East Asia is a region in the continent of Asia which is characterized by similar values and cultural traditions. The countries constituting the region of East Asia are China, Japan, Mongolia, South Korea, North Korea, Taiwan, Hongkong and Macau. Among these China, Korea and Japan are the three economic powers which has had major cultural influence in the region throughout history and continues to do so at present. China has exercised a lot of cultural influence in large parts of Asia particularly East Asia throughout history so much so that the term Middle Kingdom was used by the people of China to denote their perception of China’s centrality in the world.
Confucian principles of filial piety, loyalty, duty and modesty are common to the East Asian culture. China, Korea and Japan have shared values and similar culture as all three has been influenced to a great deal by China. During the Joseon dynasty, China and Korea had strong ties and Korean peninsula was known as the model student of Confucianism and often referred to as little China. Family is very central in these societies where deference and obedience to elders is really important. Loyalty and saving face is also valued more than honesty as these societies are more group oriented than individualistic. Thus, morality and ethics play an important role in the day to day life of the people.
These countries also follow the Chinese lunar calendar to celebrate most of its traditional festivals. These East Asian countries are also well known for its traditional medicinal system which still holds sway over a large portion of its population. Over the centuries, traditional medicine have been developed and institutes are set up for learning and support and it has acquired its own name such as traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) for China, traditional Korean medicine (TKM) for Korea, and Oriental medicine for Japan. These three traditions all draw from the accumulated knowledge transmitted through thousands of years and have its origins in China.
Unlike Japan and Korea which has an almost uniform and homogenous culture and language, China is characterized by more diversity as many of the minority groups in China have their own languages and distinct culture and religion.
Korea has a rich cultural heritage which dates back to times immemorial. Greatly influenced by Confucianism, Korean society is hierarchical and accords a lot of respect to the elders. Thus Korean language itself have forms of speech where- Cheondaemal and Banmal where the former is the honorific form with respect embedded in the speech itself and it is used in conversation with the elderly or people of higher positions whereas Banmal is the casual form used while talking to friends or those younger by age. One very interesting fact about Korea is that though its language is influenced by the Chinese language and the Chinese script (Hanja) was originally used, the Korean Script or Hangul was an outcome of an intentional invention in the 15th century by King Sejong and his team of ministers. Hangul is considered by linguists to be one of the most scientific languages in the world.
Korea has a lot of festivals and traditions relating to harvest owing to its deeply agrarian society. Chuseok and Seollal or the lunar New Year are the two most important traditional holidays. On both days, homage is paid to the ancestor through memorial rites and it is common for the Koreans to wear their traditional attire- the Hanbok on these days. Special food like Songpyeon (rice cake) and Ddeokguk (soup made of Tteok) are associated with these holidays.
When it comes to food, Korea is rich in variety. Korean cuisine is known for its healthy combination of vegetables, soup and meat which have many health benefits. Some of its food like bibimbap and kimchi are proven by science to aid in digestion, increasing immunity and in helping to losing weight as it reduces saturated fats and cholesterol. Kimchi, its iconic dish is considered the healthiest food and Korea even has several festivals of this representative food.
Apart from its cuisine, Korea is also known for its indigenous sports and games like Taekwondo, Ssireum or Korean wrestling, Yutnori (a Korean Board game), Jegichagi etc. Korean traditional dances especially Buchaechum is gaining prominence in the world due to its elegance and beauty. South Korea is also well known for its beauty and skin care products as well as for its culture of plastic surgery which have been normalized in the Korean society. It is not surprising for parents to gift their daughters a plastic surgery as a high school graduation gift in Korea. Koreans have their own beauty standards which emphasize small face, high nose bridge and double eyelids and big eyes.
To talk about Korean Culture without mentioning the impact of its popular culture (drama, music and movies) known as Hallyu or Korean Wave is almost an aberration. The Korean Government has also taken systematic steps for the popularization of Korean popular culture- dramas, movies, kpop (Korean music) and fashion through its Ministry of Culture. It has also set up Korean Cultural Centres across different continents to promote Korean Culture and language.
However, South Korea’s importance in East Asia lies in its historical experiences as a colony of Japan which makes it easier for other East Asian countries to relate to it. It is also a model for many countries in Asia as its political transformation from an authoritarian rule to a democracy and its rapid economic progress to become one of Asia’s economic giants is remarkable. The absence of underlying feelings of animosity from the past makes its cultural exports even more popular and successful.
China has played a major role in the culture of East Asia and continues to play a significant role in its influence culturally, politically as well as economically. It has a vibrant culture that dates back as old as its history as one of the cradles of civilization. Many inventions like paper, gunpowder, compass and discovery of tea came from China. China for one is not a homogenous country and has diverse culture due to the presence of many minority groups such as the Dais, the Zhuangs, the Uighurs, the Huis, Miaos etc which have their own religion, culture and traditions.
China is characterized by conservatism much of which is believed to have stemmed from settled agriculture. High dependence on nature for agricultural produce inculcated virtues of patience and composure which have been deeply ingrained in the culture of the people even today. As the country gave birth to Confucianism and is heavily influenced by it, family is the most fundamental social unit so much so that many other relationships, be it between a sovereign and the subject or between friends, are conceptualized within the framework and understanding of family ties. Confucianism is an ethical and philosophical system characterized by filial piety, kinship, loyalty, and conducting oneself according to one’s assigned place in the society. Consequently, the Chinese emphasize on collectivity rather than individualism where protecting the dignity of others is deemed more important than honesty as losing face can be the biggest humiliation. Chinese culture is also greatly influenced by Taosim where the concept of harmony entails the doctrine of moderation and balance between conflicting components. In terms of religion, many Chinese are characterized by eclectism where they may be found worshipping the Buddha in the morning, praying to Laotzu in the afternoon, and yet professing to be a Confucianist. But since the 4th century, Buddhism has also been a major religion of the Chinese and is followed in different forms viz. Chinese Buddhism, Pali Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Zen Buddhism etc.
In the current scenario with growing economic power, China’s culture is also gaining popularity worldwide. Chinese lantern festivals are famed for its beautiful spectacle and it has long been celebrated in many parts of Asia but now it is even spreading to countries like the UK and the USA. The dazzling and colorful dragon and lion dances are major attractions abroad showcasing the exoticness of Chinese culture. The influence of Chinese cuisine is also widespread in Asia
particularly Korea, Japan, Thailand and Vietnam. China is also well known for its traditional healing system like acupuncture and other herbal medicines and extracts from animals.
China has also been realizing the use of soft power and culture in enhancing the image of the country from the example of Korea and Japan and making commendable efforts towards popularizing its culture. The best examples of this are the Confucian Institutes being established across continents and being built to improve understanding of Chinese culture around the world. The Confucius Institute scheme was founded in 2004, and opened its first overseas branch in November that year in Seoul, South Korea.
East Asia and South Asia are China’s sphere of influence culturally as well as politically and economically. China’s increasing economic and military power is consequently diminishing US influence in the region. In this geopolitical scenario, popularizing culture and promoting cultural products becomes an important bridge for China in regard to its relation with other East Asian nations.
Japan is pronounced in Japanese as ‘Nippon’ or ‘Nihon’, and is an island nation consisting of many islands most prominent among which are Honshu, Hokkaido, Shikoku and Kyushu. Japan is a fascinating country with an unusually unique culture which developed in isolation from the influence of Western Culture. This is attributed to its closed door policy referred to as Sakoku for over 2 centuries where western penetration was rendered impossible.
Japan’s culture has been influenced by the Chinese culture especially of the Tang dynasty. Much of Japan’s language and vocabulary has also been derived from Chinese. The Japanese language consist of three scripts- Kanji (logographic Chinese characters), Hiragana (a phonetic Japanese alphabet) and Katakana (alphabets for usage of foreign words). Japan has also been influenced by Confucianism to some extent and Buddhism which came to Japan from China to a large extent. The indigenous religion of Japan is Shintoism but Buddhism has gained more popularity and a Japanese Buddhist movement called Soka Gakkai which is based on the teachings of a Japanese priest Nichiren currently has a huge following.
Samurais and Geishas are two historical aspects of Japan which has captured popular imagination about Japan and even becoming hot topic of the Japanese popular culture. Samurais were a warrior class of people known for their loyalty and swordsmanship skills as well as their rule over Japan during the Tokugawa Shogunate. Geisha is a term that is commonly misunderstood today as having derogatory meaning of prostitution. However, geishas were a community of women who entertained and serve the social elite during the late 19th and the early 20th century with their hospitality, dancing, music and cheerful banter and their association with
prostitution comes from post Second World War period when many young women who were originally not geishas gave themselves up for prostitution with the influx of American soldiers.
As an island nation, seafood is a vital part of Japan’s cuisine with Sushi being one of its most famed dishes. The most common ingredient of Sushi is sashimi or raw fish which is wrapped inside a seaweed with flavored rice and few other items. Japanese cuisine is very elegant and unique and requires the skill to bring out the essence of the ingredients giving the dishes a refreshing flavor.
cherry blossom festival
One of the Japanese festivals which is world renowned and invites a lot of tourists is the Hanami or the cherry blossom festival. It is celebrated in spring when the Sakura flowers blossom and during this time outdoor strolls and picnics under the blooming trees is a common sight. The Japanese also celebrate the growth of their young girls by decorating their houses with hina dolls and offerings of food and peach blossoms. This festival is known as Hinamatsuri (doll festival) or the Peach Fesival. Other traditional festivals include Shogatsu or New Year’s Day, Setsubun, Kanbutsue/Hana Matsuri or Buddha’s Birthday etc. The Japanese also have evolved their own martial art sports like Judo, Karate and Sumo wrestling. Karate enjoys a huge popularity so much so that Hollywood movies were made based on it.
Like Korea and China, family is important in the Japanese society and the traditional family unit in Japan is called ‘Kazoku’ and comprises of the parents and their children. Japan is renowned for its culture of discipline, politeness, respect and consideration for others. The Japanese are also a very hard working and efficient people. It is said that the Japanese invented the 5S process
which is designed to achieve total standardization, cleanliness and being organized. It stands for- Seiri, Seiton, Seiso, Seiketsu and Shitsuke corresponding to Sort, Set, Shine, Standardise and Sustain. These core values are inculcated very young and taught in school. Japanese schools are also known for its culture of not hiring janitors but making students clean the schools and toilets themselves. Thus they are taught the duty and responsibility of keeping their surroundings clean. The belief for this comes from Gakko Soji (school cleansing) which has its roots in Buddhist teachings and explains the importance of keeping our surroundings and body clean. Thus the result of such practices can be seen from the way Japanese people conduct themselves even outside of Japan, demonstration of which is found in how over the past few years, Japanese football fans have been seen cleaning up the stadiums and locker rooms after major football tournaments.
Japan has been making a mark and boosting its image in East Asia as well as the rest of Asia through its popular culture. Japanese comic books known as Manga and animations adapted from them are popular and successful in East Asia and beyond and cultural exports like animated toys, games are paving ways for Japan’s penetration in countries where feelings of animosity still exists for Japan’s colonialism in the past.
Most of these countries have been using culture as an instrument in building relations, developing its image and gaining support and interest of other cultures. The respective governments are all involved in taking systematic steps towards this end. However, irrespective of what is projected abroad, in countries where culture is seemingly homogenous like Japan and Korea, the major challenge is assimilation. Many foreigners working and settled in Korea face lot of difficulties because of the gap in culture and the hesitancy of Koreans in embracing others into their culture. All these three countries show a beautiful blend of the modern and traditional but there is a common struggle between the new and the old. The older generations complain about the traditions and collective mentality increasingly being discarded and displaced by the Western ideals of individualism whereas the younger generation desire progress, change and freedom from traditional and cultural restraints. The continuous inflow of Western thought and
culture presents a challenge for these Asian countries to keep their traditions without capitulating to the Western culture. While simultaneously, the popularity and spread of Asian culture through popular culture like movies, music etc as seen through the conquering of the US music market by the Korean music band BTS demonstrates that even the West is experiencing the penetration of Asian values and culture through different channels. Due to the globalized world and the challenge such cross cultural current poses, the best solution would be taking the middle path and blending culture and values and taking the best of both cultures.
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