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Approches critiques de la pensée japonaise du xxe siècle

Livia Monnet

Logiques du dépassement de la modernité et de l'indécidabilité

Buddhism, Marxism and Fascism in Japanese Intellectual Discourse in the 1930’s and 1940’s

Sakaguchi Angō and Takeda Taijun

Karatani Kōjin
Traduction de Joseph A. Murphy

Texte intégral

  • 1 Karatani uses the term gairai shisō, setting up a parallel with the linguistic term gairaigo used (...)

1Thinkers in modern Japan seem habitually to bring Buddhism to their encounters with the West. It is certainly a matter of fact that Japanese culture and thought cannot be understood without reference to Buddhism since its introduction and diffusion along with Chinese character writing in the seventh and eighth centuries. Nevertheless, even now in Japan Buddhism is considered “imported thought.”1 The philosopher Watsuji Tetsurō (1889-1960) compared Buddhism in Japan to the assimilation of Christianity in the West. Christianity was an imported thought for the German peoples as well. However, because it was incorporated through the suppression of existing non-Christian elements, it is no longer conceived as something originally exterior. Furthermore, whereas it took time to assimilate Christianity as a consequence of this work, in Japan Buddhism sank roots and began to flourish as soon as it was transplanted. In an essay called “Nihon ni okeru Bukkyō shisō no ishoku” (“The Transplanting of Buddhist Thought in Japan”, 1923, revised 1932) Watsuji interprets this difference as follows:

Beyond the non-combative nature of Buddhism, what must be discerned here is the peculiar tolerance evident in Japanese religious feeling. There was no sense in Japan that undergoing conversion to the Buddha required renouncing the particular kami. As can easily be observed even today, there is no felt contradiction even for a devout believer to intone the kami and Buddha in one breath. One may well discern here some lack of thoroughness in matters of belief. In any case, the diffusion of Buddhism throughout Japan did not take the form of “conversion” in the sense of a thorough renunciation of non-Buddhist elements. Rather it was the Japanese who took Buddhism in and made it their own. Hence, throughout the long centuries in which Buddhism became part of the flesh and blood of Japanese culture, the possibility to regard Buddhism as “imported thought” has been preserved (Watsuji 1962, 323).

2This is misleading in a number of senses. First is in the reference to the “non-combative nature of Buddhism.” There are texts in the Buddhist canon such as the Lotus Sutra that have a quite “combative” and exclusionary nature, and this has given rise in Japan to movements with just that character both today and in the past. Further, the Buddhism conceived in India was a highly radical form of thought, and its implementation in practice indeed demands a “thorough renunciation of non-Buddhist elements.” Hence the religion could not but disappear in India itself. Buddhism developed an independent existence in China as Zen and Pure Land Buddhism, but this too has disappeared except in traces. In places such as Thailand, Cambodia, Tibet and Nepal where Buddhism remains a living religion it has been internalized in the form of strict precepts, and does not present itself as “imported thought.” The question must be raised of why it is in Japan, where every Buddhist sect introduced over the long course of history retains an active presence, that Buddhism was and continues to be regarded as imported.

3Citing the “tolerant character of Japanese religious life” is just as mistaken, as is Watsuji’s comment that it was rather “the Japanese” who took Buddhism in and made it their own. Regardless of the region of the world, one finds attending the introduction of the world religions of Christianity, Islam and Buddhism what we might call a trauma of “castration” instrumental in the formation of self-identity. The reason the world religions imported from outside are not conceived as external to the self is that identity itself is formed through them. Even if we grant that Japanese people “made Buddhism their own” as Watsuji argues, the type of collective “self” that could possess Buddhism couldn’t be said to have pre-existed the encounter. Quite the contrary, because the trauma of castration by Buddhism was foreclosed in Japan, such a subjectivity never formed. There is no contradiction between this conception and the idea that Buddhism immediately “sunk roots” without any resistance whatsoever. In other words, the capacity to incorporate anything whatsoever without resistance, unlike the kind of “tolerance” forged in Europe through the experience of the wars over religion, is itself a mode of exclusion. As a result, while permeating Japanese society to every nook and cranny, Buddhism remains something that “comes from the exterior.”

4Because I’ve developed this argument elsewhere (Karatani 1993), I’d like to stress a different aspect of the problem here. First, it must be pointed out that for Watsuji, writing in the 1920’s, to affect a return to the archaic past in this way serves to legitimize both the political situation obtaining in the years following the first World War as well as Watsuji’s own renunciation of Marxism. Following victory in the Russo-Japanese war (1904-5), the Japanese, who unlike the other countries of Asia undertook the task of westernization without any resistance, began to seek Japanese culture in the form of an originary self-identity. However such an identity could not be formed through a rejection of Western thought, and the setting up of Buddhism or Confucianism in opposition. Rather such self-identity had to be referred to the empty space of juxtaposition itself, where even the likes of Buddhism persist as “imported thought,” and where all the various strands of Western thought could be incorporated with no threat to the identity. This is what the philosopher Nishida Kitarō (1870-1945) called the “topos of nothingness” (mu no basho). At the time Watsuji wrote the essay quoted, he was also writing such pieces as Koji junrei (Ancient Temple Pilgrimages, 1919) and Kodai Nihon bunka (The Culture of Ancient-Japan, 1920), which is to say that the Watsuji who had been writing about Kierkegaard and Nietzsche suddenly developed an interest in a “return to Japan.” This is not to say that Watsuji rejected Western thought. While thoroughly appropriating Western thought in all its aspects, Watsuji continued to treat it as imported. That is to say, he “made Western thought his own.” In this sense, what Watsuji is narrating in this transition is from first to last his own subjectivity. However, it need hardly be said that this is not the only type of encounter one finds among modern Japanese intellectuals.

5Secondly, Buddhism in Japanese history has not been the undifferentiated phenomenon Watsuji’s argument requires. It is not the case that Buddhism was simply domesticated through the sort of exclusion described above. Buddhism brought with it and retained a radical power to insist on the sort of “castration” that would pierce through that strategy of exclusion. As I’ve said before, Buddhism cannot be understood simply as a “tolerant” religion. Buddhism emerged in a caste society to which it had a relation of radical praxis, in that it regards the manifold of positivities encountered in society as nothing more than a bundle of relations. However, what is really the target of this form of thought is transmigration, or the concept of the identity of the soul that is the subject of transmigration. Prior to Buddhism, the state of misery that accompanied the caste system in practice was regarded as the consequence of transmigration of souls, and all manner of ascetic practice was developed to deliver the soul from this cycle. Most of the practices and doctrines typically attributed to the historical Buddha existed prior to him. What Shakyamuni did bring about was rather a shift in focus from this individualistic emancipation to the “relation” in practice to a really existing other. As a result of this he brought about a deconstruction of the concept of the self-identical soul posited as the subject of transmigration. I use the term “deconstruct” to describe a strategy of critique that answers the affirmation of the individual soul, or else the continuity of the soul in life after death, by saying “It can neither be said that that is the case, nor can it be said that it is not the case.” To have simply negated the assertion by saying, “The soul does not exist,” would be to presuppose another positivity. What the historical Buddha refused was the metaphysical problem itself of whether the soul as a positive entity exists or not, and he renounced ascetic practices designed to liberate the soul from the bonds of transmigration, and turned people’s attention to an ethics of the practical relation to others. It makes sense that Buddhism drew support in its early period largely from the scorned segments of society such as the merchant class and women.

6However, as Buddhism gradually resolved itself into a precept-driven Lesser Vehicle (Hinayana) and a highly theoretical Greater Vehicle (Mahayana), it gradually lost its power to reform practice and was absorbed into the caste system and the previously existing religious structure. Hinayana Buddhism is then said to have been transmitted to Southeast Asia, while Mahayana moved from Tibet, through China and Korea, to Japan. However, when Buddhism reached non-Indian regions that did not have the concept of transmigration, it was ironically taken to be an elucidation of the very concept it had taken as its target. It is said that the notion of transmigration, which in India was understood as the unbearable karmic cycle from which one sought only escape, was welcomed in China rather as an opportunity to renew life as many times as possible. Buddhism had a great influence in China. However, as was the case in Korea, it was unable to prevail in a Confucian climate centered on respect for one’s ancestors. Buddhism would eventually take deepest root in Japan. However this did not occur during the nominal introduction of Buddhism in archaic times as Watsuji claimed, but in the course of a kind of “religious reformation” that occurred in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

7Buddhism was transmitted to Japan in the sixth century; however it secured its position as a national religion in the seventh and eighth centuries only because, as a universal religion transcending the claims of the various tutelary deities it was found expedient by the Yamato court which had recently subjugated and unified the various clans in central Japan. Hence Buddhism at the time was little more than an incantatory practice centered on the “pacification and preservation of the house of state” (chingo kokka). If its significance had stopped there, Buddhism would have been absorbed into the native religions regardless of its theoretical profundity. Buddhism really took root rather in the so-called Kamakura Buddhism of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when the great saints Hōnen (1133-1212), Shinran (1173-1262), Dōgen (1200-1253) and Nichiren (1222-1282) appeared in succession All these sages studied Buddhism at the state-sponsored temples of Mt. Hiei. However each eventually abandoned this institutional setting and began to take their vocation directly to the people. Watsuji Tetsurō’s estimation of Kamakura Buddhism in the thirteenth century is as an efflorescence of a Buddhism that had already been given its independent and original interpretation in the seventh and eighth centuries when Buddhism first arrived in Japan. Suzuki Daisetsu (1870-1966), on the other hand, finds in Kamakura Buddhism the first expression of “Japanese spirituality” (in Nihonteki reisei, 1944). It is my view, however, that what occurs here is that, for the first time, Buddhism really takes root in Japan.

  • 2 Buddhism was introduced to Japan during the period of rule by the Yamato Kings (ca. ad 300-710). A (...)

8This is not to be interpreted, however as the “Japanization” of Buddhism. Rather, the radical thought implicit in the Buddhist texts from the beginning was there read out and discovered. Kamakura, separated by a great distance from the center of aristocratic government in Kyōto, or Heian-kyō,2 was chosen by the first military government as the site to build its relatively austere seat of government, and a number of Buddhist sects established temples there too. At this fundamental political turning point, where an aristocratic clan society ruled by the imperial house gave way to a feudal system ruled by warriors, Buddhist texts were reread outside the claims of the traditions and established sects centered in Kyōto, and a revival ensued. Though the Kamakura Buddhism which was formed in this environment may look like the “Japanization” of the world religion, it is really the reclaiming by Buddhism of its original impulse, and in this sense corresponds to the Reformation in Europe. Saints like Shinran, Dōgen, and Nichiren each selected and brought forward one Buddhist text as their own and distilled its logic in the most rigorous manner. Shinran, for example, founder of the Pure Land sect (jōdō shinshū), came to a thorough rejection of the notion of salvation through one’s own will, and preached a simple reliance on the absolute grace of the Amida Buddha. Dōgen, on the other hand, the progenitor of Zen, rendered the transcendent being as nothingness, and preached simply, “Go, and engage intently in seated meditation.” Nichiren, the founder of the Nichiren sect, preached an evangelical, nation-centered creed and urged the transformation of the state under Buddhist law. These movements are not as contradictory as they might appear. In fact in China the corresponding sects were regarded as “instruments” under the roof of a single temple, with Zen directed at the intellectual class and Pure Land at the masses. This class component of Chinese Buddhism was translated in Kamakura Buddhism to the opposition of different sects.

9As a result Zen Buddhism found wide acceptance in the ascendant governing classes–the samurai and intellectuals–but failed to spread widely among the populace. And as the notion of “culture” tends in general to be defined by ruling class culture, it should be no surprise to find that what is understood as “Japanese” art and culture today is composed largely of elements of this Zen culture. However, one cannot understand Buddhism in Japan simply by reference to Zen. The Pure Land and Nichiren schools spread widely among the masses, and when the feudal system crumbled between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and Japan entered the Warring States period, these sects were instrumental in catalyzing peasant uprisings and the formation of independent city-states. Of course one may assert the converse and say that these peasant and burgher revolutions were merely carried out under the pretext of egalitarian religious movements. By the Warring States period one is dealing with the post-Columbus world, and these historical movements need to be situated within the “global” context of the emerging world-system as well. In the latter half of the sixteenth century the Jesuits did in fact establish a considerable mission in western Japan; however, their significance for the mass of the people was little different from that of Pure Land and Nichiren in eastern Japan. This was the most intense period of counter-Reformation by the Catholic church, and St. Francis Xavier himself, a founding father of the Jesuit order, came to Japan to prosecute the mission. The ability of Buddhism to display its original, radical potential is a product of the period of ferment in the global system.

10In the latter half of the sixteenth century, the warlord Oda Nobunaga began harnessing the rifle and artillery technology that had spread all over the country, and launched a process of political consolidation designed to establish himself as an absolute ruling authority in Japan. Nobunaga patronized the Jesuits as an expedient to undermine the forces of the Pure Land sect, closely allied with independent city-states like Sakai. But after the Pure Land forces had been subjugated and forced into apostasy, his successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi turned around and began bringing the same forces to bear on Christianity. After Hideyoshi s death, his successor Tokugawa Ieyasu completed the work begun by Nobunaga, securing hegemony over the entire country in the battle of Sekigahara (1600). After a century or more of chaos, the Tokugawa rulers put into place a number of measures to secure and perpetuate a system of Tokugawa rule. Unlike Nobunaga, who sought to annihilate the feudal lords by conspiring with the rising urban bourgeoisie and establish himself as a European-style absolute sovereign, the Tokugawa clan sought to re-engineer the feudal system. Whereas prior to the fifteenth century the bond between lord and vassal had been secured face to face with a pledge between mutually independent entities, in the Tokugawa system, the relation was fixed through status, and reinforced through a neo-Confucian ideology. Further, while leaving the feudal lords in place in their domains, the Tokugawa polity prohibited their military and economic development, and instituted policies designed to consume and exhaust them financially, like the system of alternate attendance in Edo (sankin kōtai). While the emperor was under de facto confinement in the old capital in Kyōto, the question of legitimacy was addressed through a preservation of formal reverence, allowing the Tokugawa clan to mobilize imperial authority. Finally while adopting a strict policy of national seclusion for all classes, unlike Korea limited intercourse in medicine and commerce was allowed with Holland in restricted geographical areas in the west of Japan.

11It was this broadly conceived “prohibition against transcendence” that secured the “pax Tokugawa” and allowed the system to endure for 250 years. In his Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, Alexandre Kojève has referred to Japan after 1600 as the model of a “post-historical” society, calling the mode of living characteristic of the Japanese a specifically human “snobbism.” (Kojève 1969, note to the Second Edition, 161-162) Whatever Kojève means by that, what he describes as characteristic of the “Japanese” way of life, which caused him to undergo “a radical change of opinion” on the question of post-historical life, is nothing other than the set of practical attitudes formed under the Tokugawa system, which sought to guarantee its permanence by the painstaking avoidance of extremes of any kind. It is no exaggeration to say that what is known today as Japanese culture, in the broader sense of a “Japanese way of life”, was put in place during this period, and what is known as “Japanese” in the ancient period, or the feudal period, or the “renaissance” of the sixteenth century is fundamentally heterogeneous to this.

12The peculiar ability of the Tokugawa system to mobilize potentially disruptive forces for its own preservation emerges most typically in relation to religion. The Tokugawa leaders took the Pure Land sect, oppressed and forced into apostasy under Nobunaga, and utilized them as a means to suppress another enemy, the Christians. The populace of Japan without exception were forced to affiliate themselves with a kind of parish called the danka through registration in the Pure Land (jodoshū) or True Pure Land sects (jōdoshinshū). A Buddhist faith that through its stress on individual transcendence and absolute equality was able in the sixteenth century to catalyze peasant wars and citizens uprisings was now used as an administrative means to bind the people to the land, by endowing them with a “permanent address” that obtained even after death. In this way the Pure Land sect achieved unprecedented scope as an institution and soon claimed a majority of Japan’s Buddhist adherents. Even today the majority of Japanese, while having no consciousness of this as a religion, continue to belong to the danka instituted in the Tokugawa period. Engels argues in The Peasants’War in Germany (1850) that Germany had been set back 200 years as a result of the betrayal of Luther, the defeat of the peasant rebellions and the constant random violence of contending nobles. Something quite similar occurred in Japan, at about the same time. As a matter of fact, the dissolution of the Tokugawa system and institution of the modern state of Japan in 1868 by the domains of Satsuma and Chōshū from extreme western Japan took place four years before the unification of Germany under Prussia in 1872. And as is well-known, Japan subsequently took Prussia as the model for state-building in the modern period.

  • 3 The modern reign names are as follows:
    Meiji Period (1868-1912)
    Taishō Period (1912-1926)
    Shōwa Perio (...)

13Buddhism in modern Japan never recaptured the radical impact it held from the Kamakura Period up to the end of the sixteenth century. After the Meiji Restoration3 in 1868, threats arose directly in the form of a violent movement to abolish Buddhism in the name of State-Shinto on the one hand, and from the spread of Protestant Christianity on the other, but these did not shake the institutional and customary basis of Buddhism, centered on the funerary rites. There were Buddhist leaders who, when confronted with this situation attempted to rouse themselves to some sort of religious reformation, but neither the threat of Shinto nor Christianity was sufficient to produce the energy needed for reform from inside the Buddhist establishment. The Pure Land sect, wrapped up as it was in the issue of heredity and lineage, became intimately connected with the Imperial house, while the Nichiren sect, which had been persecuted under the Tokugawa regime, began advocating a nationalistic emperor-worship and became a breeding ground for right-wing and fascist movements. Insofar as there was real religious enthusiasm among the populace it was separated off from established religious sects in the new religions-heretical offshoots of Shinto or Nichiren. Buddhism persisted among the general populace more as time-sanctioned custom than religion, and was ripe for the reinterpretation the intelligentsia would provide in the 1910s.

  • 4 The Meiji intelligentsia drew heavily from the former samurai class, and both Nishida and Suzuki c (...)

14The new enthusiasm for Buddhism in the late Meiji Period was a product of the mediation of the modem West in three senses. First, in order to legitimate the study of Buddhism as an academic discipline, it was thought that research had to be based not on Chinese translations but on the original texts in Sanscrit, and in order to do this scholars found they had to go abroad to study, specifically to Germany, where philological research into the Sanscrit texts was most advanced due to the work of the German Romantic movement from Schlegel to Schopenhauer. For intellectuals, Buddhism appeared in a European context, and consequently was associated with the internal critique of Western thought. That is to say Buddhism re-entered the discourse of intellectuals in a context cut off from the customs and traditional life-ways of historical Buddhism. Whether it be Suzuki Daisetsu or Nishida Kitarō, the choice of Zen Buddhism as a basis for their thought required a passage through Western religion and philosophy. Suzuki, for example, was first known through the translation and introduction of Swedenborg. It is undoubtedly the case that its traditional affiliation with the intellectual classes centered on the samurai naturally drew these thinkers to Zen Buddhism rather than Pure Land,4 but the philosophical work of recasting the transcendental entity as nothingness also offered a way to transcend the claims of Christianity and Western philosophy in general, a conceptual stake that cannot be ignored.

15Secondly, Pure Land Buddhism began to draw the attention of the intellectual classes because it really does resemble Christianity in a number of respects–a point not lost on the Jesuit missionaries of the sixteenth century. The rejuvenation of Pure Land in response to the spread of Christianity among intellectuals in the Meiji period was effected through a reevaluation from a specifically Protestant Christian perspective of certain key texts by the founder Shinran, in particular the heretofore little-known Tannishō. This peculiarly Christian perspective entailed the apprehension of Shinrans thought in the apolitical terms of the problem of individual interiority. Consider the following passage from the Tannishō.

Even the good person attains birth in the Pure Land, how much more so the evil person.
The people of the world would rather say, if even the evil person attains birth in the Pure Land, how much more so the good person. Although this appears to be sound at first glance, it goes against the intention of the Primal Vow of Other Power. The person of self-power, being conscious of doing good, lacks the thought of entrusting the self completely to Other Power. Hence he or she is not the focus of the Primal Vow of Amida. But when self-power is turned over and entrusting to Other Power occurs, such a person attains birth in the land of True Fulfillment (1996, Tannishō, Chapter III, translation slightly modified).

16Shinran here argues that, whereas the good person has a tendency to rely on self-power (free will), this is impossible for the evil person, hence they are driven to rely on the Other Power of the Primal Vow (faith). However, it must be understood that at the time Shinran wrote these words the term “evil person” meant people engaged in livelihoods designated as evil under ancient laws or precepts. Hence Shinran’s words imply that, if the wealthy and privileged classes who escape this sort of evil through money and status are to be saved, how much more the people driven to this kind of evil, and in fact it was among this despised part of the population that Shinran preached his gospel of Pure Land. And on those occasions in the past where the True Pure Land sect was galvanized into political action, the reason lay in this latent meaning. However the “Shinran” discovered in the Meiji period was understood by the intelligentsia to offer an “internal” salvation utterly abstracted from this kind of social relation. This corresponds to the way Protestants at the time interpreted as purely metaphorical passages like the following from the New Testament.

And it came to pass, as Jesus sat at meat in the house, behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with him and his disciples.
And when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto his disciples, Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners?
But when Jesus heard that, he said unto them, They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick.
But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.
(Authorized King James Version, Book of St Matthew, Chap. 9, v. 10-13)
Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven.
And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, then for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.
When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved?
But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.
(Authorized Kingjames Version, Book of St. Matthew, Chap. 19, v. 23-26.)

17The similarity between Shinran’s text and the New Testament doesn’t lie in the simple priority given to faith, but rather in the call to overturn the existing social structure and the moral order by which it was sanctioned. As the social contradictions accompanying the rapid growth of industrial capitalism became glaringly evident toward the end of the Meiji period, this strictly interiorized notion of “faith” became less satisfying to intellectuals, and their subsequent renunciation of Protestantism in large numbers and turn to socialism stands to reason. That Christianity and Buddhism then experienced a comeback among intellectuals in the 1930’s came conversely from a frustration and falling away from Marxism. This Showa Christianity, though, was rather a Catholic Christianity, and the “Shinran” discovered there carried a Catholic nuance. That is to say it embodied a “faith” that acknowledged and forgave one’s deep fragility and sinfulness as it was. The Kyōto school philosopher Miki Kiyoshi (1897-1945), for example, who studied Pascal under Heidegger in Germany, was subsequently active as a Marxist, but then abandoned Marxism and turned to Shinran. This “Shinran” not only offered religious absolution for the feelings of guilt and nihilism following the renunciation of Marxism, but also signalled for intellectuals a certain “return to Japan.”

18The third way in which modem Buddhism was mediated by the West was through the discovery of Buddhist imagery and temple architecture as fine art, a position best represented by Okakura Tenshin (1862-1913). Buddhist images and temples up till then had of course simply been objects of faith and not regarded as “art.” Okakura was able to locate in Buddhist principles a point around which the diverse art of the Orient could be integrated, but such a Buddhism had no relation to religious practice. This is because to perceive religious artifacts as fine art one must already have taken up a humanist position. Reading from the history of art in the East the “expression” of Spirit is of course nothing but the adaptation of Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics to the East. Okakura refined this further by discovering in “Japan,” where all the various strands of Eastern art persist unchanged from the time of their introduction, a “storehouse” of Asian culture characterized by unlimited embracing of opposing principles, in Nishida's terms a “topos of nothingness.” Even if Buddhist philosophy supplied the terminology, what was being elaborated here was nothing other than “Japan.” This sort of reading did not begin to make an impact, though, until after Okakura’ s death.

19Watsuji Tetsurō reported being deeply moved when he heard Okakura’s lectures on “The History of Eastern Art” while still a student at Tōkyō Imperial University. Though he began his career as a scholar of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, at the age of 29 he wrote a piece called Gūzō saikō (Restoration of the Idols, 1918), the title of which plays on two senses of the word idol, signifying both the reconstruction of the “idols” smashed in Nietzsche’s Twilight, as well as the restoration of Buddhism in Japan. The following year, Watsuji wrote Ancient Temple Pilgrimages and in 1920 “The Culture of Ancient Japan.” However one needs to attend to the fact that Watsuji’s approach to Buddhism at this stage is chiefly aesthetic. Ancient Temple Pilgrimages was the most influential of these early works, and through this large numbers of people came to “discover” Buddhism, as well as “ancient Japanese culture.” However this Buddhism is not in a religious, but an aesthetic sense. What Watsuji really prized was the “ancient temple,” and what he and his followers admired and sought was the somber object with the patina of age. The folklorist Yanagita Kunio (1875-1962) rather pointedly remarks that temples in ancient times were in fact quite garish and colorful affairs. Watsuji’s sense is rather closer to the discovery by the European Romantic school of their own “Middle Ages” in the ruins of old castles. Just as they discovered a medieval “Catholicism,” Japanese intellectuals discovered “Buddhism.” However these were aesthetic products of the imagination, with no relation to contemporary reality or religion in the past.

  • 5 Bungakukai (Literary World) was a literary magazine launched in 1933 by Kobayashi and others which (...)
  • 6 A collection of Kobayashi s essays is available in (Kobayashi 1995), while a useful analysis of th (...)

20Romanticism was the first “critique of modernity” in the West, and all subsequent critiques have had to return to this framework. The same obtains in Japan, whereby the Buddhist tradition intoned as a critique of modernity is already a product of modem consciousness, located entirely in the aesthetic imagination. The reorientation foreshadowed in Watsuji’s writing after World War I would become explicit in Japanese intellectual consciousness in the 1930 s under the term kindai no chōkoku (overcoming modernity). This consciousness reached a peak in 1942, shortly after the declaration of war between Japan and the United States, in a symposium of that name held by the Bungakukai (The World of Literature) group led by the literary critic Kobayashi Hideo (1902-1983).5 Besides regular Bungakukai members, participants included Kyōto School philosophers Nishitani Keiji and Suzuki Shigetaka, leading figures in the arts and sciences and prominent members of the Japan Romantic School (Nihon rōmanha).6 The participants in this discussion are frequently assumed to be fanatical reactionaries, emperor worshippers, or zealous advocates of anti-foreignism and imperialism, however not only must their positions be carefully distinguished from these extremes, it is rather more accurate to say in many cases they were opposed. The fact that Catholic theologian Yoshimitsu Yoshihiko (1904-1945) was included in their number attests to this. Yoshimitsu searched for the “overcoming of modernity” in a “New Middle Ages,” something distinct both from a romantic reactionary and a pro-Western ideology.

The notion of a “New Middle Ages” seeks not the restoration of individual moments of the medieval period, but the principle of a metaphysical unity aimed for but never realized by this age. Such a principle has nothing to do with the implausible and pointless return to the historical Middle Ages, but is rather the topic specific to the new age, to be sought in a more internal and subjective “new order”....

Hence, whatever the intrinsic value of the “culture” of the society dwelling in the European peninsula, the problem of the West separated from its religious and metaphysical meaning is of no consequence for this writer. In the presence of God both West and East, as if facing a single source of love and truth, shoulder the totality directly, in themselves, as an existential problem. Hence, charged with the historical tradition of the spirit of our motherland, we can only trod our own path as God’s path with the utmost earnestness. However what I am advocating here is not a species of relativism or humanism as some would have it. Rather, I am saying that the existential problematic of a single truth (logos) grasped concretely and realized, is determined in each case historically, socially, as it were providentially (in Takeuchi 1979, 76-80).

21While the majority of participants argued in reference to “Japanese” thought like Buddhism or Shinto, Yoshimitsu phrased his argument in terms of Catholicism. This was a period when the deification of the Emperor was at its peak, and whatever the alliance formed with Germany, and notwithstanding the doctrinal differences between Christianity and Buddhism, what made these statements by a Catholic theologian intelligible in the context was that at a fundamental level Christianity and Buddhism shared the same structure. That is to say, both religions were, in this context, “discoveries” of Romanticism. In modern Japan, things elaborated as Eastern or Buddhist discourse are always already Romantic and aesthetic. The same can be said of the work of the central philosopher of the Kyōto School, Nishida Kitarō. The Marxist Tosaka Jun, a pupil of Nishida’s who died in prison in 1945, keenly discerned this point.

Nishida’s philosophy appears to have pretty much lost that Romantic and aesthetic coloring of late; however that just indicates how perfectly he’s captured the Romantic and aesthetic methodology, and that’s exactly why it has lately been conferred the formal title, “Nishida Philosophy” by Professor Sauda. I need to stress that there is nothing feudal or Gothic about Nishida’s philosophy. It is rather essentially modern and romantic. You won’t find anything more appropriate for sanctioning the cultural consciousness of today’s intelligentsia. The education and cultivation of contemporary intellectuals under modern capitalism finds in this philosophy the mouthpiece for their sense of cultural freedom. Hence this becomes the philosophical representative of cultural liberalism to correspond with economic and political liberalism. That’s why Nishida’s philosophy is so popular (Tosaka 1966, 348).

22In the same way, calling Nishida’s philosophy Buddhist is a meaningless gesture, and ignores the historicity of Buddhism itself. It was only around 1934 that Nishida began calling his own standpoint “Eastern” or “Buddhist,” and this is only further evidence that his thought belongs to a particular historical situation. Up to that point he typically expressed his thought in terms of Western philosophy, and in fact what he calls the “topos of nothingness” corresponds to the transcendental apperception in Kant’s philosophy. For Kant, transcendental apperception is empirically mu (cannot be intuited), and is grasped analytically as the “operation” involved in bringing about the unity of self-consciousness. Like Fichte, Nishida regarded this transcendental subject as a practical entity, and sought to construct the world from it; however he did differ from Fichte in that Nishida sought at all points to grasp this as the “topos of nothingness,” or the “operation of nothingness.” However, it is difficult to claim that this is a peculiarly Buddhist conception. For example, what Heidegger referred to as the “ontological disparity between beings and Being” originates in Kant’s distinction between the empirical and transcendental, consequently, what Heidegger calls the Dasein which is lost by being posited as a being is, in ontic terms, nothingness, and furthermore nothingness as a certain operation. Nishida called this background condition of the possibility of experience the “topos of nothingness” or “absolute nothingness.”

23Nevertheless, Nishida began referring to his own thought as “Eastern.” This was the same period when Japan was rushing headlong into war with China and embracing a fascist political system, and also the time when Heidegger made an active commitment to the National Socialists in Germany. Just as Heidegger gave his support to the left wing faction of the Nazis, Nishida supported the comparatively liberal Imperial Navy in opposition to the Army which was the center of the drive to militarism. Nishida worked to give a philosophical justification to the claim that Japans expansion under the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere involved the liberation of Asia from Western colonial rule, and not imperialism. Though Nishida certainly appears reticent and passive in comparison with the garish opportunism of some of his pupils in the Kyōto School, there can be no doubt that the tendency of his thinking lent support to their maneuvering.

24For example, in Nishida’s The Problem of Japanese Culture (Nihon bunka no mondai, 1938) one finds the following definition for the Emperor: “The Imperial House is exhaustively defined for our nation’s history as the being of nothingness; as the self-identity of absolute contradictories.” (Nishida 1966, v. 12, 336) Concepts such as “being of nothingness,” or the “operation of nothingness,” or “the self-identity of absolute contradictories” are transformed before one’s eyes to mean the Emperor System. A more pitiless endorsement for Althusser’s notion of philosophy as empty form will not be found. In Nishida’s thinking the Imperial House is not itself political power, it rather subsists for that sake in the background as a “being of nothingness” in which actual political powers exchange and interact, and though it was manifested as something like an absolute monarch in the Meiji Constitution, the Imperial House is fundamentally different from the positive power of European and Chinese sovereigns, a “being of nothingness.” In the context of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere too it subsists not like the ruling power of the Soviet Union dictating from above, but in the form of the “transcendental apperception” (the zero marker), effecting the synthetic unity of the various Asian countries, each independent to itself. Unfortunately, if according to Marx’s famous Ninth Thesis on Feuerbach, the new task of philosophy is not merely interpreting the world but changing it, this was nothing but an attempt to “change the interpretation” of Japan’s imperial domination of Asia. (Tucker 1978, 145)

25In 1941, Nishida argued in a lecture delivered directly to the imperial audience that, “individualism and totalitarianism are commonly understood to be mutually opposed, but while it goes without saying that individualism is an anachronistic ideology, a totalitarianism that denies the individual is also a thing of the past... And what has developed vibrantly through the mutual negation of individual and totality is the Japanese national polity with the Imperial House as its center.” (from Goshinkō sōan, a draft of the lecture found in Nishida 1966, v. 12, 271) Certainly, as Nishida indicates, one is not dealing here with a Hegelian dialectic that would sublate the contradiction between individualism and totalitarianism. That is because a Buddhist form of reasoning is utilized that would say, “one can neither say that it is, nor that it isn’t.” However, it won’t do to label this Buddhist. These are the thematics of fascist thought, that seeks counter-revolution through a third possibility rejecting both capitalist and socialist forms, and which demands this kind of logic for its aims. Armed with this kind of logic, Nishida’s pupils in the Kyōto School, foremost among them Miki Kiyoshi who also died in prison in 1945, would deconstruct the entire catalogue of binary oppositions that comprises the modern West. When they spoke of “overcoming modernity,” it was this deconstruction they had in mind.

26Watsuji Tetsurō claims that Buddhism is non-combative, and non-exclusionary. However if we provisionally accept that the logic outlined above is Buddhist, one has to admit that Buddhism is operating politically as a fascist logic. Yet, in the postwar period, the Kyōto School philosophers, in particular Nishitani Keiji, erased this political commitment by Nishida, and their own complicity along with it. Once this history has been erased, Nishida’s philosophy is dehistoricized as a matter of course, and the way is cleared for his resuscitation as “Eastern philosophy.” In fact, once relieved of its content, the type of logic outlined above can be applied practically even today, and indeed is so now with political effect. Whatever one’s estimation of Heidegger, no one would think of discussing him today without taking into account his complicity with the Nazi regime; however Nishida Kitarō circulates not just in Japan, but in limited circles in the West as well as this depoliticized, esoteric “Eastern thought.”


27I would like to take up now two essays published at roughly the same time as the symposium on Overcoming Modernity; Nihon bunka shikan (Personal Observations on Japanese Culture, 1943) by Sakaguchi Angō (1906-1955), and then Shiba Sen-Shiki no sekai (Ssu-Ma Ch’ien-The World of the Chronicles, 1942) by Takeda Taijun (1912-1976). Though the debates are not directly taken as their target, both Sakaguchi and Takeda effect a critique of this discourse at the most fundamental level. And what is interesting for the purposes of my discussion is that these most unsparing and fundamental critiques of the discourse of “overcoming modernity” were framed by two intellectuals with direct practical experience of Buddhism as both institution and locus of manners and customs in daily life. It is rather in these two practically grounded iconoclasts that one finds the radical core of Buddhist thought.

28Sakaguchi s “Personal Observations on Japanese Culture” was written as a critique of the architect Bruno Taut’s Nihonbi no saihakken (Rediscovering Japanese Beauty, Japanese tr. 1939), written while Taut was in Japan between 1933 and 1936. Taut was a German Jew from Königsberg who had moved of late from the Expressionist School to socialism, and then had to flee Germany almost as a refugee. Accepting an invitation to Japan from a group of modernist architects, Taut devoted his time to writing rather than design, and ended up exerting a great influence in a situation rapidly tilting toward an emperor-centered fascism. Taut lauded the Ise Shrine, symbol of the nationalist emperor-centered ideology, as possessing a “purity of structure, remarkable clarity, material purity and beauty of symmetry,” and heaped scorn on the Tōshōgū shrine at Nikko, the mausoleum to the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu as an “undigested melange of imported goods.” Granting that architecture can be viewed ahistorically as an art form, Taut could not but have been aware of the politically charged nature of the monuments he discussed.

29Unlike the usual Orientalism, though, Taut drew no distinction between the West and Japan, but rather simply distinguished between borrowed and native elements. And so he reserved his praise for the Katsura Detached Palace and the Ise Shrine as embodiments of an “untouched Japanese culture,” and dismissed the Tōshōgū at Nikko as an indiscriminate assemblage of Japanese and imported elements from the continent. The 1930s though, was a time when admiration for the Tokugawa Period scholar Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801) was at a high point. Motoori’s Nativist scholarship (kokugaku) looked to the protohistoric period before the arrival of Chinese culture for a pristine “Japanese Way”, a view which coincides with what Taut would have encountered in Germany, where the authentic culture of the aboriginal German peoples was being held up against the subsequent influx of Latin culture. It is quite curious, then, that the refugee Taut would affirm the same thing in a Japanese context.

30Taut likely was probably clear on the political stakes of his advocacy of Japanese tradition. His intention may rather have been to criticize the “Imperial Crown Style” (teikan yōshiki)–a style combining nineteenth century Western architecture with traditional Japanese elements–and this was likely the expectation of the Japanese architects who invited him. However, Taut ends up trying to overthrow the “traditionalism” of the Imperial Style with another sort of “tradition,” the strategy of a Modernism driven into a corner by the events of the 1930s. Within Japanese discourse, though, this effectively endowed the Nativist “tradition” with a universal meaning that could be grasped and appreciated even by the West. Hence Taut’s reading was welcomed in a discourse dominated by tropes of “the decline of the West” and “overcoming modernity.” In a sense this resembles the reception of Roland Barthes’Empire of the Signs (Barthes 1982) in the 1980s, where, whatever its intention in the context of French discourse, it was read in “postmodern Japan” as a second edition of “overcoming modernity.”

31In “Personal Observations on Japanese Culture,” Sakaguchi Angō criticizes Taut as follows:

A gap of which Taut could not have the slightest idea exists between his discovery of Japan, and of its traditional beauty, and our constantly losing sight of Japanese tradition, and then actually being Japanese. In other words, Taut had to discover Japan, but as for us, we not only didn’t have to discover Japan, we actually are Japanese! Perhaps we are losing touch with the ancient culture of japan, but just the same, it’s not likely that we are going to lose sight of Japan. Whatever might be meant by Japanese spirit, there wouldn’t seem to be any need for us to be debating it. You wouldn’t expect Japan to emerge from a spirit to which an explanation had to be attached, and you wouldn’t expect this Japanese spirit to be susceptible to explanation anyway. As long as Japanese people live a healthy lifestyle, Japan itself is healthy. We stick our short, bowlegged frames into trousers and Western clothes, bustle about in a hurried manner, dance, throw away our tatami and toss our heads back pretentiously at a cheap table and chairs. Between the farce this presents to Western eyes and our simple satisfaction at its convenience there can be no reconciliation. There is a fundamental difference between their standpoint from which they smile in pity, and ours within which we live our daily lives. As long as our lifestyle originates in legitimate demands, their pitying smiles are superficial in the extreme (Sakaguchi 1987, 226-227).

32Sakaguchi is not rehearsing here the standard line about Taut’s Japan being nothing but a fantasy, and Japan being comprehensible only to the Japanese. What Sakaguchi is attacking here is not Taut, who had already left Japan and died an exile in Turkey, but rather the type of Japanese intellectual given to piously intoning things like “the culture of ancient Japan” and “overcoming modernity.” First of all, it is always the case that it is the foreigner, or else someone separated for some reason from their own land who “discovers” the culture or tradition of a country. What is discovered in such a case is always a static representation, a phenomenon entirely separate from the actual life being lived in that country every day which, for better or for worse is undergoing constant transformation by the contemporary capitalist economic system.

33When Sakaguchi turns to the question of “beauty,” he does not mean things that are conventionally pretty, nor does he mean the notion of beauty in an aesthetic consciousness. For him, beauty is a certain functionality that results when the necessary elements and the necessary elements only are placed exactly where they are needed. “The point is ‘necessity,’ that’s all. From first to last it is ‘necessity.’ It is this original form, demanded by the “indispensable substance” that gives birth to beauty” (237).

It’s all a question of substance. Beauty for beauty’s sake lacks straightforwardness, and ultimately is just not a real thing. In other words, it’s hollow. And so, this hollow thing never hits people with the force of a real thing, and it’s a matter of indifference whether it exists or doesn’t. It’s really no inconvenience whatsoever if the Hōryūji or the Byōdōin burn to the ground. If it’s necessary, just tear down the Hōryūji and put up a parking lot. Our nation’s splendid indigenous culture or tradition won’t be damaged in the least by that (237-238).

34However Sakaguchi’s “necessity” is not to be confused with simple utilitarian need. The examples he gives of architecture that irresistibly “capture” him include a prison at Kosuge, a dry ice factory, and a naval destroyer. “Why are these three things so beautiful? There’s not a thing here added on just for the sake of being beautiful. Not a single column or steel sheath tacked on from the standpoint of beauty, and not a single column or steel sheath omitted because it was ugly. Just indispensable things, put in the necessary place. In this way, with all unnecessary elements rejected, an original form demanded by pure necessity is allowed to emerge” (237). According to architectural historians, at least the Kosuge Prison–no longer extant–was regarded very highly at the time as an example of Modernist architecture. Though Sakaguchi was utterly unschooled in matters of architecture, he intuitively produced a position comparable to that of the Bauhaus leader Walter Gropius. “We propose to build structures that are clear and organic, where the internal theory radiates nakedly, unencumbered by false facades and trickery and deception. We desire an architecture that conforms to the world of the machine, the radio, and the high-speed automobile, an architecture that makes clear the relation of form to function.”

35Taut, who was a supporter of the Bauhaus, found the same principles in the Katsura Detached Palace and the Shrine at Ise, which he described as “original form, omitting all unnecessary elements, allowing only those which are necessary.” This means that Sakaguchi placed himself in a position unexpectedly close to Taut’s in the act of criticizing him However, the historical situation that endows their discourse with meaning separated them decisively. It is not “Japan” and “the West,” though, that is responsible for this gap. Sakaguchi had this to say about Taut’s estimation of the rock garden at Ryōanji and the Shūgakuin Detached Palace:

What is the rock garden at Ryōanji trying to express? What sorts of concepts is it trying to bring into juxtaposition? Taut was greatly impressed by the black and white wallpaper of the study in the Shūgakuin Detached Palace, saying it expresses the sound of a waterfall. But it is really pitiful to have to hang your appreciation on that sort of belabored explanation. That sort of temple landscaping, the tea rooms and such, they were just like enlightenment for the Zen monks, a castle suspended in thin air over the foundation of Zen hypotheses. What exactly, they would ask, is the Buddha? A ladle for shit, comes back the answer (kuso kakibera). In the garden is placed a single stone. It is a ladle for shit, however it is also the Buddha. If you want to look there and think, perhaps that is the Buddha, then everything proceeds smoothly, but as soon as you see that a ladle for shit is a ladle for shit, the game is over. The self-evident fact that a ladle for shit is nothing but a ladle for shit is really more persuasive than the Zen conventions (232).

36Two points need to be made in regard to the above passage. First, at the time he wrote this, Sakaguchi was engaged in research on the sixteenth century Christian movement in Japan, or more accurately, he was researching this as part of an effort to come to a comprehensive historical understanding of Japan’s fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In the context of a fascist advocacy of “overcoming modernity” through a return to the past, it is a universal phenomenon for the left wing to look to the Renaissance for an alternative model for “overcoming modernity.” Hence, at the same time Gramsci was closed off in prison writing The Modern Prince, and Bakhtin under Stalinism was writing Rabelais and His World, Hanada Kiyoteru (1910-1974) and Watanabe Kazuo (1901-1975) were writing about the European Renaissance. Sakaguchi came independently to see a species of Renaissance, that is to say a period which was modern in sensibility without yet being trapped in the closure of modern knowledge (chi no heiwaku), in Japan of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This was a time when the feudal political system in place since the Kamakura Period and aristocratic cultural values dominant from ancient times were undergoing a fundamental revolution, but there existed almost no serious documentation in Japanese historiography. For Sakaguchi, who read fluently in languages from Latin to Sanscrit, it was natural to turn to the early Christian sources, but it turned out no historian had done so before him.

37The material unearthed by Sakaguchi includes work by the Jesuit missionary Louis Frois (1532-1597), who, in addition to his monumental History of Japan left a variety of reports about social conditions of the Japan of his time. In a document called “A Comparison of the Cultures of Japan and Europe” (1585) we find the following highly interesting characterization of contemporary Europe and Japan:

In Europe, an unmarried woman’s virginity is a point of the highest honor and respect, as is the inviolable chasteness and innocence accompanying. A Japanese woman does not give the slightest accord to a maiden’s purity. Even if she has lost her virginity, as long as her reputation is intact, she may marry....
In Europe, property is maintained in common by husband and wife. In Japan, the respective parties each possess their own share. At times, the woman loans money to the husband at usurious rates....
In Europe, divorce of the wife is not only considered sinful, but is the greatest stain on a reputation. In Japan, one may divorce at will as many times as one wants. No dishonor attaches to the wife, and she may remarry.... In Europe, it is usually the husband who divorces the wife. In Japan, it is often the wife who divorces the husband....
In Europe, it is considered extremely important to keep daughters and young maidens confined, and this is strictly observed. In Japan, daughters may go out as they please, even for several days time, without notice to their parents....
In Europe, a wife does not leave the house without her husband’s permission. Japanese women have the freedom to go wherever they like without informing their husbands....
Among we Europeans, it is not common practice for women to read and write. Among highborn Japanese women, it is accounted a defect if a woman is not literate....
In Europe, women usually prepare meals. In Japan, it is usually men who prepare.
In Europe, it is considered a breach of manners for a woman to drink wine. In Japan this is quite common, and at festival time, women often drink to the point of becoming drunk (translated from the Japanese in Frois1991, 39-61).

38As a missionary, one would expect Frois to be exposed to all classes of people, so the “Japanese” women described here would not be restricted to a particular class. However, just as the “Europe” described here is historically specific, so is this “Japan.” And this particular “Japan” would be swept from the memory of Japanese with the institution of the Tokugawa system in the seventeenth century. Because of this work of historical memory when a Japanese feminist movement arose in the early twentieth century, they had to follow the Nativist scholars of the Tokugawa Period, and go back to the matrilineal system of archaic Japan to find a precedent for female supremacy in Japanese history. As a result, in the 1930s Japanese feminism would fall right in line with the Emperor-system ideology of the state. Had feminist thinkers been aware of the history contained in the above documents, that trap could have been avoided. The significance of this kind of observation is that what is regarded as “traditional” by modern Japan is a construct of the modern period, conditioned decisively by the institution of the Tokugawa polity in the seventeenth century. The advocates of “overcoming modernity” imagine for themselves a middle ages or antiquity far off in the distant past. But what does one call this period in the sixteenth century that is both modern and premodern, and neither of these? To call this a “Renaissance” is not simply an analogy with European history. From an empirical point of view, these transformations internal to Japan corresponded to developments that Wallerstein has described as the modem world system, and are inseparable from the context of global commerce after Columbus. What Sakaguchi sought in this period, that is to say the object of his research, was something different from the fashionable discourse of the day, an unrealized possibility inherent in the fractious beginnings of the world system, but closed off thereafter.

39After quoting from a record of a public debate between Francis Xavier and a group of Zen priests, Sakaguchi appends the following commentary:

In Zen Buddhism, there is a set of conventions that obtains only within the world of Zen, and raised above the world by those conventions, they merely play logical games. It is only because it’s all pre-arranged that they are able to get off the ground. One will ask, “What is the Buddha?” and another will say, “It is nothingness,” or “It is a shit ladle.” Because there is a pre-arranged agreement, they nod their heads as if they understand, but they merely express the conventions with their face. Who knows what they really understand?
So, the fact is, if brought face to face with the sort of mundane, straightforward logic that says, the Buddha is the Buddha, and a shit ladle is a shit ladle, this kind of Zen logic is useless. When you ask where lies the power to face up to this most obvious kind of logic and fundamentally overturn it, it can only be in the synthesis of practice and thought.
This prospect, though, is really a problem for the Zen sect. Because in Zen, they spend all their time playing in that field of concepts raised on a promise, and have no practical life at all. They grope for enlightenment in an idealized world, and so while they get a good indication of their cleverness, as for the question of their potential in a practical situation, they have no idea. Hence the Zen priests are overwhelmed in the face of the practical vitality of the Catholic priests, who wager everything on their religion. They sense their own shabbiness, and lack of practical power. Hence a wave of conversions followed among the Zen faithful, even among the monks. The numbers are difficult for us to imagine today (Yoroppateki seikaku, Nipponteki seikaku, in Sakaguchi 1999, v. 7: 94).

40Sakaguchi is not criticizing Zen logic from the perspective of modern rationalism, much less claiming that Christianity is more rational than Zen Buddhism. The type of deflationary logic that says, “The Buddha is Buddha, and a shit ladle is a shit ladle” works just as effectively against the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity. That is to say, God is God, and a man is a man, what is this talk of Jesus being God? However it was not the theoretical rationality of the Christian missionaries’ doctrine that overwhelmed the Zen sect, but the irrationality of their practice, coming thousands of kilometers to the Far East just to preach. Persisting in rationality itself, though, requires the irrationality of the will and passions, and in the context of the 1930’s and 1940’s where an antimodern “irrationalism” ran rampant, Sakaguchi’s effort to remain thoroughly rational is a stance quite different from simple “rationalism.” Edmund Husserl was driven to the same conclusion in The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology (1936): “Humans can only be rational by willing to be rational.” It goes without saying that this “will” itself is not rational.

41Hence, for Sakaguchi it is not a question of Christianity or Buddhism. Either way, thought that is not in practical negotiation with the other is without significance. Sakaguchi is not ridiculing the Zen monks who converted to Catholicism after being bested in public debate. Quite the opposite. He is rather drawn to this unique period where such an encounter shot through with praxis was possible. And it was only in this period where the Society of Jesus possessed that kind of power and vitality, such that one of their founders Francis Xavier himself would come to Japan. The Jesuits lost the power of that founding moment in subsequent years, becoming simply another established religious order in complicity with state-sponsored colonialism. But it must be remembered that Buddhism too, at a certain historical period, had that same power that comes from the union of practice and thought.

42There is a personal reason, though, for Sakaguchi’s coolness to the Zen notion of enlightenment (satori). In his twenties he himself aimed to become a Buddhist priest, and underwent several years of intense study and religious training at the end of which he fell into a state of nervous exhaustion and abandoned Buddhism. In later years he would recall the experience in a low ironic mode, but recently uncovered materials make it hard to take that self-effacing humor at face value. When he was twenty, Sakaguchi was involved in publishing a magazine with a group of classmates all aiming to become Buddhist novices, and in one a feature appeared where each of the members contributed personal thoughts on “The Monastery Life That Awaits Us.” While Sakaguchi’s contemporaries expressed conventional opinions like, “There’s nothing worth admiring in the Buddhist monks of today, all are corrupt,” or “The motto for monastery life is ‘faith first’,” Sakaguchi wrote as follows:

If there’s a lifestyle specific to the monastery, one has to admit it would be the ascetic lifestyle. However it won’t do to forget that there is a lifestyle that conforms with people in general, that is the lifestyle of sexual passion and earthly desires. The denizens of the monastery have a tendency to put too much weight on the ascetic lifestyle, and forget that life in line with the so-called evil passions has its own moral coherence and powers of salvation. There is no grounds to call the ascetic lifestyle morally superior, nor to suppose that it leads more quickly to enlightenment. Life has to be lived in accordance with each person’s articles of faith, whatever those may be, but the bonds of love and passion will not be denied. Just keeping up appearances with the ascetic life is really too pitiful for words. Wouldn’t starting out anew on the firm foundation of the life of passion be the true path? (Sakaguchi 1999, v. 1: 10).

43Sakaguchi claimed later to have given up his faith in Buddhism, but again, this is not to be taken at face value because what we discover here is that he had already formed at the novitiate stage the conviction that the true path lay in “starting out anew on the firm foundation of the life of passion.” To give up the “ascetic life” is from the perspective of the monastic institution to undergo a “fall” (daraku). However, if we understand the historical Buddha to have destroyed the deep-rooted tradition that held deliverance from the karmic cycle to be achieved through ascetic practice and religious training, one would have to say that the Buddha also experienced a “fall,” and that it was precisely at the point that Sakaguchi separated himself from the institution of Buddhism that he entered on the true Buddhist path. Let us be clear, Sakaguchi had little good to say in his life about Buddhism. And he reserved his most bitter scorn for the notions of enlightenment, and elegant simplicity that adorned the Zen Buddhist lifestyle. However, there is nothing more radically Buddhist than this criticism.

  • 7 The title of Sakaguchi’s Darakuron has typically been translated into English as “On Decadence” (s (...)
  • 8 In which a failed plot to assassinate the Emperor resulted in the summary roundup of socialists an (...)
  • 9 Gesaku indicates a broadly defined category of satirical literature in the Tokugawa period, which (...)

44Daraku became a keyword for Sakaguchi, and he actually achieved fame with the postwar best-seller Darakuron (On The Fall, 1946). “Just keep on falling,” he urged. However, this is not to be confused with “decadence,” nor is Sakaguchi merely capturing the chaos of immediate postwar Japan.7 For Sakaguchi, daraku, or “to fall” is to be exposed and left wide open to the other. This logic can be seen in another essay Sakaguchi wrote attacking the uncontested literary master Nagai Kafū (1879-1959) entitled, Tsūzoku sakka: Nagai Kafū (Nagai Kafū: Master of Light Fiction). After the Great Treason Incident8 of 1911, Kafū publicly announced that because he had as an intellectual been powerless to do anything to halt the injustice, that he would henceforth withdraw and live as a Tokugawa Period gesakusha,9 and proceeded to pen novels dealing exclusively with his associations with the women of the Asakusa pleasure quarters. Though Kafū had passed out of fashion in the 1920’s, this stance of “decadent” renunciation came to be greatly admired in the 1930’s after the collapse of the Marxist movement, and Kafū was resuscitated as an elder statesman in the literary world. Sakaguchi’s consistent logic is visible in the following:

Kafū was born into a family of some wealth and reputation, and enjoyed these advantages from birth. And so his highest moral principle was determined by a feeling of abhorrence for anything that might threaten these circumstances. As for the question of what it is to be human, what people want, what they love, he never really had the time for that sort of genuine question. Far from it, the simple fact that there might be a variety of circumstances other than his own, that these produce their own lines of inquiry, and that these might be quite resolutely opposed to his circumstances and his line of thought seems never to have occurred to him (Sakaguchi 1999, v. 4:116).

45The statement above seems to be almost Marxist in its style and reasoning. However, this was written in the period after nearly all Marxists in Japan had publicly recanted. Sakaguchi pursues here the logic of vitality through negotiation with the other, and in this sense Kafū’s pose of decadence is simply a self-consciousness, that admits of no exposure to the other. That is to say, he has never “fallen” (daraku), which could be as well said for the Marxist writers who recanted under state oppression. It is not simply a matter of these writers renouncing Marxism under external pressure. In their work prior to the recantations, the concept of the proletariat may indeed be visible, but there is no evidence of an encounter with the other.

46In 1941, shortly before he wrote “Personal Observations on Japanese Culture,” Sakaguchi wrote another essay entitled, Bungaku no furusato (The Home Place of Literature). He discusses here a number of tales, but the first example is Charles Perrault’s “Little Red Riding Hood.” Unlike the story typically told to children, in this version the little girl who goes into the woods to visit her grandmother is eaten by the wolf disguised as her grandmother, and the story simply stops there.

We are just left hanging there, with the vague feeling that we’ve been cheated, but then it suddenly strikes us right in the eye, and in this empty margin utterly severed from the rest of the world, it just comes into view. This extremely quiet, clear place to come home, free from pain and distress...
Just as the lack of a moral is itself a moral, the lack of any hope for salvation is itself a salvation. I can see here the homeland of literature, or the home place of the human race. Literature starts from this point–this I firmly believe. This is not to say that literature is only to be found in this kind of amoral, desolate tale. No, if truth be told I don’t really regard this type of tale that highly. A homeland may indeed be a cradle for us, but that’s not an adult’s work, it’s not our place to be going back home. However I don’t think literature can exist without some consciousness of this home. I simply can’t trust the morality of a literature, or its sociality, if it hasn’t been nurtured on the basis of this home place. The same with literary criticism (Sakaguchi 1987,220-223).

47Just as “the fall” takes on an inverted meaning in Sakaguchi, so “homeland” or “home place” (furusato) has its significance inverted. For Sakaguchi, the home place does not connote intimate familiarity, it is rather a being forsaken by “otherness.” We can make clear Sakaguchi’s position by comparison with a philosopher who utilized the same terms as keywords. Heidegger, who saw humanity (as Dasein) as existence unto death (Sein turn Tode), called the escape from there into the everyday as a fall (Verfall). Further he regarded not only modernity but the entire history of philosophy since Socrates as a mourning for the loss of “Being/homeland.” If this is the case, the fall (daraku) can be taken to signify the loss of homeland or being-together, and the return from the fall to authenticity means, politically, Nazism. And the Japanese version of this is “overcoming modernity.” However for Sakaguchi, the home place (furusato) is something that forsakes people, and pushes them away. Here the authenticity of Dasein is discovered in the exposure to otherness. To put it in the words of Levinas, a critic of Heidegger, Sakaguchi placed “ethics” at the base of all thought. If one considers Levinas’thought to be conditioned by his Judaism, then one may say Sakaguchi’s comes from his Buddhism.

48In the 1930’s when intellectuals of all stripes sought a “homecoming” in the return from Marxism and Western knowledge to “Japan” or a Buddhist “emptiness,” Sakaguchi began precisely from the negation of that impulse. There was no danger, though, of him becoming another modernizationist, and in a sense, he never let go of that understanding of “emptiness.” Emptiness admits of no positivity, and is exhaustively to be found inside of relations. In no way can this be the sentimental object of a “homecoming.” This is because “emptiness,” whether in the form of beauty, or of knowledge, or ethics, is found in the dissolution of every shred of what is institutionalized, fixed in positive form. While most took Buddhism to be an aesthetic question, or a question of interiority and personal salvation, for Sakaguchi it meant a turn to ethics. That he, a Buddhist novitiate, never once spoke of Buddhism in an affirmative way, indicates the exhaustive integrity with which he pursued the radical Buddhist impulse.


  • 10 Following the passage of the Peace Preservation Law in 1925, police crack-downs on the Japanese Co (...)

49Unlike Sakaguchi, Takeda Taijun was one of the tide of intellectuals who, after plunging themselves into active participation in the Marxist movement, publicly recanted in the 1930’s (tenkōsha).10 Takeda is exceptional, though, in two respects. First, he was born in a temple, and spent a period of time as a monk. And second, he was a scholar of Chinese literature, even spending a period of time as a professor of Chinese literature at Hokkaido University before devoting himself to being a novelist after the war. However, this exceptional flavor must not lead one to overlook a certain self-evident fact. That is the crucial impact for him of Marxist thought.

50The Buddhism and Chinese literature which marked Takeda as exceptional occupy a similar position in modern Japan. Buddhism as an institution in Japan was part of the network of supports that held up the Tokugawa polity, and after the Meiji Restoration when monks were permitted to marry, Buddhism was transformed into part of the landowning class by the device of inheritance of temple property. Takeda’s father in particular was the possessor of great capital, a sect leader, a landlord with vast holdings and a university professor. While Buddhism was being welcomed in an abstract way in intellectual discourse in the 1930’s, the academic study of Buddhism was almost entirely limited to the sons of this class of Buddhist priests. When he entered Tōkyō University to study Buddhism in 1926, Sakaguchi Angō was the exception that proved the rule, the only one of sixteen students majoring in Buddhism who was not the son of a priest. Takeda though, had this practical relation, and for him Buddhism could never be a set of concepts, signalling rather an institutional presence and a concrete way of life, something which intellectuals in general did not bring to their encounter with Buddhism. Chinese literature was similar in this respect. Prior to the Meiji Restoration Chinese learning formed the standard for Japanese intellectuals, however after the Restoration, Western learning was simply substituted whole for Chinese. Particularly after the Sino-Japanese War (1894-5) things Chinese were regarded with scorn as somber and irretrievably old-fashioned, not worthy of serious attention by persons aspiring to intellectual status. Chinese Studies was reconstituted in the modern university as an academic discipline, but there it was little more than the vestigial study of the Chinese classics.

51Takeda, though, especially selected these two domains marginalized in the field of “knowledge” in modern Japan. In one of his novels, he writes: “The reason I became a priest is that I lack by nature any independent spirit, and I really didn’t have anything better to do. It wasn’t a wish I’d cherished for a long time, nor had I grown particularly weary of the world. I just picked the easiest path. Like a fishmonger’s child becomes a fishmonger, and a landlord’s child becomes a landlord, I fell into my occupation as a priest.” (from Igyō no mono, in Takeda 1972, 341) Similarly, he writes that his reason for majoring in Chinese literature in university is that his marks were so bad he simply couldn’t get accepted into any other program. These are, of course, examples of Takeda’s particular brand of self-effacement. However, what is being concealed in this work of effacement is less the self than the crucial effect of his experience of Marxism. For example, in a commentary on Okamoto Kanoko’s “Seisei ryūten” (“The Wheel of Change”), Takeda writes this about Buddhism:

  • 11 Nagarjuna was active in northern India around the 2nd century, and is one of the principal philoso (...)
  • 12 The thirteenth century military tale Heike Monogatari begins with the famous lines encountered by (...)

What Nagarjuna called “empty seeing” was a product of the highest level systematization of the natural sciences of the day.11 This was a natural dialectic of matchless clarity, somewhat off-putting for the pious faithful, for it partook of none of the contrivances of transience and aesthetic sorrow (aware) by which they might be solicited. In Japan we have a tendency to be caught up with questions of vertical lineage, like the “Imperial line unbroken for a thousand ages,” the inevitable passage of time, etc., however the original Buddhism had a strong impulse to sweep away bias and dogma by grasping the universe spatially, and verifying things in terms of the natural sciences. Hence, when set beside it, the sort of stereotypical lament on the impermanence of things one finds in the Tale of the Heike looks like little more than the groundless fancy of weak-hearted and narrow-minded people12 (Takeda 1982, v. 12: 137).

52Takeda’s Buddhism is heterogeneous to the way it has been introduced in Japan. However, this insight did not come from his academic study of Buddhism. Takeda is clearly understanding the epistemology of Buddhism in terms of dialectical materialism. Takeda’s religious training took place after he had been arrested and renounced his participation in the Marxist movement, however unlike his intellectual contemporaries who turned from Marxism to Buddhism, Takeda began to seek Marxism within Buddhism. His relation to Chinese literature was similar. He turned to Chinese literature because of his left-wing past, and his choice is inconceivable outside of this motivation. It was actually with Takeda, and his friend the Lu Xun scholar Takeuchi Yoshimi, that Chinese Studies in Japan first began to connect itself to contemporary concerns and attained a hint of actuality in its product. Takeda s Ssu-Ma Ch’ien–The World of the Chronicles (1943) is one of the first fruits of that turn. However, its significance far exceeds the field of Chinese studies, and it ranks as one of the essential works of twentieth century Japanese criticism.

  • 13 The Shih Chi, also known as “Records of the Historian,” was the first history of China, begun by S (...)

53The work begins: “Ssu-Ma Ch’ien is a man who showed his disgrace to the world.” Ssu-Ma Ch’ien (145-86 bc) was the lead historian of the Former Han Dynasty who, having incurred the displeasure of the Emperor, was given the choice of death or castration as punishment, and is said to have chosen castration in order to finish the magnum opus, the Shih Chi (The Chronicles, ca. 100 bc)13. Ssu-Ma Ch’ien is in one sense obviously a figure for Takeda himself, who endured the humiliation of renouncing his affiliation with the left wing movement to take up an unseemly position as a member of the landowning class through dependence on his inherited position, and who further was forced to participate in the invasion of his beloved China as a conscript soldier between 1937 and 1939. However Takeda is decisively different from a writer like Dazai Osamu (1909-1948), who joined the communist party movement as the son of a wealthy landowner, recanted, and then spent the rest of his life narrating from an ironic stance the sense of guilt and unease with which he was consumed, because what he is arguing is not Ssu-Ma Ch’ien’s psychological state, but the structure of his work, The Chronicles.

54Still, one must agree that a consciousness of “shame” lies at the core of Takeda’s writing. In narrating Ssu-Ma Ch’ien’s “shame,” Takeda is not saying that he underwent a shameful punishment. It is the act of “writing” itself that is shameful for Takeda. For whatever purpose one takes up the pen, and whatever one writes about, to “write” thus is to expose one’s shame to the world. To put it another way, whatever significance attaches to “writing” it will not be legitimized, and indeed it is only on this condition that writing can take place. Takeda’s “shame” was not in taking on the mantle of the priest. In the simplest terms, it is the “shame” of a Marxist apostate who continues to produce work after that. In Japan, Marxist thought shook the intellectual world in the 1920’s and 1930’s in a way that no religious movement had been able. Meiji intellectuals coolly renounced their conversions to Christianity one after another without a hint of remorse. However in the case of the Showa period renunciation of Marxism, it seemed rather to drive them to religion. It was precisely the sense of guilt associated with recantation that allowed them finally to read Shinran or the Bible.

55However Takeda never talked about “guilt” (tsumi), rather it was always “shame” (haji). Why might this be? The book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1942, published 1946), written by anthropologist Ruth Benedict, is a policy study for the coming American occupation of Japan based on surveys of Japanese-Americans confined in relocation centers during the war. In the book she made the famous distinction between the West as a “culture of guilt,” and Japan as a “culture of shame.” According to her seemingly reasonable distinction, whereas guilt is an interior phenomenon, shame is exterior. However, it needs to be remarked that, because the sense of guilt is deeply interiorized, it often erases the relation with the other that obtains on the surface in shame. Hence while salvation is thinkable in relation to guilt consciousness, in shame there is no such possibility. In Takeda’s Igyō no mono (The Misshapen Ones, 1950), one finds the following dialogue. One character is an intellectual of advanced years tormented by “guilt” and convinced he is going to Hell, while the narrator is a Buddhist monk undergoing training. It is understood that both have lapsed and recanted the left wing movement.

“You say you’re going to Hell, Sensei?”
“Yes I am. I’m terrified.”
“I wonder...”
“It’s true!” he said with great animation. “I’m a terrible, sinful man. A deeply sinful man. You wouldn’t understand. But it’s really terrifying. And... it’s true, there’s no escaping it.”
“Oh, don’t be ridiculous... going to Hell...”
“No, it’s true. I’m going to Hell.” He let out a conspiratorial smile to brush away my humid sympathy. However the problem was I didn’t have the slightest sympathy. Going to Hell? Do you really think it’s that easy? With a malicious spirit, no, with the confidence born of a prophet I pressed my case.
“You’re going to Heaven, Sensei.”
“Heaven?” The professor frowned in displeasure.
“Sensei, whatever you say, you’ll be going to Heaven.”
“Okay, and why is that?”
“Well, everybody goes to Heaven. It’s just a rule.”
For an instant, he gasped in horror.

56What the “I” expresses here is a kind of “malicious” criticism of the narcissism that accompanies the consciousness of “sin.” “Going to Hell? Do you really think it’s that easy?” is another way of saying, Do you really think it’s that easy to change your “shame” into “guilt”? In the context of Ssu-Ma Ch’ien, Takeda’s “shame” signifies people abandoned to practical relations, the fact of exposure to the other. From this there is no salvation, a point which recalls Sartre’s contemporary gloss that, “Hell is other people.” At this point it will be clear as well that Takeda closely recalls Sakaguchi Angō’s conception of “the fall.” Takeda refuses the religious tendencies of intellectuals under the pretext of Buddhism. However, as was the case with Sakaguchi, the movement of his thought is arguably the most radically Buddhist. For example, what Shinran said was not “Everyone goes to Heaven,” but rather that there is no evil so great that it is beyond the reach of Amida’s grace. But this was exactly the pretense of the intellectuals he criticized, who glorified their own sin as beyond redemption, and took upon themselves the decision of who goes to Hell.

57Takeda could not have reached this understanding, though, outside his relation to Marxism. Takeda committed tenkō (renounced his affiliation with Marxism). But in what sense did he recant? and what was the nature of the Marxism he renounced? Marxist thought in the 1930’s regarded Asia as a stagnant region, in a stage of chronic under-development. The proper context for this judgement is Hegel, who in the Philosophy of History, left China and India behind in a preliminary stage in the development of Spirit. “The English, or rather the East India Company, are the lords of the land; for it is the necessary fate of Asiatic empires to be subjected to Europeans; and China will, some day or other, be obliged to submit to this fate” (Hegel 1952, 221). And struggle as one might against the implications of this position, that is in fact what came to pass. Marxism takes over this conception of linear development and European-centered ideology virtually intact, the only difference being that Marxism’s stance is to shake Asia free from this backward state, and liberate it from domination by the Western powers.

58Takeda undoubtedly already harbored reservations about this kind of thinking from his experience in the Marxist movement, which in the 1930s was under direct orders from the Comintern. Intellectuals who recanted from Marxism typically found themselves turning either in the direction of nihilism or religion. But a third path was also available which consisted of a transformation of the Hegelian=Marxist developmental thesis in such a way as to legitimize Japanese imperialism as the “world-historical fate” to deliver Asia from that kind of domination. Only a former Marxist could have come up with that kind of justification. Takeda not only registered his reservations about this, he sought to critique the Hegelianism that survived at the root of Marxist thinking.

59Takeda did not choose the strategy of interpreting the Shih Chi in terms of base-superstructure relations in the Han Dynasty. Far from it, he sought rather to read from the Shih Chi a position that could oppose a Hegelian/Marxist approach, and render relative its determinations, to wit, a reading of history in spatial terms, consequent evacuation of meaning, principle, and telos from “world” history, and the discovery there of a “system of relationships without a center.”

  • 14 During the power struggle at the close of the Ch’in Dynasty, Hsiang Yü of Ch’u was able to prevail (...)

The crux of the Basic Annals does not lie only in the person of Hsiang Yü. Nor is it shouldered only by the Great Founder, Liu Pang. The crucial point lies in the movement of opposition between Hsiang Yü and Liu Pang. Without Hsiang Yü, there is no Basic Annals of the Great Founder. The other individuals arranged in opposition would lose their value. The point that is at issue here is not the relation between King and retainer. It is the relation between the center of the world and the political actors on the periphery. It is the relation between two fundamentally opposed individuals. To study these relations is to gradually deepen one’s understanding of the Basic Annals.14

60This structuralist reading would be in Takeda’s way of thinking Buddhist. Buddhism is not the aesthetic feeling of pathos (aware) at the vanity of all things, or the transcending of historical circumstance by the reduction of all that is solid to emptiness. It is for Takeda, following Nagarjuna, the “impulse to grasp the universe spatially, and verify things in terms of the natural sciences, and thereby sweep away bias and dogma.” For Takeda, then, this means to take this dogmatic conception of the world, in other words the extant Hegelian= Marxist conception, and observe it placed within the historical “space” to which it belongs and which it can never transcend.

61However, isn’t this exactly the “standpoint” of Marx in Capital? Marx writes in the Preface to the First German Edition: “To prevent possible misunderstanding, a word. I paint the capitalist and the landlord in no sense couleur de rose. But here individuals are dealt with only in so far as they are the personifications of economic categories, embodiments of particular class-relations and class-interests. My standpoint, from which the evolution of the economic formation of society is viewed as a process of natural history, can less than any other make the individual responsible for relations whose creature he socially remains, however much he may subjectively raise himself above them” (Tucker 1978, 297).

62For example Marxist ideologues will censure the individual capitalist and landowner for bearing “responsibility” toward society. It goes without saying, though, that not only Takeda, but virtually all Marxists at the time were the product of well-to-do families. They participate in the movement, regarding their personal circumstances as a sin, but this gesture is simply to “subjectively raise themselves above” the social relations whose creature they remain. Then, when the time comes that they drop out of the movement, they feel this as a subjective sense of “guilt,” and seek salvation. What Takeda is saying is that there is no such thing as “responsibility” residing in the individual, however all individuals find themselves in “social relations”–that is to say, “shame”–and this cannot ever be erased. Takeda was able, in other words, in the process of dropping out of the Marxist political movement, and under the name of Buddhism, to grasp precisely Marx’s standpoint of “society viewed as a process of natural history.”

63There is no concept or figure in “The World of the Chronicles” that can transcend that world. For example, when Ssu-Ma Ch’ien wrote The Chronicles, Confucianism had been officially recognized by the state as both religion and the single legitimate form of scholarship. Nevertheless, Confucius is utterly relativized here (sōtaika). This relativization, however, is not enabled by positing some further transcendental meaning. “The World of the Chronicles” is a world that has no such exterior, a world exhaustively formed of relations which admit of no transcendence. What Takeda calls “The World of the Chronicles” is a world with no center, or a world that is multiply centered, a chaos where all centers are fated to ceaselessly pass out of existence. And alluded to darkly here is the unavoidable passing out of existence of the Japanese Empire.

64Ssu-Ma Ch’ien-The World of the Chronicle s, was published quietly in 1943 while all around, the former left wing sang the chorus of “overcoming modernity,” by subjectively transcending the totality of capitalist social relations or else the reality of the relation with Asia. At the time, there was almost no one to pick up on Takeda’s intent. Unfortunately, the book was fated to remain in obscurity in the postwar period as well, as a formalist Marxism was resurrected almost instantly with an existentialist humanism arrayed against it, effectively reinstalling the prewar intellectual framework. Takeda turned to being a novelist after the war, a move unthinkable outside of the shock of his experience of real destruction and chaos in the fall of Shanghai. Of course, most postwar writers shared this kind of experience to a degree, but what separated Takeda was unquestionably his consciousness of “the world of the Chronicles.” Though I do not have time to develop the point, his postwar activity as a novelist should be readable as an effort to discern “the world of the Chronicles” in the postwar world.

  • 15 The centrality of this problematic in postwar Japanese discourse, not at all obvious in the contex (...)

65A certain difficulty arises at this point. That is because the postwar world, through the Cold War structure of binary opposition between the United States and the Soviet Union, did indeed become a “world with a center.” The literature born of the “chaos” of postwar was coopted into that stable structure before anyone noticed–a development epitomized by the “politics versus literature” problematic that governed postwar discourse.15 Takeda’s persistence in searching for a “world without center” in such a context, while in one sense the object of a certain hushed reverence, has in the context of literary history been shelved as an unfinished opus. However, this unfinished quality to Takeda’s work is indicative of a conception of writing (écriture) not comprehended by either Japanese or Western literature, a point that can be discerned in his work of criticism on the Shih Chi.

66There is no question that there is a peculiar richness to the expression of the Shih Chi that cannot be found in either modern historiography or the historical novel. And it has nothing to do with the question of whether what is being written about is the “individual” or the “totality.” The secret, as Takeda discerned, is hidden in the structure of the Shih Chi. “What is placed at issue here is not individual destiny, but the connection of the people that bring the center into being. The “center of the earth” is glimpsed here in three-dimensions, and by manipulation of the laws governing its movement, the question of the historical importance that attaches to individual character is rendered clear. This is the moment when “anger” and “laughter,” “courage,” “impatience” and “intellect,” all these individual emotions, morals and capacities are one by one brought into clear relief on the tapestry of history.” In the Shih Chi one finds a morphology of humanity that adheres exhaustively to the concrete, but that unlike contemporary realism knits together a system of signs through the finest play of identity and difference and a relationality that is utterly mutual. One could perhaps assert something similar about Takeda’s own work. However precisely because of that, to the eye accustomed to the conventions of the modern novel, and to the sensibility that welcomed the postwar Sartrean experiment, Takeda’s work can only appear a peculiarity, a branch unexplored.

67Today, though, when the “postwar” world has come to an end, that is to say when the binary system of the United States and the Soviet Union has given way to the glimmerings of mega-competition of a unified market, and the resolution of the world into political and economic blocs proceeds apace spurred by the rise of neo-nationalisms and the European Union, a process of ideological recombination is at work. Takeda’s writing takes on a new freshness in this context. Japanese “postmodernism” reproduced the strategies of the prewar intellectual discourse, seeking to overcome the West by the dual strategy of a “return to Japan” on the one hand, and by an internationalism in terms quite like the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” on the other. Such a postmodernism had no time for the postwar literature represented by Takeda. However Takeda’s Ssu-Ma Ch’ien-The World of the Chronicles predicted not only that the “postwar” world would fall, but that any “world order” that follows it will pass away in the end as well.



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1 Karatani uses the term gairai shisō, setting up a parallel with the linguistic term gairaigo used to mark foreign loan words in the Japanese language. (All notes by translator.)

2 Buddhism was introduced to Japan during the period of rule by the Yamato Kings (ca. ad 300-710). Accepted periodization for ancient to early modern Japan is based on the location of the capital city as follows: Nara Period (710-784)
Heian Period (794-1185)
Kamakura Period (1185-1333)
Ashikaga (Muromachi) Period (1338-1573)
Tokugawa (Edo) Period (1600-1867).
Each move of the capital left behind powerful Buddhist institutions that had grown up around it. The Nara, Heian and Kamakura governments were relatively stable; however the Ashikaga Shogunate was incapable of asserting its authority for much of the second half of its putative rule, and the period of consolidation leading up the Tokugawa Shogunate is referred to as the Warring States period (Hane 1991, 229-231).

3 The modern reign names are as follows:
Meiji Period (1868-1912)
Taishō Period (1912-1926)
Shōwa Period (1926-1989)
Heisei Period (1989-present)

4 The Meiji intelligentsia drew heavily from the former samurai class, and both Nishida and Suzuki came from samurai backgrounds.

5 Bungakukai (Literary World) was a literary magazine launched in 1933 by Kobayashi and others which engaged then-dominant Marxist critical trends polemically and provided a haven for writers who had repudiated Marxism (tenkōsha) following a massive crackdown by the police in 1933 (see n. 9).

6 A collection of Kobayashi s essays is available in (Kobayashi 1995), while a useful analysis of the Japan Romantic School can be found in (Doak 1994). Since Takeuchi Yoshimi’s rescuscitation of the problem in 1959, the 1942 symposium on “Overcoming Modernity” and related debates between 1941 and 1942 in the journal Chūō Kōron involving Nishitani and other Kyoto School philosophers have been a central problem for Japanese intellectuals. Discussions in English can be found in (Sakai 1989); (Minamoto 1994) and (Horio 1994).

7 The title of Sakaguchi’s Darakuron has typically been translated into English as “On Decadence” (see Keene’s Dawn to the West for an authoritative example). Given that any translation is also an interpretation, this title both works to situate Sakaguchi in the infamous Burai-ha (the Villains), a group of scandalous, hard-drinking, self-destructive Japanese writers including Dazai Osamu (1909-1948), Oda Sakunosuke (1913-1947), and Ishikawa Jun, and suggests an affinity with the stance of the fin de siecle English Decadent movement. As the ensuing discussion makes clear, Karatani finds a more rigorous stake in Sakaguchi’s work than the messy nihilism of the Burai-ha or the revolt through style of the Decadents, and an implicit stake is to undo that work of translation.

8 In which a failed plot to assassinate the Emperor resulted in the summary roundup of socialists and anarchists, the sentencing of 24 to death, and the execution of twelve.

9 Gesaku indicates a broadly defined category of satirical literature in the Tokugawa period, which was both relentlessly parodic of contemporary manners and customs, and playfully ambiguous in relation to genre conventions. See (Sakai, 1991), chapters 4-6 for a situated discussion of the gesaku strategy.

10 Following the passage of the Peace Preservation Law in 1925, police crack-downs on the Japanese Communist Party in 1928 and 1933 resulted in the incarceration of thousands of left wing intellectuals and members of the Proletarian literature and arts movements, culminating in the beating to death of novelist Kobayashi Takiji at the hands of police in 1933. Imprisoned typically without charge and for indefinite periods of time, and with no tradition of exile as was available to European intellectuals, the public recantation of several JCP leaders was followed by a phenomenon of mass recantation in which police successfully obtained public renunciation of Marxism from upwards of 98% of imprisoned activists, a trauma which affects the Japanese intellectual world to this day. For a sociological outline of the phenomenon of tenkō, see (Steinhoff 1991).

11 Nagarjuna was active in northern India around the 2nd century, and is one of the principal philosophers of Mahayana Buddhism. His development of the madhyamika (middle way) proceeds through a rigorously sceptical epistemology to demonstrate all oppositions to arise from false and futile discriminations. His Mulamadhyamakakarika can be read in conjunction with Plato’s Parmenides to indicate a path not taken by the mainstream of Western philosophy.

12 The thirteenth century military tale Heike Monogatari begins with the famous lines encountered by every Japanese schoolchild, “The sound of the Gion Shōja bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sāla flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind” (tr. McCullough, 1998, 23).

13 The Shih Chi, also known as “Records of the Historian,” was the first history of China, begun by Ssu-Ma Ch’ien’s father Ssu-Ma T’an and finished by the son circa 100 BC. Ssu-Ma Ch’ien is known as the Grand Historian.

14 During the power struggle at the close of the Ch’in Dynasty, Hsiang Yü of Ch’u was able to prevail over all adversaries with the exception of the peasant Liu Pang. Hsiang Yü granted Liu Pang the territory around the Han River, and the two combined forces to bring down the Ch’in in 207 BC. The former allies quickly clashed, though, and Liu Pang, renowned for his intelligence and resourcefulness, defeated Hsiang Yü and founded the Han Dynasty in 202 bc. Within the organization of the Chronicles (Shih Chi), the Basic Annals (Pen Chi) provide a chronological frame by narrating the major events of each imperial reign.

15 The centrality of this problematic in postwar Japanese discourse, not at all obvious in the context of the United States where literature is effectively marginalized, is masterfully delineated in Part 2 of Maruyama Masao’s Nihon no Shisō (History of Thought in Japan, 1961).


Karatani Kōjin est critique littéraire et professeur à l’Université Kinki à Osaka. Parmi ses nombreux ouvrages, il faut signaler Kindai bungaku no kigen (L’origine de la littérature japonaise moderne, 1980), Inyu toshite no kenchiku (L’architecture comme métaphore, 1983), Tankyu (Recherches, 1986 et 1989), Kano naru komyunizumu (Un communisme possible, 1999) et Rinri 21 (Éthique 21, 2000).

Joseph A. Murphy (Traducteur)

Joseph A. Murphy a fait des études en génie mécanique et des études doctorales en littérature et cinéma japonais. Professeur à l’Université de Floride, il termine présentement la rédaction d’un ouvrage sur le circuit métaphorique reliant la littérature et la science japonaises au début du XXe siècle. Parmi ses articles, on peut lire : « Brownian Motion in Recent Japanese Film », Post Script, 18(1).

© Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 2001

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