Takeuchi Yoshimi on E. H. Norman

It is a fairly rare thing to see Japanese public intellectuals pour praise on the work of historians of Japan who are active outside of Japan. It is heartening, however, to occasionally find examples of this and be reminded that our worlds of writing are not completely separate. Some examples from my recent reading that come to mind are when Kang Sangjun praises and makes use of my advisor, Andrew Gordon‘s conception of “Imperial Democracy” in his essay on “Radical Democracy” or a few articles I have read recently that build on ideas from Carol Gluck’s many essays. Of course, Gordon and Gluck have many of their works translated into Japanese or write actively for Japanese publications.

Even more rare, I think is when such a historian of Japan’s work is referred to as a, “work of art.” Today I found a particularly early example of this kind of attention in Takeuchi Yoshimi’s 1948 essay “What is Modernity” (translated by Richard Calichman, who also has a forthcoming work on Takeuchi that I’m looking forward to entitled Takeuchi Yoshimi: Displacing the West) The context of the quote is a discussion by Takeuchi of Lu Xun’s parable of the wise man, the fool, and the slave, and about what Takeuchi believes to be the unique connection between the claims to the “superiority” of Japanese culture and its “slave mentality.” He finds echoes of this in the Marxist scholarship of E. H. Norman:

The following words are found in Norman’s Soldier and Peasant in Japan. Of the books I’ve read recently, this one made a particularly deep impression, striking me as virtually a work of art. It hits home through the weight of its content. The text possesses a formative logic, with the wealth of its resources rising up like a Rodin sculpture. It is classically beautiful in its abundance of life force. Toward the end of the book, when the militarists become the tool of capital (which lagged behind European capital) and set off for the mainland invasion, the inevitable process of barbarization on the part of the modern army is captured in precise psychological realism: “The common Japanese man, himself an unfree agent enrolled in a conscript army, became an unwitting agent in riveting the shackles of slavery on other peoples.” After this Normand adds, “It is impossible to employ genuinely free men for enslaving others; and conversely, the most brutalized and shameless slaves make the most pitiless and effective despoilers of the liberties of others.” (80)


  1. I guess Norman must have been talking about some rarefied Marxist concept of a “genuinely free man”, because if he were using the ordinary concept of what a free man is, his claim is manifestly untrue. All you need to do is give the free man or woman an interest, or perception of interest, in the slave making. I am just reading “Manchurian Legacy”, Kazuko Kuramoto’s memoir of a childhood in Manchuria and what hit me in the early chapters was a feeling of slavemaking as a lifestyle choice.

  2. Thanks for your comment Buyo, and sounds like an interesting memoir!

    I think that Takeuchi’s reference to freedom here is something on a more abstract level, referring to Hegel’s slave/master dialectic. Koschmann says something similar in his writing about Takeuchi in Revolution and Subjectivity in Postwar Japan page 226

  3. E.H. Norman was NOT a Marxist. He used class analysis as an intellectual tool, and politically was most likely a leftish democratic socialist. It interests me to see how the Cold War politics practiced by Reischauer, et. al., are now handed down as received knowledge. The view that Norman was a Marxist had its birth in Hoover’s better dead than red FBI files from the late 1940s and early 1950s, and there is argument that the suspicion and vilification following on from those files caused Norman to off himself. It might be of value to keep it in mind that there is a political history to our study of Japan that does not need to be seamlessly recovered in our discourse today.

  4. Hello Vivian, and thanks for your comment. First of all, it is true that I used the term “Marxist scholarship” to refer to Normand based on what little I have read of him, and descriptions of his scholarship I have seen elsewhere. Perhaps “Marxist influenced scholarship” would have been a better term, since I don’t recall seeing him fully outline his theoretical approach.

    Having said that however, I think you place far too much political value to the word. There is no contradiction in saying someone has “Marxist scholarship” and be a leftish democratic socialist. Just staying within the political world most of the anti-Communist democratic socialists of pre-war Germany (and many in the postwar) were Marxist, most of the Norwegian labor movement, opposed to Communism as it was, was “Marxist.” They embraced Marxist theory to a great extent, believed in the centrality of class conflict, believed in the teleological progression of society that Marx predicted, but believed that it would be achieved by democratic means. Indeed, I think the foundations of many modern leftish democratic socialists think this.

    In the realm of scholarship, I think the term Marxist now more broadly is used (for better or worse) to point to scholarship in which class struggle is a strong factor, class is the major agent of history which moves across time, and in which material determinism is assumed. By these definitions, we include a huge segments of the postwar Japanese scholarship and a lot of other scholarship without making any kinds of conclusions about their political stand point.

    I for one would find it very distressing if we had to limit the use of the word “Marxist” when talking about historical scholarship to a political term, closely tied to Marx’s own revolutionary political agenda. That results in the same kind of silliness that we saw from right wing nuts such as those who made accusations about Norman and may have contributed to his suicide. We continue to see it today from conservatives who assume that anyone who has read Marx or who take capitalism to task, must be Marxist = Communist = violent revolutionaries.

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