The Mourning of Species and the Logic of Forest

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Shinichi Nakazawa debuted in 1983 with Mozart in Tibet (Chibetto no Motsuaruto); he was one of the pioneers of “New Academism” in 1980s Japan. Since then, he has developed a unique philosophy that traverses numerous domains of knowledge, including religious studies and cultural anthropology. In this interview, Hiroki Azuma poses one central question to Nakazawa: given the tendency towards utilitarianism in contemporary Japanese society, what kind of theoretical resources can we consider regarding the question of “transcending the death of the individual”? Furthermore, how can the question avoid the traps of ideology and patriotism?

Nakazawa offers two answers. The first involves revisiting the “logic of species” developed by the Kyoto School philosopher Hajime Tanabe; the second answer relates to the development of a geo-philosophy.

First, in his logic of species theory, Tanabe argues that “species” served as the foundation of pre-Socratic and non-Western philosophies and that the “individual” can only be considered to emerge from within it. Tanabe attempted to imagine an ideal state within this context. Nakazawa remarked that the concept of “species” is still instructive today when reflecting on various issues, for example those of ethnicity. It is useful when considering Azuma’s question as well, particularly since it has become difficult to incorporate individuals’ deaths into a communal narrative in Japan today. What possibilities can we then find in a form of remembrance mediated by the species? We can find hints in the summer festivals (natsu matsuri) celebrated in the Tohoku region after the 2011 earthquake. The collective consciousness has already actualized remembrances based on the concept of species. In contrast, ie (house), the traditional realization of the species, or collectives like merchant and farming families are no longer functional today in Japan. Only the symbolic Emperor System has continued with the image of the ie in the postwar era.

Second, geo is a prefix found in words such as geography and geopolitics, and it refers to the land. Nakazawa suggested that we must reconsider the relation between land and philosophy. For example, if we consider Japan from a geopolitical perspective, it is interesting to note that the Wa people who brought rice cultivation to Japan once belonged to the Miao people, a mountainous ethnic minority in southern China. The characteristics of the Japanese nation as a state apparatus can be traced back to the mobility of mountain peoples, whose societies are radically different from those of the peoples residing in the plains; this is related to the characteristics of the ie and the Japanese Emperor System as well. The Japanese people’s ie system is “plant-like” in nature. Though rooted in the ground, plants also retain mobility by spreading pollen and seeds through the air. We can say that a human’s death in Japan may have been imagined, recoded, and remembered like a plant’s collective death, although it resembles an animal’s individual death in Western traditions. The Japanese Emperor is the king of plants who exists to appease the inadama (spirits of rice); however, no national system of remembering individual’s deaths exists. An individual’s separate death is not considered an issue in plant-like forms of remembrance. This fact is also related to the state’s way of remembering the dead from World War II. After the war, Kunio Yanagita wrote About Our Ancestors (1946:1988), offering a contrast to the Yasukuni Shrine’s practice of enshrining all the dead as eirei (glorious war dead). According to Yanagita, the spirits of the dead in Japan have always returned to the mountains and forests and have always been mourned in local festivals and rituals.
Today, Japan has many debates about preserving the architectural remains from the earthquake, especially the nuclear disaster site, but Nakazawa suggests that it would be more appropriate to convert these sites into forests; increasing the number of forests/sanctuaries is much more harmonious with the original Japanese remembrance methods than increasing the number of cenotaphs or museums.