Cultural Symbols and Nationalism

by Liz on January 29, 2013

in Opinion

Source: Tumblr

With all the buzz about the clash of nationalisms in Asia today, I found my attention slowly turning towards less newsworthy but visually arresting items.

Like this captivating photograph of a Japanese geisha, whose finery, grace, and beauty underscores an important point about gender: because in Japan, even if men are politically powerful, it is Japanese women, or at least their symbolic significance, who carry the charged aura of their nation.

Nationalism in Asia, of course, and the visceral discourse that it naturally gives rise to, is an unending conversation mired in a bit of modern absurdity.

The long forgotten logic of East Asia, or even the subjective notion that it is somewhere ‘in the East’ didn’t really enter the national vocabulary until the mid- to late 19th century, a pivotal historical period that I’ve been studying independently.

It was around this time both destruction and creation took place, starting in Japan, then moving along the Korean peninsula and Qing China.

Which kind of brings us back to the geisha.

When I look at this picture, I see a powerfully seductive image of not an actual woman, but rather an abstraction of femininity that may be a paragon of Japanese culture. (And please do correct me if I am wrong.)

But perhaps on a more subversive level, I also see an expression and vision of the Japanese nation that binds the collective imagination. It stays on, it lingers. We remember Japan because we remember the geisha.

And it’s images like these, or Korean pop music, or even the Beijing Olympics, that posits a near-superficial cultural unity or a source of pride for an East Asian national.

What we forget, though, is that limiting Asian identities to the cultural-turned-national symbol, in a way, also creates paradoxical dependencies on these potent concepts that now differentiate one population from another.

They fuel the nationalisms that make the headlines, and encourages the hostilities we see today.

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