HANEDA Masashi – Non-European Languages and A New World History

HANEDA Masashi, Vice President of International Affairs, Tokyo University: Professor at the Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia

HANEDA Masashi – Non-European Languages and A New World History

“We realize that the non-European languages have been equipped with much richer and more divergent meaning and content than the European languages.”

TOKYO– Professor HANEDA Masashi has a vision. The Vice President of International Affairs and Professor at the Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia, Tokyo University, wants to promote an Asian departure from the old-fashioned Euro-centric version of ‘World History’ toward a greater participation of Asiatic languages and cultures. Although Professor Haneda is fluent and publishes frequently in English (he is also fluent in French and German), his main publications so far are written for Japanese and Chinese audiences to instill more self-awareness about their own cultural traditions and languages, and to persuade them to use their own vocabularies as a good starting point to influence how ‘World history’ will be written and composed in the near future.

In the foreword of his recent compilation ‘Secularization, Religion and the State‘ by Tokyo University, Center for Philosophy (2010), Haneda deals critically with the highly relevant and actionable dichotomy between two old enemies: Islam and the West. He says:

“I believe that this is indispensable for a reconsideration of the dichotomous view of the world that opposes ‘Europe’ or ‘the West’ to the ‘Islamic World.'”

HANEDA Masashi seeks New World History

Haneda continues that ‘the West’ and its other are both composed of European words and responsive to the European knowledge system. What the original Islam really is, stays in the unknown Islam; unknown because non-Western categories are categorically omitted when it comes to writing World history (with a captial ‘W,’ meaning there is only one official version, the Western one). The notion in here that language is power over history, is, I think, understood by everyone:

“Let me mention here one important question that we have encountered in these discussions: the question of which language we should use in discussing the issues of secularization and religion. […] The meaning of the words ‘secular’ and ‘religion’ in European languages have interwoven into them social and cultural experiences in areas that had been inhabited until the 16th century by Christians, and, in particular, by Roman Catholic Christians.

People who use English and other European languages make use of these words in order to analyze and understand not only phenomena that appear in societies of Catholic Christians and Protestant Christians of various denominations, but also similar phenomena that appear in non-Christian societies.”

Professor Haneda goes on to explain that the discourse of power relations in Asian societies, including Japan, China, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. Under mighty and dominant Western categories of thought, Asia’s societies are “analyzed, despite belonging to a completely different system” by the modern European system of knowledge.

Haneda explains further how Japan in particular started to incorporate Western vocabularies into the social discourse of the 19th century in order to understand itself inclusively in terms of modern, Western knowledge. For example, the words ‘sezoku’ and ‘shukyo’ are translations of two Western ideas, that of ‘secular’ and ‘religion.’ Although those words had their own particular Japanese meanings (and still have, if pre-modern texts are studied), they were quickly used and understood in that new Western and modern context.

Based on these Western imports of thought, the Japanese society began to re-thinking itself, and this isn’t just a metaphor: The Japanese character was “reformed and rearranged to suit the system of modern knowledge.” Western categories like ‘religion’ based on the model of Christianity were used to interpret most Asiatic traditions. And if something displeased Western theories, it was immediately “condemned and suppressed as pagan or superstitious.”

“It is certain that the system of modern knowledge wielded massive power to restrain Japanese society, which it deemed non-European, and the world-view of people living in that society, and forcibly transformed them.”

Professor Haneda’s view is that ‘sezoku’ and ‘shukyo’ are not only dissimilar in form to Western words “secular” and “religion” [obviously they have different spelling and letters, even after they have been romanized] but also differ slightly in their etymologies, experiences, and original meaning. Thus he asks the crucial question:

Is it possible to say that the picture of the present-day world as we understand it [from the perspective of the Japanese language system], on the one hand, and the image of the world harbored by another group of researchers who have been doing the same thing in English, on the other, are completely identical?

Professor Haneda points out that two (or more) sets of vocabularies are not necessary always identical and that more Asian loanwords should lend themselves to the global process of forming the future international language: “We are indeed tackling a task that needs to be done in the world of the humanities.” No matter what culture you are from, Haneda’s call for more cultural pluralism sounds like a fair idea.

*quotes from: HANEDA Masahi (2010), Secularization, Religion and the State, The University of Tokyo Center for Philosophy (UTCP), Tokyo