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By Danton Remoto

(Part 2 of review of God’s Dust by Ian Buruma)

“The Old Japanese Empire” deals with Taiwan and South Korea. The author twinned the essays in one chapter because Taiwan looks up to Japan as a model, while South Korea reviles Japan for its harsh colonial conquest.

Mr. Buruma’s essay on Taiwan is also rather thin. The essay on South Korea is more instructive. He points out “the complex and sometimes explosive mixture of shame and chauvinism in South Korea. The one, of course, stokes the flames of the other. There is a Korean term for pandering to foreign powers: Sadae chuui. And Koreans are forever accusing one another of it. These accusations are not without reason, for Koreans have a long history of using outside powers to fight opponents at home…”

This peninsula divided into two countries, this country located between China and Japan, is beset by an identity crisis. It seems to have an inferiority complex masquerading as superiority. There is a constant desire among the South Koreans to prove they are better than their neighbors – whether it is in the economy, in having “the most scientific and best writing system in the world,” and, yes, in the World Cup series. It seems, Mr. Buruma suggests, that “Koreans often can only define themselves in terms of a foreign civilization.” More so if they can prove themselves better than that civilization.

Mr. Buruma’s essay on Japan, where he lived the longest, is the best in the collection. “Arriving in Japan always fills me with feelings of ambivalence. It is like coming home to a country which, to me, can never be home. I spent my twenties in Tokyo. Everything is familiar: The language, the manners, the advertisements, the TV programs. Japan is part of me, yet I can never feel part of it. This may have something to do with me. But it is also in the nature of the most insular of nations. It fills me with love and horror, which alternate and sometimes even coincide, the one sometimes, in a perverse way, feeding on the other. Japan looks the most modern society in Asia, politically, culturally, aesthetically. It is also among the most archaic. It is one of the most open societies – foreigners can go there, live there, marry, and prosper. But it remains in many ways as exclusive as Burma. Japan is ‘Westernized,’ yet somehow, the country in East Asia least touched by the West. I am never sorry to leave, yet I always yearn to go back.”

Shrewdly Mr. Buruma points out what ails modern Japanese – the feeling that something has been irrevocably lost in Japan’s dizzying rise to progress and modernity. What has been lost is replaced by an uncritical acceptance of many things from the West. Urban Japan has become like a pastiche of many influences – a modern yet tacky Disneyland, if you will.

“But it is not so much the modern vulgarization of traditional forms that is disturbing, but the idea of tradition as just another transient fashion, another form without substance. One sometimes wonders whether anything in modern Japan has lasting value, whether anything substantial can visibly last. There is a rootlessness, a constant evanescence about Japanese sophistication which explains, perhaps, both the melancholy Japanese love for fleeting beauty, for visible decay, and the anxiety about cultural and spiritual loss.”

What has been lost is the Japanese spirit, the national soul – however you define it. Nihonjinron, or defining Japaneseness, is a constant topic of best-selling books and top-rated TV shows. Sometimes, the form it takes veers dangerously close to ultra-nationalism. And here, Mr. Buruma engages in the history of Western ideas in a learned and admirable manner, comparing prewar emperor worship in Japan to “a kind of Bonapartism grafted onto Japanese traditions.”

If there is one flaw here, it is the hasty generalization that “Japanese intellectuals often seem marginal figures, writing for one another, respected as men of learning, but not taken seriously by the world at large.” Of course, in any society – I am sure even in London, where Mr. Buruma now resides – intellectuals are marginal figures. The same intellectuals write for The London Review of Books that the same coterie of intellectuals reads. He also failed to note that there are now public intellectuals – people in academe who write for newspapers and magazines and who appear even on TV talk shows, giving depth and illumination even if they are only allowed so many column inches or so many seconds for their sound-bites. And I am sure Mr. Buruma has read the novels of Harumi Murakami, one of Japan’s best writers – and intellectuals – who dissects Japanese society with a pen as sharp as a scalpel, and as focused as a laser beam.

Perhaps I am just a Filipino who is a student of his country’s history, but I found Mr. Buruma’s essay on the Philippines similar to a golf course – full of holes. In the first sentence alone, he calls Olongapo City a “typical Filipino town.” How could a town of 250,000, which hosted an American base, be called typical? Then and now, the typical Filipino town is a small, agricultural place where life revolves around the town square bordered by the church, the marketplace, the municipal hall, and the houses of the few elite.

Then Mr. Buruma also calls Ferdinand Blumentritt, the Filipino national hero Dr. Jose Rizal’s friend, “an obscure Austrian schoolmaster.” Blumentritt was a professor, yes, but he was also a doctor and a scientist renowned in Europe during his time. Then Mr. Buruma adds that Rizal had Japanese blood (not true), had lived much of his life abroad (not true), and called the Propaganda movement Rizal’s movement (not true, it was started by the lawyer and journalist Marcelo H. del Pilar).

Moreover, Mr. Buruma adds that many Filipinos like to claim that Rizal and his fellow ilustrados (the Enlightened ones, the leaders) in the Propaganda movement “were the first modern nationalists in Asia…” Filipinos never claimed that; perhaps Mr. Buruma’s informants did. But what many Filipinos claim is that the Philippines became the first independent republic in Asia in 1898 – a claim that is based on historical fact. Mr. Buruma also says that the Rizal millenarian cult is based in Mount Makiling when, in fact, it is based in the bigger Mount Banahaw. Mount Makiling is the small mountain that can be seen from the azotea (porch) of Rizal’s ancestral house in Calamba, Laguna, south of Metro Manila.

There are more. Mr. Buruma claims that “the typical hero [in Filipino movies] is a simple man who gets abused and humiliated, often sexually, all through the film.” I have been watching Filipino films for the past 33 years and I have yet to come across a Filipino film with this plotline. Then he said that “one Canadian Zen master set up a successful business in Manila by convincing Filipinos that they, as a people, are especially gifted for spiritual quests….” Filipinos need no reminders about these. The country is full of faith healers and espiritistas (spiritual mediums), from Luzon to Mindanao.

Moreover, Mr. Buruma claims that “Filipinos have no collective memory, no recorded history that precedes Spanish conquest….” The point is that history – or literature or other forms of culture – is not always recorded in print. Philippine literature, like the pre-colonial literature of its Southeast Asian neighbors, was mostly oral and handed down the generations by the centuries-old tradition of storytelling. The Philippines has a wealth of epics that are as larger-than-life as any Western one, and a trove of poems, riddles, and proverbs that have the lyricism and pith of the haiku.

Although Mr. Buruma is a fine and accessible guide to modern Asia, what we need at this point in our cultural history are writers who come from the continent itself. Steeped in the history of Asia and nurtured by its cultures, I hope that they will write the books that will give authentic voices to the complex and colorful continent we live in. A few of them have already done that. The real journey, then, has just begun.

Danton Remoto’s books include “Riverrun: A Novel” and “The Heart of Summer: Stories and Tales,” both published by Penguin Southeast Asia. He has also translated three Tagalog novels for the Penguin Southeast Asian classics series. All the books are available at and in Kinokuniya Asia.
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