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  • A History of Japanese Political Thought, 1600–1901 by Watanabe Hiroshi
  • Federico Marcon
A History of Japanese Political Thought, 1600–1901 by Watanabe Hiroshi, Trans. David Noble. Tokyo: International House of Japan, 2012. Pp. xiv + 553. ¥2858.

The publication of Watanabe Hiroshi’s 渡辺浩 A History of Japanese Political Thought, 1600–1901 in English is an example of brilliant untimeliness.1 It is untimely because, after two decades of cultural histories of early modern Japan on whaling, travel, official correspondences, samurai genealogies, herrings, night soil, forestry, plants, wolves, prostitutes, male-male sexuality, ordinary economies, maps, guidebooks, printing, prisons, village hierarchies, tea utensils, clothing, and houses, publishing a comprehensive historical overview of Japanese political thought is a courageous and unfashionable anachronism. After decades of open disavowal of the intellectual historiography of the 1970s and 1980s, who dares attempt such an ambitious enterprise? Sure, only a Japanese historian could have done it, as the field of shisōshi 思想史 an approximation to the anglophone “intellectual history”—has maintained in Japan its luster in academia and among the general reader-ship, thus enjoying the continuous support of the publishing industry. Still, hats off to David Noble, the translator, and to the fellows of the International House Press for bringing us this pearl of a book!

A History of Japanese Political Thought, 1600–1901 is also untimely because it has a chronological range and a thematic scope that are rarely found in recent scholarship, which often indulges in microhistorical excavations rather than exploring the possibility of new overarching narratives. Most importantly, though, it is untimely because after reading through the 536 pages on three centuries of political thought one cannot help but acknowledge the actuality of the intellectual disputes and the creativity of Tokugawa thinkers. The beautiful translation of David Noble capably conveys to the Western reader what I consider the greatest achievement of Watanabe Hiroshi’s scholarship: the ability to bring back to life the issues, problems, contradictions, transnational character, and import of Tokugawa political ideas in their own terms, but at the same time to do so in a way that makes them [End Page 396] uncannily present and relevant to the modern reader. Watanabe does not frame them in interpretative grids inspired by Foucault, Derrida, or Bourdieu. He does not subsume them under allegedly universal conceptualizations (usually grounded, not surprisingly, in European political philosophy), nor does he submit to a naïve empiricism that embraces suspicious notions of Japanese uniqueness and exceptionalism. Rather, the various issues that engaged Japanese scholars from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries are presented as springing from the interaction of three factors: the objective socioeconomic transformations of Tokugawa society, the resilience of received principles and political protocols, and the introduction of new ideas from the West and from the intellectual creativity of a vibrant community of scholars. Watanabe’s scholarship develops on the belief that ideas and the society that engendered them are not separable, nor is one subsumable under the other. “People’s thoughts,” Watanabe states in the Preface, “are profoundly determined by the political and social institutions and the structures of communication of the times in which they live; but conversely, their thinking also shapes these political and social systems” (p. 3). In other words, A History of Japanese Political Thought, 1600–1901 is a rare pearl of dialectical historiography.

Let me give an example. Chapter 18, “The Opening of Japan as a Philosophical Question,” focuses on the debate over the opening of Japan to international diplomacy and trade in the nineteenth century. “The story often goes,” Watanabe explains at the beginning of the chapter, “that Japan was forced to open itself through pressure from the Western nations. Certainly this version of events provided a convenient excuse to the leaders of the new Meiji government. . . . But it captures only one facet of the history of the period. In reality, the opening of Japan’s ports and of the country as a whole to trade and diplomacy with Western nations had been debated long before Commodore Perry’s arrival in 1853” (p. 333). The chapter introduces the debate among Japanese thinkers and political leaders as it originated in the contradictions between the proper diplomatic protocol...


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