Education About Asia: Online Archives

Americanization of East Asia

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Editor’s Note: This essay is adapted from Professor Cohen’s 2002 Reischauer lectures at Harvard University. They were later published in the book, The Asian American Century (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002)

Some years ago, in the heyday of John King Fairbank, it was customary to think of change in East Asia, evidence of modernization, as a response to the West, as Westernization. Today that view is considered ethnocentric, a failure to recognize the internal drive of Asian peoples to transform their cultures. A few of us have taken a step further and written of the Asianization of the West— or at least of America. Nonetheless, some of the changes in the way people of East Asia live today can be blamed on or credited to the United States, its image in their minds, and the role the United States has played in their lives.

In the course of the last century, the United States had an impact on popular culture, education, religion, political, and economic thought and practices in most countries of East Asia. Contact between Asians and Americans changed the way the people of East Asia live—what they eat and drink, how they play and how they pray, how they are governed and how they dream of being governed. This impact was determined by Asians, who chose those elements of American culture that pleased them, often modifying them to suit local tastes, and ultimately indigenizing them. American efforts to impose cultural change, as in the Philippines, usually failed.