George Ober surveys the socio-cultural lie of the land of East Asia.
East Asia in 2013 doesn’t look like anywhere else in the world right now. It’s an exciting mix of contradiction and stereotype. Japan has the highest number of high-net-worth individuals in Asia, despite being in economic decline for 20 years. A fat Korean singing about the Gangnam district had the world’s best-selling song in 2012. There were five East Asian cities in Monocle’s ‘Most Liveable Cities Index’ in 2012, and Las Vegas is now America’s Macau. How? And why? Has the internationalist era for six key East Asian economies and societies arrived?
Amazing things are happening in Hong Kong, Japan, Macau, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan. Sure, China is the word on the lips of modern economists, but let’s really see what these nations have to offer.
For those of us interested in the study of East Asia, we usually focus on economies or culture and there is obviously something in between that we miss. I reason that someone who shops in Marunouchi, Tokyo has more in common with someone who shops in Gangnam, Seoul than either of them do when compared to someone from their relative regional cities, like Sendai or Busan. There has become a certain class of individiual in East Asia that has arrived at a sense of internationalist culture that, previosuly, we have only ever seen in the West. Transport, pop culture and traditional globalisation are all making this happen.
Asia is thankfully littered with world class airports. Tokyo’s Haneda is the best amongst them; but Hong Kong, Singapore and, on a good day, Seoul’s Incheon probably make up four of the five best airports in the world. the fifth being Helsinki. And while the business model, especially for Singapore and Hong Kong, relied, in part, on Australians flying to and from Europe on long-haul flights, we now see the growth of inter-Asian sectors. Seoul-Tokyo and Hong Kong-Taipei are now two of the busiest international air routes in the world.
Once arrived in Hong Kong, Macau, Seoul, Singapore, Taipei or Tokyo, massive investment in infastructure allows anyone to shuffle efficiently to any part of the city or country on well-developed and well-functioning public transport that is the envy of every country, save Switzerland. Visiting East Asian cities and, doing business between them, is incredibly easy. Residents of these countries can pass through any and all of them, sans visas and hassles. It’s also now a reality that you can take a daytrip from Tokyo to Hong Kong for business and be back at the Park Hyatt, Tokyo after having had dinner with clients at Lung King Heen overlooking Victoria Harbour.
The most remarkable thing however is that unlike in Western Europe this hasn’t happened off the back of low-cost carriers; it is the legacy of airlines such as JAL, ANA, Cathay and Singapore that are doing most of the heavy lifting on this, soft-power brand amabassadors that fly their respective flags proudly on their fuselages. You get Japanese service on ANA that makes you proud to be Japanese, and this is exported widely.
We also see popular culture exchanging fairly fluidly around the region. Taiwanese versions of Japanese magazines stack the shelves of magazine stands in Taipei, exporting Japanese lifestyle to the masses. Korean boy bands gyrate shirtlessly almost everywhere. Utada Hikaru and Jolin Tsai still generate an audience wherever they go.
Pop-culture has exploded. While language differences still create boundaries, even these are being conquered with some films such as 2010’s ‘Ghost’ (yes, a remake) being made in Japanese and Korean by the same cast. 2PM, the aforementioned often shirtless Korean boyband, are more likely to sell-out in the Singapore Indoor Stadium or the Budokan than any at concert venue in Seoul.
This has created a cultural consensus to which all internationalist East Asians subscribed. One must know the lyrics, at least phonetically, to most of Big Bang’s songs and you probably read Haruki Murakami’s work as soon as it is published, in English. Muji is always on call for a minimalist design aesthetic. Makkeoli is throwing its weight and accompanying headaches around at a karaoke bar near you, and bubble tea may prove to be Taiwan’s greatest ever export as it now evolves into an ever more social and classy drink.
You also probably follow your style cues from Omotesando as opposed to the Champs Elysées or Fifth Avenue. You can reliably find one of Isetan, Shinsegae or Lane Crawford anywhere across Asia that will have you donning a pristine Engineered Garments shirt over a Comme des Garçons jean and an Onitsuka Tiger sneaker all while staying loyal to Brand East Asia. This isn’t done on purpose, it’s just happening.
This is obviously globalisation in action. As much as this is happening in East Asia and the companies and brands and airports that are prospering are largely East Asian there are still more global touchpoints that are hard to ignore.
Language is the first one. There still aren’t enough people in Japan learning Korean or nearly anyone learning Cantonese as a foreign language anywhere. So when your monied Macau resident arrives at Isetan, Shinjuku they are almost definitely going to be speaking English. East Asia needs to be more aware that it isn’t the future of the world, it’s the present. Sure, keep learning English, and indeed we must not forget it is an official language in Hong Kong and Singapore, but Cantonese, Japanese, Korean and Mandarin should be learnt with equal if not greater vigour. Taiwan, due to its colonial history, still has a bit of Japanese in it and you could survive in Singapore speaking Cantonese, at a push; but more needs to be done to make East Asia more East-Asian-literate. It’s holding them back.
It’s also important to remember that Western influences still prevail in some areas. The world’s best hotels are in East Asia, but they are all American or Canadian brands. Internationalist East Asians stay at Hyatts. Where are global hotel brands that are born out of the onsen culture of Japan and Taiwan? Where is the East Asian BBC World News, CNN or Al-Jazeera? There isn’t one, and it is difficult to see that changing any time soon.
To be internationalist however isn’t to completely forget your own culture; but, it is to engage further in a regional conversation that one day will have to be the centre stage for Londoners, Sydneysiders and Torontonians. East Asia has to realise that there region is going to explode more than it has already. It is easily forseeable that my children will have little understanding of a poor Europe and a broken America because when compared to East Asia, disorder and chaos reign. Although, when East Asia has it pretty good already why would they want to let us in?