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Overcome by Modernity: History, Culture, and Community in Interwar Japan.

By Harry Harootunian. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000. 414 pp.

Harootunian's intellectual history introduces a stunning variety of Japanese thinkers grappling in different ways with similar concerns of modernity, tradition, and the social. The context is the experience of modern life in interwar Japan, undergoing a second industrial revolution of heavy and chemical industry and the concomitant commoditization of daily life. His chief concern is not with that experience per se but "rather with how that experience was thought about and discussed" (p. xi). Harootunian takes the "high road" of intellectual history as the history of ideas, rarely descending to the mundane level of biography or history (except to the extent it was thought about by the people he studies).

After a short chapter affirming that the interwar trajectory of Japanese modernity was capitalist modernity, in Chapter 2 Harootunian looks at the ideas circulating in and around the 1942 Kyoto conference designed to "overcome the modern" (kindai o chokoku). He takes the ideas of the participants of the Kyoto conference seriously, unlike many Japanese historians who merely see evidence Japan had become fascist. After all, the conference did not generate much sustained deep thinking. Instead we find a variety of shrill assaults on "Americanism," code (as in Weimar) for the materialism and superficiality of consumer society. Rather than openly scorn the outrageous excesses of these thinkers, Harootunian relegates most comments to footnotes. Occasionally, at least, condescension is apparent: "Hayashi shrieked that 'the American film seizes the heart of the people (minshu) through democracy'" (p. 61).

Relief from the shouting comes in Chapter 3, where we encounter those who appreciate (and enjoy) the capitalist modernity that so enraged the overcomers. For them, "Americanism" is a good thing, "everydayness" a worthy subject of scholarly consideration. Japan's urban masses may be "overcome by modernity," but they seem to like it (p. 101). Typical are the views of Marxist Hirabayashi Hatsnosuke, endorsing the new emerging mass culture precisely because it is of the people. This noisy new culture (epitomized by radio and cinema) was characterized by speed and excitement.

Tosaka Jun's take on the trends of the day earns Harootunian's highest praise: "More than any other thinker of the age, he viewed his present as a philosophical problem that needed to be interrogated, when others merely assumed its phenomenality as a given" (p. 118). Like Hirabayashi, Tosaka grounded custom in the people, as a "mass phenomenon," and determined to study previously ignored topics such as clothing, sexuality, and other aspects of "everydayness" (nichijosei) (p. 119).

A disturbing countervailing trend to optimism about the times emerges in Chapter 4, where Harootunian shows how some intellectuals changed in the waning years of the interwar. Returning from a decade of study in Europe (at the feet of Martin Heidegger), Kuki Shuzo is unable to recognize his homeland, and, like his mentor, tends to distrust the masses, democracy, and modernity itself (p. 227). Kuki reworks his insightful Iki no kozo (the structure of Iki) in shocking new directions, claiming that the chonin trait of Iki (the ideal of the chic or stylish) "runs through the blood of our Japanese people through the spirit of bushido" (p. 246). Furthermore, Kuki claims that Iki helps explain success of the military in Manchuria! A similar process finds Watsuji Tetsuro by the early 1940s revising his concept of fudo from a thoughtful analysis of Japan's climate and culture into an attack on Western society: "While brandishing the equality of rights, they [Anglo-Saxons] coolly murdered natives" (p. 279).

In the penultimate Chapter 6 ("History's Actuality"), Harootunian portrays Miki Kiyoshi's pursuit of Marxian praxis, devising new means of not only understanding but changing "everydayness." Yet Miki ends up endorsing "cooperativism" and other notions serving to justify Japan's conquest of Asia. As the China "Incident" deepens, we find this brilliant and thoughtful philosopher crafting phrases such as "Sino-Japanese good-neighborliness and cooperation" or calling for the creation of "works of art ... that Chinese would love" (p. 394).

Nearly every page of this stimulating book introduces the often difficult thought of yet another Japanese or European intellectual. It is impossible to summarize the diversity of ideas so expressed. Sometimes this adventure approaches a philosophical poetry. For example: "Since necessity insinuates that which Being possesses, it presumes the ground of itself; whereas contingency, as suggested, signifies a state of groundlessness of Being, negativity, non-Being, Plato's nonexistence, and Tanabe's 'species'" (p. 238). The undeniable difficulty of passages like this is not accidental.

Of course, Harootunian's concern is not with ideas for their own sake but for their role in historical change. Sharing Tosaka Jun's view of liberal intellectuals as accomplices of fascism, Harootunian practically dedicates his book to Tosaka for the 1935 work Nihon ideorogiron: "In a certain sense, my book is an attempt to retrieve Tosaka's powerful critique of fascism and how its ideological appeal to culture and community was sanctioned by a liberal endowment" (p. xxx). Accordingly, Harootunian castigates a wide range of liberal thinkers such as Watsuji Tetsuro and Kuki Shuzo, and notably even Yanagita Kunio and Orikuchi Shinobu's folkish nostalgia for a vanishing rural communal life (kyodotai), which he claims "could not help but supply fascism with its most powerful trope, an object of fantasy and political desire" (p. 400).

A handful of works in English have chronicled the apostasy (tenko) of both Marxist and liberal intellectuals (Andrew Barshay's study of quintessential "outsider" Hasegawa Nyozekan, drawn to the state like a moth to a flame, comes to mind). But few have Harootunian's command of the intellectual world of both Europe and Japan. So it is a surprise and a disappointment that after 400 pages the book concludes not with a consideration of the historical role of the important intellectuals--Japanese and European--he introduced us to, but instead with a twelve-page assessment of what he earlier calls a "lesser" thinker, Takada Yasuma, and his "contribution to the specter of fascism in Japan" (p. 403). Harootunian could have given us a better summation of the role of intellectuals in global fascism (a rubric that is surely most useful in a comparative sense). Instead his book ends sedately. We can only hope that Harootunian will provide us with the comparative perspective on the intellectual road to fascism that this powerfully suggestive work confirms he is capable of.

Lawrence Fouraker, History Department

St. John Fisher College
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Author:Fouraker, Lawrence
Publication:Journal of East Asian Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 2003
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