East Asian Modernities and the Formation of Media and Cultural Studies

Myungkoo Kang. Handbook of Media Studies. Editor: John D H Downing, Denis McQuail, Philip Schlesinger, Ellen Wartella. Sage Publication. 2004.

In the past hundred years, East Asia, although being influenced by the West, achieved modernity in its own way and has a unique position and role in the world system. Japan has been in the center, South Korea and Taiwan have been in the semi-periphery, and China has been on the periphery struggling to capture a new position and role. Even on entering the 21st century, Japan has not been able to come out of its long-term depression. Due to the internally conservative and closed nature of Japanese nationalism, it has not been able to exercise political and cultural leadership commensurate with its economic size.

On the other hand, since it recently became a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO), China has been emerging as the single alternative force against U.S. hegemony; therefore, all countries have been paying attention to how China will change. The country is confronting a pivotal moment: Will it build a new empire that includes a Greater China economic bloc that, in turn, includes Southeast Asia, Taiwan, and the Philippines, as symbolized by the term Greater China, or will it play a role in constructing a peaceful global order while acting to limit U.S. hegemony?

If we take a close look at the map of the East Asian interior, it appears very difficult to group the countries into a single region other than for the reason of geographical proximity. When considering Confucian culture, East Asia must include Vietnam. North Korea and Mongolia do not figure easily on the map of East Asia because North Korea is half of the divided Korean peninsula that clings to its isolated socialist system and because Mongolia has a very underdeveloped economy. South Korea and North Korea are erstwhile cold war adversaries experiencing the pains of division. Taiwan, to China, is a part of China, but to those Taiwanese residents who argue for independence, it is not.

Despite such differences and geographical boundaries, within East Asia, the exchanges of finance, products, people, information, and culture have been rapidly increasing since the opening up of China and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many East Asian people and the media have started to imagine East Asia as one regional community. In this regard, East Asia is a newly “imagined community.”

Against this complex geopolitical background, this chapter will evaluate the accomplishments of critical media and cultural studies (MCS) in the past 20 some years in the region called “East Asia,” in which, to reiterate, a new imagined community has been forming. However, just as research in other regions of the world cannot be tidily categorized as “North American MCS” and “European MCS,” the phrase “East Asian media and cultural studies” is probably not an appropriate mapping. If the term North American MCS were used, many U.S. researchers would object, saying, “How can research in the United States be grouped into one category? It must be divided into subcategories.” Canadian and Mexican researchers would certainly wish to talk about the special characteristics of their countries. If the termEuropean MCS were used, there would be tumultuous criticism from European scholars, who would say how sharply different street culture is in Germany, France, and Britain. But to Western scholars, the categories “African,” “Latin American,” “Asian” and “European” do not sound abnormal. Keeping the politics of geopolitical mapping in mind, this review will take a look at the special characteristics of critical MCS in the past 20 some years, focusing on three localities: Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea.

The next section looks back over the trajectories of the formative process of East Asian MCS. In it, I will examine how East Asian MCS identifies the formation of East Asian modernities in terms of the emergence of consumer society and consumer culture, as well as the formation of cultural identities mediated by communication industries in the era of globalization.

Charting the Emergence of East Asian Media and Cultural Studies

This section raises two questions concerning the changes in East Asian MCS over the past 20 years:

  1. Which research issues were prioritized?
  2. Which particular features of MCS have Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan developed in response to their specific histories?

Research on media technologies—including newspapers, radio, television, and telecommunications—and on the media industries develops in response to their advances. It is axiomatic that media studies, always being an intellectual sphere connected to the media, are intimately related with the needs of the power structure and the communication industries.

Before World War II, Japanese newspaper studies mainly dealt with the social role of, and the propagandist use of, newspapers. After the war, due to the influence of the U.S. occupation, they changed to American-style social psychological public opinion studies (Yoshimi, 2001). Since the 1970s, in concert with changes in media industries, newspaper studies in Japan have begun to address journalism education and industry-oriented media studies—including theories of news production and audience surveys—and subsequently settled down as a mainstream trend in research. If we take a look at The Fifty-Year History of the Japanese Society for Studies in Journalism and Mass Communication, published by the society in commemoration of its 50th anniversary, topics such as media history, the content analysis of news, media responsibility, and ethics were the principal research tasks until the 1990s. From the 1980s, debate also got under way regarding the “information society.”

Mori and Takaki (2000) have argued that Japanese researchers took British cultural studies as an alternative to microscopic media effects studies and to administrative research, but they did not see the local context out of which the agenda of British cultural studies emerged. Traditional mass communication studies and Japanese cultural studies, the other theoretical tendency, began in the mid-1980s. As an alternative to behaviorist and functionalist approaches to mass communication, which had previously dominated the scene, the approaches of Stuart Hall, David Morley, and John Fiske were introduced.

British cultural studies was not perceived as a theoretical attempt to supersede economic or class determinism in explaining the postwar British social order. As Hall’s study of Thatcherism demonstrated, British cultural studies tried to explain why workers supported Margaret Thatcher despite the fact that her economic and welfare policies worked against their class interests. Mori and Takaki (2000) point out that, due to its focus on theoretical discussion and its minimal concern with domestic cultural politics, Japanese cultural studies overwhelmingly focused on text-centered analyses, with an emphasis on ideological critique. When mapped as an interdisciplinary area, Japanese cultural studies was clearly distinct from deconstructionism, poststructuralism, and postmodernism, which were introduced into Japan as theories in literature and philosophy. Japan’s researchers dealt with these European theories in the fields of art and philosophy, based on very promptly executed translations of such writers as Derrida and Baudrillard.

When British cultural studies was first brought into academic debates, literature and philosophy scholars expressed their doubt as to whether it made sense to have a separate cultural studies discourse about theories they had already introduced.2 It was probably only after the main texts of European and American cultural studies of the 1990s were translated that Japanese cultural studies settled down institutionally. After the phase of introducing foreign theories, Japanese cultural studies became interested in addressing the problems of the nation-state, memories of colonial history, and gender and sexuality—all of these in response to the changes taking place inside Japanese society, especially the long-term economic depression and the sudden increase in the power of conservative nationalism after the 1989 death of Emperor Hirohito.

A special feature of Japanese cultural studies is that it has fruitfully woven into its work the traditions of cultural critique that have developed since the very beginning of modern academic disciplines in Japan. By using the advances accumulated by cultural critique, Japanese cultural studies has deployed a methodological weapon called “historical analysis.” For example, when working on the formation of urban consumption spaces, researchers use writings on urban culture done by Japanese cultural critics in the early 20th century. Good examples are Sangjung Kang’s (1996) critique of Japanese Orientalism, Naoki Sakai’s (1996) critique of Japanese nationalism, Chizuko Ueno’s (1998) studies of the nation-state and Japanese patriarchy, Toshimaru Ogura’s research on state violence, Shunya Yoshimi’s (1992, 1999) analyses of consumer spaces and of the Japanese emperor system, and Yeonsuk Lee’s (1996) perspectives on the national language. These are case studies that examine historically issues such as Japanese modernity and the nation-state, U.S. imperialism, and consumer culture.

At the same time, Japanese MCS is the response of critical intellectuals to a sense of crisis regarding the country’s increasingly conservative culture, as well as to the historical revisionism that has been endeavoring to reformulate the history of modern Japan. The arenas for discussion among critical intellectuals were monthlies and quarterlies, rather than the purely academic realm. Such journals as Thoughts, Impact, Modern Thoughts, and Situation ran special issues on such topics as race, nationalism, and Japanese modernities. They addressed topics in a journalistic style, trying to communicate directly with the public instead of just with fellow academics.

After being liberated from Japanese colonial rule, South Korea and Taiwan achieved modernization through high economic growth, beginning in the 1960s. Until 1987, South Korea was under a military dictatorship, and until 1986, Taiwan was under permanent martial law. As a result of anti-communist policies, the media were subjected to stringent ideological control. Thus, within the realm of civil society, freedom of expression and freedom of the press were important rights that the public and journalists had to win through political struggle. Many journalists carried out protests to assert the freedom of the press, and this became a tradition of the journalistic profession in both countries. In the case of South Korea, however, in contrast to those reporters who struggled for the freedom of the press, there were also many others who, through cooperating with the power structure, succeeded in becoming government ministers, presidential chiefs of staff, and legislators.

In the latter half of the 1980s, the democratization processes in both South Korea and Taiwan at last sanctioned journalists’ independent voice. Media studies, too, typically went through a number of changes as a result. Until the latter half of the 1980s, in Taiwan and South Korea, media studies had not been able to perform any significant research on journalism. From the beginning of the 1970s, researchers who came back to their own countries after receiving Ph.D. degrees in the United States taught the American liberal journalism model or devoted themselves to apolitical media effects studies (Xiu Qii Weng & Chong Gang Jing, 2000). Media researchers either kept silent or looked the other way in regards to the subjection of journalism to cold war ideologies.

Chen Bai Nian (2001) analyzed the topics of 295 media research proposals submitted to Taiwan’s National Science Council from 1966 through 2000. He demonstrated that four issues had predominated in Taiwan’s media studies for those 35 years. They were journalism and news media (14%), mass media effects and communication processes (14.2%), new media technologies (9.8%), and advertising, public relations, and marketing (8.1%). The subjects with the lowest frequencies were media ethics (0%), communication and gender (1.0%), international communication (1.4%), communication education (1.9%), and health communication (2.2%). The focus of research on journalism and news media was mainly media industry needs and production skills. Chen also showed that about 60% of the books on communication published over the previous 50 years had had an identical focus.

Thus, in South Korea and Taiwan, due to the democratization movements that were strong from the mid-1980s, the dictatorial regimes could no longer control the public with cold war ideologies. In South Korea, a military dictatorship of more than 30 years’ duration ended, and in Taiwan, the martial law system that had lasted for more than 40 years was dissolved. During this process, many new leftist theories from Europe and the United States were translated. Until the mid-1980s in South Korea and Taiwan, no leftist theory books, including even Marx and Engels’s Capital, could be openly published or imported. For both South Korea and Taiwan, the years 1986-1987 were a climactic moment in the move toward democratization. Coming in conjunction with the Soviet system’s collapse, the ideological terrains became very complicated.

In the case of South Korea, many intellectuals and students concentrated on critical theories, and courses became available on both new and older leftist theories, including Marx’s political economy. The social movements and intellectuals who, as their chief task against the military dictatorship, had struggled for democratization now sought alternative ideologies to fuel social reforms. As a result, the complicated ideological terrains of the early 1990s were generated. French poststructuralism, the Frankfurt school, British cultural studies, and postmodernist theories were all introduced at once. In South Korea, in 1986, Lee Sang-hee (1986) published a translated book under the title of Critical Communication Theories, which included theses introducing media political economy, cultural imperialism, semiotics, and other topics. Seizing on this opportunity, a great deal of MCS was translated through the first half of the 1990s. Theories of postmodernity became popular among intellectuals and students, so much so that Lyotard’s (1984) The Postmodern Condition became a best-seller in 1992.

The U.S. communication debate between positivistic and critical researchers, signaled in 1983 by a special issue of the Journal of Communication titled “Ferment in the Field,” surfaced in Korea in 1992 under the title “The South Korean Version of ‘Ferment in the Field.’” The interesting thing here is that the South Korean version of the paradigm dispute did not focus on how South Korean media and cultural phenomena had been and should be researched. Rather, it concentrated on methodological and epistemological issues—including how the two paradigms are different and how the two research tendencies might be integrated—but imported the debate 100% as framed in the United States.

If we examine the panorama of South Korea’s cultural studies, we see that MCS concentrated on introducing foreign theories and pursued its work separately from the grassroots popular culture movements that had formed a major feature of the democratization movement. From the 1970s on, these grassroots initiatives had intervened in social transformations in the cultural realm, centering on workers’ and farmers’ cultural movements. Even if these initiatives had failed through an excessive emphasis on class culture as a mechanical and deterministic formation, critical cultural studies did not attempt to generate a more adequate rendition of social reality and thereby wield any political impact. By choosing to operate separately from these initiatives, critical cultural studies made the mistake of introducing foreign theories or dealing with cultural formations on a strictly abstract level.

Cultural studies were busy just catching up with Western theories, as can be seen in the import of the postmodernism debate at the end of the 1980s and the importation of the modernity debate in the mid-1990s. It was not until the latter half of the 1990s that cultural studies research was carried out on such local and historical problematics as the Americanization of South Korean culture, the developmentalist mentality, and colonial modernity.

Cultural studies became actively institutionalized in Taiwan in 1993, when the Asia Pacific Cultural Studies Center was established at the National Ching Hua University. This research institute has been engaged in such activities as the promotion of Asia-Pacific academic exchanges and expansion of the international cultural studies network. Good examples are the conferences organized under Kuan Hsing Chen’s leadership, titled “Trajectories: Towards New Internationalist Cultural Studies” (1992 and 1995) and “Problematizing Asia: An International Forum” (1996). Taiwanese cultural studies can be largely divided into two activities—one that introduces cultural studies from Europe and America and one that investigates theoretically important issues in the Taiwanese context. The former is mainly composed of publications that introduce either the genealogy of Western cultural studies or postmodernism, gender and feminism, and postcolonialism. The latter comprises analyses of Taiwan’s cultural phenomena and social structure. As can be seen in a special issue on cultural studies of the Taiwan Journal of Social Studies (Vol. 16, 2000), research on popular culture in Taiwanese and global contexts began from the end of the 1990s (Liao, 2000).

Viewed overall, South Korea’s and Taiwan’s critical MCS began at the end of the 1980s as a way to meet the hunger of the intellectual communities in these countries for critical theories, taking the democratization process as an opportunity to do so. It was only in the latter half of the 1990s that moves were made toward conducting research that analyzed and interpreted a variety of cultural phenomena in the local as well as global context. The Inter-Asia Journal of Cultural Studies, which started being published from 1999, has been playing the role of a forum, enabling networks of critical MCS researchers to form and explore common themes not only in East Asia but also in Southeast Asia.

From the above discussion, it becomes clear that East Asian MCS has formed its own special characteristics in the past 20 or so years while responding to the social situations that each society has had to face. Japan has evinced a strong critical response to the sudden increase in power of postindustrial society and conservative democracy. Although in South Korea and Taiwan, critical MCS exhibited an excess of theories with few concerns about local historical realities, we must point out that many researchers had also been active in social movements.

By eagerly entering the journalists unions, media watch movements, and media reform movements, critical researchers have attempted to put their political visions into practice. The Solidarity for a Democratic Press movement and the Citizens’ Alliance for Media Reform are the major engines of media reform activism in South Korea. In Taiwan, cultural studies provided the Taiwanese democratization movement with a theoretical foundation and carried out significant research on identity politics (with reference to Taiwan’s independence), minority issues (including gender), and Japanese and American colonialism. These problematics came out of the historical realities faced by the Taiwanese, such as having been colonized by the Japanese, as well as the confrontations between and frustrations among native Taiwanese and the emigrants from Mainland China.

To look into how East Asian MCS responded to historical change within its own localities, the next two sections will examine the formation of consumer culture and the problematics of cultural identity, in relation to globalization in East Asia, mediated by the communication industries.

The Coming of Modern Consumer Society and Consumer Culture

The question of when modern consumer society began in East Asia is an interesting and challenging one to ask. This is because, to answer it, one must first answer the questions of “What is consumption?” and “What is the modern?” The answers to the question of what modern consumption refers to can be very different according to the theoretical positions adopted.

If we take a look at research on Western society, there have been two opposing assertions—one that modernity commenced in the 18th century and the other that it was in the 19th century. As regards consumption phenomena, which of their dimensions receives attention varies greatly with the century selected. U.S. researchers in the 1980s had a tendency to analyze the materials that they could straightforwardly access—including stores, exhibitions, and advertisements—whereas European researchers were interested in less visible forms of consumer behavior. Several researchers made no secret of their determination to critique consumerism rather than analyzing the phenomena themselves (Brewer & Porter, 1993; Campbell, 1989; Fox & Lears, 1983; McKendrick, Brewer, & Plumb, 1982).

Although there is no space here to argue in detail for the following assertions, there are some common characteristics of the beginning of consumer society. First, consumer society means that the majority of the citizens living in one society enjoy access, to a certain extent, to a diversity of consumer products. Also, the merchants introduce new marketing techniques to attract customers through exhibitions, advertisements, or other means. There are diverse retail networks connecting merchandisers and consumers. Second, in consumer society, not only does the market constantly change but also consumer behavior. It is when the consumers’ behavior involved in purchasing goods gets intimately related to their own identities and is transformed into actions that give significant additional meaning to the products and their uses that a consumer society has begun. It is when the act of purchasing a product becomes an important part of the life of the consumer, rather than merely an aid to living, that simple consumption changes into a modern form of consumption. Generating desire for products then becomes an important part of modern consumer culture, like the making of fads and fashions.

When seeking the origins of consumer society in East Asia, the general consumer culture tendencies in the West can be transposed with little problem. Although the cultural meanings of consumption—including the types of products, the formation of consumer groups, the relationships between the consumers and the products, and the signification of symbolic goods—will all appear different, we can assume that a few general features comprising modern consumer societies will be similar. However, while assimilating the West, East Asian consumer societies, in each country of East Asia, developed their own special characteristics. How East Asian modernities are different overall from Western modernity is beyond the scope of this chapter to consider. There is, however, no case of any non-Western society assimilating Western modernity 100%. When looking into the formation of East Asian consumer societies, each nation created a modern consumer society by hybridizing or adapting Western consumer culture according to its own socioeconomic conditions.

Research on the historical formation of Japanese consumer society finds it to have emerged after going through two world wars. Urban culture started to develop in Tokyo and Osaka in the 1880s. By the 1930s, a modern urban culture began to sediment. This urban culture was characterized by an elementary level of consumerism. Because a middle class was not fully formed in Japan, the younger generation and the elite class were leaders of the new urban popular cultural scenario. According to Maruyama Masao (1965), in the 1920s, a “privatized individualism,” denoted by the everyday expressions “educated loafers” (Kootoo Yumin) and “tormented youths” (Hammon-Seinen), was common. Through popular music and sports—such as jazz and baseball—the youngsters of Tokyo and Osaka assimilated the nihilistic and hedonistic mass culture of the West as their own.

Japanese society went through the shock of losing the Asia-Pacific war, but in the 1950s and 1960s, the country experienced an unprecedentedly high degree of economic growth. During this period, the middle class got bigger, and thus a wide range of people entered into consumer society. In the latter half of the 1970s, Japan actually became an affluent society, luxury-item consumers emerged, and extravagant food, brand-name clothes, furniture, and home decor were on their shopping lists. In the West, consumer culture had expanded from the upper class to the middle class and then to the lower strata. In contrast, in Japan, it was young people who initiated consumer culture, and the older middle class followed their lead. Mita (1992) describes Japanese society from the mid-1970s until the beginning of 1990s as the “Age of Fiction.” During this period, rapid economic growth ended and the economy became stable with zero percent growth.

Yoshimi (1992) identified the characteristics of Japanese consumer culture in late capitalist society in his studies of historical changes in Tokyo’s urban spaces. According to him, Tokyo Disneyland, which opened its doors in 1983, was a typical expression of the fantasizing consumer reality that the Age of Fiction represented. It was an artificially constructed entity perfectly detached from external realities and a space in which hyperreality was materialized. Yoshimi established how Tokyo has historically developed a variety of symbolic spaces. Through tracing the transitions from the Asakusa district to the Ginza district, and then from Shinjuku to Shibuya districts, he has shown that the high-growth period was represented by Shinjuku and the Age of Fiction by Shibuya. In actuality, the whole Shibuya district is a space that embodies a hyperreal sensibility. Shibuya Street, in and of itself, is an enormous amusement park like Disneyland. It is, Yoshimi claimed, a space that excludes all that is unattractive and unclean and a space that is repelled by the activity of getting dirty and laboring to produce something.

According to Iwabuchi (2001), the leaders of Japan’s consumer society at the beginning of the 1980s were called a “new human species.” Although the term was not precisely defined, they were a counterpart of America’s yuppies. As is well known, the term yuppies referred to a new city-dwelling affluent class in their 20s and 30s with a higher education and working in professional fields. Japan’s “new human species” had several noticeable characteristics: (a) putting their individual interests and values first, (b) having extreme consumer preferences and expressing passionate likes and dislikes, and (c) having a powerful desire to assert one’s individual identity.

Entering upon an affluent society with these particular traits, Japanese consumers began asking from the 1980s onwards, “What are we?” instead of just following Western consumer lifestyles. Pride in Japan as a country that makes the best electronics products now shifted to asking the meaning of Japaneseness. Notions of an “electronic nation” and “techno-nationalism” (Yoshimi, 1999) emerged in response, along with a postmodern consumer sensibility. From the beginning of the 1980s, the Mizukoshi Department Store started having product exhibitions, including an annual festival of Japanese traditional goods. Simultaneously, throughout Japanese society, the so-called Matsuri bumu (festival boom) blossomed.

Along with the formation of urban consumer cultural spaces with strong postmodern features, traditional culture festivals and Japanese products conveying traditional cultural tastes started getting popular among consumers. The special characteristics of this change in consumer culture in modern and postmodern Japan can be briefly outlined. Firstly, within the period of rapid economic growth of the 1960s and 1970s and the affluent society period beginning in the 1980s, new urban consumption spaces emerged: Shinjuku and Shibuya Streets were spaces that responded to rapid industrialization. The Shibuya district created a postmodern space that excludes any kind of ugliness and dirtiness, including labor and the act of manufacturing—a kind of space that is difficult to find, even in the West. Secondly, differently from the Western path by which the expansion of consumer culture took place—historically, from the upper to the lower class—the youth stratum, who wanted to express their identities through consumption, led Japanese consumer culture and, later, the middle class to adopt certain kinds of consumer behavior. Thirdly, postmodern consumer culture unfolded at the same time as the revival of Japan’s traditional culture. The revival of traditional festivals and the revival of traditional costumes, furniture, interior decorations, everyday products, and food occurred at the same time. Instead of being a flawed imitation, a form of hybridized consumer culture appeared after accepting—but changing—the Western sensibility, confirming the cultural identity of Japaneseness.

If I were to add one more remark here, though, with regard to the diversity and quality of consumer products, the Japanese consumer market demonstrates a very high standard. At the same time, a large majority of the consumers display collective, uniform, consumption patterns.

Whereas Japanese consumer society took shape at the beginning of the 20th century, South Korea and Taiwan experienced historical transformations distinct from that. As Japan’s consumer culture was in its early formation, both were Japanese colonies. Under colonialism, consumer cultures were limited to a handful of urban upper-class groups. After liberation in 1945, both South Korea and Taiwan were incorporated into the cold war order both politically and militarily. At the beginning of the 1960s, however, both societies entered the modernization on-ramp, based on export-centered, high-level economic growth. From 1961 to 1990, in contrast to the advanced capitalistic countries that achieved, on average, 2% to 3% annual growth during the same period, South Korea and Taiwan achieved nearly 10%. Indeed, in the 1970s, Taiwan recorded exceptionally high-speed growth at an annual average of more than 20%. In tandem, people’s consumption level continued to soar, too. Both societies became consumer societies in the 1980s, and from the end of this decade, they even became high-level consumer societies. Noticeably, instead of the products purchased, the very act of shopping itself became an important aspect of consumer culture. A postmodern consumer culture settled down, which appropriated symbols embedded in goods, through which people expressed themselves and formed their identities. In both localities, youth consumer culture became prominent. In Seoul and Taipei, just as in Japan a decade earlier, complex consumer culture spaces were constructed for young people to hang out.

According to Taipei Review (September 25, 2001), Taiwan’s 15 to 25 age group, accounting for 25% of the total population, had reached 5 million. They were then spending a monthly average per head of about U.S.$29, totaling U.S.$1.74 billion, on consumption and entertainment. Their preferred locations included chain restaurants, internet cafés, karaoke parlors, and movie theaters. Thus, young people emerged in Taiwan as the category spearheading the consumer economy and consumer culture.

In the 1990s, thanks to the revival of the Asian economies (also including Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia), consumer cultures in those countries also expanded and debates proliferated regarding young people’s excessive consumerism (Chua, 2001). Describing the new generation as “Generations X and Z” and “new, new generation,” its critics argued that, unlike the older generations who came from poverty, the present generation knew nothing of frugal ways, only about physical indulgence, and was immersed in materialism. Chua (1996), however, asserted that, even if these new generations were not frugal compared to their parents’ generation, they were behaving rationally as regarded consumption and family budgets. This debate reflected a generation gap. The older generations had experienced quantum changes in terms of their living standards, from poverty to abundance. The young generation had no experience of poverty. At the same time, the debate showed that the relationship between the old and the young had been influenced by a Confucianist system of values. It further showed that the consumer culture realm, which is a site of the politics of self-expression and self-identity concerning how to live one’s life, is a contested field in which different generational experiences and values clash and are negotiated.

With regard to how to view changes in consumer society from the perspective of cultural politics, cultural studies in South Korea and Taiwan did not produce locally contextualized research. In the case of South Korea, most research on consumer culture was content simply to introduce Western theories. Books by Baudrillard (1983), Featherstone (1995), Jameson (1991), and Haug (1986) were the most quoted. Whichever Western theory was used, many studies of consumer culture operated from the simple logic that monopoly capitalism creates the ideology called “desire” and generates consumer culture. Examples are the Lotte Department Store analysis (N. H. Kang, 1995), Seoul’s city spaces (Kim, 1994), and youth consumer culture (Ju, 1994). These studies’ basic framework imposed Western concepts on local phenomena. A typical argument, for example, was to say that that the representations of the female body shown in advertisements or television dramas have been dominated by capitalistic desires or that the everyday life-world has been colonized by monopoly capital. Local cultural studies researchers imported not only theoretical concepts but also even the research questions.

The theoretical framework for approaching postmodern consumer culture and its desires provided South Korean researchers with a set of concepts to analyze and critique consumer cultural phenomena. Yet the conditions of life of young South Koreans are very different from those in America and Europe. The extremely competitive examinations for college entrance, the authoritarian family and school cultures, and the obsession with academic credentials are all diffused throughout the society, affecting the deepest personal identities of young people, even if they share superficially similar consumer cultures. In these studies, there were no considerations of such historical and everyday realities. They simply borrowed questions raised by Western studies of consumer culture.

Critiques of the desires created by urban consumer spaces followed the same logic. From the outside, the department stores and Apkujeongdong Street in Seoul appear havens of postmodern consumerism. However, the material foundation that produced such spaces and the lifeworlds of the consumers are very different. The regimes of desire created by the compressed modernization of the past 30 years could not but be different from the forms of consumption by Western consumers, which were shaped over two to three centuries. But these studies gave no consideration to the contrasts between such historically formative processes. I myself have characterized South Korea as a “postmodern consumer culture without postmodernity” (M. Kang, 1999).

In this chapter, the research accomplishments of MCS regarding consumer society and consumer culture have been evaluated as a form of East Asian intellectual modernity. Although the consumer culture of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan followed the general pattern of capitalist modernity, the production and consumption processes exhibited different features. Japan was the first society to achieve its own non-Western modernity. With the shift from industrial capitalism to postcapitalist society, the form of consumer culture changed from the era of dreams to the era of hyperreal fiction. As it did so, simultaneously a demand for self-identity rose to the surface, a blending of both Japanese tradition and postmodernity.

In the cases of South Korea and Taiwan, although jointly experiencing compressed modernization, there has not been much empirical research about consumer society and consumer culture. As already argued, most studies were content either to introduce or mechanically apply consumer culture theories produced in the West. Recently, in both localities, the assertion has become more insistent that the global and local dialectics mediated in consumer cultures must be researched (Chua, 2001; Hsia, 1995).

As already pointed out by Appadurai (1990), Hall (1991), Dirlik (1996), and others, although the proposition is logical that research must examine the dialectics of the global and the local in forming and changing the cultures of regions, the actual task is not an easy one. The reason is that aspects of the multiple modernities manifest in consumer culture must first be analyzed, and then specific global and local details must be articulated with that analysis.

East Asian Media Industries and Cultural Identities in the Era of Globalization

The objective of this section is to examine changes in the media industries and the problem of cultural identity in East Asia, within the problematics of globalization and postcolonialism. Changes in Asian media industries from the 1990s to the present can be placed in three categories. First, there is their expansion. Second, although American cultural products increased their presence, inside the Asian region, exchanges grew significantly of film and television programs, records, computer games, and comics. Third, there were not only exchanges of cultural products inside the region but also industrial exchanges in a variety of forms, including joint productions, joint ventures, and intraregional direct investment.

Generally, since 1980, the main topics of conversation within visual media industry circles have been synergy, convergence, and deregulation. Over the past two decades, the telecommunications, cable, satellite, television, and film industries have given birth to multimedia giants through many types of merger (Thussu, 2000). The massive investments required to become major players in the global market were what basically powered these industrial changes. These global market changes have equally extended to Asia, stimulated by the market potential of its media and cultural industries. In the early 2000s, dozens of regional international satellite systems covered Asia’s sky. Cable and satellite television services were already operating in nearly all countries. With Star TV beginning its broadcasting from Hong Kong in the 1990s, American cable channels became available such as CNN1, ESPN, and HBO (Chan, 1994, 1996).

Secondly, together with these global market changes, trade between Asian media and cultural industries was greatly invigorated. As Sepstrup’s (1989) analysis of Europe and Straubhaar’s (1997) analysis of the global market both showed, in Asia too, instead of America’s industry conquering the world, regional industries expanded simultaneously. Chan (1994), Barker (1999), and Hong (1999) showed that in the 1990s, the television programs of Asian countries interpenetrated. It is an undisputed fact that a new “geocultural market” (Straubhaar, 1997) emerged in which Japan’s movies, music, and cartoons entered Asia; South Korean movies, music, and TV drama entered Taiwan and China; and Taiwan’s and Hong Kong’s movies and TV drama flowed into and out of China. A representative illustration is the Phoenix Satellite Service, which connects China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Southeast Asia. This was created through a joint venture between Star TV, two Hong Kong firms, and a mainland China firm (Chan, 1996). There were claims that Phoenix had captured second place among mainland Chinese viewers.

Regarding the kinds of cultural influences such changes in media and cultural industries might exert, Western scholars and many Asian scholars hold the view that globalization cannot be explained by the concept of cultural imperialism (Ito, 1990; Lee, Yoon, & Sohn, 2001). The critique of the cultural imperialism thesis is based on the following arguments. Firstly, there is the active audience theory, as put forward by Morley (1980), Fiske (1989), and Ang (1990), which insists that non-Western audiences do not passively consume the contents of programs but that they either appropriate them on their own terms or generate resistant interpretations. Secondly, scholars such as Featherstone (1995) and Tomlinson (1999) have embraced a post-colonialist or postmodernist perspective, proposing that cultural products imported into Asia get hybridized with local cultural elements, thereby generating new meanings. Thirdly, there is the thesis that globalization means not just the West expanding into the rest of the world but also Asian countries having active exchange with each other.

Indeed, we do often find that regional and local media markets have been growing. Another tenable claim is that national culture does not change easily and that cultural screens operate in the process of importing foreign programs. As the hybridization theory maintains, the thesis is feasible that every culture mingles and interacts with others to create a new one. These theories and data do not negate the fact, however, that colonialism was a powerful influence during the earlier formation of the modernities of East Asia.

On the other hand again, the contradictions of late capitalism are also growing, such as materialistic consumption, self-realization through acquisition, environmentally destructive economic growth, much more competition than cooperation, globally expanding inequality, and American-style business streamlining that focuses solely on the value of efficiency. These contradictions are what we describe as part of the tissue of the worldwide dominance of neoliberal capitalism, which regulates and influences the lives of most of us in this modern era when rapid globalization is continuing apace.

Even as regards news, documentary programs, and TV dramas, it has become a global cultural commonplace that people want to realize themselves through consumer commodities. The neoliberal corporate culture and work ethos that put productive efficiency before human welfare have become global. The most important thing is that Western modernity still serves as a reference point for almost every nation in Asia concerning the process of establishing and developing social institutions and operational rule making. This is what we call the “coloniality,” which wields powerful influence over the formation of Asian modernity. This is a much larger issue than simply asserting that Hollywood movies are dominating Asian film markets or that McDonald’s and Coca-Cola are standardizing Asian youngsters’ tastes. It is more involved with fundamental questions such as the whole way of life that defines the conditions of human existence, how we live, and how we realize ourselves.

Japanese television programs and local tastes are strongly supported. The Mitzu-koshi Department Store in Tokyo has innumerable kinds of foods, clothes, and furniture with the flavor of Japanese traditional culture. Many young people in Hong Kong continue to enjoy oolong tea, whereas many others drink Coca-Cola. Their lifestyles, however, such as their tendency to realize themselves through materialistic consumption—isn’t that what we should mean by culture?—are all the same wherever you are. It is undeniable that materialistic and capitalistic lifestyles are the leading paradigm of our lives at the global level. More important, this paradigm is not being forced on us but is learned of our own free will. So it is not imperialist coercion. People do not refuse long working hours and are ready to sacrifice their own free time for material consumption. People work hard to consume more and to possess more. They are constantly worrying in case they get laid off from their companies, and when they lose their jobs, the whole family is thrown into crisis. It is not just a matter of McDonaldization or how many hamburgers we have. It is more about the whole world accepting American-style culture, based as it is on consumption, a materialistic mode of self-realization, and the productivity-centered ethos of business and other organizations. The United States has been the frame of reference for the East Asian way of life as well as providing models for ways of operating social institutions.

Lastly, the hybridization thesis makes sense in part. There is no doubt that hybridity always occurs in the process of cultural exchange because we human beings are not stupid. One culture cannot simply dominate another. Each culture creates its own forms by appropriating aspects of other cultures. The hybridization thesis is tenable, including the proposition of “no cultural domination.” However, an unequal relationship still exists in terms of social and cultural exchanges between the West and East Asia.

The historical opposition between the West and the rest still continues. What forms of modernity other than the Western model can we imagine? This is beyond the issue of how television viewers in non-Western societies appropriate or consume American television dramas. The crucial question is where alternative forms of modernity are to be found. East Asian critical MCS researchers always have a feeling of powerlessness vis-à-vis Western influence whenever they are pursuing alternative forms for their own societies. The West is not the “other” they can work together with on an equal footing but the model that non-Westerners always try to emulate.

Conclusion: Reconstructing East Asian Media and Cultural Studies

For the past 20 years, MCS in the region has produced a number of texts on ideology and cultural representation through textual analysis and audience studies. Postmodernist theories and the Gramscian theory of hegemony have been introduced as the dominant theoretical frameworks. In addition, diverse, loosely connected intellectual constructs—such as the politics of the image, fantasy, and desire; the politics of representation; and the politics of space and location—were introduced simultaneously into the local intellectual arenas. Not only were concepts and theories imported but research questions, too. East Asian MCS has actively addressed new problematics and social realities—the formation of consumer society, the politics of the body and desire, and the identities of gender, ethnicity, and class—by employing sophisticated theories from metropolitan nations. Having said this, more often than not, East Asian MCS have dealt with the emerging politics of consumer culture and gender at abstract and generalized levels. In other words, by predominantly engaging in the theoretical construction of consumer and youth culture as well as gendered identity formation, East Asian cultural studies scholars have failed in large part to effectively contextualize local concerns and issues. Their work can be plugged into any industrialized modern or postmodern setting.

At the very end of this chapter, a number of important questions can be raised. Given that the state is still the dominant player and omnipresent disciplinary force in the arena of politics, culture, and the media in East Asia, any viable MCS should tackle its role and its mobilization of nationalisms, localisms, and cultural traditions. In which ways can MCS critique the deep-seated, “state-centered” cultures of East Asia? How can MCS diagnose the rampant “develop-mentalism” that has served as an essential part of state-driven economic development and state-centric ways of thinking, as well as their influence over the daily behavior of citizens? In which ways can MCS contribute to opening up new horizons regarding the democratic use of the media and more nuanced cultural politics? How can MCS critique the top-down mobilization of nationalism? I think that East Asian MCS has not effectively answered these vexing questions yet. After critically reviewing the lack of context-bound intellectual and political concerns in East Asian MCS, this study argues that MCS needs to embrace the historical dimension and be more self-reflexive. Such a historicized MCS comes out of concrete local contexts and not from borrowed theories or questions. Historical research requires that MCS look into the complex terrain of culture and everyday life, which is shaped by rapid historical shifts and particular sociopolitical struggles in the East Asian region.