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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