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Reviewed by:
  • Contemporary Japanese Thought
  • Michael K. Bourdaghs
Contemporary Japanese Thought. Edited by Richard F. Calichman. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005. Pp. viii + 309 . Paperback $24.50.

Readers of this publication who frequent Japan likely share a particular pleasure: browsing through the magazine racks in a good Japanese bookstore. There is a powerful (and cheap) intellectual rush to be had in flipping through the journals that specialize in philosophy, theory, and intellectual history: Shisō, Gendai shisō, Yuriika, Gunzō, and the now-lamented Hihyō kūkan, among others. These widely circulated periodicals publish a broad range of thinkers, some writing on contemporary cultural or political issues, others taking up long-standing philosophical debates. While this academic journalism at times tends toward the faddish and toward overly superficial analysis, on the whole it opens up for Japanese readers an intellectual public space that an American scholar can only envy.

These journals are also remarkably cosmopolitan. They regularly present translations and discussions of recent works written in European and Asian languages, allowing their readers to keep up almost in real time with current intellectual trends in Shanghai, Paris, and New York. Unfortunately, this intellectual generosity is all too infrequently reciprocated: cutting-edge works by Japanese intellectuals are [End Page 601] much less likely to be translated into other languages. The situation has been improving in recent years, however, and the present volume makes an important contribution in that direction. It provides fine English-language translations of recent writings by eight prominent intellectuals, all of them familiar figures in Japan's thriving academic journalism.

As Richard Calichman notes in his provocative introduction to Contemporary Japanese Thought, this book does not attempt a comprehensive survey. Instead, the included writings were chosen primarily along two axes: essays with a strong focus on gender critique and essays that link philosophy directly to political practice. Many of the pieces also explore the contingent and fluid nature of any possible definition of Japanese thought, sharing what Calichman calls a tendency to be "more conscious of its (unsublatable, unsubsumable) internal differences, and hence more receptive to the event of alterity" (p. 19). In other words, the volume presents a version of Japanese thought in which national identity remains an open question, rather than a preexisting ground.

Some of the writers collected here are already familiar to English-speaking readers—for example, literary critic and theorist Karatani Kōjin, represented by two essays, one a critique of the "Overcoming Modernity" debate of the early 1940s that situates it in terms of European intellectual traditions, and the second a philosophical reading of Natsume Sōseki's 1914 novel Kokoro in terms of the internal diversity of possibilities that it sustains. Other contributors are less well known outside Japan, including philosopher Takahashi Tetsuya, whose two contributions come from a late-1990s debate he carried on with the revisionist literary historian KatōNorihiro. Takahashi lucidly rebuts Katō's claims of a "distorted" postwar Japanese cultural history, showing them to be instances of a neo-nationalism that is characterized above all by an inability to acknowledge the history of Japanese violence against Asia. The political theorist Kang Sangjung in his two essays likewise focuses on the history of Japan's Asian empire and the erasure of that empire from postwar historical memory.

The entire collection is strong, but a few pieces in particular stand out. "The Wonderland of 'Immortality'" by Nishitani Osamu, a specialist in French literature, provides a brilliant analysis of the implications of contemporary developments in medical technology that render death susceptible to human manipulation—including organ transplantation, shifting definitions of "brain death," and the advocacy of euthanasia. "When death becomes diffused," Nishitani argues, "there is nothing to guarantee what man's authentic way of being is, regardless of where or how he is" (p. 138). This requires us to revisit some of the most basic questions of modern thought: Nishitani invokes, among others, Hegel, Heidegger, Bataille, Freud, and Blanchot. His essay provides a prototype for how philosophical discourse can be linked fruitfully to current social and political debates.

The same can be said for Naoki Sakai's "Two Negations: The Fear of Being Excluded and the Logic of Self-Esteem," another...


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