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Japanese Thought Japanese Philosophy

The Production Of Thought: Writing As Philosophy, The Capital City As The Space Of Thought Production

To write about Japanese intellectual history is to take part in the lasting Japanese scholarly tradition of recalling the past in order to make sense out of the present, that is, the writing of Japanese history. These histories, official or nonofficial, are structured around key ideas reflecting the intellectual life of a particular period. Constituting a rational effort at legitimizing the power of the elites, these histories also have a more reflective and critical dimension offering insights about the social, political, and religious dimensions of a particular period. What becomes clear through these histories is that Japanese identity is rooted in the construction of a virtual "other" source of fear and admiration. That "other," whether it is China, the West, or the United States, serves as an incentive to the construction of a Japanese "self." The Japanese "self" is not the result of an imitation or a reproduction of an exterior model, but the result of a long and painful interior process of realizing that what is idealized in the "other" is in fact the essence of Japanese culture. For example, the Kojiki (712 C.E.; Record of ancient matters) and the more voluminous Nihon shoki (720 C.E.; Chronicles of Japan), expose the prestigious genealogy of the leaders of the Japanese kingdom. These historical records were created after encountering Chinese culture and are meaningful as long as they can be contrasted with Chinese historical records. The sense of excellence and uniqueness emphasized by these histories is not exclusivist or isolationist but relational and agonistic. When later on during the twentieth century the "other" became the "West," historians forged the image of a Japanese "self" as a model of Asian civilization, rivaling the Western one.

From the short-term horizon of the Heisei era (the name Heisei, meaning "peace everywhere," was introduced in 1989 by the emperor Akihito after the death of his father, the emperor Showa [Hirohito]), the other is still the West and more precisely the West as an idealized United States. However, a strong conviction that it is time for Japan to establish a new order has surfaced in the early twenty-first century through the traditional and symbolic call for reformation (Jap. kaizo or kaikaku).

All levels of twenty-first-century Japanese society are affected by a confused but real desire for reform. Still, one has difficulties in grasping what precisely are the key ideas that would guide the effort toward the building of a new Japanese identity. The Heisei era is one of paradoxes and uncertainties generated by a long-lasting economic crisis, a lack of leadership, a sense of insecurity, a loss of moral and religious incentives, and above all a younger generation that values impermanence (mujo). In that context, education and new means of communication are calling back to memory aspects of the Japanese past. Under the initiative of the Ministry of Education, new history textbooks have been written, but they are the object of continuing controversies. Replacing the traditional monogatari (romantic tales), novels, comic books, and movies nourish a popular taste for what is exotic and perceived as unique in the Japanese past, that is, geomancy (onmyodo), romantic tales, and biographies of religious leaders. The weakening of political, academic, and scientific authority as well as the discrediting of leftist revolutionary ideals have reopened the debate on Japanese culture. The Japan of the Heisei era is experiencing a postcolonial, postwar, post-Marxist, postmodern phase. After the aborted attempts to restore the intellectual tendencies characterized by the theorization on "Japaneseness" (Nihonjin ron), the intellectual discourse has shifted to the notion of "belonging": how does one belong to Japan? What has probably been underestimated about twenty-first-century Japanese thought is the effect the new concept of globalization has had on the Japanese imagination. This concept is in fact very disorienting because it radically transforms the perception of space and renews the reflection on belonging. Globalization does not seem to be compatible with the establishment of a virtual other, reopening the questioning about what makes one Japanese.

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