Testing How Much You Know About East Asia (Not Just China)

By Eamonn Fingleton

TOKYO, Japan -- For years now the American press has been full of reports of the rise of China and, to a lesser extent, of South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore. But how well do you really know East Asia? If I may say so, probably not very well.

After 25 years of reporting from the region, I am constantly amazed at how little is understood of the region,  and how utterly misguided is so much of the Western press's coverage (The Atlantic is, of course, an honorable exception but much of what is reported in America's major newspapers -- and even more so on American television -- is appalling).

All this means that when I am invited to give talks in the West, I don't know where to begin: there is just a vast amount of ignorance and, worse, outright misinformation to be cleared away before I can make any substantive point.  

Recently I have decided to take the bull by the horns by showing up how benighted my audience really is. At the beginning of my talks I therefore posit what I call, with appropriate modesty, the Fingleton Question. I ask a sort of quiz question about East Asia and challenge my audience to come up with the answer.

As a sample of what I mean, let me try this question on you (this is one I used to preface a speech at Chatham House in London two weeks ago): Can you name an atrocity that happened in East Asia in the 1930s that, on a one-day, one-decision basis, probably ranks as the worst atrocity in history?

The following day in Brussels I spoke before the European Institute of Asian Studies and posited a different but similarly elusive question: In what nation did the campaign for justice for the so-called comfort women (the sex slaves used by the Japanese imperial forces in the 1930s and first half of the 1940s) begin?

I asked these questions not in any spirit of superiority (I discovered the answer to the latter question as recently as two months ago, so I can't claim any particular bragging rights). My point is merely that Westerners -- all of us -- are subject to startling blindspots in trying to see into East Asia.

I will provide the answers tomorrow. But in the meantime, please bear in mind that they will surprise even most academic experts on the region.  (As a matter of fact, no one in either the Chatham House or the Brussels audiences got the correct answer, even though there were many people at each event who enjoyed special familiarity with the fields concerned.)

Eamonn Fingleton is the author of In the Jaws of the Dragon: America's Fate in an Era of Chinese Dominance.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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