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positions: east asia cultures critique 10.1 (2002) 1-6
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Guest Editor's Introduction
Imagine for a moment the following scenes: In the still center of a raging Pacific War, liberal political scientist Maruyama Masao composes a prehistory for Japan's failure to produce a modern political subject, crucial, in his view, to the formation of a public sphere. Immediately following Japan's defeat, in the towns and villages of Hiroshima, displaced philosopher Nakai Masakazu confronts Japan's recent past with a form of Kantian critical reason in pursuit of radical democratic transformation in the present. Little more than a decade later a newly reconsolidated state makes plans to mount an official exhibit of Japanese art for the Tokyo Olympics as a powerful public topos where history is to be redeemed and the nation reimagined as homogeneous, harmonious, and culturally unique. In the increasingly commodified setting of the 1960s, writer and public intellectual Eto Jun laments Japan's loss of cultural integrity and autonomy in a mass-consumed discourse that lends passionate appeal to a conservative hegemony. During the [End Page 1] same decade “emergent communities of dissent” reject the mass media for “mini-komi” newsletters in an effort to stake out local sites for independent political action. Avant-garde artist Akasegawa Genpei, mocking an authoritative money system with his “models” of the thousand-yen bill, transforms the courtroom into a space for redefining art and testing the limits of public discourse. And documentary filmmakers Ogawa Shinsuke and Tsuchimoto Noriake struggle to transmute cinema—its production and reception, content and form—into an alternative space for public discourse and collective self-formation.
In these scenes from Japan's recent past, the meaning of the public is at stake, certainly for the contributing authors and often for the principal subjects of our explorations. With the defeat and its aftermath, democratic imagination, already operative in the post-Meiji period, took on renewed vitality, both in response to new opportunities for shaping public space and political culture and in opposition to multiple forms of containment and control. But the question of what and who constitutes the public has remained an issue of heated contention in Japan's postwar decades. It is significant that one of the best-known interpreters of the concept, Jürgen Habermas, begins his 1962 study of Öffentlichkeit, translated as public sphere in the title of the English version, with a cautionary observation on the definition of terms: “The usage of the words ‘public' and ‘public sphere' betrays a multiplicity of concurrent meanings. Their origins go back to various historical phases and, when applied synchronically to the conditions of a bourgeois society that is industrially advanced and constituted as a social-welfare state, they fuse into a clouded amalgam.”1 Yet despite the confusion, even contradictions, engendered by this complicated genealogy, Habermas finds the terminology not only ubiquitous but also necessary, whether for historical analysis of the Western European past or for envisioning a revitalized democratic social life in the present. Even critics who doubt the existence of a public sphere as such or who take issue with its liberal bourgeois articulation understand that invoking the public continues to be indispensable in defense of the interests of individuals and groups who occupy less powerful positions in advanced capitalist societies. In the words of Bruce Robbins, editor of The Phantom Public Sphere, “The public has long served as a rallying cry against private greed, a demand for attention to the general welfare as against propertied [End Page 2] interests, an appeal for openness to scrutiny as opposed to corporate and bureaucratic secrecy, an arena in which disenfranchised minorities struggle to express their cultural identity.”2 In modern Japan the history of the term public has been complicated further by the inmixing of older vernacular usages with discursive genealogies derived from Western Europe and the United States. To make the terminological terrain even more treacherous, with the inception of the Cold War, when U.S. observers note the absence or presence of a public sphere in non-Western societies—observations often coupled with assessments of the strength...