Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Amino Yoshihiko (11): Karatani's criticism

I've already remarked on the similarities between Amino's and Karatani's take on the emperor system. Let me briefly discuss the differences as they are highlighted in a criticism Karatani makes of Amino in a paper from 1991 ("The Discursive Space of Modern Japan").

This is a paper in which Karatani discusses the closure of Japan's discursive space and is looking for ways to get out of it. The relevant section is one in which he argues that the state is constituted through its relations to other states and that it is therefore wrong to look for the roots of the emperor-system in the people, as the nativist scholars (kokugaku) or Yanagita Kunio tried to do.
People are conscious of the emperor when they are also conscious of international tension, and when the emperor is forgotten, it is because tension with the outside has eased. The same applies to the Edo period. (Karatani 1991:206)
The roots of the emperor-system, then, are not internal but external. He extends this criticism to anthropolocially inspired researchers today who turn to internal "others" such as marginals or minorities to destabilize the emperor-system. "What are called 'exterior' and the 'Other' in cultural anthropology do not in fact maintain any exteriority or otherness. Rather, they are indispensable to the community and are thus part of it" (ibid 208).

This criticism falls on Amino as well.
For example, the historian Amino Yoshihiko attempted to find the basis for overturning the emperor system in outcast groups, yet ended up finding the emperor system there, because outcast groups are not external to the system; the community system is precisely that which includes them. Amino, who had previously written on the Mongol Invasion and had seen in that international crisis the transformation of the ancient system, was subsequently caught in the trap of structural theory. To discover plurality and otherness on the inside does not amount to escaping interiority. [...]
There are other, more "fundamental," strategies that fall under the name of relativizing the emperor system and tracing it back to a previous state of plurality; these result, as with Yanagida, in a move to the Southern Islands. Some, like Yoshimoto Ryumei, have literally turned to the Southern Islands, while others, like Umehara Takeshi, have looked to Jomon or Ainu culture. Whether toward the south or toward the east, and whether to affirm or negate the emperor system, this type of "introspection" has produced no effect. (ibid 208f)
"Introspection" into Japan's history, no matter how seemingly pluralistic or even cosmopolitan it may be portrayed, can only result in self-congratualtory fictions that fail to introduce genuine exteriority. What destabilizes the system is outside forces like the world market or foreign imperialism that produce a real sense of crisis, not any internal ”others” who are in fact part of the system. At least according to Karatani.

Now, Karatani’s criticism seems unfair from many points of view. Let me mention a few obvious points.

1) Amino’s ”discovery” of the emperor among the outcasts wasn't a failure, since he set out precisely to show that such a link existed.

2) They talk about different things: Karatani is looking for exteriority, a true other outside the system. Amino is looking at the idea of freedom in medieval society (muen) and how it animated and guided groups like the non-agriculturalists and other itinerants. These are two completely different things and to accuse Amino of having failed to point out a true other is to miss his point.

3) Amino is not disregarding the question of the outside of the community. Remember that he claims that the emperor comes into being in order to rule that which escapes the community. To Amino too, the state's roots are therefor not internal to the community but external to it. He never presupposes any unitary "national" culture as the basis of this state, which he instead portrays as similar to what Karatani will later label ”empire”, the rule over markets and trade, over what takes place between communities.

4) It also seems unfair to claim that trying to encourage alternative forms of cultural identification is meaningless or that it will merely result in a seeming cosmopolitanism that is the flipside of ultranationalism. Karatani's claim that the ”emperor” ever since the Edo period has been held in latency during periods without foreign threats only to appear again when needed rests on an ahistorical presupposition of an unchangeable system or ideology.

Karatani’s text, however, is still instructive. In pointing to how a system is destabilized by forces outside it, he anticipates Amino’s shift in around 1990 towards a more ”deconstructive” tactic that focuses on the lack of unity in ”Japan”, its myriad differences, and its links to the outside – things like the Emishi, the East Asian trade network, or western Japan’s similarity to Korea. In these later works Amino shows how Japan never forms a unitary system at all, except in ideology, since it is located within a larger field of forces. This is not merely a matter of  tracing the emperor-system "back to a previous state of plurality” (as Yanagida and Yoshimoto), since the lack of unity persists even today. While in his earlier stance he tended to focus on how emperor and outcasts or agriculturalists and non-agriculturalists were dialectically interrelated, he now shifts to a stance in which this interrelationship is subject to strong local variations. With this shift, the dialectical interplay with the emperor is downplayed since it wasn't important outside western Japan. To be sure, Amino doesn’t break completely with his previous approach. He continues to use internal "others", such as itinerants, as a lens to show how multifarious society was. He also continues to be interested in how the ideas of freedom and independence empowered people. This is not a contradiction. Shifting to local variations doesn’t amount to giving up the idea of muen. As I have written elsewhere, the idea of muen is not at all in need of any protecting emperor in a unitary empire, but thrives in a fragmented society with a plurality of power-centra.

That Amino makes this shift doesn’t mean that Karatani was ”right”. Karatani himself changes stance when he realizes that he cannot just wait for outside market forces. In the 90’s he instead turns to activism animated by the idea of transcritical space. In other words he turns himself into an actor within the system who uses his own idea of an outside or exteriority as a guiding star for his actions. This is not so dissimilar to how muen served as lodepoint for the medieval ikki. That transcritical space comes into being by bracketing social status in society is also similar to muen. To be sure, he thinks asscociations would be completely ”outside” the sytem of the capitalist nation-state, without any link to the emperor of course. But as I have shown, muen too can be dissociated from the idea of the emperor.

The importance of the ”external” as one source of the state and of ”sovereignty” cannot be denied. I recall Ishimoda Shô's statement that already at the time of Himiko the state consisted in control over markets and diplomatic relations. The suggestion that the Mongol confrontation might help explain Go-Daigo’s seemingly strange transformation of the idea and style of sovereignty is also suggestive. Certainly the central role accorded to the prayers at Ise may have helped resucitate imperial prestige. But is the state explained only by its relations to other states, as Karatani seems to suggest? How then did the first states originate? How should we explain the sovereignty of ”world-empires” that lack outside since they see themselves as co-extensive with ”civilization”? Isn't it a more fruitful hypothesis to say that the first states and empires come into being in order to control trade and military vagrancy ("the nomadic war-machine"), regardless of the existence of other states?


Karatani, Kôjin (1991) ”The Discursive Space of Modern Japan”, pp 191-219, boundary 2, 18:3 (Autumn).

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