Asia Week has been a topic of conversation for my friends and me throughout the semester. My Asian American friends have expressed extreme frustration about the reductive nature of such a week that seeks to boil down the diverse experiences of an entire continent to a single week of celebration. Changing the activities to focus on East Asian countries has done little to decrease these feelings of frustration.
Some of my friends who have no Asian descent also expressed how uncomfortable the idea of an Asia Week makes them. No one whom I have spoken to about Asia Week believes that the concept is a good one.
As I was walking out of Everything Convenience on Thursday, Nov. 7, I saw a sign that brought home the ridiculous amount of racism and lack of care for actual Asian culture. The sign, displayed prominently in the Heilman Dining Center, advertised the “Pan-Asian” dinner scheduled for Nov. 13.
I immediately called a friend and asked him if he knew about this naming decision, and he too was shocked. In UR’s attempts to calm the masses by acknowledging its gross generalization of Asian cultures, it picked a word that to many students of history brings to mind images of aggression, pain and imperialism.
I did a quick google search of “Pan-Asian” to see what the first result was. The Wikipedia page for Pan-Asianism features the heading “Japanese Asianism,” before one even needs to scroll down the page. My use of Wikipedia here is to show how easy it is to do preliminary research on the subject. For those of you who do not want to do any research for this opinion piece, who can blame you? UR did not do enough for Asia Week.
Pan-Asianism was an ideological framework that was set up as resistance to European imperialist pressures. It was based upon an idea of shared culture between all Asian people. Based on this alone, one can see the possible negative connotations of the term "Pan-Asianism." However, when placed in the context of Japanese Pan-Asianism, the term becomes even more loaded. In that context, Pan-Asianism becomes the ideological basis for the colonization of all Asian peoples based on ideas of Japanese superiority.
How Pan-Asianism played out in the context of Imperial Japan is something that is widely studied, as it affected the countries of Asia in many ways. Through the Boatwright Memorial Library's OneSearch program, I was able to collect a few sources that show these effects.
One 2019 paper by Sven Matthiessen in "Modern Asian Studies" asserts that Japanese expansionism was justified as trying to create a singular “economic bloc” in Asia to resist European imperialism. When one looks at the definition of Asianism given above, this justification seems to follow logically, and indeed this is what Matthiessen argues.
Matthiessen states that in the Philippines, Japan needed to adapt its ideas of Pan-Asianism to convince the country why Japan was the model country for the “Asian” world. This took the form of the creation of the KALIBAPI party in the Philippines and the dissolution of other political parties. This party was an attempt by Japan to create a Filipino and Pan-Asian nationalism. However, this idea would eventually fail, as Japan’s projects to bring the Philippines into a greater Asian sphere was never fully taken up by the people of the Philippines. Hence, the political co-option of the political system of the Philippines would leave a sour taste in post-war relations between Japan, the Philippines and the idea of Pan-Asianism.
One can then look at the ways that Pan-Asian influences affected the interactions between Japan and China. According to a 1994 article by Yong Deng in "Asian Profile," China and Japan considered forming an alliance during the early years of the Meiji (1868-1912). This was unsurprising, as ideas of Pan-Asianism were supported by both the oligarchs of Meiji Japan and by Sun Yat-sen at the time. However, Japan wanted to take the lead in this alliance, something that China was unwilling to acquiesce. Thus, the partnership between the two nations would not happen, and eventually, Japan went about separating its culture from China and claiming cultural superiority. Then, Japanese Pan-Asianism in China took the form of invasion and violence against the Chinese.
I have used these studies into the character of Pan-Asianism to explain the many things that the word “Pan-Asian” brings to mind. To some, it would bring to mind violence. To others, it would bring to mind the co-option of their political systems. To others still, it brings to mind a time when nationalism defined their country.
All of these ideas could be painful and offensive. Some may say that “Pan-Asian” is just a word and that they were not aware of the historical significance it held. That is the point of this opinion piece. It is to inform why using the term “Pan-Asian” is inappropriate for our campus’s celebrations. It is to show that through the resources available to this campus, not even including professors, it was possible to research and understand the historical concepts that come with this word.
The words we use are important, as is literacy in other cultures. If you attended Wednesday's Pan-Asian dinner, I would encourage you to think about the things that define that word and realize that what one may see as an honest mistake can come with the weight of the past upon it. Then, I ask you to think about how we can represent an entire continent's culture in one week if one word can have so many meanings.
The short answer is that we cannot and should not. The celebration of culture is something that is important, but there is a difference between celebration and reduction of diverse cultures into an easily digested “Asian” culture.
If Asia Week has reinforced any idea I had, it is that there is a wrong way to do a good thing.
Contact columnist Eric Bossert, the writer of The Collegian's weekly "Ask Eric" column, at email@example.com.