Beyond the conventional dichotomy/dualism: Occidental value and Oriental value

- Kaori Sasaki,
Dept. of Sociology, University of Lancaster,
Lancaster LA1 4YL, UK
Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 9 (1999), 74-76.

This paper discusses an issue which is likely to emerge when the subject of international bioethics arises in discussion of so-called Oriental society. For instance, when researchers examine Japanese bioethical issues, virtually all look to Shinto, Buddhism or any kind of Japanese custom which is considered her tradition for an explanation. In the case of Chinese bioethics, the equivalent sources would be Tao and Confucianism. On the other hand, when people talk about a specific bioethics issue in Euro-America, do they consider cultural heritage such as the Pilgrim Fathers? When people examine the so-called Oriental culture, they tend to contrast or compare it with the image of Euro-American culture by using the ancient documents of the Orient. This type of appraisal in bioethics raises problems which I wish to examine.

As an example of this problem, let us consider the Japanese debate for and against the acceptance of brain death as the point at which a human's death occurs. The Japanese cognition of 'brain death' has, over the last thirty years, been formed mainly through public debates because of the antagonism between those for and those against the acceptance of brain death. Despite the diverse backgrounds involved in this discussion, many scholars have attributed the hesitation to accept brain death to the unique Japanese traditional habits. For instance: a) The Japanese maintain such feudal and underdeveloped perceptions that they need to be enlightened in order to accept brain death (i.e. modern development); or b) because Japan retains her unique tradition, the Japanese must observe this rather than allow a foreign idea to destroy it (i.e. anti-brain death). As a result, this discussion is somewhat linked to the Japanese cultural identity. Medical anthropologist Margaret Lock (1994 and 1995) also points out that the brain death issue may problematize the meaning of life in terms of cultural issues in Japan.

However, Japanese culture is neither as underdeveloped nor as so-called traditional as these debates claim. In other words, both insights into Japanese culture are different sides of the same coin, namely Orientalism and internal Orientalism, both of which derive from the image of 'exotic' Japanese culture.

Now, let me explain what Orientalism is. A professor in comparative literature and history, Edward Said (1976, rep. 1995) describes Orientalism as "the Western projection onto" the Orient from ancient texts such as the Rosetta stone in Egypt <written in BC 196 >and the Rig Veda <written in the BC 12th century> in India. Yet this projection "never directly" represents "the native inhabitants" (1976, rep. 1995: 94-95).

A typical case of Orientalism can be found in Indology: the study regarding India (see Kabbani 1986: 1-13, Ludden 1993, Lele 1993). Despite our image of India, it had experienced a mixture of religions and ethnicity before Britain invaded. As Cohn (1968 qtd. in van der Veer 1993: 26-27) repeatedly maintains, Orientalist narrative depicted Indian society "based primarily on the study of Brahmanical traditions in Sanskrit texts from before 1200 A.D". For example, Dumont (1980) illustrates that representations of India suggest a timeless frozen society from 1200 to the advent of the colonizers in the 17th century. Orientalists narratives tend to ignore the era of the Islamic empires from Delhi Sultan to Mughal, and to consider that Hindus and Muslims had "no shared value system" despite their long coexistence in India (qtd. in van der Veer 1993:26-36). Yet, recent research shows that Hinduism and Islam in India, have been deeply inter-related even in some religious aspects (van der Veer 1993:32-36). Thus, our image of purely Hinduized India derives from an illusory Orientalist projection.

This authorized image of India resulted in this perception becoming absorbed into modern Indian culture in what can be called "internal Orientalism" (Breckenridge & van der Veer 1993:8-12). Nationalism is one of the products of internal-Orientalism (: 10-13). Some political movements have attempted to approve the Hindu nation-state in India under the slogan of opposing the 'foreignness' of Muslims and Christians (van der Veer 1993:40-41). In other words, they pursue the "real India" as depicted by the Orientalists, although it never actually existed (Ludden 1993:273-5). Thus, Ludden (1993) concludes that Orientalism "as a body of knowledge is today" embedded in not only "a vast corpus of" authorized documents but also "in political culture"(: 272-3).

This sort of language is employed in racial cultural politics all over the world. (Breckenridge & van der Veer 1993:14). Although in this study I have examined only the Indian case, Kramer (1991) reports that cultural politics of this type were used by the French and the English in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and India (qtd in Breckenridge & van der Veer 1993:14). Thus, the heritage of Orientalism is still a huge burden for the people of Asia.

Now that we are aware of these tendencies of Orientalism, let us consider the effect of Orientalism on the Japanese debate concerning brain death. The course of Japanese modernization has seen a kind of re-creation of tradition similar to that in India. This re-creation of tradition took place partly because Japanese society was experiencing dramatic changes during the modernization process, while maintaining an intense desire for its own cultural traditions to avoid the confusion brought by change. At the same time, definitions of Japanese cultural identity were presented in the West which, as with India, were not necessarily correct. In this process, Orientalism and internal-Orientalism have been very effective in facilitating the process of modernization and in influencing the Japanese to accept both modernization and so-called true identity.

The Japanese family system, IE-Seido, is a good example. The Meiji government needed to establish the modern family to facilitate modern systems such as military conscription and compulsory education. The authorities tried to present Ie-seido as a tradition in order to prevent social disorder. So-called traditions like Ie-seido, suggest that both the Japanese and the Western scholars searched historical documents and adopted upper class customs to uncover details of lapsed traditions. These resurrected 'traditions' were then cleverly argued, adapted and possibly modified to fit the circumstances. (see for example, Lummis 1986, Ueno 1990 and 1998, Oguma 1995).

Aoki (1990) explains that the theories about Japanese culture have played a significant role within Japanese modernization. In short, when Japan tries to adopt some modernizing 'Western' system, some opinion leaders argue that we are becoming too westernized and are losing sight of true Japanese virtues. Correspondingly, some cultural theorists encourage research into Japanese traditional heritage, yet many are influenced in this process by Western concepts about Japan and by the Japanese government policies as I outlined before. However, these cultural theories have so contributed to the molding of Japanese cultural identity, that scholars of Japanese culture such as Befu (1987) claim that those cultural hypotheses should be understood in relation to the mass consumption of goods, the political economy, and similar forms of ideological influence. Hence, these theories can be seen as an instance of internal Orientalism in Japan.

By the same token, Japanese cultural theories are used in debates concerning brain death. Protagonists in these debates use so-called tradition, especially the Japanese family system to reinforce their own viewpoint or to denigrate the arguments of the opposition. In other words, so-called traditions such as Ie-seido, can be used either to advocate the enlightening of people to accept the modern notion, namely brain death; or to denounce the concept of brain death as being foreign.

Such arguments add support to both Orientalism and internal Orientalism, not only because they stress the uniqueness of so-called resurrected Japanese culture, but also because some of them; like Umehara Takeshi (1992: 227- 236) and Carl Becker (1992: 237-266), criticize the Western dualistic viewpoints although some aspects of their arguments are excellent. Ironically, these effects help to accentuate the differences between peoples' image projections on the Orient and Occident.

Fortunately, the Japanese brain death debates seem to be an internal Japanese cultural conflict. However, this sort of conceptual framework was utilized during WW2 to authorize Japanese conquest of East Asia: We, Asian (i.e. Japanese) emancipate Asia from the foreign (i.e. the Western) occupation (see for example, Hiromatsu Wataru 1989). Said (1978) also shows that Orientalism was applied in the 19th century by the Euro-Americans to their colonizations with the concept of enlightening ignorant native inhabitants. If this kind of argument, which is supported by the Orientalist or internal-Orientalist perception, is applied to international bioethics, the result may be not the resolving of differences but rather another conflict as in the above political contests. Thus, I wish to condemn this type of categorization in bioethics which is influenced by Orientalism or internal Orientalism.

An historian, J. W. Scott (1988), criticizes the tendency of researchers to accept the classification and its definition retroactively rather than to °»analysis [analyze] the process of the making meaning of°…(: 60) these terms. For instance, the concept of Japanese unique attitude to brain death which should attribute to the "resurrected" or "revived" Japanese traditions, as I mentioned above; had been far less discussed in the debate of brain death in 70s than in 80s when that concept became a common argument in it. Although Japanese society had waited the second case for 31 years after the first performance of a cardiac transplant in 1968 (c.f. the same year of the first experience in all over the world); in 70s Japanese authority had discussed this issue-- after the social impact from the first case-- within the almost same framework as that of the Euro-American had in those days. In other words, they discussed: 1) whether the new definition of death (i.e. brain death) should be authorized or not; 2) if it could be, a) what is the appropriate criterion for brain death diagnosis, b) what is the ethical manner for organ transplants, c) how the legal system should be adjusted into this new definition of death and medical practice. (See for instance Bai 1989) In 80s, whilst Euro-American authority succeeded in letting their society accept and adopt this new medical practice; Japanese did not. Accordingly, the concept of Japanese "traditions": either of which connotes "underdeveloped" or "cultural heritage"; becomes a key concept to explain such a situation as Japanese reluctance of approval of organ donation from a brain dead person because it was eventually regarded as a difference in outlook from that of Euro-American. However, there has been a subsequent process to either accept or discountenance this technology since 1968 in the political and social context. Whilst this case is Japanese brain death debate, it should have analogies to some Oriental bioethical cases because of the tendency of research position to the Oriental society as I discussed above, namely Orientalism and internal-Orientalism. Therefore, I would recommend that we should consider the ways in which these differences have been represented in medical practice, and that we should consider the process of establishing the definitive meaning of Oriental and Occidental bioethics rather than using the cliche of Orientalism and internal-Orientalism for our global bioethics.


Aoki, Tamotu. 1990. Nihon Bunka-ron' no Henyou (Change <in appearance> of the theories aboutJapanese Culture). Japan: Chuou-Kouron Sha.
Bai, Kouichi 1989 Noushi wo Manabu. Japan: Nihon-Hyoron-Sha.
Becker, B. Carl. 1992. "Nihon no Noushi Hantei ni Hantai-suru Riyu (The reason why I am against Japanese
adoption of a standard of brain death diagnosis [for a human death])". Noushi to Zouki Ishoku (Brain Death & Organ Transportation). Ed. Takeshi Umehara. Japan: Asahi-Shinbun Sha. pp. 237-265.
Befu, Harumi. 1987. Ideology toshiteno Nihon Bunka-ron. (Theories about Japanese Culture, as an Ideology).
Japan: Shisou-no Kagaku Sha..
Breckenridge, Carol A & Peter van der Veer., Ed. 1993. "Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament"
Orientalism and the PostcolonialPredicament. USA: University of Pennsylvania Press. pp. 1-22.
Hiromatsu, Wataru 1989. 'Kidai no Chokoku' Ron (The Theory of 'Overcoming Modernity). Japan: Kodan-sha.
Kabbani, Rana. 1986. Europe's Myths of Orient. London: Pandora Press.
Leel, Jayant. 1993. "Orientalism and the Social Sciences" Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament. Ed.
Breckenridge, Carol A & Peter vander Veer. USA: University of Pennsylvania Press. pp. 45-75.
Lock, Margaret. 1994. "Contests with Death: ideologies of nationalism and internationalism in Japan" Life and
Death under High Technology. Ed.Ian Robinson. UK: Manchester University Press. vol. 15 pp. 169-188.
--------------. 1995. "Contesting the Natural in Japan: Moral Dilemmas and Technologies of Dying". Culture,
Medicine and Psychiatry. 19: pp. 1-38.
Ludden, David. 1993. "British Orientalism in the Eighteenth Century: The Dialectics of Knowledge and
Government" Orientalism and thePostcolonial Predicament. Ed. Breckenridge, Carol A & Peter van der Veer. USA: University of Pennsylvania Press. pp. 215-249.
Lummis, Charles Douglas. 1986. Uchinaru Gaikoku(Inside Foreign Country ). Trans. Etuki Kaji.Japan:
Oguma, Eiji. 1995. Tanitu-Minzoku Shinwa no Kigen (The Origin of the Myth of RaciallyHomogeneous Japan).
Japan: Sinyou-sha.
Said. Edward. 1976. Rep. 1995. Orientalism. London: Penguin Books.
Scott, Joan Wallach. 1988 Gender and the Politics of History. Colombia University Press: USA.
Ueno, Chizuko. 1990. Kahutyou-sei to Shohonn-sei (Patriarchy and Capitalism). Japan: Iwanami Shoten.
---------------. 1998. Natioalism to Gender (Engendering Nationalism). Japan: Seido-sha
Umehara, Takeshi., Ed. 1992. "Noushi Socrates no To ha Hantai suru (I am against Brain Death as aDisciple of
Socrates)". Noushi to Zouki Ishoku (Brain death & Organ Transportation). Japan: Aahi-Shinbun-Sha. pp. 207-236.
van der Veer, Peter. 1993. "The Foreign Hand: Orientalist Discourse in Sociology and Communalism".
Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament. Ed. Breckenridge, Carol A & Peter can der Veer. USA: University of Pennsylvania Press. pp. 23-44.

Go back to EJAIB 9(3) May 1999
Go back to EJAIB
The Eubios Ethics Institute is on the world wide web of Internet: