Reflection Square 3

Cultural Diversity – A Dynamic Reality

Recently I attended some sessions of a symposium in Fukuoka on cultural diversity in the world, organized by Kyushu University to mark the 100th anniversary of its founding.

The seven featured speakers - academic researchers from Japan, the U.S., the Netherlands, Australia and South Africa - addressed the challenges posed by the great variety of cultures, including the question of how endangered cultures can be protected, and what the consequences could be of such protection, or of the absence or withdrawal of protection. The symposium's coordinator kicked off the proceedings with the statement that of the 7,000 languages spoken in the world today "nearly half" will cease to exist within a hundred years. He pointed to the "loss of culture" resulting from the loss of a language, and the harm the vanishing of a culture does to cultural diversity.

In the course of the two-day symposium, attended by perhaps a hundred Japanese and foreign students and some members of the public, the speakers considered the many ways in which cultural diversity is maintained and developed, and how the general principles of "culturally sustainable development" can be integrated into "policies for the protection and promotion" of cultural diversity. They also considered the effect of globalization, both on the survival of cultural minorities, and on the protection and management of heritage in threatened or extinct cultures.

Spot the difference: two women in Hokkaido
- one is Japanese, the other Ainu (1972)

It was a deep-delving and often vibrant debate, without perhaps any definite "conclusions" but with plenty of food for thought, as I experienced while walking back to the station from the closing panel discussion. Why (I asked myself) must we think in terms of "maintaining cultural diversity?" A culture represents the sum-total of the language, arts, customs, social behavior and spirituality of a given group of people. Though it is often marked by elements of tradition that serve as a glue for the common identity it is fundamentally a dynamic process. Cultural diversity is as much a fact of human existence as bio diversity. Cultures appear and disappear just like organisms. Darwin believed his theory of evolution of the species to be applicable to human life on the planet, and by extension this has since generally been seen to apply equally to culture.

Survival of the fittest (Kenya, 1988)

In other words, a given culture - including its language - will naturally mutate to adjust to the changing environment. It will acquire and discard elements as needed. If it resists change it will slowly petrify and ultimately perish. Such is the nature of life. Thus, any policy aimed at maintaining cultural diversity by external means interferes with the process of natural selection. In any event, as the above example of the expected extinction of almost half of the existing 7,000 languages shows, trying to save the doomed tongues – or even a small number of them - surely is a Sisyphean task.

Trying to save a doomed culture
(Balanced Rock, Colorado Springs, 1967)

I believe we should look at cultural diversity as we look at the diversity of the human race: as a given. In a civilized society we must respect individual differences between humans. They constitute the reality we have to live with, for better or worse. We must equally respect the differences between cultures. External tampering with the natural processes within a given culture should be avoided, except to protect minorities from physical violence and extreme, institutionalized discrimination. Protecting a dying language or declining culture for the sake of "preserving diversity" is costly and ultimately counter-productive, as it prevents the people in that culture from adjusting to the changing realities surrounding them and thus making them more, not less, vulnerable.

Most of today's vibrant societies, I reflected, are the result of centuries of migration, trade and/or wars of conquest, and of the consequent interbreeding and cultural cross-fertilization. They are typically not the product of development in isolation, whether self-imposed or enforced by outsiders.

In this context Japan is a notable exception, not only on account of its more than two centuries of sakoku - or "locked-country" - policy that ended in the mid-19th century, but also because of its ongoing tight immigration regime and the resulting near-homogeneity of the Japanese race. The sheer size of Japan's population and the far-reaching cultural and economic interchange with both the West and major Asian countries - notably China and South-Korea - has largely saved it from too much navel-gazing. But there are ongoing worries about its continuing reluctance to let in the winds of change and interact more robustly with the outside world.

I had reached the station. The conclusion was clear, at least in my own mind: every culture needs to deal with - and if necessary adapt to - the raw challenges of rival cultures, if it is to survive and thrive. Even Japan.

(Photos © Hans Brinckmann)

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© 2012 Hans Brinckmann