The Origins of Occidentalism


Ian Buruma has a great piece about "occidentalism"–vilification of the West–in The Chronicle of Higher Education. He traces both the Western and non-Western sources and recovers what transpired at a 1942 conference in Japan:

What, then, is the Occidentalist idea of the West?

That is the problem that vexed a group of prominent Japanese intellectuals who gathered for a conference in Kyoto in 1942. The attack on Pearl Harbor was not the ostensible reason for the conference, but the underlying idea was to find an ideological justification for Japan's mission to smash, and in effect replace, the Western empires in Asia. The topic of discussion was "how to overcome the modern." Modernity was associated with the West, and particularly with Western imperialism.

Westernization, one of the scholars said, was like a disease that had infected the Japanese spirit. The "modern thing," said another, was a "European thing." Others believed that "Americanism" was the enemy, and that Japan should make common cause with the Europeans to defend old civilizations against the New World (there would certainly have been takers in Europe). There was much talk about unhealthy specialization in knowledge, which had fragmented the wholeness of Oriental spiritual culture. Science was to blame. So were capitalism, the absorption into Japanese society of modern technology, and notions of individual freedom and democracy. These had to be "overcome."

All agreed that culture—that is, traditional Japanese culture—was spiritual and profound, whereas modern Western civilization was shallow, rootless, and destructive of creative power. The West, particularly the United States, was coldly mechanical, a machine civilization without spirit or soul, a place where people mixed to produce mongrel races. A holistic, traditional Orient united under divine Japanese imperial rule would restore the warm organic Asian community to spiritual health. As one of the participants put it, the struggle was between Japanese blood and Western intellect.

Well worth reading in full.

Back in late 2001, as the ruins of the World Trade center still smoldered, Reason's Charles Paul Freund looked at precisely the same phenomena in "2001 Nights: The end of the orientalist critique."