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  • Okakura Tenshin:Civilization Critique from the Standpoint of Asia (1962)
  • Takeuchi Yoshimi (bio)
    Translated by Christopher L. Hill (bio)

Tenshin is a hard to handle thinker, and, in a sense, a hazardous thinker. He is hard to handle because his thought comprises things that refuse standardization; hazardous because of a continually radioactive quality. Touch him carelessly and one may get burned.

Yet if one thinks about it, thought that is hygienically harmless, in the end, may not be thought or anything else. Thought is thought precisely in that it is harmful. Thought is perhaps something that sets itself to work on reality somehow, that revolutionizes reality (including spirit). If this is so, then thought, because it is thought, is always a dangerous thing from the standpoint of maintaining the status quo. Tenshin isn't the only one who is hazardous.

Tenshin's thought was most radioactive during the era of the past war. At that time he was set up as a forerunner of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Because national essentialism (kokusui) and Asianism were elements intrinsic to Tenshin, and naturally inexhaustible since they originated in romanticism, it was inevitable Tenshin's name would be used in the total mobilization of thought enforced under the pretext of a "holy war" to liberate Asia.1 His thought was used because it was so productive. This is to Tenshin's credit and not his shame.

As the state of war deepened the bureaucratic control of culture became more severe. Part of this, as many today will surely recall, was the birth of a one-dimensional organization called the Patriotic Association for Japanese Literature (Nihon Bungaku Hōkoku Kai). In addition to presiding over the Greater East Asia Writers Congress (Dai Tōa Bungakusha Taikai) this group undertook several projects, such as the selection of the Patriotic One Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets (Aikoku hyakunin isshu) and the Almanac of National Aphorisms (Kokumin zayūmei). The Almanac of National Aphorisms offered adages from men of old suited to each of the 365 days. The one chosen [End Page 15] for December 8—that is, the entry for the day the Greater East Asia War began—was Tenshin's pronouncement "Asia is one."

The commentary for the entry was written by Asano Akira:2

Tenshin let this forth as a great lamentation expressing his sincere yearning for the liberation of Asia's billions. Only Tenshin, as a Japanese, could truly give voice to such an enormous lamentation. Here we recall sagely, but with nearly painful pride and passion, the mission of creation of the divine land of Japan, blessed to be ruled by his Majesty.3

During the war it was mainly writers associated with the Japan Romantic School (Nihon Roman-ha) who took Tenshin as their guide.4 These were Asano Akira and Satō Nobue, under the lead of Yasuda Yojūrō. Asano was the most enthusiastic among them and published several books about Tenshin. Up to this point Tenshin was known through his three chief works, but Asano introduced The Awakening of the East by translating this unfinished manuscript.5

Whether it was Yasuda or Asano, the treatment of Tenshin as the essence of the "spirit of Meiji" (1868-1912) did not change, but the interpretation of what that meant changed subtly with the passage of years. The aforementioned interpretation, which shows its final stage, reflects the fanatical situation of the end of the war. For this reason, though, it cannot be taken as representative of the Japan Romantic School's view of Tenshin. If one were to distill and sum up the Japan Romantic School-style view of Tenshin, one might listen, instead of Asano, to Kamei Katsuichirō's postwar statements. In them, Tenshin returns to being an apostle of beauty. Beauty opposes science; and while science is connected to war, the way of beauty surpasses it. This was the Japan Romantic School's view of Tenshin in the age of war disavowal.

In one sense, Tenshin was used by the Japan Romantic School, and in another sense he was unearthed anew in intellectual terms. Setting aside whether this was good or bad fortune for Tenshin, it...