Contemporary Colonialism - A View from the East

by Atsuko Miyawaki


Colonialism often implies "finished project" in contemporary world where the colonized has gained illusionary freedom in the

discourses of "post-colonialism."   In fact, colonialism has never finished.   It continues to exist as a cultural phenomenon.   A Japanese cultural studies scholar, Kumagome Takeshi, claimed in his article 'Japanese Colonial Memory and Modernity: Successive Layers of Violence' that even there is no colonized, there are always colonizers (2001: 207-258).   Even the era moved to a post-colonial phase, the hegemonic power of the West stays as strong as in colonialism era.   Post-colonial discourses may be in danger of neutralizing historical inequalities.  

The current Iraq war presents a model of contemporary colonialism that follows almost conventional patterns of colonialist regime such as the regulation of space, management of people, and colonization of mind.   The colonization of Iraq by Bush administration, however, has not "successfully" managed people in Iraq.   Bush administration offers an intangible gift called "freedom" in order to soften their actions of conquest.   "It is not conquest, we are there to save them," president Bush would say.   One of the definitions of colonialism "a scenario of discovery" has presented in the relation to civilization of Other - Iraqi people.   Modernization brought together with colonization has historically been valued as a positive result.   Conquest and modernization have raised questions of modernity that emphasizes the empowered West.          

One of the examples of power relations between West and "the rest" could be seen in Japan who has a complex unequal power relationship with the West especially with the United States without being colonized.   Japan has been seen more as a colonizer who performed its authoritarian power over Korea, Taiwan, some areas in China and Southeast Asia, and various islands in Micronesia.   It is an undeniable fact and an on-going issue in Japanese history.   Japan, a former colonizer, lost its hegemonic power after World War II.   Japanese national identity--carefully constructed in imperial times, and widely accepted--lost any relevance whatsoever (if it had any, in the first place) after the atomic holocaust.   At the moment Japan surrendered, yesterday's enemy suddenly became the best friend and closest military ally.    The sudden arrival of modernization/Americanization caused confusing feelings among Japanese people and continues to cause the sense of "loss" which Japan can no longer identify.   This unidentifiable "loss" is linked to Japanese amnesia about colonialism to the suppression of this issue in Japanese War Crime Trials presided over by the U. S. who was re-establishing the colonial territory in the Philippines.   The Japanese amnesia has contributed to the ambiguity of Japanese post-war national identity.

Colonialism as a cultural phenomenon in contemporary Japan is seen in the art world.   A theater arts scholar Erica Stevens Abbitt asks in her article "Androgyny and Otherness": how it is possible to apply critical theory to Japanese and postcolonial cultural productions without imposing western perceptions or using master narratives that reduce and conquer the "foreign" (2001: 249).   Japanese performances art in post-WWII (60s to 70s) presented in the U. S. were under the direct force of western hegemonic power that has legitimated art works and labeled them as "avant-garde" to give them access to the art circuit.   It is necessary for Japanese artists to be called in the western term "avant-garde" artists in order to circulate in a highly selective global cultural market.   Yoko Ono, for instance, who has up to this day been considered an "avant-garde" artist, poses some interesting questions.   What does "avant-garde" mean for an Asian artist who mostly performs in the "West?"   Is "avant-garde" a universal category, or is it a western particularity with post-colonial repercussions?   Can colonialism discourses be limited to the historically colonized nations?  

One of the characteristics of post-colonialism discourses is the feminization of nation.   As it is seen in art world, Japan is presented and perceived in western art circuit almost always feminine or eroticized female, while Japan as a colonizer presents masculinity. The nation is always embodied--gendered and sexualized.   This feminization of Japan by the West implicates Japan's loss of power.   Japanese artists who perform in the West never be released from the western hegemonic power of art market and criticism.   

The difficulties of claiming Japanese identity in the West without being labeled or appropriated pose a question of culturally and racially based internal colonization in the United States.   Those who have hyphenated or twice hyphenated identities such as

Asian-Americans, Asian-American-Japanese are not released from colonialist power of the West even they own citizenship in the United States.   In this post-colonial era there is no definitive factors of "colonizers" and "colonized."   The history that has created reductionist binary of East/West continue to dominate the structure of power.   Contemporary colonialism does not specify the colonized but creates an inevitable fact of inequality.         

Works Cited

Abbitt, Erica Stevens. (2001) 'Androgyny and Otherness: Exploring the West Through the Japanese Performative Body,' Asian Theater Journal Vol.18 no.2. Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press.

Kumagome, Takeshi.   (2001) 'Japanese Colonial Memory and Modernity: Successive Layers of Violence' trans. Victor Koschmann. "Race" Panic and the Memory of Migration . Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.