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On Terminology, Cont.

By Taylor Marvin

More on the often clumsy terminology used to describe world cultural blocks.

Today I was reading Michael McDevitt’s chapter “Sea Denial with Chinese Characteristics” in China’s Future Nuclear Submarine Force when I came across an interesting sentence:

“The Chinese are still smarting from the Century of Humiliation when they suffered significant losses of sovereignty from the Western nations (including Japan) that came from the sea.”

Is this a mistake, with McDevitt intending to write “as well as Japan”? Or just that Japan, a modern developed world democracy with an imperialist past, has so much in common with Europe and the developed European post-colonial states that, vast cultural differences aside, it should be included under the vague definition of “the West”?

I’d say this classification is actually a useful fiction. Obviously Japan’s culture has much more in common with its East Asian neighbors than with the countries we’d typically think of as the West. But when looking at specific aspects of modern Japan, this comparison can make sense. Japan’s recent history more closely parallels Western Europe and America’s than anything else, and Japan’s feudal era of historical development arguably has more in common with the European medieval period than other Asian nations. If we’re interested in economic or diplomatic comparisons, the “Western” label isn’t inherently ridiculous, though it is extremely condescending. Cultures and economies are endlessly complex, and no labeling system — say, “developed world” or the entirely uninformative “Global South” —  is comprehensive.

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