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1.2 Civilization as a System

Tadao Umesao defines civilization as an “instrumental and institutional system” (Umesao 2013: 21). This definition will be applied for the purpose of this chapter. In this definition, the elements that make up civilizations are not only physical elements but also social institutions.

Generally, civilizations are often characterized by physical elements, including grains and metal resources for production bases. Such civilizations are epitomized by the development of the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age.

In addition, grains mean stockable foodstuff, possession of which was crucial for the creation of power. In other words, it means there were people who could survive free of the need to invest in labor to obtain food. The occurrence of power facilitated social divisions of labor and the development of various technologies. In general, the absence of a cereal culture would leave little option other than various types of food gathering in their territory, where it would become difficult for an advanced civilization to develop.

Constraints from mechanical civilization elements were quite significant in ancient times; especially, grains were vulnerable to climate and the distribution of metal resources was uneven. It was construed that civilizations were characterized and developed with geographically unique civilization elements. Since it was difficult to overcome these constraints in ancient times, explanations from the physical perspective were deemed more effective. Another way to say this is that human beings developed institutional elements to convert given physical fundamentals to efficient production as much as possible. This is classic materialistic reasoning.

There are many examples of how different systems developed with mostly the same material fundamentals. For example, Greece and Rome had many of the same mechanism elements. Greece developed Athenian democracy, while Rome did not. Athenian democracy offered a model for governance which constitutes a significant civilization element handed down to postmodern ages; however, inevitability hardly explains its employment or rejection.

Mechanical and institutional systems can be combined quite flexibly. In this sense, civilization can be expressed as a loosely coupled system. In cases of the absence of civilization elements to provide certain functions, other civilization elements may be developed as substitutes. When more efficient civilization elements emerge, such elements supersede less efficient elements. In this sense, civilization elements are transferable. Civilization can be decomposed to its elements; therefore, civilization elements can be selectively imported.

Some civilization elements are geographically close, while others are not. For example, mills accompanied wheat, as in most cases it was eaten as flour. Only mills or wheat flour was transferred from civilization to civilization. The loose coupling of civilization elements ensures such transfers. On the other hand, certain civilization elements are too strongly coupled to be disassembled. This status could be defined as culture. Civilization can be disassembled, but because of its integrity, culture cannot. When one culture encounters another and such an encounter has a significant influence, the changes are within acculturation. Cultures do not metamorphose by discarding their history to that point, but instead to some extent change under certain influences.

In that civilizations are a loosely coupled system, civilization elements can be transferred to other civilizations, and when they are accepted the transferred elements interact with others. Cultivation of wheat began in Mesopotamia and was introduced to Egypt, to Indus River, and slowly to Yellow River. Grains are significantly constrained by climate conditions, and the conditions for transfer are automatically defined by this. The cultivation of rice, which produces greater yields, began in the same era as wheat and established the Yangtze River civilization. In addition, maize (Maya), potatoes (Inca), and coarse cereals (northern Africa) have been cultivated for centuries, matched to regional climate conditions.

Potatoes are not a grain crop. In Inca civilization, the preservation of potatoes was drastically improved to a level comparable to grains by maximizing the highland climate and making freeze-dried potato products (chuño). Geographical conversion of civilization elements enabled the Inca civilization to survive as an independent civilization.

Institutional civilization elements began losing disparity after the late modern period. Raw materials such as metals and grains were transferred in the form of commercial goods. Climate and uneven distribution of resources were not problematic, and missing civilization elements were replenished effortlessly. The disparities among civilization elements of the system became very small. This indicates that civilizations might be converged through reduction of disparities among them. We might say that modernization theories consider the convergence of all civilizations.

And yet, so far civilizations do not seem to converge, but, in fact, rather, they diversify. Mechanical systems converge, while institutional systems do not. Disparities between institutional systems of individual civilizations expand. Individual civilizations develop specific institutional systems, which uniquely lead the civilization.

In terms of free choice of systems, there is an aspect that certain systems are forcibly selected. In a trade system, for example, systems such as payment and sharing risk must be harmonized and standardized, or otherwise transactions cannot be smoothly completed. In addition, in modern international society there are cases where a system was forcibly imposed.

While colonization was expanding at the beginning of the nineteenth century, standards by which countries could be colonized by Europe and the USA were set up based on the existence of a parliamentary government. Japan and Turkey accelerated the establishment of parliamentary systems at that time. Many countries could not respond and were colonized. It can be said that adoption of a parliamentary system was forced on them. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the leader of Turkey at that time, implemented a parliamentary system, insisting in the Muhammad era that it must have a council system of elders, when the compatibility of Muslims was disputed. Countries that do not have a parliamentary system are probably condemned by international society for a failure to respect the sanctity of human rights. In that light, some systems are treated as an international standard, and the free formation of systems is not always accepted. This highlights commonalities among enterprise systems, although there are significant differences between them in their actual operation.

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