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Deutsches Institut für Japanstudien

Socio-political discourse on happiness in Imperial Japan: Towards a historical contextualization of the Japanese concept of happiness

 March 2013 - June 2015

Conceptions of happiness and their negotiation in the public sphere are no exclusive phenomena of the late 20th or of the 21st centuries. From the middle of the Meiji period (1868-1912) onwards discourse on happiness emerged as part of controversial discussions on a variety of political, social, and religious topics. In order to understand the significance, continuities, and discontinuities of the contemporary discourse this project examines the history of happiness as a key concept in modern Japanese history. The major aims of this project are twofold. First, it seeks to contextualize the existing and notably present-oriented research on happiness historically. Second, it aims at contributing to the pluralisation of the canon of conceptual history. The focus of the project will be a rather abstract conception of happiness defined as desirable living conditions which takes on more concrete meanings through supplementary concepts such as individual freedom or social justice. In this sense, happiness can be understood as a proxy through which a generally agreeable and desirable aim (pursuit of happiness) could be advanced. In reality, however, this aim stood for rather specific and by no means uncontroversial social and political agendas such as popular democratic rights, Socialism, the propagation of Christianity, or imperial propaganda. The use of happiness in this way was based on politicized versions of utilitarianism, which defined the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people as the highest social and political aim. In addition, this project applies a perspective of Alltagsgeschichte (everyday history) in order to understand how happiness as an expression of quality-of-life and of well-being was subjectively defined and experienced in imperial Japan.