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positions: east asia cultures critique 10.1 (2002) 173-194

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A Salon for the Soul:
Nakai Masakazu and the Hiroshima Culture Movement

Leslie Pincus

It was as if the intellectuals who took refuge in the countryside had been set adrift in unfamiliar seas. With the abrupt ending of the war, they found themselves at a total loss in determining what their task should be.

—Nakai Masakazu

Just weeks after Japan's surrender to the Allied Powers and only days after the dismantling of the repressive Peace Preservation Law (4 October 1945), Nakai Masakazu, head of the Onomichi City Library, tacked up a notice at the entrance of the long-neglected library building: “Kant Lectures to be held here, Sundays, 9 A.M., students welcome; Wednesdays 2 P.M., women welcome; Fridays, open discussion, 1 P.M.” Nakai recalls putting up the notice with “an irrepressible feeling of elation” at the prospect of being able to speak freely after a decade either in jail or under suspicion as an antiwar advocate.1 [End Page 173]

In the last year of the Pacific War, Nakai had taken refuge in his hometown of Onomichi in eastern Hiroshima Prefecture, where he was offered the post of local librarian—a labor of love, as it turned out. The mayor felt the designated salary would be an insult to a scholar of Nakai's stature, despite the fact that less than a decade earlier Nakai had been unceremoniously deprived of his faculty position in philosophy at Kyoto Imperial University and charged with “thought crimes.”2

In later recollections Nakai describes how his first Kant lecture in October 1945 began with about twenty people in the audience; within a few weeks the number dropped to ten, then to five. He tried everything—more intriguing content, a more impassioned delivery—but to no avail. From the library window he could see the profiles of young men just home from war—the audience he most hoped to reach—standing in line at the local movie hall next door. The day finally came when only one faithful auditor showed up at the library, Nakai's own seventy-seven-year-old mother, an individual worthy of a book in her own right.3

Why did Nakai persist in explicating Kant to a shrinking audience of war-weary, demoralized individuals? What gave him the idea that German Enlightenment philosophy was even remotely relevant to the lives of his intended audience? Was this simply naive pretension on the part of an elite intellectual, paternalistic at best, offensively impertinent at worst? At the risk of evasion I want to begin by directing our attention to the sense of urgency that quickened Nakai's first pedagogical attempts, however unsuccessful, an urgency rooted in this disquieting recognition: even though the war was over, the conditions that generated it—in particular, those less tangible conditions of social life that Nakai called culture—were still very much present. If the people of, in his words, an “aggressor nation” were to acknowledge and transform those conditions, then it was absolutely crucial that they understand what Kant had to say about the human faculties.

Despite the strength of Nakai's conviction, his audience remained elusive, a disheartening state of affairs that persisted through the end of that first postdefeat year. “Overcome at moments by a mood of maudlin self-pity,” he writes,“I would tell myself that the masses were hopelessly benighted, or, assuming the pose of tragic hero, that every era witnessed failed ambitions toward enlightenment; needless to say, I was tempted to give it all up.” [End Page 174] Nevertheless Nakai was not without the experience of learning from his mistakes, a process he described as “discovering truth through the mediation of negation.”4 In the 1930s while still on the Kyoto University faculty, he had gained a profound appreciation for the dialectic between trial and error, theory and practice, especially in his coalition-building efforts in the new and politically precarious Kyoto Livelihood Cooperative movement.5 Now in post-defeat Hiroshima, even...


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