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  • Overcoming Modernity: Cultural Identity in Wartime Japan
  • Christian Uhl
Overcoming Modernity: Cultural Identity in Wartime Japan. Edited and translated by Richard F. Calichman. Columbia University Press, 2008. 248 pages. Hardcover $45.00/£31.00.

In 1942, the editors of what was then Japan's leading intellectual journal, Bungakukai, organized a symposium with the title "Conference for the Reintegration of Culture: Overcoming Modernity." Among the thirteen discussants was a group of invited experts from various fields, including two members of the Kyoto school of philosophy, the philosopher Nishitani Keiji and the historian Suzuki Shigetaka. The Bungakukai group was represented by the writers Hayashi Fusao and Kamei Katsuichirō; the poet Miyoshi Tatsuji; and the critics Nakamura Mitsuo, Kobayashi Hideo, and Kawakami Tetsutarō. Kawakami hosted the discussion, which took place on 23 and 24 July. The transcripts of the symposium were first published in the October and November issues of Bungakukai and were republished as a book in 1943 together with the conference papers, in which the discussants had expressed their viewpoints concerning modernity. This corpus of texts, which Carol Gluck rightly calls (in a back-cover blurb) "the defining cultural text of wartime Japan," is now finally available in a skillfully crafted and thoughtfully interpreted translation by Richard F. Calichman.

We are already indebted to Calichman for, among other works, a fine English translation of writings by Takeuchi Yoshimi, including the essay "Overcoming Modernity," in which Takeuchi in 1959 presented the first serious analysis of the symposium. Takeuchi concluded that the meeting ended in failure:

The symposium on "overcoming modernity" was, as one might put it, the condensate of the aporias of Japan's modern history. Restoration and renewal, [the calls for] "revering the emperor" and "expelling the Western barbarians," [the politics of ] national seclusion and [of] opening the country, the [notions of the] national essence and [of] "civilization and enlightenment," East and West—all these antagonisms on the fundamental axis of tradition detonated simultaneously as problems. . . . This detonation was the discussion on "overcoming modernity."1

Indeed, reading the current volume, one can detect such antagonisms all over the place. Minamoto Ryōen has already drawn our attention to a particularly interesting antinomy that exploded at the beginning of the second day in a battle of words between [End Page 424] the writer Kobayashi and the philosopher Nishitani.2 As Karatani Kōjin has argued,3 this altercation involved yet another structural conflict within the intellectual world of modern Japan, the antagonism between followers of the French tradition of thought—as can be seen from Calichman's short biographies of the discussants, the majority of the members of the Bungakukai group, including Kobayashi, had studied French literature—and those engaged in the study of philosophy, whose curriculum traditionally had a penchant for German idealism, and for Hegel in particular. As a matter of fact, Kobayashi complains about the dialectical "theories of historical change" (p. 181) favored by the latter group and their borrowed, double-entendre-filled language: "We feel that philosophers are truly indifferent to our [the literary camp's] fate of writing in the national language," he says, adding that the papers by Nishitani and the Catholic theologian Yoshimitsu Yoshihiko were the most difficult to understand (p. 196). Such instances of disturbed communication are ubiquitous. On the first day of the discussion, the physicist Kikuchi Seishi is taken aback by Nishitani and Yoshimitsu, who indulge themselves in an exchange about the "link between science and God" (pp. 165–68). Kikuchi listens and finally asks: "With what did you say that science must be logically connected?" (p. 167). The discussants could not even agree about periodizing modernity. Nishitani, or Suzuki, for example, regarded the Renaissance as the beginning of the modern age, whereas the composer Moroi Saburō identified the disintegration of form since the eighteenth century as the characteristic feature of modernity—at least insofar as music was concerned. Kawakami, in his concluding remarks, says: "It had already been pointed out several years ago that our culture's various fields were isolated from one another, and I am sure that many readers of the present volume would concur with this. Disparities could be seen everywhere" (p. 150).

In its chaotic...


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