The Japanese Economy Reconsidered is a short slice of Marxist economic history and analysis. Effectively summarizing the Japanese “lost decade,” which has by now accordioned out to more than two decades of stagnation, the book is an incomplete but strong primer on the Japanese economy in the 1990s. More than a factual account, however, it also offers a preliminary definition and critique of neoliberalism in the Japanese context.
It’s worth asking how Itoh is “reconsidering” the Japanese economy. He asks some of the same questions everyone was asking about Japan in the 1990s: what happened? Before the bubble burst, popular chatter about Japan ranged from idolization to outright terror. Where he differs from the mainstream liberal discourse on Japan is in his diagnosis of the Japanese economy from the 1973 oil crisis onwards. Many accounts I’ve ready discuss how Japan weathered the oil embargo with relative ease, shifting towards an export-focused industrial strategy that ensured steady growth throughout the 1970s and 80s. Itoh, meanwhile, opens his book with: “In 1973, high economic growth in the Japanese economy…came to an end.”¹ Following the resource crunch and inflationary crisis of the 1970s, the Japanese state aggressively injected money into grandiose public works projects, assisted the implementation of automation in factories and offices, crushed public sector unions through privatizations, and fueled a temporary recovery. What came out of that was the famous bubble, where land prices escalated beyond all reason and financial speculation in land and stocks was feverish. After this bubble inevitably detonated, near-zero growth became the norm, which, combined with an aging population, has created an immense problem of planning and legitimacy.
Itoh fills in that basic narrative in chapters 2-5, investigating the role of information technologies, industrial hollowing-out and the effect of the boom and depression on family life, the process of the bubble’s bursting, and Japan’s position in the globalizing capitalist system. In that final chapter, the book focuses on Japanese industry’s increasing capital exports into other countries in Asia, particularly China and Southeast Asia. Given the publication date of the book (2000), it’s not surprising that it ends with a brief autopsy of the Asian boom of the 90s and the subsequent collapse of that bubble.
There is nothing difficult or unclear in Itoh’s book; there is nothing all that striking either. Well, there is one possible exception. While his diagnosis of the “failure of neoliberalism” in Japan might seem obvious in hindsight, it partially synthesizes its analysis of neoliberalism with the idea of Japan as a “company-cented society.”² We see the echoes of his concluding remarks in the 2007-8 global financial crisis, which reproduced many of the dynamics of the Japanese collapse in the 90s: “Company-centred restructuring combined with emergency economic policies that place priority on alleviating the difficulties of big business has deepened the hardship and worry in the economic life of the majority of people.”³ This reality, this induced existential fear, he argues, is part of what has depressed the Japanese birthrate to such lows.
It might be useful to take the longtime category of “company-centred society” and bring it to a more general analysis of neoliberal capitalism. When looking at the kind of civil societies the last forty years of capitalist mutation have produced, we see the gravitational pull of private firms increasing, orienting more and more of the rest of the state and nonstate sectors (NGOs, media, online communities, etc.) around capital accumulation. Indeed, given that most states’ response to the crisis was to violate neoliberal principles with gigantic public bailouts, the idea of company-centrism might even be more generally descriptive of the current form of capitalism in the First World than neoliberal.
Unfortunately, the lot of the Japanese working class has only deteriorated further in the sixteen years since the publication of The Japanese Economy Reconsidered, and the current Japanese government offers no chance of rescue from the vultures of corruption, bureaucratic domination, and industrial decay that have preyed on Japan for most of living memory. So Itoh’s short and straightforward work serves about as well as a book can: it informs and outlines what possible paths the Japanese people might take in liberating themselves.
Makoto Itoh, The Japanese Economy Reconsidered (New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2000), 1.
Marxism is a powerful analytical tool due to its ability to extract the universal significance of historical processes that necessarily occur in particular places and times. Strong internal tension between the particular and the universal presents both incredible barriers and opportunities for revolutionaries and scholars to push social research and political action forward to new heights. Marxists from all over the world have grappled with the unique challenges of their own regional and national contexts, and Germaine Hoston’s book is a case study in how a generation (or two) of Marxists engaged in a sustained debate over how Marxism could contribute to revolutionary action and the production of new knowledge. And the fierce theoretical/historical struggle between the Kōza-ha and Rōnō-ha groups fostered the development of intensive research into Japanese history and, in the process, altered and stretched the boundaries of Marxism as a body of thought at the time.
Hoston’s book is an intellectual history of sorts, a narrative about the inception of indigenous Japanese Marxism in the 1920s and early struggles to define what Japanese Marxist politics and theory would look like. As mentioned, major participants in the debate typically lined up into two factions: the Kōza-ha (lecture school) and the Rōnō-ha (worker-farmer school). These debates were shaped by a number of factors, political as well as academic. For one, the emergence of Marxist political organizing in Japan owed much to the successes of the Russian Revolution and the Leninist advances in Marxist thinking on imperialism and revolutionary strategy. More directly, the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) emerged––twice, since the first attempt collapsed after a short time––under the wing of the Soviet-dominated Comintern. Because of this international situation, the relative immaturity of Japanese Marxism, and the paucity of historical materialist studies of Japanese history, as well as for institutional reasons, the Comintern theses on Asia, the Asiatic Mode of Production (AMP), and revolutionary strategy in Japan carried considerable weight, and in many ways defined the line split in the debate.
Factors internal to Japan also had weighty bearing on the debate. Japan in the 1920s and early 30s was experiencing what has been commonly referred to as Taishō Democracy, where bourgeois political parties were more prominent than in the preceding Meiji period and universal male suffrage was put into effect (1925). An air of relative relaxation prevailed in universities, permitting the open nature of the debate over the Marxist terrain until the 30s saw Japanese militarism ascend to a more dominant role as the country entered open war with China, most of Southeast Asia and, eventually, the United States. Japan’s entry into the capitalist world also varied considerably from the English model Marx used as the basis for his theorizing, meaning that scholars’ positions in the debate often sprung from how they reconciled Japan’s unique circumstances (late entry into the capitalism, imperialist voraciousness combined with a stagnant agricultural sector, status as an “Asiatic” society) with the universality of Marxist theory.
The Kōza-ha, on one side, endorsed and vigorously defended the Comintern position. In brief, they argued that advancing to socialism in Japan required a two-stage process. First, the socialist movement had to complete the bourgeois-democratic revolution, particularly in the countryside and in the realm of political liberties. Only once that phase was complete could a proletarian revolution be carried out. Their reasons for supporting the Comintern line were the obvious deficiencies of even “Taishō Democracy” and the persistence of what they saw as feudal landlordism in the countryside. The emperor system also factored into their arguments, which varied and often proved innovative despite their commitment to a preexisting line.
Rōnō-ha, on the other hand, endorsed the view that the bourgeois revolution in Japan had been completed by the Meiji state and that a broad-based open socialist party could complete the revolution in a single step. They often appealed to Nikholai Bukharin’s ideas about advanced capitalist societies and noted the power of state-monopoly capital (the zaibatsu combines) and the instantiation of universal male suffrage in 1925. They acknowledged feudal remnants that persisted––the emperor and certain aspects of the landlord-tenant relationship in the countryside––but argued these were irrelevant anachronisms and that the feudal Tokugawa landlord class had been forcibly integrated into a bloc with the dominant bourgeoisie through the crash industrialization of the country during the Meiji era.
Hoston’s documentation of their debates is fairly exhaustive, covering a number of theorists on both sides as well as certain rogue ideas that often sparked soul-searching among all Marxists in Japan. The example of Takahashi Kamekichi is particularly fascinating. Although Takahashi pioneered disciplined historical materialist study in Japan, his theory of “petty imperialism,” which argued that Japanese expansionism did not constitute imperialism in the Leninist sense and that vigorous colonization of Asia was indispensable for Japanese socialism, obviously prefigured Japanese imperial arguments about the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” in the Great Pacific War. His use of Marxist theory and techniques for quasi-fascist ends––he went so far as to say that the left should seize an ultra-nationalist position to avoid ceding it to the far right!–– provoked a storm of critique and research from the more left-wing Marxists in Japan.
What I especially enjoy about Hoston’s thematic approach, where she takes individual facets of the debate like that of the agrarian question in a single chapter, is that it highlights the specific achievements of Japanese Marxists in particular areas. This is especially evident in the chapter on debates over the nature of the Japanese state. She notes that the conditions of the debate and the Japanese historical moment encouraged the creation of remarkably advanced theory that was, in many respects, only matched by European studies of the late 60s and 70s. She includes detailed descriptions of the theories each scholar advanced, and in many cases does not hold back from indicating what the stronger and weaker theories were on each side of the debate. Her own insights make the book’s examinations of these theories not only academically interesting but more useful to readers interested in doing their own theory.
It’s unfortunate that the book’s overall tenor demonstrates the rather powerless position of the Marxist left in Japan for most of its existence. Despite Marxism’s quick entrenchment into Japanese academia, the broad left parties, including the JCP, have been quick to use their theoretical position to justify legalism and gradualism. Although the debates on the topics of the Japanese state and the agrarian question were lively, they have often been confined to the classroom and library. This takes its most direct form in the ideas of Uno Kozo, who openly advocated the separation of economic theorizing from political action. Of course, this scission between academic brilliance and a fairly impoverished real movement is not unfamiliar in many parts of the world, particularly the First World, but Hoston’s book exposes the tragic split between the brilliant efforts of both factions to create a truly native Japanese Marxism and the state of revolutionary action in that country, then and now.
What’s important, however, is that many of these challenges were seen, at least latently, in the arguments of the debaters in the 20s and 30s, especially in the pessimistic outlooks of the Kōza-ha theorists. Hoston’s history is relatively straightforward and light on context, but as a historical analysis of intellectual trends in Japanese Marxism it serves a useful purpose. It impresses upon all of us the critical necessity to take the examples of the past and subject our own contexts to rigorous analysis while––at the same time––developing and deepening our political activity.
Capitalism is first and foremost a mode of production, the division of society into an exploiting capitalist class whose existence is predicated on extracting surplus value from the proletariat. This mode of production, however, also generates social relations and ways of life that support its existence and help to produce people who are primed to either exploit or be exploited.
Akira Narusawa’s “The Social Order of Modern Japan” is a helpful exploration of the forms of life and regulation that suit capitalism in a particular place and time. Its focus is on the genesis of modern Japanese life during the period of the Meiji Restoration, roughly from the 1870s to just before the turn of the century. It explores the way that capitalism dissolves ways of living while imposing its own highly regimented systems to manage time, space, and the human body itself. Narusawa’s piece is a schematic look at how capitalism restructured Japanese society in the nineteenth century, forging a new social order that was in many ways unique while retaining some general features of capitalist social relations.
But why would the bourgeois ruling class care about time, space, and the motion of human bodies? This question feels somewhat obvious when we remember that capitalism is a dynamic system of production, distribution, and consumption that requires certain conditions to function. Namely, goods need to circulate, factories need to produce, armies need to manoeuvre, and people’s minds and bodies have to be conditioned for proletarian labour. Nature provides the vast resources that capitalists need to transform into capital, but capitalism’s demands on time, space, and people’s bodies are in many ways antithetical to traditional and natural patterns of growth and development. As a result, the state and social institutions are taken by the ruling class as weapons of persuasion and coercion, forcibly and painfully bringing the world of their dreams into being. This desperate need for favourable conditions colours the capitalist regulation of time and space. And in Japan, where there were outside pressures from the West to adapt to capitalist ways as soon as possible, there was a particularly acute need for this kind of social (re)construction.
To return to Narusawa’s piece, we see that methods of timekeeping in pre-Meiji Japan were largely tied to the cyclical rhythm of the moon and sun. Temple bells played some role in determining the workdays of servants and state officials, but the largely agrarian population’s entire life was oriented around these natural cycles. In 1872, the Meiji state replaced the old lunar calendar with a solar one, launching an assault not only on traditional conceptions of time but also on superstitious beliefs perceived to be insufficiently “modern.” Sunrise and sunset no longer determined the beginning and end of the workday, and this work discipline was increasingly enabled by the spread of artificial light.¹ Of course, capitalists could extract more surplus value from their workers if the working day could be lengthened past the boundaries of nighttime. Further, the state strengthened its hold over everyday life by creating a system of nationwide holidays that glorified the emperor-family system.
Capitalists use the technology afforded by science to destroy boundaries, but not for the sake of humanity per se but rather for their own enrichment at the expense of the people as a whole. We see another example of this in the realm of space: the abolition of restrictions on movement of goods and people across domain borders. At the same time it abolishes these barriers, it installs the spatial tyranny of landownership and private property anew, for example forbidding farmers from going up to the mountains behind their property:
“This, of course, presents a familiar view of the opening up o space by the modernization process, but there were…people subjected to new restraints on their movement…Such changes clearly established private possession of space and demarcated land borders. These people [farmers and other workers] were of no concern to the enlighteners.”²
In general, the Japanese ruling class encouraged the creation of “good order,” creating spaces that were meant to be functional and neat. Stipulations around neatness and orderliness were of course strong in military discipline but derivative rules were imposed in schools and factories. One of the contradictory aspects of capitalist schemes for rule, however, was that this concern for tidiness and bright, clean space only prevailed in the privileged central areas and did not apply to “undesirable” locations and people, who were more or less completely neglected. In reference to workers’ dormitories, Narusawa notes, “many of these facilities were extremely poor; there was a danger of fires and other disasters, hygienic conditions were bad, and many factories lacked even the space necessary to regulate the workers’ daily lives.”³ While certain parts of the population could participate in the aesthetic experience of modern cleanliness and order, people who were shunted to the side or considered as little more than organic machine parts were excluded from these aesthetic considerations.
Indeed, the entire spatial organization of capitalism in general is laid out in the book:
“The dirtiness swept out of the centre accumulated on the periphery, but for order to sustain itself it was not sufficient just to remove the disorder to the outside. It had to be isolated and controlled there in order to prevent the invasion of the centre by this major disturber of order.”⁴
Here Narusawa is describing literal filth and unclean objects/spaces like cemeteries and places for the imprisonment mentally ill. Yet, one could talk about the capitalist treatment of the unemployed or homeless, the imperialist subjugation and military policing of peripheral states, the systems of isolation for refugees, exports of entropy like computer waste to countries like the Philippines, etc.
This ordering extended even to the body in Meiji Japan, as students and army troops alike participated in drills and physical exercises designed to regulate bodily movement and eventually inculcate a “correct” state of mind, one pliable to the needs of the capitalist state and mode of production. Laws forbidding nudity came on the books, which had never been illegal in previous periods of Japanese history. Every living and dead body was mapped onto a grid, intensively inspected for hygiene, encouraged to adopt Western diets, and bodily regulations as detailed as the position of the testicles inside one’s trousers were drafted, though how seriously any individual rule was taken must have varied. And of course a body of official experts arose to be the arbiters of all these new systems.
I’ve more or less summarized the content of the article and expanded on its meaning according to my own perspective. For example, although Narusawa’s perception is acute and his critical eye for matters of everyday life is useful, he actually neglects to mention capitalism much at all in the article. What we’re left with is an article that presents these facets of social order as emerging from pre-Meiji society and coalescing into modernity without any centre of gravity. It holds “modernity” responsible, rather than the productive/social engine that produced modernity for its own convenience and development. He tends to describe these social orders as products of “mass society” where large groups of people need to be coordinated, but neglects to mention, except in the case of the military, for what purpose people need to be coordinated and schematized. It’s an excellent article with a significant theoretical blind spot. Still, it produces some powerful insights into the fundamental sickness of this order in which Japanese people still live:
“Modern society…gives rise to excessive order. The more we process the nature we perceive as ‘disorder’ to make an artificial, ‘orderly’ order, the broader becomes the gap between nature and humans, and humans unconsciously or even gladly shut themselves into an artificial time and space.”⁵
Akira Narusawa, “The Social Order of Modern Japan,” in The Political Economy of Japanese Society, ed. Junji Banno (Oxford University Press, 1997), page 202.
This dense republication of the author’s doctoral thesis is significant largely because it is the only broad history of the anime industry available in English. Most of the academic studies of anime have heretofore been focused on the thematic analysis of individual works. From reading some of the few available books on anime and a smattering of journal articles, I can safely conclude that the field of anime studies suffers from some endemic ills. Though it’s not difficult to understand why so many people who study anime are also fans, having a fannish attitude toward the object you’re studying can be a source of critical errors and omissions. Luckily, Anime: A History avoids this error, though one consequence is that its prose is enervating, reference-dense, and ponderous.
Clements draws largely on industry professionals’ memoirs, official studio and media archives, and economic records for his sources. Significantly, most of these sources are only available in Japanese, so Clements’ summarization and appropriation of these documents has the additional value of giving English readers a first glimpse at them. Neither would I fault the book in terms of its level of detail, which is not only additive but also intelligently used to provide multiple perspectives on a single event. Though it does produce a level of “he said, she said,” this is inevitable where the past is obscure and the memories recording them often self-serving or simply addled.
Broadly, the book describes the history of Japanese animation (defined as Japanese largely by the nationality of its producers and the location of the labour used to produce it) as a technological movement from magic lanterns to cel-shaded digital animation. From that technological basis, he branches outward to discuss the transformation of animation from artisanal industry to a complex of brand tie-ins and the so-called “media ecosystem” or “media mix” that now dominates production and dissemination of animation from Japan. Though he doesn’t explicitly state that technology is the single most important driver of change in the animation industry, deferring to a more “complex” and discourse-focused style familiar to his post-modern historiographical touchstones like Hayden White, his narrative is largely organized around documenting major shifts in technology at all levels of commodity circulation and production. Cels, rotoscopes, film projectors television, VHS, DVD, cable television, and file sharing software produce the ripples that transform the industry, while the human beings within the industry use and react to these developments.
Clements also spends a great deal of time talking about the economic life of animation in Japan, including a great deal of specific data about foreign distribution deals, break-even sales figures for video releases, box office figures, and the like. At the same time, its treatment of the labour of animation and how it’s integrated into a system of capital accumulation remains under-theorized, left at the level of empirical observations. The anime industry is treated more often as the centre of particular discourses or memories than as a system with any coherent shape. Perhaps given the overwhelming scope of his project––covering more than a century of artistic/commodity production with a huge array of sources––we shouldn’t be surprised that the book often seems shapeless, more of an arrangement of events and rumination on sources than a theoretically coherent account of a defined subject. Because anime is the purported focus, rather than the anime industry, Clements’ analyses of animated objects, industry figures, economic realities like mass subcontracting to China and Korea, the aura of “cool” around anime among fans in the West, etc. are put next to each other but never connected in a systematic way.
In other words, I learned a great deal about the who and what of the history of animation in Japan and its development but not the why. I mentioned earlier that Clements usually centres changes in the forces of production––computers being an important later example––in his account, but this is far from consistent, and it’s always difficult to tell with any clarity whether Clements think that Great Men, forces of production, relations of property and ownership, fan whims, or larger political and economic developments drive activity within the anime industry. I would, in fact, argue that Clements’ book implies that it is all of these things, but at different times, with each singular case treated as an isolated case rather than the symptom of a structured whole––even a complex one. This gives Anime: A History a kind of unrewarding density. Rather than considering anime from one strong perspective, it tries to create a composite but without any systematization.
Stated more polemically, I think those who want to take Clements’ nevertheless considerable achievement and advance the field should approach his sources with the strength and totalizing power of a Marxist perspective. Being able to take these disparate accounts, take note of all the forces in play, and produce an overall picture that integrates singular events into an overall view of both the anime industry and the industry’s place in a wider world. Anime: A History is at this point the only book of its kind, and will hopefully act as a springboard for better-theorized and more systematic accounts of anime.
Nationalism and Gender in many ways pivots around one event. The author, Chizuko Ueno, was attending a conference in Beijing on global women’s issues. When her time came to speak she argued that feminism needed to transcend national borders and forsake any investment in the state or nationalism. A Korean feminist, Kim Pu-Ja, responded passionately to the contrary:
“‘My country’s borders were invaded by soldiers from your country. You should not be so quick to say that we should forget national borders. Stating that feminism has nothing to do with nationalism is surely no different from the ethnocentric thinking of Western feminism.'”¹
Ueno’s basic political position in the book, as well as in her speech, is that when feminism is tied to the politics of the nation-state, the inevitable result is that women are misled into trying to fit themselves into “male” roles and moulds. This is because national and class politics have been historically and, she would argue, logically, determined by patriarchal values and viewpoints. An autonomous women’s movement, therefore, cannot be supportive of nationalist politics. The goal is rather to transcend the state, to operate outside of its boundaries and define feminist politics as gender solidarity regardless of nation.
Much of her argument is developed in dialogue with Japanese history, in particular women’s and gender history on the left and “liberal” positivist history on the right. On the far end of the right spectrum are the patriotic or “orthodox” textbook advocates in Japan who want to whitewash away Japan’s war history and promote a reactionary adherence to a (they hope) rearmed Japanese imperial state. Ueno dismisses these rightwing voices fairly briefly in a couple chapters, while engaging with them here and there in a dismissive fashion.
Her main dispute is with respectable academic history rather than the conservative revisionists. On the methodological level, she argues against the privileging of written documents over oral testimony, pointing out that the problems of selectivity and personal bias are applicable to written documents as well, including state or bureaucratic sources. Informing this conclusion is her position on history’s status as a field. Rather than a simple recounting of past events, she sees history as a reconstruction of these events in the present, inevitably serving present concerns and political goals. Interpretation and bias are inherent in the historical composition process. Moreover, she asserts that different groups of people can inhabit separate realities. Japanese soldiers and American citizens, for instance, have views of the nuclear attacks on Japan in 1945 that she would deem them irreconcilable.
Most of the analysis in the book centres around the issue of “comfort women,” i.e. the conscription of women for sexual use by Japanese soldiers during the Asia-Pacific War (WWII in Eurocentric terms). Korean women, in particular, were used as sexual slaves by the Japanese military. Ueno describes this system of sexual servitude in a multitude of ways, but her basic description is that of the “threefold crime.” The actual enslavement of women is the first part, the suppression and silencing of victims’ accounts with shame is the second, and attempts to impose historical denial on textbooks and official accounts––in effect, discrediting those who have had the courage to come forward and name their suffering––is the third. Far from a vestige of the past, the “comfort women” issue is an open wound that demonstrates the politicization of history and its relevance to present state policy and feminist debates.
These debates notably include questions of nationalism. For instance, Ueno recounts numerous “feminists” who capitulated or even actively embraced Japanese fascism, even lobbying the government to include women in the imperialist war machine. Ideals of motherhood were also mobilized; since women could not be deified soldiers dying for their country, they were simply displaced by one. Others involved in the women’s movement celebrated the entry of women into “home front” work in munitions plants and other state jobs. After all, despite the fact that the Japanese state refused to outright integrate women into the armed forces for the most part, women were taken out of the home and participating in the labour force. She effectively demonstrates the problems of a feminist politics in thrall to the imperialist state, and it bears more than a bit of a resemblance to the mainstream feminist movement in the USA that agitates for women’s participation in combat and the invasion of foreign countries to “save” their “primitive” women from racialized male oppression.
Beyond this, she takes into account what she calls “reflexive” feminist history that tries to reclaim women’s agency in historical events. For instance, just as prominent members of the women’s movement in Japan were incorporated into fascist politics, ordinary women in Japan bore some responsibility for supporting the war on the home front. On the other hand, she mentions how the idea that every citizen in Japan shared equal responsibility can equally be used for regressive ends, as in the case of pardoning the Japanese emperor since he had no “special role” in Japan’s aggression. Everyone is responsible, no one is responsible. Additionally, she notes, attempts to proclaim women’s agency in historical accounts can distort or exaggerate the real power dynamics of the situation, acting as though women might be to some degree immune from the motivations of circumstance or common sense. For instance, Ueno questions those who are too quick to render judgment of the women who vocally supported Japanese imperialism, recognizing the force of convention and questioning whether those who are making judgments in hindsight overestimate people’s ability to escape their historical position.
I would praise the majority of this book as being both revelatory for someone like me who is not yet knowledgeable about Japanese women’s and gender history as well as astute in its discussion of historical methodology. Unfortunately, the book loses me more and more as Ueno outlines what could be called her positive programme. Her argument, in brief, is that the state exists as the only body legally able to impose its will with violence. Citizen-to-citizen violence (defined as male and public, the violence of “civil society”) is criminalized owing to the disarmament of the population under capitalism. Meanwhile, private/domestic violence––mostly against women––has similarly been above/below the reach of the law in society. This is particularly so because of the way the marital relationship is essentially one of property and usage rights, whether sexual, monetary, or otherwise.
Thus both above and below civil society violence reigns unrestricted by law. Because of her pacifist position, rejecting all violence including self-defence, she defines feminism as the ideology for the protection of the weak rather than one of aspiring for women’s power or liberation. Not only nationalism but all what she calls striving for maleness should be anathema, and she believes that class-centred politics oppress women just as much as state/national politics, while rejecting the possibility of just wars or the justice of national liberation struggles/violent class struggle.
Differences in political line are one thing, but I have some actual logic difficulties with her conclusions for feminist politics. They seem to at least border on incoherence or the non-dialectical sort of contradiction where two irreconcilable things are held to be true at the same time.
“Feminism is not an idea that advocates that women should be powerful on a par with men, an idea I call a ‘catching-up strategy,’ but should be an idea that respects the dignity of minorities just as they are. I may be no match for a man in terms of muscular strength. I may not be able to make it through life single-handedly. But why simply because of this should I be forced to obey somebody else? It is feminism that has argued for this kind of respect for the weak. That being so, my answer is that there is only one possible solution for feminism and that is to aim in the direction of criminalizing all kinds of violence [emphasis added], regardless of whether is public or private. It goes without saying, that this also includes the criminalization of war.”²
This final paragraph concludes the book and leaves me scratching my head at its implications. On the first point about “catching up,” it is admirable that Ueno has criticized the notion that physical strength is all that counts and that women can be “strong” without being physically adept. She mentions, for example, women with disabilities who cannot play the “catching up” game. At the same time her statement here, in conjunction with her broader positive arguments, leans toward the fetishization of weakness and minoritarianism, fixating on the problem of violence while curiously letting the problem of power slip out unnoticed. Respect and protection of the weak––again, an important value, and any progressive movement where stronger members did not protect those who could not protect themselves would not be worth much. And yet weakness is worth nothing on its own, and cannot be counted a virtue.
Earlier, she also refuses the idea that the distinction between friends and enemies is valuable, refusing all recourse to violence in any situation whatsoever. And yet, she states that she wants to criminalize the use of all violence. The obvious question to raise is: on whose authority and with whose power would one enforce this idea? If war were made criminal within a legal framework––Ueno earlier questioned the efficacy of state legal frameworks in determining ethics, and rightly so––who would enforce such a provision? She rejects the idea of UN peacekeeping as another cover for war, but her specific use of the term criminalize implies the existence of some kind of apparatus for separating just and unjust acts, and empowered with the ability to forcibly disarm those who do not abide by the laws. In other words, Ueno’s feminist propositions appear to imply the prolonging, even the permanence, of state machinery. It’s utter nonsense, idealistic and moralistic in the extreme, taking the apparent high ground with only token consideration for its practical implications even in an ideal situation.
Were I inclined to be charitable, I could point out that there could be translation difficulties, and that the word criminalize was simply an incorrect or misleading choice of words. And yet what word could substitute to reconcile these vagaries and logical problems? To forbid? To abolish? To defeat? To undo? All of these restatements, though they do not carry the legalistic and statist connotations of criminalize, still beg the question of power. If the weak are to remain weak on principle, refusing to liberate themselves by any and all means necessary, what is to prevent them from simply being trampled forever and ever, amen? Ueno unintentionally demonstrates the inherent weakness of the pacifist position, which is that it achieves a moral bliss at the cost of embracing a politics of theatre and self-destruction, assuming the best of one’s adversaries and positioning all political contradictions as “differences” that can be negotiated and won through reasoning rather. Despite Ueno’s critical attitude towards human rights regimes, “modernity,” and state boundaries, her programme implies a kind of superstate authority imbued with an almost supernatural sense of justice and the ability to nonviolently prevent all violence. And her only response to this is that history teaches us that any time we legitimate violence it will be abused. And so we shall have it gone at the snap of a finger!
1. Kim Pu-Ja quoted in Chizuko Ueno, Nationalism and Gender, trans. Beverly Yamamoto (Trans Pacific Press, Melbourne 2004), 143.
Note: this will not be a full review of the book, but rather an exploration of the first two essays that lay out Karatani’s thoughts on historical repetition. I may write a part two to this post if I get around to it and if I can get through my books on Japanese political economy in a timely fashion.
Kojin Karatani came to prominence in the English speaking world through his engagements with Derrida and, subsequently, through Žižek’s appropriation of his concept of “parallax” in one the Slovenian academic’s many books. Though largely sold as a philosopher and literary critic, he’s written on a baffling variety of subjects––one of the few attributes he shares with Žižek––and a sadly unsubstantiated claim on his wikipedia entry says that his nickname is “The Thinking Machine.” Most of the essays in the essay collection History and Repetition are indeed historically informed literary criticism, and those are precisely the ones we will be ignoring, at least for now. I’m somewhat familiar with authors like Oe, Murakami, and Soseki, but not so much that I can usefully comment on them or Karatani’s view of them at this point.
Like other scholars, Karatani’s work is founded on the ideas of past thinkers and writers in his field(s). From these essays and reviews of his work that I’ve read, I think we can understand him better if we situate him alongside thees influences. In terms of political thought and historical insight, he largely turns to Marx and the tradition of Marxism as it evolved in the Japanese context. Specifically, he greatly admires the thought of Marxian political economist Kozo Uno, who conceived of capitalism primarily as a mode of exchange rather than a mode of production (hence the subtitle to Karatani’s book on the structure of world history). It’s also notable that his understanding of world history and the capitalist system borrows much of its substance from Immanuel Wallerstein and the other world-systems thinkers. If much of Karatani’s thinking about history bears a certain resemblance to that of Fernand Braudel and the Annales school, Wallerstein may be the transmitter in that case. For philosophy, his major work on Marx has been done through an engagement with Kant, which I have not read and cannot comment on. If you want a fuller exploration of some of Karatani’s political views, he founded a political organization called the New Associationist Movement (NAM) that has a manifesto of sorts available online.
I want to sink my historians’ teeth into the first two essays in the collection, which are of immediate relevance to both my political practice and my academic work. As suggested by the title, these essays reflect on the ways in which history repeats itself. He recognizes that human history is characterized by both linear and cyclical patterns. As he says in the first essay, entitled “On The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,”:
“Events themselves are able to evade repetition, whereas a given structure––such as the business cycle––is unable to do so.”¹
In the first essay, his concern is not so much with the business cycle but with the inherent “repetition compulsion” inherent in the modern nation-state. This compulsion, he argues, is at the heart of Marx’s analysis in The Eighteenth Brumaire. He borrows the idea of repetition compulsion from Freud, arguing that this compulsion manifests as the revival in the present of that which has been repressed in the past. The return of a void from which some unsavoury element has been purged. The capitalist mocks the Scrooge, but every financial crisis leaves people scampering after the gold. Likewise, Karatani argues, the parliamentary democracy under capitalism has banished the king but must bring him back once in awhile to put its affairs in order. Like the feudal lords who bolstered the absolutist monarchs who obviated them, the capitalists must occasionally put aside the competitive, representative debates of the parliament for a cavalier executive who can put the interests of the entire class over that of this or that faction.
For Karatani, just as the crisis is part of the repetitive compulsion of the business cycle, political crises are inherent in the structure of representative democracies. “If Capital engaged economy as a question of representation [e.g. the mystification inherent in the money form, its reality and fetishistic qualities], The Eighteenth Brumaire engages with politics along similar lines,”² he writes, indicating that this work by Marx is indispensable for our present time because we are in a time that is seeing a recurrence of the 1930s. Karatani specifically looks to Marx’s work to understand the nature of Japanese fascism. Namely, just as the rise of Louis Napoleon constituted a counterrevolution that in many ways carried the trappings of a revolution (since Napoleon III implemented quite a few Saint-Simonian proposals in his attempt to revive the French economy), the 1930s saw a global counterrevolution against the rise of the Soviet Union. Just as a vaccine must contain a weakened or neutralized virus to be effective, the counterrevolution that is meant to inoculate capitalism from leftist revolution must make a direct appeal to mass politics. Hitler and Roosevelt, as different as their politics were, both served the role of the saviour of capitalism, captains of class conciliation who facilitated the greater inclusion of the workers in the capitalist state for the sake of that state.
Fascism is therefore, for Karatani, a kind of Bonapartism, which he sees as endemic to popular and representative forms of government. Unlike the absolute monarchy, the Bonapartist rules through direct appeal to the people––Hitler’s election, Napoleon’s plebiscite, perhaps someday a reality show?––usually under the name of the nation. He notes that Marxists in the fascist countries had no framework for understanding fascism within a Marxist framework, and therefore brought in psychoanalysis (Frankfurt School) or social psychology/anthropology (in Japan) to produce some kind of analysis. Yet, Karatani, argues, The Eighteenth Brumaire is a far more lucid exploration of the processes that produce fascist counterrevolutions. In effect, the Bonapartist, or fascist, dictator is one who stands for the state, for the nation as a whole, transcending class divisions.
Some of the most vital writing in these two essays is about how Napoleon III “consciously put into practice the maxim that media-created image shapes reality.”³ He governed through performance and spectacles, including world expos and even, the book says, his own coup d’état, which was more on the order of a staged event than a military action. His actions were ridiculous, violent, unexpected. In effect, they were a smokescreen, which certainly reminds one of certain political personalities who run amok these days. I certainly see in Karatani’s analysis some truths that persist in our own crisis of representational democracy. With voter participation rates falling throughout the capitalist centre and right populists with an axe to grind winning offices (mayor of Toronto, governor of Tokyo in the recent past, presidential nominations in the USA), it’s important to account for the problem of representation and how political forces establish affinities––and lose them. We’ve been living in a world where mass politics have become increasingly narrow and technical, governed by hideously expensive electoral machines and a convergence of all parties around centrist, technocratic politics. Neoliberalism. What happens when the pendulum swings back the other way, and the politicians start stumping for the masses again, appealing for national vengeance against the bankers, and in the same breath, the expulsion of all the “parasites?”
Perhaps unintentionally, the author connects this repetition––the return of the king, the transformation of the modern nation-state into an empire––with the rise of new forms of imperialism and even the labour aristocracy:
“British labourers were able to counter the ‘impoverishment rule”…and attain wealth because capital was able to extract surplus value from foreign trade. The impoverishment was generated not domestically but rather among people abroad. Therefore, it is incorrect to consider surplus value within the enclosed confines of a one-nation model.”⁴
So as capitalism goes through its repetitive compulsions that draw it inevitably into crisis, it produces new forms that reorganize society but not in ways that escape that compulsion. No matter how revolutionary capitalism can be, it can never escape its own internal logic. When one layers the repetitive compulsions of nation-state politics onto that scene, one starts to get an idea for what the capitalist system truly is and how it functions in a concrete way.
Speaking of which, the second essay in the book concerns the specific case of Japan. I want to go over this part briefly since much of the essay revisits the same concerns in the first but in a more abbreviated fashion. The most productive parts of the essay discuss the specificities of Japanese fascism and its relation to the idea of repetition. These repetitions happen on two levels: that of consciousness, where people summon up images of the past to explain an uncertain present, and in reality, where real historical systems work in cyclical patterns to condition events. For example, the Meiji Restoration of 1867-1890 presented itself as a revival of ancient imperial power against the shogunate usurpers. Yet what it established was not the old empire but a radical new form that could usher in the birth of capitalism in Japan. The emperor was an active part of the new state, though his precise role was debated by the “elder statesmen” of the Meiji era. What’s for sure is that he was given extra-parliamentary powers and authority over the military, which helped to check the power of the representative body (Diet) and the cabinet.
The two curious personalities he uses to illustrate the contradictions of Japanese fascism are Kita Ikki and Konoe Fumimaro, the former a national socialist who was executed for an attempted coup and the latter a wartime Japanese prime minister. Kita argued for the nationalization of large enterprises and the expropriation of the biggest landlords, but this was to be supplemented by a program of vast conquests, also promoting partial worker ownership of and participation in private enterprises. He believed that a true representative system could not do without an emperor who was the only one above politics, who could represent all the people in a truly “democratic” way. He was defeated, but some of his ideas lived on in the programs of Konoe, who worked with Marxists and had ties to the peasant movement despite also being an aristocrat with military connections. In other words, he was able to bridge the strong divide in Japan between the military and the state apparatus (bureaucracy) and the representative system, as well as between different classes. It was Konoe’s decision to forge an alliance with Italy and Germany, as well as to expand the war in China. Many of his proposals, his so called “new order,” were only implemented by the American occupation, in an odd twist of fate. Konoe, then, the conservative with radical ideas, laid the foundation for the future of Japanese capitalism.
Karatani’s two essays on historical repetition and cyclical movements were written in the 1990s, under the belief that the 90s would embody a repetition of the 1930s. Of course, this was also the vaunted “end of history” as proclaimed by capital with Fukuyama as its herald. Karatani rejects this and argues instead for the idea that history might move in cycles but that these cycles do not repeat without radical differences. Despite the time gap, I would argue that his concepts still have some utility, as I’ve tried to show in relation to our current crisis in parliamentary representation, which has been developing rapidly since the 1970s. As a historian these insights help provide some clarity as to how to treat the political system as an autonomous entity that has a certain relationship with the economy rather than being a simple reflex. At the same time, his notion of structures is not elaborated––I imagine it might have been in his book Structure of World History––so I’m left somewhat puzzled as to what he means by “structure.” He seems to question or reject the Althusserian idea of overdetermination in one part, so I hesitate to read his idea of structures in the same way that it appears in Reading Capital, but, again, it’s unclear. There’s also not much in the way of an elaboration of what is to be done. Of course, these are short essays, and in a sense we have Karatani’s answer to that question in the NAM, but given the problem that right-wing nationalism currently poses in Japan, and the danger it poses to every human being today, we need to take this kind of analysis further and find ways to act and organize against all the wannabe Bonapartes we see gathering around us.
And if Karatani’s analysis is worth anything, it tells us that relying on the parliamentary system is not the way to go. One cannot debate away class struggle, and it’s best to be ready for the force that will come down on your head.
Kojin Karatani, History and Repetition (Columbia University Press, 2012), 2.
A Political History of Japanese Capitalism is truly rare book: a Marxist history of modern Japan written in English. Though its author, Jon Halliday, later repented his left leanings and coauthored the execrable Mao: The Unknown Story, I’m happy to report that this book, published by Monthly Review Press in 1974, stands as one of the best encapsulations and analyses of its subject out there. Although a large number of Japanese Marxists have published and engaged in debates around Japanese history, these debates and works have almost never made their way into English except in the case of pure political economy. Halliday’s book, though it’s decades old, makes a compelling historical argument and sidesteps the Japan-bashing/mystification binary that plagues Western writing about Japan.
Halliday begins the book with a chapter-length study of the Meiji Restoration and its lengthy state-building and development projects. The author correctly notes that the birth of Japanese capitalism was unusual, as Japan was a late entrant and an Asian country and was nonetheless able produce its own autonomous national capitalism and to launch its own imperial project. Indeed, for a country as resource-poor as Japan, the latter was an indispensable condition for the former. Growing from the dissolving influence of the mercantile money economy and set into motion by the arrival of Western powers at Japan’s doorstep, Japanese capitalism underwent a crash development both politically and economically. The Meiji facilitated the repression of class dissent, the installation of an imperial “family state” distinguished by paternalistic ideology, and began a policy of expansionism and intervention in China and the wide region.
One crucial part of the story that Halliday tells is the reason why Japan did not simply slip into one or another European sphere of influence. His answer is found in his construction of a dialectic of internal and external causes. Japan was not conquered because its people were unusually literate and its political leadership astute and intimidating. Compared to China, as well, Japan did not present as alluring a target, and was able to wriggle its way out of the unequal treaties by the early 20th century. Indeed, China’s story is in many ways inextricable with Japan’s in this respect. The Opium War absorbed crucial British military resources and saved Japan from the threat of invasion. The Americans were on the advance across the Pacific but were burdened by the Civil War and Reconstruction. In other words, Halliday argues, Japan escaped both as a matter of internal strength and due to a mass of historical contingencies that were not repeated anywhere else.
Though starting the book “at the beginning,” i.e. with the Meiji, is a commonsensical way to go since it’s the earliest period and history books tend to have narrative-temporal structures, there might be some room for criticism in this regard. One of the important tasks of the historian is not to just recount but to transform and critique received understandings of the field they’re working in. In that respect, Halliday is somewhat deficient. He takes commonplace notions like “Japan” more or less readymade and starts off straight away telling his story. He actually begins rather promisingly:
“Japanese capitalism has been the prodigy of the age of imperialism, the only outsider and late starter to join the leaders of world imperialism.”¹
Before telling the history of a particular subject, the historian should clarify the terms under which they are doing so. I consider it good practice to define the objects and terrains one is working with in any investigation. So Halliday begins with a definition of Japanese capitalism as a prodigy, as a late starter and outsider. But Halliday simply assumes a certain definition of Japan and of capitalism, and decides that it began with the Meiji. Yet this is itself a contestable assumption, and Halliday proves as much by beginning his discussion of the Meiji not with the Meiji but with the later Tokugawa period, providing background information for his background information.
It may have actually been better to elaborate much more on the (then) present-day state of Japan and its political and economic peculiarities, giving the reader a strong grasp of the nature of the Japanese bureaucratic “Family State” and the position of Japanese capitalism in the world and in the country. He does provide this information, but at the end of the book. While this method of presentation is traditional and has certain helpful traits, it also makes it appear as though the key to understanding the present is to look back and simply trace our way through the past. But if one does so without a correct understanding of the present situation, one’s analysis of the past will be distorted. I don’t think that Halliday’s history is especially distorted, but I think that as historians our methods of presentation should assist the reader as much as possible in seeing that the present is the key to reading the past, rather than the other way around.²
After all those words, though, this is a minor complaint. To get to my conclusion more quickly, I’ll highlight some of Halliday’s best interventions, some of which remain relevant even now. His discussion of the definition of Japanese military government, which he declines to call “Fascist,” gives a window into a debate that should be had about the interwar and wartime Japanese state and exactly how much it shared ideologically with European fascism. In his final chapters, he discusses the weaknesses of the Japanese economy, which he predicted would stumble if it stopped growing, due to the extremely debt-ridden and credit-dependent state of core Japanese industries. He also highlights the oft-mentioned Japanese subcontracting system, characterized by colossal trusts at the top dominating countless small family businesses to maximize labour market flexibility (without endangering the “lifetime employment” guarantee for regular male workers) and cushion themselves against economic shocks. All of these individual sections are buttressed by the others, as the historical materialist framework links the political and economic discussions in a useful and informative fashion.
Finally, I think his most valuable contribution to a Japanese historiography is that he sees essential continuity between the Meiji state, the Showa state, and the post-occupation state. While each era of Japanese capitalism generated and adjusted new forms of state rule, the basic components of that state––bureaucratic control, imperial ideology, paternalism, weak legislature, imperialism, etc.––were unaffected. The American occupation essentially reestablished, with a few minor tweaks, the prewar state system, albeit with the crucial difference that the military took on a much reduced role. And yet corruption, one-party rule, and reckless developmentalism drove forward without missing a step. His analysis clarifies why parties traditionally classified as left––the JSP and the JCP––are both the most persnickety and conservative when it comes to interpreting the Japanese constitution, whose awkward, stilted words still tend to outstrip the reality of Japanese politics in terms of progress.
Because of these outstanding contributions, I can safely say that Political History is one of the best works on modern Japanese history I’ve read in some time. English-language works challenging the Orientalist tendency to ascribe quasi-mystical or spiritual characteristics to Japan are vital correctives. That this particular book uses the power of historical materialist analysis to present a comprehensive look at the character of the Japanese state and its evolution over time––that’s a bonus. It’s unfortunate that Halliday turned out the way he did, or we might be able to learn from a similar book about the post 1975 era, which ended up confirming the fragility of Japanese capitalism and showcased the onward march of rightist nationalism in the country right up to today.
Jon Halliday, A Political History of Japanese Capitalism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974), 3.
For example, the fevered writing about the Japanese miracle and its mythical business practices in the 1980s took a particular mystified view of contemporary Japan and projected that impression back into the past, finding all sorts of cultural/religious justifications. Nationalists, of course, implicitly hold a certain organic and patriotic view of the country and find their own justifications for by reading forwards through history. Because history is a politically contested field, it’s valuable for radical historians to define their terms theoretically before engaging in the discussion of the past proper. Gabriel Kuhn does an excellent job of this in his book on pirates that I reviewed. It doesn’t eat up much space, but it lets the reader know what a particular author means when using certain contested words and, more valuably, alerts the reader to the existence of historical debate and lack of closure. Two for one!
Since the late 60s and especially since the early 80s, successive waves of historians have been tossing bricks at the nation-state. They’re rhetorical bricks, so the material edifice of the nation-state has been phased not one bit. But the category of the nation-state is a shattered wreck of its former self. Not only are we history-investigators now more interested in what flows over and between borders, but we have spent a hefty page count or two (hundred) trying to take apart the old national-historical conceptual machine. Tessa-Morris Suzuki’s Re-Inventing Japan: Time, Space, Nation promises to do just that. On its back cover it clarifies just what kind of reinvention it’s talking about: “Challenging the mythology of a historically unitary, even monolithic Japan…This book takes the debate a step further by examining the concepts that are used to understand modern Japan.”¹
Morris-Suzuki is not interested in any particular historical reinvention of Japan but rather in reinventing Japan as a cluster of concepts used to structure historical investigations. What we’re dealing with, therefore, is an analysis of ideological struggles over the definition of Japan with the ultimate goal of destabilizing old (methodologically) nationalist assumptions about the country and its people. She wisely breaks up her study into a series of chapters that cover one concept at a time: “Japan,” “Nature,” “Culture,””Race,” “Gender,” “Civilization,” “Globalization,” and “Citizenship.”
We can identify the simplified protagonists and antagonists of the book at the end of the second chapter entitled “Japan.” Most of the chapter is concerned with the way that the Japanese state, as it developed into a modern nation, displaced notions of foreignness into the idea of a historical progression. That is, countries which were once accounted as “foreign” were assigned backward positions in a temporal hierarchy. Ryukyuans were not just different from Japanese but also less advanced, occupying an older and more primitive period of history. This kind of ideology tended to see the Japanese nation-state as the modern culmination of history, turning history into the “biography of the nation-state.” Morris-Suzuki’s basic target in her critique is this ideology that considers the nation-state the fulfillment of all human development. She proposes that we junk this and all teleological modes of history and substitute “a dance of identities between many contiguous social forms, [re-emphasizing] the importance of spatial difference, as well as temporal change, in the making of the modern world.”²
These two points––emphasizing both the free movement of identities in fragmented spaces and privileging the spatial over the temporal––are core to the postmodern programme in history. Morris-Suzuki’s remaining chapters all work in this framework, critiquing the various Japanese and Western constructions of a monolithic Japanese national while off-handedly dismissing critical projects that strike her as too political or teleological (i.e. Marxism). Given that Japanese nationalism is an important justification for Japanese imperialism as well as for a raft of racist and exclusionary policies within Japan itself, Re-Inventing Japan serves as an important guide and corrective for these ideologies. The limitations of her approach are that her book is a study of discourse and therefore cannot make a meaningful critique of the Japanese social formation itself.
What I largely take issue with is her contention that the book frames the Japanese state as primarily an apparatus of identity management. The state becomes a black hole or singularity, flattening and homogenizing away difference within its borders and fixing stale binaries that are convenient for the exercise of centralized power. None of this is so much wrong––and neglecting an understanding of how identities form the bases of political mobilization and (often) demobilization can be disastrous––as inadequate. We see the nation fixed and rigged only on the level of language, and are left, at the end of the book, with the impression that by shaking “the invisible grip” of “dead theories” that haunt our writing, we can meaningfully change the way these terms operate and, the book implies, advance the cause of local democracy and identity rights throughout the world.³
We read that negative practices, like racist policy for example, are “supported by a wide and complex range of beliefs, including beliefs about ‘cultural’ rather than ‘racial’ superiority and about the relative positions of social groups on a universalized scale of cultural progress.”⁴ Again, an excellent point, but the book leaves it at this point and makes the implicit case that 1) ideologies supporting racist policies are primarily formed from conscious beliefs and 2) language struggles and the inclusion of oppressed identity groups are in a pluralistic society are the best ways to cure these social ills. After all, if all one has to do is unseat irrational, if entrenched, beliefs rather than revolutionize society and recreate it from the bottom up in a protracted, real struggle, we don’t need to recognize how identity-based oppressions, as real as they are, form part of a total system of exploitation and control.
Suffice to say that this book accomplished what it sets out to do. In the end, I found myself enlightened by the book within the limits I’ve indicated. I think it doesn’t do an especially deep or comprehensive analysis of the Japanese nation-state as such, but I appreciate its strong attack on the ideology of a “homogeneous” and “unique” Japan that have been used for such destructive ends. Anyone interested in the history of Japanese and Western ideologies of the nation and the role of the state in reinforcing these strains of thought should consider this book. Just bear in mind that its focus is quite limited and its approach not entirely successful because it sidelines the unified and systemic qualities of contemporary Japanese capitalism, the classic hallmarks of a postmodern approach to social analysis.
Tessa Morris-Suzuki, Re-Inventing Japan: Time, Space, Nation (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1998), back cover.
“The tide of golf courses, ski resorts, and marinas that now rises over the land is striking for its irrelevance to the needs and problems of local communities, many of whom now see the whole process as a contemporary form of the enclosure movement, in which public land, forests, mountains, and beaches are enclosed by private interests for corporate profit. While corporate Japan thrives, they say, the people suffer. Hence the recently coined slogan: fukoku hinmin (Enrich the country, impoverish the people). It is a phrase that points to the poverty at the heart of affluence.”
McCormack’s book, the very volume we are looking at today, turns 20 years old this year. Despite being removed from us by two decades, Japan’s problems have only deepened and expanded. Economic stagnation, environmental disasters, a bloated construction industry, stagnant and alienated politics, and a troubled relationship to nearby nations in East and Southeast Asia are all relevant issues in Japan today. Specifics might differ, but one could easily draw depressing comparisons between the bureaucratic mishandling of the Kobe Earthquake addressed in McCormack’s book with the recent 3/11 disaster. Or the abortive social democratic governments of the 1990s and the recent and ephemeral DPJ ascendancy. What helps McCormack’s book remain relevant even today is that it is not merely alerting its audience about specific symptomatic problems but addresses some of the core structures of the Japanese state and society that condition these issues.
Specifically, McCormack formulates his analysis of Japanese malaise into an analysis of Japanese political economy, problems of Japanese identity, and war guilt. He covers the metastasizing construction state and its key role in the proliferation of massive corruption in the Japanese state throughout the last several decades. He diagnoses severe problems with GATT rationalization of Japanese agriculture and the opening of rice markets––one sign of a maturing neoliberal consensus even among Japanese elites who have coveted the rural vote since the end of WWII. And so on. The list of maladies would stagger a general practitioner.
His mode of presentation varies little between the chapters. First, he presents the case for a particular issue, lists off empirical evidence, and gathers some Japanese and Western analysis of the question. Finally, he laments the extent of the problem and notes some possible openings for alternative solutions. For the chemically addicted, degraded rural Japan, he recommends re-ruralization and a more traditional approach to agriculture that takes advantage of the islands’ natural productivity. Golf courses have to go, in other words. In the chapter that touches the most on my own work, the one about “New Asianism” in Japan and the country’s relations with its neighoburs, he argues that, given what he calls the end of 500 years of European global hegemony, Japan can strive for “a role as mediator, assisting the birth of a truly global civilization rather than participating in sterile…confrontations between civilizations.” In his more prescriptive moments, he often resorts to such vagaries, content to catalogue Japan’s ills while offering strong if nebulous remedies.
Of course, there’s no sense in trying to offer packaged solutions to such complex issues, especially given McCormack’s status as a non-Japanese person, one who is able to participate to some degree in discourse about the country in its native language but who is also embedded in the Western academy rather than ordinary life in Japan. Given its English-speaking audience, it’s likely that the book was largely read by those in a similar position. These are people who are neither exactly spectators nor instrumental in any project to produce alternative politics in Japan. Given that, I actually admire its willingness to merely outline and present existent, possible avenues of reform and change present within Japan. I also admire the book’s preference for an internal analysis of Japan’s problems rather than an external ones. It does not, in other words, simplistically replicate complaints about how Tokyo policy might be “directed from Washington,” and treats Japan both as an autonomous entity as well as a member of an international community with particular historical responsibilities. Best to simply state known truths rather than preach on what one does not know.
Though the nature of a single book is limiting and McCormack’s range of topics quite broad (necessitating a merely schematic analysis of each subject), I would recommend The Emptiness of Japanese Affluence as a survey look at Japan at a particular historical moment. It’s well-argued and bold where it needs to be and restrained elsewhere, shedding needless speculation or the use of rhetoric to mask ignorance. Though I would have appreciated fewer nostrums about peace, love, and democracy in the ending, I get the sense of McCormack as a person who truly feels a passionate interest and love of the Japanese people rather than just a cold observer. His arresting indictment of the Japanese state and the degradation of human life under capitalism ––and, indirectly the entire imperial order in which Japan is lodged––carries the book more than far enough.
Environmental history has the potential to be a major player in the transformation of history as a discipline. Current ecological crises, though not necessarily death knells for capitalism as such, certainly cast a shadow of foreboding over our political and social situation. Though the lynchpin of historical materialism should always be class, our history is baseless and useless without addressing the connection between humanity and the rest of nature. We need to reject the merest suggestion that human beings can produce their lives from nothing. Without soil, without water, without air, without the immense base of resources we transform into valuable goods (use values in Marxist talk), we would amount to nothing. All societies, including future socialist ones, are obligated to live as a part of nature, and environmental history is a tradition that responds to that obligation in a limited but necessary way.
So I was glad to read Japan at Nature’s Edge, a book of essays on what the book’s subtitle calls “The Environmental Context of a Global Power.” From the title, one can tell that the book is not just about the birds, bees, flowers, trees, oceans, and seas in Japan but their relationship with the development of modern Japan as a major political power. It’s about human appropriations of nature, the pull of the oceans on Japanese imperialism, the long, slow death of communities wounded by chemical poisoning. It’s about scientists, mountaineers, and fishery workers leaving their traces on our history––and our global environment.
As is the case in most social and culture-savvy histories these days, the contributors approach Japanese environmental history from two angles. One is the factual stuff of history, the gritty reality that defined the lives of people in the past. This mostly concerns people making something physical out of nature, whether it be fish for the table and whales for oil or chemicals for industrial uses. The second angle is to look at nature’s relationship with the human imagination, and concerns the intellectual and ideological products that people created in response to nature. At their best, the essays do the real work of historical materialism in the historical field: narrating not only “what really happened” and the material structures underlying history, but also what people thought of themselves and their own situation and why there might be a distance between those ideas and the reality.
For example, the essay “Fisheries Build Up the Nation” by Micah Muscolino discusses the relationship between Japan and China in the realm of fisheries. Both states, responding to universal pressures to “catch up” with the West in terms of capitalist development, began to expand and refashion not only their fishing equipment but also the way that people related to each other within those industries. It also explores the tension between the two dominant state ideologies that grew up and around these fisheries. In Japan, the dominant ideological factor was imperialist, an expansionist tendency that sought new markets for its fish and opened ever-expanding swathes of ocean to exploitation. For China, meanwhile, the dominant conception of fisheries was that they represented national independence and sovereignty. And while the article tends to have a too-simple vision of nationalism as always and everywhere destructive, ignoring its potentially progressive uses (particularly during the early decades of the People’s Republic), it points out that both were caught up in the capitalist hustle for growth and domination of the environment. It also indicates, but does not explicitly name, the truth that capitalism’s unevenness, which allowed Japan to leap ahead of China in terms of technology and thus serve as a model for nationalists in the latter country, arises from imperialist exploitation.
Another great essay in the compilation is Takehiro Watanabe’s “Talking Sulfur Dioxide,” which fits firmly in the group of articles about intellectual and ideological history, though it’s well-grounded in an account of sulphur pollution and its effects on Japanese communities. The crux of his work, however, is the political (and class) struggle over the definition of pollution and of certain chemicals. Afflicted villagers advanced one definition while companies advanced another while the state acted as the mediator between the two. It shows the kind of callousness of capitalist legal settlements and systems: even when the victims received philanthropic compensation for the company’s negligence, their pain and suffering remained ultimately unquantifiable. Translating the price of human suffering and human life into a payment account on a corporate ledger, the article notes, is similar to the general drive for scientific and rational administration and control that the Meiji embodied. From an early age, the modern Japanese state scooped certain branches of science into its sphere of influence, which has had a profound impact on the way that the Japanese state and, to a different extent, the Japanese people, have related to nature and technology’s role within it. On the other hand, the tenant farmers who lobbied this case were eventually further politicized and unionized, partly as a result of their collective struggle over sulphur pollution compensation. Articles like these show how history can in this way explore social reality more fully through an engagement with nature and its relationship to collective human lives.
Given the date of publication of the book, within the last few years, it’s unsurprising to find an entire section dedicated to that most unstable basis for Japanese society: the Earth itself. The 3/11 “triple disaster” of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown takes up the last part of the book, discussing the event as an “envirotechnical disaster.” I enjoyed this part of the book greatly because environmental history often appears as a discipline of long and deep histories that stretch back through geological time. When that kind of lengthy perspective and care for non-human natural detail is applied to current events, the results can be impressive. I would recommend this final part of the book most of all, especially for people who are interested in the limited capacity of capitalist societies, even ones as rational and bureaucratic as modern Japan, to deal with sudden outbreaks of chaos and disaster. These interventions from “outside” the usual realm of human authority––earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis––expose the contradictions and divisions inherent in our human social structures. The fact that the Japanese state was bumbling and alienated from the people it was ostensibly helping, and the fact that it continues to press for nuclear power regardless of popular anger, can be incorporated into a case for radical change in this very powerful East Asian country.
Though not anticapitalist by tendency and certainly an academic rather than activist book, Japan atNature’s Edge is a jewel of insight and, usually, clarity on some of the most pressing issues in contemporary Japan. Integrating social, cultural, intellectual, and economic history in an environmental context, it parades of a group of talented scholars before us and leaves us with the question of how to resolve these issues not just in Japan but in our own communities as well. It’s certain, after all, that if a grassroots human response does not materialize, capitalism will adapt to its own advantage, and I’m not sure how much more of that the human race can take.