Saturday, 19 February 2011

Muen and gôko

The historian Higashijima Makoto’s publications about the historical construction of the public sphere in Japan and the idea of “rivers and lakes” (gôko or kôko, 江湖) provide a good example of recent attempts in Japan to reformulate the idea of the public without relying on the problematic notion of ôyake or I've already mentioned him in an earlier entry. Here I will have a closer look at how he relates his argument to Amino Yoshihiko's concept of muen in his book Kôkyôken no rekishiteki sôzô (The historical construction of the public sphere, Tokyo Daigaku shuppansha 2000).

Higashijima doesn't just reject notions of "public" that are too close to the idea of the "official" or state-related. He also rejects notions that retain too much of the notion of "community” (kyôdôtai), such as when the historian Katsumata Shizuo sees an early Japanese form of "public" opposed to official power in the kugai of autonomous town-communities” (machi-kyôdôtai) or popular federations (ikki). Higashijima objects that such communities might have managed to create a form of "common", but they never created a true "public" since community always entails closure. No matter how opposed these "communities" were to official power, ironically they could never achieve more than a new miniature “official” space reproduced on a smaller scale (Higashijima 2000:240f).

Not even Amino goes free from criticism, although his mistake is "merely" that he conflates the fake public of kugai with the genuine openness of muen .

What we need to question is the identification of kugai with muen. What in the end emerges as the problem in Muen Kugai Raku is the confluence between: a) freedom through the community, and b) freedom from the community. The dilemma that arises from the confluence between a, which is closer to kugai, and b, which is closer to muen, does not yet appear to have been sufficiently brought to consciousness in Muen Kugai Raku… It is clear that it is not the idea of kugai but precisely the idea of muen that must be the point of departure from thinking about the public in the sense of Öffentlichkeit, of being open to all. (ibid. 214f)
Higashijima is also partly critical of arguments that purport to find an affinity between the ideas of Habermas and Amino (e.g. historians like Hanada Tatsurô - for a text in English by Hanada, see his 2006 paper "The Japanese 'Public Sphere': the Kugai" in Theory, Culture & Society 23:2-3). Whatever affinity there in Amino's thought to the Habermasian idea of the "public sphere" (Öffentlichkeit), is found in the idea of muen, not in the idea of kugai.

Sarugaku performer (to the left) together with a dengaku performer. Sarugaku later developed into theatre. 

While rejecting the idea that kugai as an early Medieval approximation of Habermasian Öffentlichkeit, Higashijima is quite emphatic in his insistence that muen corresponded rather well with this notion. Thus he refers to Tsuda Sôkichi's description of sarugaku performances as open to the general public and as taking place in areans where all onlookers were supposed to be equal, regardless of rank or age, and thus similar to how Habermas describes the literary public sphere of the 17th century in France. In both cases, culture provided places where all participants were “free of status” - which in turn exactly corresponds to the notion of muen, the state of being cut off from relations to the community. Higashijima suggests that the fact (so hard to explain to many who are used to view Amino as a leftist historian) that Amino professed a preference to at least some of views of the liberal-conservative historian Tsuda over those of his own Marxist mentor Ishimoda Shô can be explained by his affinity to Habermas (ibid 2000:246).

Although he doesn't mention it explicitly, it seems rather clear that Higashijima more or less identifies muen with gôko ("rivers and lakes"), the concept he himself focuses on as the most appropriate term (much more suitable than the common translations ôyake or kôkyô) for the "public" in older Japanese history. As I've already mentioned, the word gôko was popular in early Meiji times when it was used much like we would use the expression "public sphere" today . As one goes back in history, however, one sees that the roots of this idea where quite different from those of the "public" in Europe. To be brief, it originated in Zen Buddhism where it was linked to the idea of free "nomadic" wandering of people who had renounced the world. Among monks, it was used as a metaphor of freedom from ties to power and rank, and in popular usage it became used as a derogatory term for "people of no account" such as travelling entertainers (including sarugaku troupes) and paupers lacking a fixed domicile. Higashijima emphasizes the "nomadic" quality of this public by comparing it to what Karatani calls a Verkehrsraum (kôtsû kûkan),  a “space for traffic” or for intercourse between strangers outside the confines of the state (ibid 299).

Higashijima's account is indeed interesting and I will try to deal with it at greater length in a text I will present at a symposium in Kyoto later this month where I'm going to discuss how the "public" has been translated into Japanese.  

Let me close, however, with a few critical remarks.

Firstly, muen is not a “public” in the Habermasian sense. It is true that muen is radically divorced from community and more linked to nomadic mobility, but the Habermasian public is not. The latter goes well with community as well as with stationary bourgeois citizens.

Secondly, in his conception of the public Higashijima tends to put emphasis on a particular understanding of the “public” as an “area open to all” (bannin ni hirakareta ryôiki). However, openness is not necessarily a central feature of “public” in Western languages. For instance, while most influential accounts of the public - take Habermas, Arendt or Sennett for instance - stress the public as a forum where strangers interact, very few have claimed that a public must really be open to all. Neither Habermas’ “public sphere” nor Arendt’s “public realm” is open in such a radical sense. 

It's it fact terribly easy to find differences between the idea of "rivers and lakes" and the Habermasian public. The latter is not as closely linked as either muen or gôko to religious ideas. It is not as associated with marginal places and marginal populations as the latter either. Above all, neither muen nor gôko are very closely linked to the idea of a sphere for deliberation or public debate (this is something which will be a central topic in my talk in Kyoto).

Finally, I also need to address the idea of the "common". I wonder if it's really correct to describe the ikki as necessarily closed. Weren’t they in fact one of the few instances in which locality (village, family or clan) was transcended in medieval Japan? As many historians have pointed out, some spanned entire regions while others – the religious ones – even formed countrywide networks. That said, I agree that it is important to distinguish the “common” from the idea of true openness to all. That is why I myself distinguish the "common" from what I call “no-man’s-land” (a concept I think is rather close to muen and gôko). Unlike Higashijima, however, I would not identify "no-man's-land" or gôko with a Habermasian “public”, since such a “public” is not fully open. What we need to distinguish is, therefore, three different things: common, public, and no-man’s-land.

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