When writing Asia-Pacific history, the rhetoric is the reality


JAPAN AND PACIFIC INTEGRATION: Pacific Romances 1968-1996, by Pekka Korhonen. London/New York: Routledge, 1998, 246 pp., $50 (cloth).

The title of this book suggests that it is about the integration of the Asia-Pacific area, about regionalism, and about the role Japan plays in this process.

But what does the subtitle mean? It speaks of romances, specifically “Pacific romances.” Does that mean it is about hula dances and sunsets under palm trees?

The chapter titles also reveal that, if the author is indeed concerned with Asia-Pacific integration, his approach is not quite what one would expect when political and economic activities are going to be discussed.

Those titles include “The etymology of economism,” “On being great,” “The etymology of the Pacific age” and “Remodeling the Western Pacific,” to mention just a few of them.

Pekka Korhonen is a historian, and as such he is extremely sensitive to matters of language. His project is to analyze East Asian regional integration as “a grand story.”

He tries to explore and explain the narratives about the political and economic processes that are involved, rather than these processes themselves.

His particular focus in “Japan and Pacific Integration” is on the three decades from 1968, when Japan first began to be called a “great power,” to 1996, when, as a consequence of the continued economic downturn, Japan’s postwar ascent came to a halt.

Korhonen contends that grand stories are not just part of human social existence and therefore worth studying for that reason, but instead are part of what shapes social reality.

According to this line of reasoning, the rhetoric of integration is a crucial part of the integration process itself.

As a result, Korhonen concerns himself with metaphors, synecdoches, metonymies and other stylistic devices that one would expect to find in an essay on rhetoric rather than one on international politics.

But the author is not content merely to make statements about words and discourses. Korhonen’s starting point is the assumption that instruments of rhetoric help us to understand the reality that is being narrated, and not just the narrative itself.

The question then is how closely the narrative matches the real world. What can analysis of the narrative reveal about the contents of the grand stories called, for example, “economism” and “the Pacific age”?

Economism means that economic values are placed above other national values, such as military, political or religious pre-eminence.

When the author speaks of “the etymology of economism” and “the etymology of the Pacific age,” he does so in a metaphoric sense. Etymology is short for historical reconstruction and reinterpretation of political rhetoric.

In Japan, economism was given theoretical underpinnings by Kaname Akamatsu’s “flying geese” model of development, which was first formulated in the 1930s and ’40s. Shigeru Yoshida’s policies of economic reconstruction, adopted after World War II, made this Japan’s basic framework for policy.

In his interpretation of the rhetoric of economism in Japan, Korhonen emphasizes two points. The first is that Akamatsu’s theory is a theory of development; the second is that the state is accorded a crucial role in it.

These two points imply a number of interesting ideas. For instance, the difference between the liberal Anglo-Saxon economic philosophy and the state-oriented concepts of economic thinkers in 19th-century Germany and 20th-century Japan can be seen as a reflection of the actual power differentials between national economies.

Classical British economists, who were discussing the economy of the leading world power of the time, could ignore the importance of the state. Their colleagues in less developed countries — Germany in the 1830s and Japan in the 1930s — could not. For them, catching up was a national undertaking.

In Japanese narratives of economism, the state continues to play an important part. The narrative of Pacific integration, on the other hand, differs from regional-integration stories in other parts of the world in that it emphasizes economic over political motives.

As told by Korhonen, it is a fascinating tale. He is very well-read in economic theory and Japanese modern history, and he combines that knowledge with theories of narrative and metaphor to produce an original and refreshing version of a story often told, garnished with many “etymological” findings.

Providing yet another example of the reality of Eurocentrism, he explains that the concept of Southeast Asia was a French invention of the 19th century. It encompassed India, as did the Japanese terms “Nanto Ajia” and then “Tonan Ajia” because India was widely seen as having the best prospects for future development.

The notion of Southeast Asia as we know it only emerged when India was left behind by the flying geese and the little tigers.

Such observations make for good reading. However, Korhonen sometimes gets carried away by the apparent elegance of his narrative interpretations and seems to lose sight of the line that divides fact from fantasy. He tends to equate what goes on at the level of discourse with what goes on in the material world.

Pacific institutions promoting regional integration are quite unimportant, he argues, because they are only discussion clubs. Hence, any one of them could be abandoned without doing great damage.

“The only crucial thing is that the Pacific remains a conceptually organizing focus, and that attractive narratives continue to be spun about it,” he writes.

Fortunately, the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 is not part of Korhonen’s narrative. Even he would have a hard time spinning an attractive yarn out of that.

Instead of dealing with this harsh reality, he addresses himself to the loftier subject of the psychology of transition that is felt so strongly today. Korhonen suggests this should be interpreted as part of the change of the millennium.

In Japan, where this event has prompted the authorities to issue a bank note that memorializes the magic date of the Western calendar, this wouldn’t seem far-fetched at all.