From “Far East” to “East Asia” in Global English Academic and Societal Discourse: German and Japanese “hidden sources”
Public lecture at Trinity Asian Studies Centre, Dublin 6th November 2017
The dominant use in English of the words “East Asia” as a collective designation for Greater China, the two Koreas, Japan, and sometimes Vietnam is a relatively recent outgrowth of cold war era US scholarship. The previously dominant term “Far East” reflects a Eurocentric worldview, which was politically problematic in Japan and expedient for lesser 19th century European powers and post-war America to avoid. Through the influence of Karl Ritter, the German-speaking world and Scandinavia, like Japan, tended to conceive of the region as “East Asia”, whereas Britain and France thought, spoke and wrote in terms of “Far East”. “East Asia” was thus a counter-hegemonic concept developed on the margins of the colonial world order, which arguably entered post-war Anglograph scholarship through Japanese. Just as Heidegger hinted that his philosophy had Japanese “hidden sources”, the proliferating East Asia discourses today conceptually originated as part of Japan’s modernisation process and rise as the first non-Western great power. It was a disruptive resignification attaching new and positive meanings to the European idea of Asia, rejecting the externally ascribed and objectivating identity of “Far East”, asserting subjectivity and agency. This presentation traces the genealogy of the contemporary idea of East Asia through Karl Ritter’s Ost-Asien, his student Élisée Reclus’ politicised use of Asie orientale, the migration of the Japanese ideas of East Asia (Tō-A 東亜 from the 1880s and Higashi Ajia 東アジア after 1945) from meteorology and geography to political discourse, and from there to the dreaming spires of Harvard.