Japn 314/Hist 445/131

"Yoshimoto Takaaki and the Celebration of Privatization"

from the article by Carl Cassegard in Japan Focus: http://www.japanfocus.org/-Carl-Cassegard/2684

Yoshimoto Takaaki (1924-), a maverick philosopher, poet and literary critic, is considered by many to be the perhaps most original and influential thinker of the “New Left” in Japan. However, despite his association with the New Left, he is often harshly critical of the student activism and citizen protest movement of the 60s. This stance is grounded in his dislike of parties, sects and organizations, an attitude which commentators have pointed out reflects his experience as an adolescent of the war and war-time totalitarian mobilization, when what he calls the “communal fantasy” (kyodo genso) swept away virtually the entire population in a wave of war frenzy (Murakami 2005:116f).

Yoshimoto Takaaki:
"If you ask what sort of logic or thought I was aiming for during the postwar years, my problem consciousness was that it was absolutely necessary to construct a thought of escape, a thought for cowards. The idea of 'winning'or 'gladly throwing away one’s life' was thoroughly discredited." (Yoshimoto 1992:204)

Here Yoshimoto speaks of the experience of war and militarism, but the same words also fit his attitude to the radical sects of the student movement, whose idea of fighting was similarly discredited in the course of the 60’s and early 70’s. In a speech in 1970, “The structure of defeat” (Haiboku no kozo), he states that three “defeats” had a formative effect on his thought: the defeat in the war, the setbacks of union-activism in his youth, and the defeat in the “Ampo-struggle”, the 1960 mass-demonstrations against the renewal of the US-Japan security treaty (Yoshimoto 1972b). [4] Each defeat was a case of public involvement. It is not farfetched to surmise that they contributed to a sense of disillusionment in such involvement, regardless of whether it was called for in the name of self-sacrifice for the emperor or proletarian mobilization under the leadership of “progressive” intellectuals or parties. In particular, his political involvement in the “Ampo-struggle” led him to an extreme disillusionment with communist and socialist movements and intellectuals, which reinforced and radicalized his rejection of public participation.

Let us look at his famous debate with the political scientist Maruyama Masao about the security treaty crisis. In “8/15 and 5/19” (“8.15 to 5.19”, 1960), Maruyama observes that wartime slogans such as “sacrificing the private, serving the public” (messhi hoko) had vanished in the postwar era without being replaced by any genuine democratic ethos from below. Today two tendencies could be seen among the people: one was “privatization”, the pursuit of private interests coupled with political apathy. The other is civic activism, as exemplified by the security treaty demonstrations. Maruyama sees hope in the latter, while criticizing the former apolitical tendency for being just as convenient for ruling elites as the old indoctrination (Maruyama 2005). [5]
http://www.japanfocus.org/data/maruyamamasao.jpgMaruyama Masao
In his angry and elegantly formulated response, “The End of a Fictitious System” (“Gisei no shuen”, 1960), Yoshimoto heaps scorn on the devotion to the public that Maruyama praised, and which he sees as a legacy of the wartime notion of “sacrificing the private”. Instead he defends a retreat or exit from the public. This stance takes the form of a defense of the “masses” (taishu) against the criticism of intellectuals, including a positive reevaluation of the “private self-interest” that flourished in “the world of the black market and rubble” that arose from the “confusion of defeat”. [6] The truth is the reverse of what Maruyama claims, he argues. It is precisely this “private sense of interest” that “forms the basis of postwar ‘democracy’” (Yoshimoto 1962, 2005). In 1972 he repeats this idea succinctly in a speech, “The decadence and crisis of postwar thought” (“Sengo shiso no taihai to kiki”).

Whenever we consider the postwar era, a shared presupposition for mutual understanding has been that its foremost task is that the “private” is more important than the “public,” that the individuals making up the mass of the people are more important than the state, or in other words that the question what will become of “me” tomorrow is more important than what will become of the state tomorrow. (Yoshimoto 1976b:405f)

Part of the background of Yoshimoto’s championship of the private is his experience of and resulting allergy to ideologies of totalitarian mobilization. Only a “privatized consciousness” is free from exalting state authority and also from idolizing organization. In particular, Yoshimoto points to the family and the love-relationship (tsui genso) as bastions against calls for “serving the public”. [7] Yoshimoto’s affirmative stance to privacy manifests itself in his “dislike” of political parties – especially the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) – and citizen movements (shimin undo), which “appear open but are actually closed collectives”. In his view they are emotional and trusting only in their numbers, lacking individuals who think for themselves and all too often just follow directives from “above”, from the party of the movement leaders (Yoshimoto 2002:163).

Yoshimoto is far from disparaging all forms of activism, and a question of some interest is what made him support some forms of activism but not others. He himself promoted unions while working at a small factory in his youth, and even today he usually refers to labor unions in positive terms, describing them as rooted in the everyday concerns of the masses and hence distinct from what he calls “political movements” (Yoshimoto & Takaoka 2005:73). Similarly, he was an enthusiastic supporter of Zengakuren, the nationwide student body that took the lead in the anti-security treaty demonstrations, and which he saw as driven by a new sensibility that was the product of “a bloated material life”, high standards of living and hostility to organization (Yoshimoto 1992:34). He spoke at Zengakuren meetings in December 1959 and January 1960, and participated in a sit-in at Shinagawa Station on June 4. Famously, he joined the Zengakuren students as they broke inside the National Diet fence on the night of June 15, addressed them there in a speech in the early hours of the 16th, and was arrested in the turmoil that followed and held for two days.
http://www.japanfocus.org/data/1960ampo.diet.jpgSurrounding the Diet
What, in Yoshimoto’s eyes, made Zengakuren so different from other movements? To begin with we must return to the specific historical situation of the “Ampo”-struggle in 1960. These struggles marked the first appearance on a large scale of the new left in Japan. At the time, the main organization of this new left was The Communist League (Kyosanshugi Domei), also known as the Bund (Bunto), which in turn controlled Zengakuren. Inspired by the de-Stalinization process in the Soviet Union, the Bund turned aggressively against both the JCP and the older generation of “progressive” intellectuals. Yoshimoto’s preference for Zengakuren and dislike of “civic activists” and “political movements” reflects the battle lines of this conflict (Packard 1966:271ff). In order to understand how he could combine his sympathies for the students with an advocacy of privatization, we must turn to the role played by the experience of defeat. This experience has left a decisive mark on his thought, even to the extent that he uses defeat as a hallmark of authenticity (e.g. Yoshimoto 2006:557). Defeat is also his criterion for affirming popular activism and union-struggles, forms of struggle that he sees as being rooted in the masses and doomed to defeat. [8] “Political” activism, by contrast, floats above the mass of the people and is led by the eternal victors, the elite groups who never need to taste defeat. To Yoshimoto these victors included the JCP and the progressive intellectuals, who – like the ideologists of the emperor system during the war – had used high “ideals” to negate the life of the masses and mobilize them towards war or revolution and who, after the Ampo-struggle, would claim that “democracy” had been saved by their efforts (Oguma 2002:605, 638; Olsen 1992:94f; Yoshimoto 1972a and 1972b). An episode which for Yoshimoto symbolized the JCPs hypocrisy and betrayal of the Zengakuren students was the 15 June 1960 street demonstration in which the latter were beaten bloody by the police:

"What I experienced then, and saw with my own eyes, was the figure of the JCP and the progressive movement around it preventing the masses from joining the struggle and insisting on an'orderly' demonstration, even as they watched the struggling and blood-smeared young people being beaten by the police a mere hundred meters away." (Yoshimoto 1989:676)

Yoshimoto’s defence of the defeated “masses” did not necessarily imply support for the cause for which they fought. Certainly, he had himself been an enthusiastic participant in the struggle against the Security Treaty, just as, he tells us, he had been an ardent supporter of the war in his childhood. In retrospect, however, he tends to depoliticize his support for these struggles. It is not because of their stated goals that he approves of them, but because in his view the participants were representatives of the defeated “masses”. To defend a “cause” would for him have been equal to joining in with the choir of the bureaucrats and intellectuals who were for ever leading the masses into new struggles in which they were bound to be sacrificed. To resist, it was vital for the masses not to be misled again and to abandon the high public ideals preached to them. That would be the first step towards what he called “autonomy” (jiritsu). In 1961, the year after the Ampo-struggle, he explains why he rejected a certain invitation to a political meeting:

"Those who think they won the Ampo-struggle will certainly also 'win' the struggle about the proposed law for preventing acts of political violence and whatever struggles the future will offer. Nothing will come out of that but thoroughgoing lack of autonomy, the fetishism of the organization, self-deceit and bureaucratic phantoms. There are certainly times when one has to fight even while knowing defeat. That’s simply a problem of determination. But no one can be forgiven for being defeated a second time using methods that already failed once. 'Won’t you join us?', 'Forget it, I’m taking my afternoon nap.'” (Yoshimoto 1962:67)

For Yoshimoto, privatization is a justifiable, even commendable, reaction to political defeat. The flipside of his criticism of the hypocrisy of intellectuals is his insistence that the masses should be respected when they pull out of politics to lick their wounds and throw themselves into private pursuits.

What emerges during the 60’s is a picture of Yoshimoto’s increasing resignation and withdrawal from an initial stance of intense commitment (the war and early postwar struggles) towards a defense of the apolitical masses. His skepticism towards the student movement of the late 60’s is hardly surprising considering that this movement had itself become increasingly isolated from the masses – while the Zengakuren students of the “Ampo”-struggle had solidarized themselves with the general public and gained wide support in return, the student sects protesting against the Vietnam war often viewed the general populace as being in “collusion” with imperialism and with the war in Vietnam (Kosaka 2006:65). Instead of defining radicalism in terms of revolt, as he had done in his early texts (e.g. Yoshimoto 1990), Yoshimoto now redefines it as championing the “autonomy” of the “masses”, meaning their ability to lead a life without interference or directives from elitist intellectuals or other authorities. In fact, his defense of the “masses” is also explicitly a defense of the right to live an apolitical life. To “live and die indifferently to whatever ruling power”, he asserts, is of more weight than any politician and “the basis for the thought of ‘autonomy’” (Yoshimoto 1989:678).

In the 70’s this “radicalism” is developed into what to many was a provocative nod of approval to post-industrial consumer society, which he argued reflected a new stage in the development of capitalism, “super-capitalism” (cho-shihonshugi), which Marxism had failed to anticipate. [9] From the point of view of “the economic and intellectual liberation of the masses”, he now argues, capitalism is “the greatest work unconsciously produced in the history of mankind” and since nothing surpassing it has yet appeared, it must be affirmed for the time being (ibid 1992:122f). In his view, the criticism of consumer society by many intellectuals is still another instance of their grudging and disparaging view of the masses who have now finally achieved a level of living where they can afford a materially affluent life. Another reason for Yoshimoto’s defense of super-capitalism is its corrosive effects on his old bêtes noirs, the state and its “public sphere” or civil society. As capital undermines the idea of a homogeneous society, individuals and families are liberated from the grip of communal fantasy. Rather than placing hope in “socialism” – which in Yoshimoto’s view has always easily reverted to Stalinism or (through tenko) fascism – he hopes that the hierarchies and the exploitation characteristic of the earlier stage of capitalism diagnosed by Marx will be undermined by the movement of capital itself through development towards an affluent middle-class society (Yoshimoto 2002b:5, 21ff). During the 70’s and 80’s, he also continued his aggressive campaign against the hypocrisy of “civic” movements – the target now shifting towards the movement against nuclear energy and other new social movements.

Predictably, this stance has been criticized by other radicals as a shift to conservatism – some even accusing him of having himself committed a political conversion (tenko). On the other hand, it’s possible to point to the continuities in Yoshimoto’s thought. His criticism has always tended to be directed less towards capitalism than towards the “state” and the idea of self-sacrifice for the “public good” advocated by the postwar Japanese intelligentsia. For instance, Yoshimoto today repeats exactly the same argument in regard to the debate about social withdrawal (hikikomori) which he once used to defend the apolitical “masses” in the 60s against Maruyama. In Withdraw! (Hikikomore, 2002) he states unambiguously: “I cannot by any means give my assent to ideas that ‘social withdrawal is bad and that people who withdraw should be dragged back to society” (ibid 2002a:19). In his opposition to the media’s portrayal of social withdrawal as a “problem”, we sense his irritation at how intellectuals disparagingly label the lifestyles of common people as a “problem” and his concern for each individual’s right to privacy. Most vehemently he turns against the value judgment that being together in society is better than keeping to oneself (ibid 30).

Behind his defense of the privatized “masses” and social withdrawal is an idea that runs through his entire thinking from the 60’s till today: a critique of intellectuals as separated from the reality of the daily lives of the people. This is not the usual ethnocentric or populist idolization of the people as a homogeneous “nation”. Instead, his concern is for the “masses” of present-day mass culture – the myriad individuals pursuing their various daily private concerns – and the possible future that may be taking form in these masses and which can never be adequately represented by a pre-established system of thought. The nationalist idolization of the “people” is itself nothing but an abstract ideology separated from this living reality.

In the discourse of the Left in Japan, Yoshimoto’s writings have had an impact which is hard to overestimate. Nevertheless, they also point to an impasse. While clearly being concerned with how to overcome the present stage of “super capitalism”, he is unable to suggest a strategy for how this is to be achieved. Rejecting the old-fashioned ideas of “socialism” and “revolution”, he is unable to recommend anything but looking to the future which is taking form through the privatizing tendencies of the masses (Yoshimoto & Takaoka 2005:200ff). But why would such privatization constitute any resistance, beyond safeguarding the integrity of the individual or the family against the wider collective? Will the future he hopes for ever be born if the masses remain wholly private? Worse: is not the pursuit of private interest equivalent to going along meekly with the system of “super capitalism” – and was this not exactly what Maruyama feared? These questions point to a dilemma in redefining the withdrawal from political involvement as resistance. How can just letting the system run its course constitute resistance?

Yoshimoto can easily be criticized for erecting a too watertight distinction between masses and intellectuals. There are surely tendencies to “intellectualize” and formulate ideals for the public good in any group in society. The distinction also raises questions about his own relation to the “masses” and it is certainly ironic that his major works are written in a dense style and in a jargon which appears to target primarily intellectuals. It is also easy to criticize him for summarily conflating the public sphere with state power, and civic activism with state subservience. Maruyama’s lifelong quest was to foster the growth of a public sphere that would not be under the sway of the state: only through the “political concerns of non-political citizens”, he argued, would democracy ever take root in Japan (Maruyama 1961:172f). Arguably, Yoshimoto’s neglect of the possibilities of such a public, that could serve as an arena for challenging and confronting the state, goes hand in hand with an overestimation of the benefits of the private realm and the family.