150 Years of Japanese Thought

Table of Contents

The year 2018 is the 150th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration, which marks the beginning of Japan’s modernization. In this roundtable discussion, two scholars of Japanese intellectual history—Tadashi Karube and Akinaka Senzaki—and critics Satoshi Osawa and Hiroki Azuma look back on 150 years of Japanese thought and explore the question of who shouldered the “general will” in Japan.
Referring to early Meiji thought, Senzaki disputes the stereotypical understanding of the opposition between the pro-modernization stance of Yukichi Fukuzawa and the anti-modernization view of Takamori Saigo. Rather, he asserts that both thinkers shared the ideal of “civilization”. During those years, there were opinions about the state that did not neatly fit into the simple dichotomy of right or left, such as Katsunan Kuga’s critique of the state from a conservative standpoint. In the mid-Meiji period, naturalist literature focusing on the “individual” gained prominence. In that era, the “individual” intermixed with forms of Confucianist thought, as it did in the thought of Kanzo Uchimura.

Tetsuro Watsuji, who emerged in the Taisho era, belonged to the generation of philosophers for whom Confucianism was only one among many means of “self-cultivation” (kyoyo). Azuma points out that Watsuji neglected the issue of death despite his references to Heidegger; to this point, Karube responds that Watsuji needed to go beyond the angst characteristic of naturalism and leave death behind.

According to Osawa, thought became more collective in form as it became linked with media during the Showa era. During the Second World War, this link with media produced masses of people whom Masao Maruyama called “pseudo-intellectuals.” This inability to communicate with the masses remains a challenge for Japanese intellectuals today. Furthermore, the ongoing presence of the emperor was an important factor in postwar Japan. Senzaki refers to Yukio Mishima and Tetsuro Watsuji as illustrations of how intellectuals approached the issue of the emperor. Although Mishima, who opposed the postwar emperor, and Watsuji, who affirmed the emperor’s role, seem to have been polar opposites, they both understood the emperor as something that unifies “culture.”

The panelists also discuss Jun Eto, a critic who lived into the Heisei era, and his thoughts on Takamori Saigo in particular. In doing so, they arrive at a judgment that “defeat” has served as the point of departure for Japanese thought. They contend that Japanese thought began with defeat at the hands of the black ships, began anew after the country’s defeat in the Second World War, and was later severed from this trend through the appearance of Kojin Karatani. The panelists conclude by affirming the importance of escaping this latest trend by examining intellectual history anew from a broad spatio-temporal perspective.