Culture of Democracy in Postwar Japan

A review of Science of Thought and the Culture of Democracy in Postwar Japan, 1946-1962, by Adam Bronson.

Adam Bronson’s path-breaking dissertation introduces the readers to the writings and activism of postwar Japanese intellectuals associated with the journal Science of Thought. Founded within a year of Japan’s surrender to the Allied forces by some of the most prominent intellectuals of the postwar era, including the political theorist Maruyama Masao, economist Tsuru Shigeto, and the sibling duo of Tsurumi Shunsuke and Tsurumi Kazuko, the journal sought to foster a new culture of democracy not only among Japanese intellectuals but, more importantly, among the vast majority of Japanese who had hitherto been alienated from the nation’s intellectual elite. As Bronson argues, the journal’s ultimate significance “lay in the way it exemplified democracy in practice” (p. 18), through the various and changing methods by which the intellectuals associated with the journal sought to widen both the definition of democracy and the range of people who participated in it.

Bronson’s dissertation joins a broad range of existing scholarship on the history of the Japanese intellectuals’ attempts at social and political engagement, including Harry Harootunian’s Overcome by Modernity and Victor Koschmann’s Revolution and Subjectivity, as well as social activism in the postwar era, such as Franziska Seraphim’s War Memory and Social Politics in Japan. In doing so, Bronson’s work sheds light on a current of intellectual and political engagement that has largely been neglected in anglophone scholarship, despite the broad range and large number of prominent intellectuals who were involved in the journal and its research endeavors. The best explanation for the dearth of scholarship on the Science of Thought may perhaps be found in the very history of the journal’s oft-conflicted attempts at bridging the gap between Japan’s intellectuals and the emerging mass society, as narrated by Bronson.

Bronson argues that the Science of Thought group sought to mediate “between professional intellectuals and ‘ordinary people'” through a series of efforts that aimed at the “intellectualizing of the quotidian and a quotidianizing of the intellectual” (p. 7). This not only involved an ongoing critique of Japan’s intellectual elites and their perceived inability to communicate effectively with the masses, but also attempts to redefine the “social category of the intellectual” (p. 12). At the heart of this effort lay various attempts to engage the broader public, with the goal of discovering “philosophy” in the everyday lives of “ordinary Japanese” and encouraging them to participate in intellectual conversations on their own terms. Such efforts, however, faced not only skepticism and ambivalence both from intellectuals who were critical of the journal as well as the broader public but also the volatile political situation of Cold War-era Japan, forcing the group to pursue evolving strategies in “its sometimes quixotic quest for popular democracy” (p. 18).

In Chapter 1, “The Negative Origins of Postwar Thought,” Bronson identifies the origin of Science of Thought in the critique of prewar intellectual culture by the journal’s founders. In particular, Tsurumi Shunsuke and his collaborators problematized a trend that was popularized among the graduates of the elite Imperial Higher Schools since the Taishō period, in which one was encouraged to consider “intellectual and moral self cultivation (kyōyō) … as an end in and of itself” (pp. 13-14). In their eyes, the culture of kyōyō fostered an intellectual fad that favored abstract and complex philosophical thought, as exemplified by the popularity of Nishida Kitarō and the Kyoto School of philosophy, which spawned generations of inwardly-tormented “philosophical youth” (p. 22) out of touch with the concerns of the vast majority of their compatriots. More damningly, it was seen to have utterly failed in mounting any meaningful resistance to the wartime rise of ultra-nationalism, despite its cosmopolitan origins. Given such critiques, the founders of Science of Thought argued for “a rational, easy to understand, practical, and radically democratic ‘science of thought,’”  which was seen as being more suitable to the quest to create a “new form of intellectual subjectivity capable of building a democratic Japan” (p. 54).

In chapter 2, “Communicating Democracy: America and the Enlightening of the Intellectual,” Bronson points to several factors that prompted the intellectuals of Science of Thought to look to the United States as the source of a new, more democratic intellectual paradigm. In the broadest sense, the United States, and to a lesser extent the Soviet Union, emerged at the end of World War II as the new global center of “intellectual, cultural, and economic dynamism” (p. 14), as opposed to war-torn Europe, which was tainted with fascism and imperialism in the eyes of many Japanese intellectuals. Of particular value to the Science of Thought group was the sense that, in the words Tsuru Shigeto, America was the place where “philosophy melts into everyday life” (p. 14), where intellectual life was seen as being both more rooted in the lived realities of “ordinary people” and, at the same time, free from the political factionalism that was evident in the Japanese intellectual scene. In an effort to introduce such American attributes to Japan, the journal’s early issues focused on introducing the newly ascendant American discipline of communications to its readers, which was seen as the potential source of solutions to a wide range of social and scientific problems.

Chapter 3, “The Philosophy of Ordinary People,” discusses how the intellectuals involved with Science of Thought, far from contenting themselves with simply importing intellectual trends from the United States, sought to bridge the gap between Japan’s intellectual elites and the masses by applying such newly discovered ideas on the ground. In the years immediately after the journal’s founding, this primarily took the form of an interdisciplinary research project that was hosted by the journal and entitled “The Philosophy of the Ordinary People.” In part, the project sought to gain a systematic understanding of the conscious and unconscious attitudes of the “ordinary” Japanese through statistical surveys, interviews of a wide range of individuals, including unionized workers and policemen, and content analysis of various popular cultural phenomena. The hope was to highlight what the groups saw as “the gap between two mostly self-contained communication systems” (p. 131) – namely that of the intellectuals on the one hand and that of the masses on the other. At the same time, the Science of Thought group hoped that, through their contact with “ordinary” Japanese in the context of conducting surveys and interviews, they would be able to “contribute to the democratization of philosophical discourse by making ‘ordinary people’ aware of their right to engage in a debate with professionals” (pp. 127-128). While the group’s methodologies were not without their critics, Bronson argues that the primary importance of their efforts lay in the fact that this constituted a conscious attempt at “blurring the distinction between highbrow and lowbrow culture by treating daily life as a series of philosophical problems” (p. 15).

However, in chapter 4, “Long-term Revolution: Life-Writing, Circles, and the People’s Republic of China,” Bronson demonstrates how the onset of the Cold War prompted the Science of Thought intellectuals to not only reevaluate their relationship to the United State but also the very methods by which their initial endeavors were conducted. The group’s growing disillusionment with the effects of American policies in Japan and beyond coincided with the sense that American-inspired socials sciences were proving themselves to be inadequate with respect to the ultimate goal of breaking down the boundaries between the intellectual elite and “ordinary” Japanese. At the same time, the success of the communist revolution in China and the growing admiration for what was perceived to be the successes of a more grassroots, indigenous process of democratization on the continent inspired a growing number of Japanese progressives to pursue a similar effort at fostering similar self-directed educational movements among the masses, especially in rural communities. Among the intellectuals of the Science of Thought group, Tsurumi Kazuko stood out both for her renunciation of what she increasingly saw as the elitist tendencies in the journal’s social scientific surveys and for her attempts to join the grassroots communities made up of people she had previously studied as objects of research.

In the final chapter, “The Age of Conversion,” we see how the rapid growth of the Japanese economy in the late 1950s led to yet another shift in the Science of Thought group’s quest for democratizing Japan’s intellectual culture. The concern was that economic growth was increasingly homogenizing the everyday lives of the vast majority of Japanese in ways that forced conformity and blunted the edge of the grassroots, democratic movements that were discussed in the previous chapter. In collaboration with young college students, Tsurumi Shunsuke led the journal’s efforts to engage in the analysis of tenkō (political conversion) – a term that was initially used by the prewar state to describe the public, ideological conversion of Japan’s Leftists. Within a historical context in which an increasing number of young Japanese “felt caught between the authority of the Communist Party and the conformism they associated with middle-class and white-collar culture” (p. 210), the research project was aimed at gaining hints “to avoid the collapse of the progressive movement in Japan by recalibrating its course and reforming it from within” (p. 228). As Bronson discusses in the dissertation’s Conclusion, such an effort ultimately culminated in the Science of Thought intellectuals’ development of a more directly oppositional political stance, namely through their participation in the 1960 popular protests against the revision of the US-Japan Security Treaty. The group’s involvement in the protests transformed it “from an elite research circle outside of the academy into a standard-bearer for citizen’s activism” (p. 17) – a movement that grew in importance during the 1960s and ’70s and touched on a variety of issues, including environmental degradation and the welfare state.

Bronson’s dissertation provides a comprehensive account of the founding and subsequent transformations of one of the most intriguing intellectual movements of postwar Japan by drawing not only on the archival collections of the writings of the intellectuals who were associated with the Science of Thought but also from a broader set of contemporary intellectuals in Japan and beyond. What results is an important contribution to the study of postwar Japanese intellectual history and, in particular, to the study of the efforts made by Japan’s intellectuals to bridge the chasm they perceived between themselves and the vast majority of their compatriots. At the same time, this dissertation also offers useful examples of the ways in which the relationship between Japanese intellectuals and foreign sources of intellectual trends shifted within broader, historical contexts, such as the Cold War and economic growth. Finally, this dissertation is also of value to those interested in the history of discourses surrounding mass culture and media in modern Japan, given the Science of Thought group’s pioneering efforts at treating popular culture as an object of serious intellectual analysis.

Hiromu Nagahara
History Faculty
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Primary Sources

Archives: Charles Morris Collection, Maruyama Masao bunko, Rockefeller Foundation Archives, Tsurumi Kazuko bunko, and Tsuru Shigeto bunko.
Published sources: various issues of Shisō no kagaku (Science of Thought), as well as voluminous works by Tsurumi Kazuko, Tsurumi Shunsuke, and other intellectuals associated with the journal.

Dissertation Information

Columbia University. 2012. 270 pp. Primary Advisor: Carol Gluck.


Image: Tsurumi Kazuko, television still from “Age of Mind” broadcast, April 8, 2001 (

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