscious of [this]….Western men have a blood, a lymph, that is saturated by the Ego force, which is tempered in the inner centre of evil. Eastern men have a blood, a lymph, in which lives the echo of the longing for Nirvana. In their consciousness men of East and West overlook these things in the crude understanding of our day.”(10)

When East Asians look with horror at what they believe to be the evils of western society, what they are seeing is the chaos that resides in that centre of destruction being projected out into society. They are seeing western humanity crossing the inner threshold of the spiritual world within the human organism, meeting and often failing to cope with the plutonic forces of annihilation and transformation that reside there. Many East Asians have long averted their eyes in inner disgust from the bloodied Christ upon the Cross, the primal image that western Christians lived with in the centuries when the western Ego was being forged. In seeking to draw western Man’s attention from preoccupation with the Cross towards the glorious figure of the Resurrected One, Anthroposophia is saying to both East and West: yes, this image of the Crucifixion is true, but so also is this of the Resurrection true and it is to this latter that western Man must now turn. If he does not, he will never find the way to meet the feelings of his eastern brother. Until the West can bring a new understanding of the meaning of Christianity to the East, Parsifal and Feirifis will never meet.

“Men still speak in such a way that their speech smacks of the old crude ideas and nothing essential is reached…But now we need an attitude of soul that will be able to embrace a world civilisation. We need a confidence which will help to adjust the inter-relations of East and West….Men think today that they are only justified in discussing economic problems, such as the future poisition of Japan in the Pacific, or how the problem of China is to be dealt with in order that all the trading peoples on earth may have free access to it, etc. These problems will not be solved at any Conference on earth until Man becomes aware that all economic activities and relations presuppose the trust of one man in another In future, this trust will only be attained in a spiritual way.”(11)

N.B. GA stands for Gesamtausgabe – reference numbers of the collected works of Rudolf Steiner

1. republished by Charles Tuttle Co. Tokyo, 1970

2. Okakura, p.1

3. Okakura, p.244

4. “The Voice of Asia”, Mohamad Mahathir & Shintaro Ishihara, Kodansha International, Tokyo, 1995, p.15

5. GA 121

6. “The Economist” Sept. 1, 1990, ‘Defence and the Democracies’, and “Foreign Affairs” Vol. 72, No.3, Samuel P. Huntington, ‘The Clash of Civilizations?’

7. Okakura, p.5

8. Mahathir & Ishihara, p.158

9. Mahathir & Ishihara, p.106

10. GA 207

11. GA 207

This page was first uploaded Dec 1999.  Last updated 1.7.2012

©Terry Boardman