- The Undiscovered Country: Text, Translation, and Modernity in the Work of Yanagita Kunio by Melek Ortabasi
“Yanagita Kunio [柳田国男],” Melek Ortabasi writes at the beginning of The Undiscovered Country, “was a public intellectual who played a pivotal role in shaping modern Japan’s cultural identity” (p. 1). The characterization is appropriately broad; although Yanagita may be best known as the founder of the discourse of minzokugaku 民俗学 (translated typically as folklore studies or native ethnology), which aspired to the status of an academic discipline, his influence spread far beyond this particular area of study. The impact of his work was felt in the fields of history, cultural anthropology, linguistics, and literary studies, among others, but also reached far into many forms of popular culture and into popular consciousness at large.
Yanagita’s work has, furthermore, found itself attached to a diverse range of ideological positions. His writings on rural village life and the concept of the jōmin 常民 (common folk) are often described as a nativist search for an authentic Japan, and he himself called his work a type of shin-kokugaku 新国学, or neonational studies. At various times, critics have ascribed to it collusion not only with ethnic nationalism but also with discourses undergirding Japan’s empire in Asia. At the same time, he has also been a powerful beacon for progressive intellectuals, especially at moments when Marxism suffered from state suppression or from the disillusionment of intellectuals, as historian Hashikawa Bunsō 橋川文三 and others have pointed out.1 For such thinkers and writers, Yanagita’s folk studies appeared as an indigenous discourse offering the means to conceive alternative social formations to modernity.
In the introduction to this informative and wide-ranging book, Ortabasi perceptively points out that Yanagita can be considered an example of what Michel Foucault identifies as a distinctive type of author that emerged during the nineteenth century, whom he calls [End Page 252] “founders of discursivity.” Foucault writes in “What is an Author” that “they are unique in that they are not just the authors of their own works. They have produced something else: the possibilities and the rules for the formation of other texts.”2 For Foucault, the writings of such an author (Freud and Marx are privileged examples) can be situated somewhere between the performative texts of a novelist (who is author only of his or her own texts) and the referential texts of the founder of a science, which may give rise to subsequent works but claim no special authority over them apart from their empirical truth claims: in this situation, the founding act, Foucault says, “is on an equal footing with its future transformations.”3
There are, in fact, intriguing parallels here to Marx and Freud. Both of those authors, like Yanagita, were founders of discourses whose reach went well beyond their disciplinary homes—indeed, one might say their impact was felt more strongly outside those disciplinary boundaries. As Foucault notes, this dispersion inevitably leads to calls for a return to origins, as seen in the calls for a “return to Freud” or a “return to Marx” that shaped postwar French intellectual discourse:
In this way we can understand the inevitable necessity, within these fields of discursivity, for a “return to the origin.” This return, which is part of the discursive field itself, never stops modifying it. The return is not a historical supplement that would be added to the discursivity, or merely an ornament; on the contrary, it constitutes an effective and necessary task of transforming the discursive practice itself. Reexamination of Galileo’s text may well change our understanding of the history of mechanics, but it will never be able to change mechanics itself. On the other hand, reexamining Freud’s texts modifies psychoanalysis itself, just as a reexamination of Marx’s would modify Marxism.4
Ortabasi’s attempt here can generally be seen along such lines; while not phrasing her project precisely as a “return to Yanagita,” she does proclaim the necessity of reading the texts themselves, noting that...