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Deutsches Institut für Japanstudien

Miki Kiyoshi and the Crisis of Cultural Consciousness

June 20, 2001

John Namjun Kim, Cornell University

One question more than any other frames the post-war debate on Japanese intellectuals of the 1930’s and 40’s: To what extent did intellectuals of the period participate, either wittingly or unwittingly, in the advancement and entrenchment of Japanese ethnic-nationalism [minzokushugi] and imperialism? This question appears all the more intriguing when posed in reference to self-proclaimed anti-nationalist and anti-imperialist thinkers such as Miki Kiyoshi (1897-1945).

Sometimes characterized as the chief figure of the left-wing branch of the Kyoto School, Miki was one of the leading Marxist philosophers and social critics of the early Showa period, having authored numerous texts which span some nineteen tomes in his post-humus collected works. Perhaps in part due to his notoriety, he was twice imprisoned for subversive activities against the state, dying in captivity six weeks after Japan’s surrender. Yet, considering that he was a key member of the Showa Research Association [shouwa kenkyuukai] which served as an unofficial advisory body for Prince and Prime Minister Konoe, Miki in no way qualifies as an intellectual dissident of wartime Japan. On the contrary, both biographically and intellectually, he was an active participant in the debate on Japan’s quote;historical missionquote; in East Asia and in the world at large. While he harshly criticized the essentialist underpinnings of Japanese exceptionalism [nipponshugi] and imperialism, he also strongly supported the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-45 [shina jihen], regarding it as a momentous opportunity for a new world historical stage in which the tide would turn against the global domination of Western forms of subjectivity and social organization.

In place of Japanese colonial expansion, he argued that the guiding principle for Japan’s relations with its continental neighbors should be quote;cooperativismquote;. According to this principle, the various cultures of the continent under the cultural stewardship of Japan would quote;cooperatequote; in the formation of a new East Asian cultural identity that would overcome the feudalism of pre-modern communal societies [Gemeinschaft] and the alienated human relations of capitalist society [Gesellschaft]. The strength of this new cultural identity would supposedly lie, not in Japan’s unilateral domination over the continent, but rather in the flourishing of particular cultures within East Asia. However, as critics have rightly pointed out, his theory of cooperativist regionalism is at best a pseudo-multiculturalism or at worst a thinly veiled attempt to justify Japan’s hegemony over continent. In other words, his cooperativist regionalism is nothing more than a sublimated nationalism, in which a more general level of an imaginary cultural totality is posited (East Asia) under which many particular cultures are subsumed for the sake of the unity of that totality. The logical structure of his cooperative regionalism is isomorphic with the ethnic-nationalism to which he explicitly opposes himself.

However, while the above structural critique of Miki correctly captures an important unforeseen facet of his political theory, it neglects to articulate the ambiguous role that the concept of quote;culturequote; plays in political discourses which attempt to transcend the nation-state. The starting point of Miki’s conception of culture is his anthropological assertion that only human beings have quote;culturequote; and that it is quote;culturequote; which endows them with self-conscious subjectivity. As such, a strong universalistic undercurrent runs through his notion of culture: all humans, as humans, have it. However, quote;culturequote; is also starkly particularized notion in his theory of pan-East Asian cooperativism. For Miki, culture is not so much a stable, given object past down through tradition, but a dynamic process of quote;makingquote; [seisaku; poiesis]. Insofar as it is a quote;makingquote; and not a quote;givenquote;, a certain global unevenness is, in his view, inevitable in the development of cultural practices. Following a naïve reading of Hegel’s notion of world-historical Spirit, Miki argues that at any given moment one cultural sphere posses the most quote;advancedquote; form of universal human culture. In the crisis laden aftermath of the First World War, this role of bearing universal culture shifted, for Miki, from the West to East Asia. This new stage of world history in the hands of an East Asia lead by Japan would subsume the putative rationalism of the West and the pragmatism of the East to create a new culture which embraces – rather than alienates – particular cultural identities (e.g. Chinese, Korean, etc.) and social roles (e.g. laborer, mother, etc.) necessitating their participation in the social whole called the East Asian Cooperative Body [toua kyoudoutai]. In short, he proposes a society in which every particular subject is valued as essential to the good of the whole, both that of the imaginary totality called East Asia and that of the world in general.

In my paper, I shall explore two aspects of Miki’s notion of quote;culturequote; by analyzing texts such as Shin-Nihon no Shisou Genri [Principles of Thought for a New Japan]. First, I shall argue that Miki’s conception of quote;culturequote; is a form of relativism which passes itself off as a universalism. While arguing for the greater good of universal human culture, he advances a developmental notion of history which establishes dialectical relations between cultural spheres, such that power and all the trappings of universality originate from one pole and flows into the second creating the latter as quote;otherquote; or a constitutive outside. Second, based on my analysis of his notion of a new East Asian cooperativist culture, I shall abstract his conception of cultural cooperativism from the context of Miki’s immediate political concerns and will attempt to demonstrate that his political theory shares deep affinities with a certain form of social organization – one that also claims universality – which arose in industrialized liberal democratic societies in the post-war period. Namely, he unwittingly anticipates the development of what Yamanouchi Yasushi, following Niklas Luhmann, calls the quote;system societyquote;, a form of social organization in which internal social crises and antagonisms are dealt with not through brutal suppression but through the public solicitation of the disaffected to participate in the social whole. I shall demonstrate that this social formation with its claims of universality also depends on a constitutive outside that resists recuperation into the social whole.