World History & Imperial Japan


A review of The Standpoint of World History and Imperial Japan, by TAKESHI KIMOTO.

“This dissertation,” Takeshi Kimoto writes at the outset of his work, “will reread the intellectual history of the Japanese empire from the perspective of sekaishi or ‘world history’” (p.1). Beginning his introduction with an epigraph from Takeuchi Yoshimi on the 1942 symposium on “Overcoming Modernity,” Kimoto immediately locates this rereading in relation to a distinguished tradition of scholars who have used notions such as “overcoming modernity” to rethink the discursive limits and conditions framing Japan’s wartime past.  Kimoto, however, does not attempt to rework this already well-worn ground, but uses it instead to preface his consideration of an equally important, but less studied round-table discussion held the year before by members of the Kyoto School of Philosophy under the title, “The World Historical Standpoint and Japan.”  Using the notion of world history developed here, Kimoto compels us to “reread” imperialism through new eyes.

Kimoto divides his dissertation into two sections.  He saves consideration of the round table for the final chapter.  In the chapters before this, Kimoto takes a needed detour outside of Kyoto School of Philosophy rhetoric to show how deeply the notion of world history was embedded in the discursive space of imperial Japan.  Romanticist writer Yasuda Yojūrō becomes, contrary to standard readings of his work, a key figure in promoting this world-historical view.  Providing unique and compelling assessments of Yasuda’s critics, including Hashikawa Bunzō, Fukuda Kazuya, Kevin Doak, and Alan Tansman, Kimoto gives new insights into the limits and restrictions of those who would characterize the writer merely as an ethnic nationalist, anti-modernist, or fascist sympathizer.  Moving away from these characterizations, Kimoto focuses on Yasuda’s sense of romantic irony, seeing this concept as a necessary, and not merely coincidental, facet of his imperial explorations in Korea.  In so doing, Kimoto uncovers a much more complex picture of Yasuda’s complicity with empire.  In particular, Kimoto reads Yasuda’s romantic irony in relation to the work of German romanticist Friedrich Schlegel, using new readings of German romanticism by Paul de Man, Philip Lacoue-Labarthe, and Winfried Menninghaus that abandon cultural essentialist interpretations of the movement. In essence, romantic irony in the hands of Schlegel is not made possible via an alternation between a primary given and its secondary reflection as some would have it. Rather, reflection is made primary and productive to language, which allows irony to hint at the catachrestic nature of language itself.  Kimoto writes Yasuda as perfectly conscious of the anti-representational nature of Schlegel’s irony and shows how Yasuda’s own use of irony was precisely a practice aimed at subverting representational modes of thought in order to allow for a “disintegration within the absolute” (p. 63).  Reflection, as the alternate face of irony, was not the effect, but the medium by which this dissolution took place, and as such produced a de-centering and infinite doubling of the subject that allowed for its productive deconstruction.

While Kimoto admits to the political valences inherent to this deconstructive mode that provide the means to undermine “forms of essentialism such as ethnic nationalism, racism, and sexism,” he never takes his eye off Yasuda’s complicity with Japanese colonial imperialism (p. 84).  The deconstructive nature of Yasuda’s irony is put not in opposition to, but at the service of empire.  As Kimoto keenly notes, “There are certain social systems that are driven to overcome a given limit, distinction or boundary, thereby universalizing themselves.  One can readily give the examples of imperialism and capitalism among others.  These are potentially global social formations that tend to ‘deconstruct’ themselves.  That is to say, the moment of irony, in some form or another, is built into these mechanisms” (p.84).  Thus, romantic irony and its permanent deconstructive mechanism give empire and its world historical perspective the means to overcome all the particulars of Japanese nationalism and its colonial counterparts, to dissolve them in the stormy ocean of the universal.  Under Yasuda’s pen romantic irony is made to warm the heart of empire.

In the final chapter Kimoto returns to the 1941 round-table discussions shifting away from Yasuda’s romantic irony to focus on what he terms the “antinomies of total war” (p. 135).  Beginning with a dismissal of recent scholarship that attempts to revise the Kyoto School of Philosophy’s ties to Japanese empire through a consideration of newly revealed communiqués between members of the School and the Japanese navy, Kimoto highlights the School’s complicity with empire through its theorization of “total war” during the 1941 discussions.  Arguing in favor of war, members of the round-table saw total war as “a world historical conflict between competing worldviews that would ultimately overcome Western modernity and lead to the construction of a new world order” (p.145).  Kimoto shows the weaknesses of this theorization by appealing to Immanuel Kant’s conceptualization of the antinomy in his Critique of Pure Reason.  Just as human reason is faced with irresolvable contradictions when it attempts to transcend all possible experience, so too does the School’s project of total war find itself plagued by paradox when it attempts to overcome the contradictions of Western modernity.  These antinomies produce strange effects: turning war into an experience of the sublime, placing imperialism and anti-imperialism in permanent self-reinforcing alternation, eternalizing the war for all subjects including those at the margins of empire. Through these antinomies, Kimoto argues, we can see how the Kyoto School of Philosophy, regardless of its intentions, “effectively supported [the imperialist] regime and helped mobilize Japanese citizens as part of the general war effort” (p.143).

As a last word, a consideration of the stakes involved in Kimoto’s work is worthy of some attention.  Kimoto expresses his sense of the urgent need in our own time for a return to more refined conceptualizations of empire and the violences it creates when he notes that “today’s situation sheds new light on these discussions, because we are once again confronted with the spectacle of war” (p.136).  With this in mind, we should read his work, not simply as a comment on the intellectual history of a particular moment in Japan’s past, but also as a cautionary tale against thinking of our own engagements with empire in the overly simplistic light of oppositional binaries or false universals.  What is needed, perhaps now more than ever, is a consideration of the ironies and antinomies that fuel the engines of empire.

Sean Koji Callaghan
Department of East Asian Studies
The University of Toronto

Primary Sources

Collected works of Yasuda Yojûrô
Periodicals, with a focus on the proceedings from the 1941 round table on “The World Historical Standpoint and Japan.”
Newly discovered material on the Ôshima memorandum, provided by Ôhashi Ryûnosuke

Dissertation Info

Cornell University. 2010. 180 pp.  Primary Advisor: Naoki Sakai.

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