An Illness Called Criticism

Table of Contents

In this fourth volume of Genron, we feature the third and final installment of our look at criticism in contemporary Japan. The previous installments appeared in our first two volumes.

The roundtable discussions at the heart of our project have looked broadly at the development of criticism during three time periods: 1975 to 1989 in part one, 1989 to 2001 in part two, and 2001 to the present in part three. In the last fifteen years, the distance between criticism and social movements has once again lessened after a long period of political escapism—a moratorium, if you will—following the 1968 student protests. Subsequent to the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, tsunami, and accompanying nuclear accident, it became particularly common to see a wide range of intellectuals taking part in street protests.

Though I personally am not enthusiastic about participating in such demonstrations, this generational shift is an important matter worthy of serious discussion. In an attempt to preserve objectivity in our retrospective on the movement, I have asked critic Shunsuke Sugita and sociologist Ikuo Gonoi, both of whom have extensive experience as participants in such activities, to contribute relevant essays on the topic. Also pertinent in this regard is the discussion between journalist Daisuke Tsuda, politician Jiro Yamaguchi, and myself. Though this conversation does not relate directly to the history of criticism and is therefore not a featured article in this issue, we discuss the new relationship between intellectuals and politics that has emerged during the last fifteen years. I believe that this conversation nicely complements the larger discussion.

These last fifteen years have also been distinguished by the expanding influence of Japanese criticism and philosophy, which has extended beyond the English-speaking world and become widely introduced in Asia as well. We present Jo Young-il’s study of Kojin Karatani as just one example of the reception of Japanese criticism abroad.

As a fitting conclusion to this year-long project, I spoke at length with Akira Asada, who was among those responsible for editing the once-influential journal Critical Space (Hihyo kukan). He was also a participant in the text that served as a model for our own look at contemporary criticism, namely The Criticism of Modern Japan (Kindai Nihon no hihyo, 1990–1992). As is well known, Asada’s famously arcane Structure and Power (Kozo to chikara, 1983) became a bestseller, with more than 150,000 copies sold. It was a major turning point in the history of postwar criticism. My original purpose in interviewing Asada was to hear his candid thoughts on the state of Japanese criticism some thirty years after the publication of Structure. To my surprise, nearly half of our conversation was devoted to reminiscences on the time before its publication. In fact, he talked at length about the rich intellectual experiences of his youth. This was an unexpected development, but as I looked at the resulting product, I thought that it was a fitting way to wrap up a project that has looked at criticism since 1975. The forty years at the heart of our project, The Criticism of Contemporary Japan, are, as it turns out, the same forty years during which the intellectual sophistication Asada accumulated came crashing down.


Allow me to change gears for a bit. What exactly do I mean by the term criticism (hihyo)? This question lies at the core of The Criticism of Contemporary Japan. What sort of work have people done under the label of criticism? The goal of this project is to answer this question as succinctly as possible.

What is criticism? Personally, I have been haunted by this question since my debut as a critic in Critical Space some 23 years ago. I had no desire to become a critic. At the time of my debut, my experience in reading criticism was essentially limited to the aforementioned Asada and his fellow editor at Critical Space, Kojin Karatani. We might call it a sort of accident, nothing more than the result of chance or coincidence, that my writing caught the eyes of Karatani and Asada.

Even today, when people refer to me as a critic, I still do not feel accustomed to the title. I do not mean that I regret becoming one. And yet, nearly a quarter-century after my entry into this field, I am no more certain of exactly what criticism is. I was born into an average, white-collar family, and none of my relatives were scholars or intellectuals. Growing up in such an environment, it was inconceivable to me that one could make a living simply by thinking about things and presenting one’s thoughts in written form. I could grasp how other writers, such as novelists, might make a living: they receive compensation for providing entertainment to readers for a period of time. This seems quite reasonable to me. Critics, however, have a strange existence. What exactly are they imparting to readers, and on whose authority are they deemed to merit compensation for their work? In other words, what underlies and justifies one’s claim to be a critic? A certain existential doubt can be found lurking in the background of this journal’s obstinate questioning of the critical tradition.

This doubt, however, is not only existential. My questioning is simply born from my own personal experiences. It is clearly half-derived from the particularities of the genre called criticism here in Japan and the changes that this genre has experienced over the past forty years.

So I ask again: what is criticism? This should not be a difficult question to answer. According to one authoritative Japanese language dictionary, the act of criticism is defined as “identifying the pros and cons, good and bad, and right and wrong of things, and expressing one’s evaluation(s) of it” (Daijisen, second edition). In this understanding of the term, the world is and has always been overflowing with criticism. If in fact this was the extent of the critical practice, then there would be no mystery. It is obvious that critics should be compensated for their work if the goal of criticism is to provide new information and guidance for deciding how one should approach unfamiliar texts or how one ought to comprehend some incident or scandal. In fact, these are the type of critics (hyoronka) who often appear on television.

And yet, as most fans of literature know, in Japan there exists a separate, traditional form of prose referred to as criticism (hihyo) that does not necessarily conform to the definition offered above. In hihyo, there is no new supply of information or value judgments; this criticism does not rely on the accumulation of academic knowledge. Rather, a specific topic is selected, and then thoughts are developed on that topic. This strange tradition of speculative prose often reaches its end without arriving at any definitive conclusions. In other countries, such essays would probably be referred to simply as philosophical essays. In Japan, however, ever since the work of Hideo Kobayashi, similar essays have been called criticism and consistently classified as literature. When I refer to criticism, I am thinking about this tradition of abstract prose.

This tradition is by no means a footnote in history; in fact, we might go so far as to say that at one time, it was positioned at the core of Japanese literature. During the postwar period, particularly around the time of Jun Eto’s discussion of maturity (seijuku) in Maturity and Loss (Seijuku to soshitsu, 1967) or Takaaki Yoshimoto’s consideration of the masses (taishu) in Collective Illusions (Kyodo genso-ron, 1968), a shift occurred at the heart of criticism. The practice was transformed from a concrete evaluation of literary texts to one that located authority in the thinking behind such literary texts. Both Eto and Yoshimoto acquired great influence as a result of this shift, and today they are still regarded as representative thinkers of their time.

As mentioned above, I enthusiastically read Karatani, making my own debut as a critic in the journal of criticism that he edited. Karatani would inherit and expand in its purest form the shift seen in the works of Eto and Yoshimoto. For some time, Karatani believed that speculative thought or theory lay at the core of criticism. During this period, Karatani’s criticism did not adhere to the dictionary definition of the practice cited previously. He did not critique individual texts, nor did he discuss society at large. Readers wishing to verify my contention are urged to pick up his Investigations I (Tankyu I, 1986) and Investigations II (Tankyu II, 1989). There you will find quotations from prominent European philosophers such as Husserl, Wittgenstein, and Descartes, accompanied by a record of his thoughts about them. And that is all. There is not a single reference to contemporary texts nor to the world around him. There was not even an academic critique of these philosophers of the past. In a footnote in Investigations II, Karatani rather boldly declared, “I have no intention of arguing that this or that is what Descartes or Wittgenstein was actually saying. The same goes for Marx. I’m fine with you thinking that I am only writing what’s going through my head. However, any discussion that does not take into account the sort of discussions I’m having I find to be simply tedious, regardless of how thorough they may be.”[★1]

In other words, Karatani was essentially expanding on his own personal thoughts. Despite this fact, at the time of publication his writing was regarded as criticism—in fact, as literary criticism—and Karatani himself did not conceal his trust in the environment in which it was being received (the manuscript that would constitute Investigations II was serialized in the literary journal Gunzo).

Needless to say, such an environment no longer exists. There are certainly writers who, like Karatani, enjoy such abstract prose, but they are no longer widely read. As I mention in the roundtable discussion included in this issue, today such prose has become nothing more than a neo-classical style. The forty years examined in our feature on The Criticism of Contemporary Japan are the same forty years during which a critical practice personified by Karatani collapsed and the tradition of speculative prose faded into the background.

At one time, I too read the theoretical works of Karatani with great enthusiasm. For this reason, I am compelled to ask again in 2016, now that the distance between politics and criticism is shorter than ever before: what is, or what was, such criticism? Why were texts such as Investigations I and Investigations II not only viewed as criticism but even considered the core of the critical world, despite being so far removed from the dictionary meaning of the practice? Why was Japanese society at one time longing for such speculative thought, and why not now? And what exactly was Karatani doing back then? I find myself repeatedly returning to these questions.

Earlier I mentioned the mystery of criticism, and just now I spoke of a critical shift. We can also describe this situation figuratively in terms of an illness (yamai). Karatani’s second collection of criticism was titled The Illness Called Meaning (Imi to iu yamai, 1975). Referencing that title, in this final part of our retrospective on criticism, I wish to highlight the essence of this illness called criticism.

During the forty years examined in The Criticism of Contemporary Japan, the intellectual education with which Asada was associated collapsed and Karatani recovered from his long-running illness of criticism. Young students today do not concern themselves with lack of erudition nor are they ensnared by the trap of theory; they are in fact straightforward, rushing without hesitation to join various protests and demonstrations. Language and reality come together in a light, carefree manner. Karatani himself now stands at the front of those demonstrations. In 2010, Karatani said that Japan would change if we would just go out and protest.

Seeing protesters who care enough to take a stand is a warm and healthy sight that gives other people courage. I have no intention to criticize Karatani on that point. I am, however, skeptical. I wonder if Karatani’s illness was something that can be cured so easily. Modes of expression in postwar Japan have continued to obsess over the failures of war. To borrow the words of Norihiro Kato cited in our last issue, postwar Japan has occupied itself with the question of distortions (nejire). Postwar Japanese art and literature, as well as various subcultures such as manga and anime, achieved particular—one might even say queer—achievements previously unknown in a remarkably short period of time. All aspects of society—for example, Godzilla, Yukio Mishima, Hayao Miyazaki, and Takashi Murakami—existed in a polarized field consisting of language // reality, literature // politics, and theory // practice, all a byproduct of the distortions resulting from Japan’s defeat in war seventy years ago. Criticism, too, was not outside the reach of this polarization. Here not engaging with the contemporary world actually becomes a critique of that world. Karatani himself discusses this inversion of critical practice in numerous works, speaking of it as if it were a ubiquitous condition of criticism. Historically speaking, however, it is possible to interpret such an inversion as simply a reflection of the particular distortions forced onto Japanese discourse because of the country’s defeat in war, a reality suggested by both Eto’s work on occupation-era censorship and Yoshimoto’s discussion of wartime ideological conversion (tenko). The defeat and subsequent occupation tore apart Japan’s language and reality. The words and actions of intellectuals and critics have, for the past seventy years, continued to pass each other by; they have continued to produce intellectual thought inside a perverted public space. Karatani himself is no exception in this regard.

Karatani was born in an era when language and reality did not and could not synchronize with one another. Consequently, he suffered from the illness of criticism. This being the case, a recovery from this illness of criticism (i.e., an estrangement between language and reality) should not be possible until such distortions are eliminated. But these distortions continue to exist today.

What is criticism (hihyo)? My tentative conclusion is that it is a disease specific to postwar Japan. Having just concluded our three-part study The Criticism of Contemporary Japan, I cannot help feeling once again as if the vestiges of this illness must be faintly visible somewhere, and that it is this journal’s mission to locate them and press the reset button. We must reclaim the illness called criticism, because feigning health when one is not really healthy is the worst lie of all. It is self-deception.[★2] And our society is sick and suffering.


At the risk of deviating from the purpose of a foreword, I would like to say a little more about Karatani. I should note that my location of Karatani within Japanese thought deviates greatly from the common-sense and conventional understanding of him within the world of literary criticism. I anticipate that it will provoke considerable backlash. I am proposing my new interpretation with this in mind.

Earlier, I raised the question of what Karatani was attempting to do in writing Investigations I and Investigations II. Investigations has generally been treated as a work that connects to, for example, Transcritique of the late 1990s through its exploration of the fundamentals of criticism. In other words, it has been understood as a philosophical text. In fact, since the early 21st century, Karatani himself would, from time to time, refer to himself as a philosopher. The way in which I understand Karatani’s work, however, is that he was attempting to generalize the previously mentioned distortions, namely as an abstraction of the scars left by defeat in war. For this reason, he was dead set on writing criticism, something that could not be classified as philosophy. I believe that it is precisely at this point that we encounter Karatani’s importance as a writer. Allow me to elaborate.

Investigations I begins with an introduction to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous language-game theory. In his posthumously published Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein argued that the meaning of words cannot, in principle, be established without being received by a recipient. Therefore, he continued, the rules of language usage also cannot be established before the fact. For this reason, meaning and rules are similar to the types of games played by children, endlessly and flexibly changing. Such a claim was groundbreaking at the time of its publication. Within the history of philosophy, this discovery is generally referred to as language-game theory. With this claim of Wittgenstein positioned at the center of his own thought, Karatani went on to argue in his two volumes of Investigations that all human communication was in fact a series of deadly leaps (inochigake no hiyaku). These leaps, however, fall out of sight after the fact (jigoteki-ni). For this reason, the act of not forgetting becomes part of an ethic of thought. Arguing that numerous philosophers and literary scholars from the past have appealed to such an ethic, Karatani develops his own theories while referencing a cornucopia of texts.

At first glance, this might appear to be a philosophical undertaking, and as I noted earlier, in a foreign context these texts would probably be categorized as philosophy. They are even accepted as philosophy in Japan today. In fact, a prominent analytical philosopher, Keiichi Noe, wrote the afterword for the paperback edition of Investigations I. Still, it is important to remember that at the time, Karatani himself did not consider his own thoughts to be philosophy. Rather, he was convinced that his work belonged to the field of literature—or, at the very least, that it should belong to literature.

In the introduction to Investigations II, Karatani deliberately contrasts philosophy with literature. At the same time, he also expresses dismay at the fact that such a contrast does not function properly: “Upon beginning to read philosophical books in my teenage years, I constantly felt as if there was a ‘this Me’ (kono watashi) missing. […] For this reason I could not warm up to philosophy; I always felt out of place.” Later he says, “In the beginning [of Investigations II] I stated that this Me was lacking within philosophical discourse. Elaborating a bit more, I was long convinced that [this Me] was possible within it.”[★3]

Karatani’s message is clear. His criticism-as-speculation does not belong to philosophy; it was intended to belong to literature. But in reality, it never fit into the latter’s purview. For this reason, he had no choice but to turn to past works as an individual and search for the fundamentals of criticism. Here Karatani rather candidly confesses his bewilderment at the eventual flight of his diseased criticism from literature and its eventual transformation into a lone wanderer.

Karatani does not speak directly of his confusion. And yet, looking at his publication history along with various interviews, it is easy to imagine that one cause was his interaction with American academia. A series of essays including Introspection and Retrospection (Naisei to soko, 1980), Architecture as Metaphor (In’yu to shite no kenchiku, 1981), and Language, Number, Currency (Gengo, kazu, kahei, 1983) preceded Investigations. The content of these texts was equally theoretical in nature to that of Investigations, each one searching for the foundations of criticism. They all were abandoned midway through, remaining incomplete.

In the mid-1970s, Karatani spent two years in the United States, coming to know Paul de Man, Frederic Jameson, and other English-language literary theorists just as postmodernism was gaining traction. This experience served as the catalyst for his writing of the aforementioned set of texts. From the late 1970s to the 1980s, Karatani would become engrossed in these texts, arriving at the “extremes of weakness.”[★4] Investigations was written as Karatani fled such “weakness.”

Why would contact with the English-speaking world lead to weakness? Karatani would go on to write various texts including Criticism and the Postmodern (Hihyo to postmodern), an important text well-known for its criticism of Akira Asada, in which he looked back on the late 1970s and 1980s, discussing the difference between Western theory (riron) and Asada’s critical practice. He said in that work, “If, despite the impoverished nature of their content, I were to say that a few critics and authors in Japan have a certain superiority over those philosophers and sociologists who ‘learn’ Western theory, the reason should be obvious. Criticism is neither a method nor a theory; the reason is simply that it is capable of life.” [★5] Here we must pay heed to the emphasis placed on criticism’s ability to have life. It is not possible for Western theory to be alive; Japanese criticism, on the other hand, is alive. This is how Karatani felt when he visited the United States in the 1970s. Utilizing the language employed thus far, we might say that Karatani was surprised at his realization that Western academics and critics were different from him: they did not seem to be suffering from the disease of criticism.

Of course, Western academics also speak of theory. The content of their work is often similar to Karatani’s critical practice. Derrida’s notion of deconstruction is a good example of this. The difference, however, lies in the fact that Westerners begin from the premise that it is possible to separate academic research from philosophy, individual analysis from abstract theory, and the particular from the general. Deconstruction is nothing more than a theory, with the application of said theory implicitly left to common sense. (Note that at this time, Karatani was less than enthusiastic about Derrida.) In other words, they could separate “this Me” from philosophy.

Karatani was not capable of emulating this act of division. Speaking about existence (ontology) opens the discussion up to politics (ethics), whereas speaking about politics ties the discussion back to existence. Though I cannot engage in a detailed discussion here, suffice it to say that after his debut critical piece on Soseki Natsume, Consciousness and Nature (Ishiki to shizen, 1969), Karatani exhibited great interest in such confusion. [★6] That is, for Karatani, criticism was, above all else, the experience of a confusion—an illness—in which existence and politics, literature and politics, and the particular and the general could not be distinguished from one another. And yet, while in the United States, Karatani encountered what might be called a healthy critical intelligence, one in which such distinctions can occur. As a result, he was confronted with a need to fundamentally rethink the pathological nature of the criticism in which he had placed his faith. The seemingly philosophical discussions of Investigations all began from this dilemma. Rereading that work in such a manner, we can further understand the meaning of his use of an introduction to language-game theory as the point of departure for Investigations.

This thing called criticism that Karatani inherited from Kobayashi (or Eto and Yoshimoto) was, as mentioned earlier, a queer inversion in which the very act of not referring to the contemporary became a critique of the contemporary period. In order to concretely comment on something, criticism in postwar Japan would divert to the abstract, and in order to discuss the abstract it would diverge into the concrete; Karatani would became comfortable with this inversion. Japan’s defeat in war only strengthened this inversion among Japanese critics. It is precisely the structure of this inversion on which Karatani attempts to shed light in the two volumes of Investigations. The invocation of Wittgenstein’s language-game theory was a response to this request.

The language-game is born of a speaker’s “deadly leap,” a term Karatani borrows not from Wittgenstein but from Marx. (Marx’s original term is salto mortale.) These leaps, however, fall out of sight after the fact. Similarly, criticism in Japan was born as a result of an inversion by critics, which also fell out of sight after the fact. Once critical writings are recorded, they are classified as either textual analysis or so-called theory; one result of this was that around that time, contemporary criticism occasionally seemed to parallel the latest Western vogue, namely postmodernism. According to Karatani, however, this was nothing more than a complete inversion of perspective. The true essence of the illness called criticism can be found in the experience of chaos in which criticism’s classification as textual analysis or theory, ethics or ontology, or politics or literature is lost not only on the reader but on the writers themselves. Despite his own contrary thoughts, in borrowing the philosophy of Wittgenstein, Karatani was not attempting to convey to readers a general philosophical discovery of communication, but rather the constitution of the illness of criticism from which he suffered and the structure of that experience. Therefore, I do not believe that the experiments witnessed in Investigations I and II should be classified as philosophy, regardless of how superficially they resemble philosophy or how genuinely useful the discoveries contained therein might be to the philosophical world.

The starting point for Karatani lies in his self-verification of the illness called criticism, to the extent that the entirety of his work is irrevocably defined by the spatiotemporal context of postwar Japan. For this reason, we should not read the two volumes of Investigations and his nearly contemporaneous set of speculative texts as a preface to a later shift to philosophy, but as a single achievement of expression within the Showa Period of the distortions embraced by postwar Japan. Put another way, we must read these works as criticism, not philosophy.

As noted earlier, Karatani does not point to anything concrete in Investigations. Both Japan and the postwar scene are absent. Instead, one finds in Investigations a borderless and ahistorical reading of great philosophers and literary giants from the past. In Investigations, Karatani is engaged in an active erasure of nationality and time. For this reason, we should understand his work from this period as an attempt to decontextualize and universalize this context while maintaining its particularity. This attempt, paradoxically, made his project particular to postwar Japan. One might safely imagine that a text as strange as Investigations does not exist outside Japan.


Over the past forty years, Karatani has recovered from the illness called criticism. Perhaps counterintuitively, we aim to restore it. We aim to increase the number of its sufferers. This is because I believe that in Japan, a country that still embraces this illness, those who suffer from it are the ones capable of having actual insight into its reality. How then might we bring back such a disease? The key can be found in Karatani’s own writings.

As discussed above, Karatani pursued the fundamentals of criticism in his two-part Investigations, eventually arriving at the thinking of Wittgenstein. At this point, Karatani made a crucial mistake in his thinking: he imagined the illness of criticism to be a malady suffered in isolation. To figuratively explain the space of such a solitary illness, he conceived of the concepts of intercourse (kotsu), the other (tasha), and singularity (tandokusei). Simply put, he imagined criticism as an act to be performed alone.

That was a flawed understanding. Such an understanding of criticism also contradicted the underlying theory behind Investigations I and II. When quoting Wittgenstein, Karatani relied on the American philosopher Saul Kripke’s reading of his work. In Kripke’s interpretation, however, Wittgenstein did not view language as a game composed of words lacking meaning and a grammar lacking reason. Kripke’s reading does acknowledge that words have no meaning, that grammar has no reason, and that all language is a game; however, he stresses, we must strive to understand the reason why this game continues to endure. For this reason, Kripke’s understanding, or more properly “Wittgenstein’s argument as it struck Kripke,” lies in the existence of the community.[★7] Kripke suggests that, in the final evaluation of things, we cannot speak of a “single individual, considered by himself and in isolation,” as having any meaning. [★8] However, “The situation is very different if we widen our gaze from consideration of the rule follower alone and allow ourselves to consider him as interacting with a wider community.”[★9] If a person follows a specific set of rules, is a specific game underway? Without the input of an outside party, it would be fundamentally impossible to assess the success or failure of that game.

Anyone can point out that words have no inherent meaning. Similarly, we might assume that anyone can claim so-called deadly leaps to be necessary in criticism. Such claims, however, can only ever result in nihilism (we don’t need criticism anyway!) or Nietzschean notions of the superman (only a genius can perform criticism). Years later, Critical Space would be torn apart by this simple polarization, losing influence as a result.

However, if in fact criticism in postwar Japan was speculative and diseased, amounting to nothing more than a game completely lacking reason in a manner resembling Wittgenstein’s language-game, then Karatani should not have pointed out its lack of reason while encouraging these deadly leaps. Quite the contrary: he should have asked how criticism was transformed into a game despite its lack of reason. In other words, Karatani should not have questioned why his writing lacked reason but why, in contemporary Japan, the sorts of passages he wrote were regarded as criticism, a type of living object in obvious dialogue with the contemporary world. Kripke’s theory of the community paved the way to such an understanding. From here, Karatani was one step away from gaining insight into the base of the communal illness of criticism—namely, postwar Japan’s distortions. Unfortunately, however, he would not expand upon this discussion. Within Karatani’s texts—and continuing to the present day—community (kyodotai) continues to be a negative term.

Karatani preferred the other over the community. However, the term other, especially when combined with those deadly leaps discussed earlier, becomes strangely existential while entertaining echoes of romanticism. I risk my life to deliver words to you, the other: this is a miracle that contains the danger of inviting a naive understanding of criticism.

Criticism, however, is not done in isolation. Nor is it done by two people. Even if I put my life on the line to deliver words to you, only a third-party observer can determine whether that action merits the title of miracle. Two people who have fallen in love with one another probably always imagine themselves to be living within a miracle. The so-called deadly leap of a single person—or of two people—does not qualify as a leap. The disease called criticism is not something from which one continues to suffer alone. No, even if it were possible for one to catch the disease alone, all that would be born of such an illness would be a bizarre, pathological form of writing that would not function as criticism. Fundamentally speaking, criticism demands a community to decide whether criticism is actually criticism; that is, it demands spectators to determine its success or failure. Because criticism is, from the onset, a game without reason, it naturally vanishes without an audience to view the game. This is what has happened in Japan in the ten years since Critical Space ceased publication.

Therefore, the revival of the illness called criticism amounts to nothing more than the reintroduction of spectators into the criticism game. Genron was established with this goal in mind. This is a theoretical discussion but also an extremely practical one. At first glance, it might seem overly pragmatic, but in reality, it is highly theoretical. To view criticism from the spectator’s seat: this goal is why, since the founding of Genron, the term spectator, together with criticism, has had a constant presence in our table of contents. Perhaps it is here that the philosophy of the tourist—and thus the spectator—begins.

I will leave such a discussion for another occasion. Genron 0, entitled “The Philosophy of the Tourist,” should be published in the near future.


★1  Karatani, Kojin. Tankyu II. Tokyo: Kodansha, 1994, p. 134.

★2  Once upon a time, a critic by the name of Kojin Karatani suffered from an illness born of the estrangement of words from reality. At some point, however, he seems to have been able to recover from it. This is the argument situated at the core of this paper. For the sake of accuracy, however, it is necessary for this so-called illness to be separated into various types.

Karatani wrote two particularly interesting pieces of criticism in the late 1980s. One was on Kenzaburo Oe and the other on Haruki Murakami (both are included in his Concerning the End, or Shuen o megutte, 1990). The texts were written one after another, with the latter functioning as a sequel to the former. According to Karatani, both Oe and Murakami have erased the use of proper names, essentially creating fables. For this reason, they both appear to be performing an erasure of history. Using the language employed thus far, we can say that both Oe and Murakami were suffering from a disease similar to that which Karatani himself was suffering from (this being the reason Yukio Mishima is juxtaposed with Oe). And yet, Karatani has this to say: “the exclusion of proper names by Kenzaburo Oe is nothing more than a fixation on proper names” while declaring a similar exclusion by Murakami to be “an escape from actuality (genjitusei), a rejection in the manner of romanticism” (59, 112).

Frankly speaking, as a longtime reader of Murakami, it is difficult to view this as a successful critique of Murakami. Compared to the thorough reading of The Silent Cry seen in his study of Oe, I cannot brush off the impression of an intentionally critical, politically informed reading in Karatani’s commentary on A Wild Sheep Chase and Pinball, 1973 (in fact, as I mentioned in the round-table discussion included in Genron 2, Critical Space of the 1990s consistently evaluated Murakami’s work poorly). It seems to me that Karatani was not capable of reading Murakami’s work in a positive light despite making use of the same theory in his evaluation of Oe.

From today’s vantage point, however, the existence of these two contrasting critical stances seems to me to eloquently exemplify the difficulty of thinking through the estrangement of language from reality. I am not, however, suggesting that language should be estranged from reality. Murakami, too, suffered from a disease similar to Oe (and thus similar to Karatani). Just as Karatani could only write speculative theory, Murakami could only write fables. And yet, Karatani felt the disease he shared with Oe was somehow fundamentally different from the one Murakami suffered from. It is for this reason that he exhibited a pointed frustration – even if based on an incomplete logic – at such a condition where Norwegian Wood becomes a bestseller and that particular brand of disease begins to be recognized as literary orthodoxy.

In the final evaluation, though, how does Murakami’s illness differ from Karatani’s (or Oe’s)? It is rather difficult for me to put into words. As a final remark, however, the uneasiness Karatani experienced in 1989 – when Murakami sat at atop the throne of Japanese literature and, as a result, his influence was diffused into various genres – resonates with something I feel today. In fact, Makoto Shinkai, an animation director I have publicly empathized with and supported for a long time, made his authorial debut under Murakami as an author of sekai-kei fiction [sekai-kei can be defined as “the kind of anime and video games in which the small group of characters act thoughts and actions can affect the fate of the entire world.” Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, 124 fn. 11]. Shinkai’s newest anime, Your Name. (2016), currently the fifth highest grossing film in Japanese cinematic history, has become a social phenomenon similar in scale to Norwegian Wood. For my part, though, it sincerely feels as if my own history is on repeat. Shinkai’s disease, my own disease, and the disease called sekai-kei I have hereto supported all resemble each other. And yet, there is something fundamentally different between them. Karatani harshly criticized Norwegian Wood thus: “There is no need to escape from – and thus no need for irony regarding – [the female protagonist] Naoko and 1989” (113). I have similar feelings about Your Name. There is no longer any need for him to run from the impossibility depicted in Voices of a Distant Star (2002) or 5 Centimeters Per Second (2007) because the world (sekai) has become Shinkai’s world.


★3  Karatani, Kojin. Tankyu II. Tokyo: Kodansha, 1994, pp. 10, 20.

★4  Karatani, Kojin. “Bunkoban e no atogaki.” Afterword. In’yu toshite no kenchiku. Tokyo: Kodansha, 1989, p. 320.

★5  Karatani, Kojin. “Hihyo to Postmodern.” Hihyo to Postmodern. Tokyo: Fukutake Shoten, 1989. 21.

★6  Since the 1990s, I have stressed that we must not understand Karatani’s relationship to politics in terms of a single, consistent line. This is because, I argue, he made his debut as a writer preoccupied with the chaos existing between an ethical standard (existence) and an ontological standard (politics). For a more detailed discussion of this I direct you to two discussions of mine about Karatani from 1997 and 1999 included in Postal Anxieties # (Yubinteki fuan #, Asahi bunko, 2002). Note that they are not included in its re-release, Postal Anxieties β (Yubinteki fuan β, Kawade bunko, 2011). The reason I was so taken with Karatani in the 1990s was because I strongly empathized with this chaos.

Since we cannot distinguish between existence and politics, the moment we talk about politics we have encroached upon the question of existence, a clearly fruitless endeavor. I saw the realization of this impossibility within Karatani, directly connecting to my own analysis of subculture seen in my discussions surrounding sekai-kei. I am still convinced that such an understanding of Karatani is correct. The reality is, however, that the very foundation of Karatani has changed since writing Investigations. In the 2000s he would establish NAM [New Associationist Movement], a move that would serve as a catalyst for him to begin writing about politics in a (seemingly) straightforward manner.

Accordingly, the context in which his works were received also changed, producing a readership drawn to that simplicity (or health) that continues to support him to this day. In other words, he has become what we might call an Iwanami or Asashi Thinker, a bona fide left-wing intellectual. Therefore, this current text is destined to be ignored or ridiculed for missing the mark by this main core of readers and, of course, by Karatani himself. It is precisely for this reason I decided to pull texts from 30 years ago. In other words, I have opted to act anachronistically, criticizing the current condition by looking at a disease the patient is claiming to have already recovered from. However, if we act in accordance with Derrida’s notion of philosophy (or thought) that it fundamentally engages with anachronisms (see Specters of Marx), then I believe this particular type of text should be called criticism. Regarding how I feel about the work of Karatani from the past ten years, allow me to once again quote him: “I’m fine with you thinking that I am only writing what’s going through my head. However, any discussion that does not take into account the sort of discussions I’m having I find to be simply tedious, regardless of how thorough they may be.”

★7  Kripke, Saul A. Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language: An Elementary Exposition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1982, pp. 5.

★8  Ibid, 68-9.

★9  Ibid, 89.