Somebody Else's Century

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 October, 2010, 12:00am

Somebody Else's Century
by Patrick Smith
Pantheon Books HK$208

Patrick Smith is a literary journalist with decades of living in Asia and a taste for the big questions. His 1997 book Japan: A Reinterpretation, attacked and loosened some of the cornerstones of post-war thinking on Japanese history and won the coveted Kiriyama Prize. Now, in Somebody Else's Century, he surveys China, India and Japan as they emerge with new-found confidence from 150 years of grappling with Western-imposed modernity.

'The West's monopoly on the modern is now behind us. This is a change of epochal consequence,' he writes. No Westerner, he says, can understand how shattering the East-West collision - the Opium wars in China, Admiral Perry's irruption and the Meiji Restoration in Japan, and India under the Raj - was for these countries.

'It produced a crisis - of belief, meaning, and identity - that has endured for 150 years. Only now does this crisis ebb - the mark of our moment,' he writes. 'It is our turn in the West to say the new century is simply someone else's.'

Smith, an American, peppers his pages with insightful comments from local observers on the fragmentation of reason, and the nihilism that came with modernity. Why is China so intent on tearing down the old and rebuilding the new? Why does Japan cover its beautiful islands in concrete despite its avowed love of nature?

Smith clearly has a soft spot for the self-confident and eccentric ways that marked much of India's grappling with the modern: the oxcart on the expressway; bare-footed people perfectly at home using an ATM. 'India could resist the temptation of the traps Japan and China set for themselves when they separated an indigenous spirit from imported things.' But India has paid an ugly price elsewhere, in the ideology of militant Hinduism, which arose partly as a reaction to the humiliations of subjugation, he notes.

The Japanese city of Kitakyushu serves Smith as a token of Japan's rush to industrialise after the second world war, poisoning its air, land and water with pollution. Now it serves as his way post to the future: Kitakyushu has adopted a wide range of green clean-up measures.

A city official explained: 'We had our ideals and beliefs, but we decided to follow the West ... we forgot our own ways of thinking. Then, after a time, a certain impatience began to arise within us. And our original beliefs came back.'

A novel definition of modernity is emerging from the East. In fact, the author maintains that Japan's 1990s was not the 'lost decade' that most commentators assert. Rather, it was quietly shaping an emerging, post-Western future, and the rest of Asia is watching it closely to mark out the way forward.