Understanding “Asianization”

“Everybody is Kung Fu Fighting!” exclaims the publicity flyer for Warren I. Cohen’s The Asian American Century. The book tries to achieve more substantial analysis than the above quote, but its broad generalizations about Asian-American relations rarely contain more insight than the average pop song.

Cohen is a Distinguished University Professor of History at University of Maryland with an extensive background in Asian-American relations, having published several works on the subject, including America’s Response to China (2000) and East Asia at the Center (2000). Cohen based his latest work, The Asian American Century, on the Reischauer Lectures he delivered at Harvard in April 2000. In a compact 150 pages, Cohen attempts to breeze through three hefty topics: the history of American intervention in East Asia, the “Americanization” of East Asian culture, and finally, the “Asianization” of America.

Two prominent themes underlie Cohen’s analysis of America’s historical, cultural and political influence on Asia. First, he claims that the popularity of American culture in Asia did not occur through coercion but was a choice made Asians themselves, who “manipulated Americans as best they could, and selected those parts of American culture they believed would improve the quality of their lives.” As evidence, Cohen cites James L. Watson’s well-known study of McDonald’s in East Asia, Golden Arches East. Watson argues that countries abroad have adapted McDonald’s to suit local cultural tastes. In fact, these fast food chains have become so integrated into Chinese society that after the United States’ bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, efforts to boycott McDonald’s actually failed. More strikingly, during the occupation of Tiananmen Square in 1989, troops of the People’s Liberation Army ate in KFC.

Other voluntary American imports include baseball, art, jazz, Hollywood and missionaries. Cohen asserts that American efforts to impose cultural change in Asia have failed, but does cite Japan as a positive example of forced “Americanization.” Though he admts that some Japanese are saddened at the loss of native culture, he argues that “we must remember what the Japanese have gained as part of their Americanization: the right to think critically, to read whatever they want, to choose whatever mix of cultures they please. Obviously, they think the price is right.”

Cohen’s second premise relies on his appraisal of the past century’s Asian-American relations. According to Cohen, America first established its role as the dominant power in East Asia when it defeated Japan after WWII, followed by involvement in Taiwan, South Korea and Vietnam. From this brief historical run-through, Cohen comes to the sanguine conclusion that “America, despite all the faults of which we who live in it are aware, remains a beacon of liberty and prosperity to the people of East Asia, as to much of the rest of the world.” Cohen credits this “beacon of liberty and prosperity” with enabling the growth of democracy (albeit flawed) in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, promoting “universal rights” and helping “liberate” countries from Japanese imperialism and communism. This is, of course, if you overlook Vietnam, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, suppression of the Filipino independence movement and other lesser “transgressions.”

Obviously, it cannot be denied that some of America’s involvement in Asia was beneficial. But this observation is not particularly compelling, and Cohen’s oversimplification of the issue ultimately undermines its merit. It seems like Cohen’s picture of American involvement in East Asia is overly optimistic, glossing over complicating conflicts and problems. Nor does Cohen adequately address why America has strayed from its supposed role as the liberator in Asia. His lack of support invites skepticism and prevents him from making a truly unique contribution to the discourse on Asia-America relations.

In his last chapter, Cohen outlines the impact of Asian culture on American society. Asian influences are apparent in the proliferation of Chinese restaurants, the popularity of Asian-themed movies and television shows (fromPokemon to Iron Chef), the growing appeal of karate, Taoist sex practices, Buddhism, feng shui, karaoke, the influence of traditional Japanese art on American artists and so on. Furthermore, Cohen claims, Asian-Americans are the “fastest-growing population group, generally the most affluent, and the best educated,” attending the top colleges and becoming an “important force in mainstream American politics,” influencing American foreign policy and public opinion. Given the influx of Asian immigrants into America, Cohen concludes, “Asians have been more successful as cultural imperialists in America than Americans have been in East Asia.”

However, Cohen does not provide adequate support for this bold claim. After all, how many Asian-American musical artists in America today can rival the popularity of Britney Spears in Asia? Whereas American culture in Asia is seen as a force of modernization, it seems that Asian culture in America is limited to the realm of kitschy pop culture, like the Chinese characters and designs that bombard shoppers at Urban Outfitters. Cohen’s desire to demonstrate the growing Asian influence on America often leads to exaggeration.

Though Cohen’s attempt to address the interactions between Asian and American cultures is admirable, the task is too formidable and complicated to be contained in a book of this short length. The work’s brevity and broad scope undermine its ability to delve into the complexities that constitute the raw material for making a compelling argument on Asia-American relations.


The Asian American Century

By Warren I. Cohen

Harvard University Press

160 pp., $22.95