Thursday, 26 February 2015

Karatani: On Yanagita Kunio and nomadism

Last year I read two new books in which Karatani Kôjin follows up on his ideas in The Structure of World History. One of them is Yûdôron - Yanagita Kunio to yamabito (Nomadism - Yanagita Kunio and the mountain people), the other is Teikoku no kôzô (The structure of empire). I'd like to make some remarks about the former here, postponing a discussion of the latter to some other day.

In Yûdôron Karatani presents an interesting and provocative reading of the folklorist Yanagita Kunio. A common criticism against Yanagita in recent decades has been that although he showed interest in marginal populations like the "mountain people" (yamabito) or various itinerant groups (hyôhakumin) when he was young, he turned his back to them in his mature writings, where he instead focused on establishing a nationalistically flavoured “one-nation ethnology” (ikkoku minzokugaku) centred on the image of settled, rice-cultivating jômin (abiding or permanent people). According to Karatani, it was no coincidence that such criticism started to be aired in the 1970s and 1980s, when the global turn of Japanese capitalism encouraged the spread of postmodernism, and ideas such as Deleuze & Guattari's "nomadology" and criticism of Japanese "closure" were in tune with the deterritorializing movement of Japanese global capital (Karatani 2014:9f, 39). 

Yanagita Kunio

Karatani defends Yanagita by pointing out that he was a person who went against and resisted the prevailing mood of the times – unlike his latter day postmodernist critics. The 1930s, the period when Yanagita started to focus on the jômin, was another period of Japanese expansion when nomadism was in vogue. Imperialism was bolstered by an ideology of breaking out of the constrained space of the Japanese islands, of new open horizons opening up in Manchuria, and by the celebration of "nomadic" rônin in films and literature.

By pointing this out, Karatani attempts to establish Yanagita’s credentials as a person who remained true to the radical political ideals of his earlier period, but who deliberately stopped voicing them - at least in a certain form - when he realized that they might be recuperated by the prevailing ideologies. As Japan turned towards imperialist expansion, ideologies like the “philosophy of world history” became dominant. This "philosophy" attempted to read a world-historical meaning into Japan's war with the Western powers and Western modernity. It was propagated by the Kyoto School, a philosophical school which is sometimes viewed as a forerunner of postmodernism and which regained popularity in Japan along with postmodernism. People dissatisfied with such ideologies, Karatani states, found rescue in Yanagita’s work and even today he remains a crucial resource for people dissatisfied with global capitalism (ibid. 31).

Shiiba village

Why did Yanagita start to focus on the "mountain people" to begin with? Not because of influence from romantic literature or any romantic fascination with supernatural, as some commentators like Ôtsuka Eiji have suggested. Instead, Karatani claims that Yanagita’s thought cannot be separated from the economy in the old sense of saving the people from starvation (as expressed in the term keisei saimin, "ordering the world and saving the people"which is the origin of the modern Japanese word for economy). What he strove for was a policy of collective self-help (kyôdô jijo) by farmers independent of the state (ibid. 58). 

Swidden (yakihata) is still practiced in Shiiba Village

During his travels as a bureaucrat and agricultural scholar, he was shocked by his visit to Shiiba Village, a mountain village on Kyushu whose inhabitants were living on swidden and boar-hunting. What he saw there was the idea of collective self-help in practice, and this awakened his interest in "mountain peoples" (ibid. 67f). Although the settled agriculturalists on the plains viewed these mountain dwellers as uncanny and primitive, Karatani follows James Scott’s work on “Zomia” in describing them as peoples who have made a voluntary choice to live a stateless life. Taking their refuge in the mountains they constructed egalitarian societies, living a mobile life of swidden and hunting, out of reach of the rice-cultivating "paddy kingdom" in the valleys with its centralized power and hierarchies. Yanagita himself referred to this lifestyle as socialism. Karatani claims that Yanagita never abandoned his interest in these mountain people, even though he stopped writing about them (ibid. 71f, 80, 88).

Two kinds of nomadism

To Karatani, it's important to distinguish between two kinds of nomadism. According to him, what Yanagita rejected in the 30’s when he turned to his “one-nation ethnology" was neither nomadism (yûdôsei) per se nor the socialist mutual help utopia of the society of hunters and gatherers he had seen in Shiiba Village, but only the nomadism of pastoralists (yûbokumin).

Before the nomadism of the pastoralists, there existed another kind, that of hunters and gatherers. Here a gift economy existed which was different from that described by Marcel Mauss. To Mauss there were no “pure gifts” - all gifts had to be returned according to a principle of mutuality. Karatani follows Marshall Sahlins in arguing that among hunters and gatherers gift giving was based on sharing or pooling rather than strict reciprocal exchange. Itinerant peoples share things since accumulating wealth is meaningless for them. Only when settled communities come into being does a form of mutual exchange based on strict reciprocity arise. Importantly, however, the idea of pooling or sharing continues to be important within communities even after settlement. While relations between communities take the form of mutual exchange, relations within communities are shaped according to the norm of sharing (ibid. 179). The continued importance of the ideal of sharing can be seen in the fact that it acts as a normative force that helps obstruct great inequalities even when accumulation of wealth and power become possible. Historically, this ideal of egalitarian sharing - which Karatani refers to a mode of exchange A (see Figure 1) - offers a possibility for checking the rise of the state and capital. For more on what Karatani means by modes of exchange, see my earlier post here.

Figure 1: Karatani's four modes of exchange

The nomadism of hunters and gatherers shouldn’t be confused with that of the pastoralists, who already live within a division of labour with settled agricultural communities and whose lifestyles are eminently compatible with state power as well as capitalism. As warriors (Deleuze & Guattari's nomadic war machine), the pastoralists created states and empires (mode of exchange B), and as itinerant merchants and artisans, they contributed to to the rise of capitalism (mode of exchange C).
Pastoral nomads move between communities, and by commodities or war they penetrate, invade and rule the interior of the communities. In terms of mode of exchange, the nomadism of pastoral nomads is not guided by that of A, but of B and C. (ibid. 189f)
Karatani points out that even Scott’s Zomian hill peoples take part in various exchanges with the "paddy kingdoms" of the plains, so they too differ from the primordial bands of hunters and gatherers. Deleuze & Guattari’s “nomadology” was modelled on the image of pastoral nomads, but such nomads cannot offer a principle for overcoming state and capital. Instead they "call" both state and capital into being, as modes of exchange suited to their own movement between settled communities. In order to find a key for overcoming state and capital, one needs to turn to the nomadism of the hunters and gatherers (ibid. 190ff).

Karatani's criticism of Yoshimoto and Amino

Among the most interesting pars of the book is where Karatani criticizes other leading intellectuals like Yoshimoto Takaaki and Amino Yoshihiko.

Yoshimoto Takaaki is criticized for merely being interested in the cultural aspects of Yanagita’s work. Yoshimoto’s work Kyôdôgensôron (A theory of communal illusion) was one of the works that popularized Yanagita in the 60's, but the way it treats Yanagita is typical of the tendency to read him as a mere researcher of folk beliefs and culture. Karatani remarks that Yoshimoto here follows the general trend among postwar Marxist critics, who tended to focus on culture, ideology or hegemony in response to the failure of revolution and the defeat of Marxism by fascism in previous decades. According to Karatani, what Yoshimoto called "communal illusion" was simply another word for the ideological superstructure. To Karatani, however, Yanagita's work can’t be separated from agricultural policy, i.e. from the economic “base”(ibid. 30-33). 

Amino Yoshihiko

Karatani's critique of Amino Yoshihiko is more respectful but also more thoroughgoing. With the vogue of interest in outcasts, indigenous people and minorities in the 70s and 80s, Amino - who until then had been isolated among Japanese historians - started to become widely read. Although Amino's writings on “non-agricultural peoples” in Japanese history looked like readymade for a critique of Yanagita, Amino never himself engaged in such a critique. Instead, his  target was the Kôzaha school of Marxism to which he had belonged in his youth. Unlike Yoshimoto, Amino never turned to focus solely on culture or the ideological superstructure. Instead he expanded the idea of the economic base to include not only modes of production but also what Karatani calls “modes of exchange”. As against the Kôzaha Marxists, who viewed feudalism as structured around the axis landlord-peasant, Amino emphasized a wider domain of circulation structured by the activities of non-agricultural peoples such as outcasts, artistic performers, traders, artisans, fishermen and religious specialists (ibid. 35f). By paying attention to these various groups, Amino showed that medieval Japanese society was structured by far more complex relations of authority and subordination as well as ideas about freedom than those characteristic of the landlord-peasant relation. He also showed that all of these relations had to be taken into account in order to understand the strength of the so-called emperor system in Japan.

Karatani argues that while Amino’s critique is valid against Kôzaha Marxism, it is not applicable to Yanagita (ibid. 37f). Karatani then delivers his basic criticism of Amino. Although it might look as if he and Amino have much in common - such as the focus on modes of exchange, the interest in exploring new ideas of the public suited to rootless, nomadic populations, and the question of how such ideas are linked freedom - he criticizes Amino for having mixed up two kinds of nomadism.

Firstly, there were the nomadic, non-agricultural strata Amino studied – artists and artisans – but as his own research bears out, these strata in fact functioned as a support for the emperor system and for many of the hierarchies structuring Japanese society. Capitalist merchants as well as warriors developed out of the non-agricultural stratum of artisans and performers of which they were originally part. While Amino starts out searching for ways to criticize the power of that system, he thus ends up painting a positive picture of the forces that support it.
Against the settled agriculturalists, Amino valorized the "non-agricultural peoples", i.e. itinerant artists. In them he tried to discern the key for overcoming the emperor system state. […]. However, although this type of nomads may negate setttledness and the hierarchies it brings with it, it should be noted that they at the same time directly link up with the state. In similar vein, nomadic pastoralists rejected settled society while forming a state ruling over the settled peoples. The emperor system state cannot be resisted by taking recourse to this type of nomadism, which is furthermore also unable to offer resistance to capital. (ibid. 40)
In Karatani's view, itinerant artists, traders and artisans are like pastoral nomads: by moving between settled communities, they nourish capitalist trade and "call" the imperial state into being as a power that transcends and integrates the local communities. 

Secondly, however, there are the mountain people Yanagita wrote about or the primitive bands of hunters and gatherers, where true equality and statelessness could be found. "Mountain peoples or nomadic hunters and gatherers may appears to resemble itinerant groups like artisans and performers, but are crucially different. Without paying attention to two varieties of nomadism [...] the predicament we find ourselves in today also cannot be understood" (ibid. 38).

Sanka, itinerant people of old Japan
Critical remarks

In my view, there are four points where Karatani's arguments fail to convince. 

Firstly, although his reinterpretation of Yanagita is interesting, I really cannot see that it explains Yanagita's move to focus on the jômin in the 30s. If Yanagita had really been pursuing a new form in which to realize his old dream of nomadism, then why would he focus on settled jômin which he himself portrayed as a mainspring of the settled, agricultural people and which he, as Karatani points out, believed “included the emperor” (ibid. 24)? Karatani’s rather feeble justification is that Yanagita at the same time turned to investigate individual religious beliefs which supposedly he thought were linked to the jômin, but this explanation still fails to clarify how a freedom associated with a "good" form of nomadism - that of hunters and gatherers - could be expressed in the figure of the jômin who where no nomads at all. To be sure, Karatani sees the "nation" as one way in which the ideal of egalitarian sharing can live on, but at least in this work Karatani fails do discuss the problems of the nation properly. What needs to be pointed out for the argument to advance in the direction Karatani wants to take it is that the nation too is nothing but a corrupt manifestation of the old ideal and that the nation as an ideology is just as complicit in supporting state and capitalism as the ideology of nomadism. This critique of the nation figures very prominently in other works by Karatani, but in this book it is for some reason almost wholly absent. The result is that Yanagita and his turn to a "one-nation ethnology" based on the jômin are left curiously uncriticized. The drawback of this for Karatani is that such a critique is exactly what would have been needed for his own argument to proceed properly. After all, what he wishes to show is that we mustn't rest satisfied with the egalitarian sharing of hunters and gatherers being resurrected in mode of exchange A (the nation), but proceed to the realization of mode of exchange D (the elusive "X" that resurrects all it on a higher plane beyond capital, state and nation). As he writes elsewhere, mode of exchange D is the only way to escape the present system, which is a "triad" or "borromean ring" in which nation, state and capital (mode of exchange A, B and C) mutually support and stabilize each other.

Shiiba Village

Secondly, the criticism of Amino seems unfair. To begin with, it seems strange to criticize Amino for the alleged emperor-worship of his non-agricultural “nomads” and to reject him in favor of Yanagita when, as Karatani makes clear, Yanagita himself also took part in this worship by including the emperor in the jôminWhat I would like to hold on to in Amino’s portrayal of the various itinerant peoples of the Japanese archipelago is that they, in various ways, embodied remnants of an older idea of freedom which he referred to in his writings as muen. Amino is explicit about the fact that muen was never more than partly realized in medieval Japan. It is best understood from a Blochian perspective, as a radical but elusive Utopian truth-content which is always mixed up with ideological elements in its historical manifestations. Amino thus never denied the presence of hierarchies in the various communities and groups he studied, nor the fact that the energies of muen were often recuperated by the forces supporting the emperor-system or capitalism. If that is so, is his standpoint really so different from Karatani’s? Karatani's own idea of freedom is the elusive “X” (mode of exchange D, which resurrects mode of exchange A on a higher plane). As he himself points out, this "X" is hardly ever present in real history except as a transcendental utopian semblance, e.g. in world religions or the "imperial principle" used by empires to legitimate their rule. Considering Karatani's own celebratory account of the utopian aspects of "empire" in Teikoku no kôzô, it seems unfair to accuse Amino of having discerned similar utopian aspects of the medieval emperor-system. Why not be generous enough to recognize the presence of such a utopian semblance also in what Amino called muen? To be sure, Karatani claims that the nomadism of the type Amino discusses “is not a genuine recovery of the nomadism that existed before settlement” (ibid. 192), but what are his grounds for that claim? I fail to see why it would be impossible to see the ideal of muen as a reflection of the same Utopian promise that Karatani associates with the free and egalitarian sharing among hunters and gatherers. In fact, in a recent text (Karatani 2014b), Karatani discerns an agreement between his and Amino’s projects. Here he admits that what Amino called gen-muen (primordial muen) is similar to what Karatani himself wants to capture with his discussion about primordial nomads and yamabito, namely a form of model for communism.

Thirdly, I am skeptical against Karatani’s attempt to draw a water-tight line of demarcation between two types of nomads – those that affirm the state and those that reject it. Were the mountain peoples that he contrasts to the itinerant artists discussed by Amino really independent of the state? As Karatani points out, Scott acknowledges that a lot of trade and interaction took place between the Zomian hill tribes and the paddy kingdoms, and I wonder if something similar didn't also hold true of the Japanese mountain peoples (yamabito). Amino and other historians have documented how outcast groups (yama no min) similar to the mountain peoples were directly tied to the emperor or to temples, e.g. the Yasedôji living in the mountains north-east of Kyoto that were employed by the emperor as palanquin carriers and who were both despised and symbolically integrated into the state edifice as holy at the same time (e.g. Amino 2001:132). Is it really possible to uphold a strict line of demarcation between the yama no min and the yamabito? Even if hunters and gatherers existing before the state of course lacked such ties to the emperor, is it appropriate to let such hunters and gatherers be represented by the yamabito?

Finally, what is the way to genuinely resurrect the primordial freedom of hunters and gatherers in the form of mode of exchange D? Here Karatani disappoints. He writes almost nothing about it, except that “it doesn’t exist in reality” (sore wa gen ni sonzai suru mono de ha nai) but is nevertheless compulsively repeated in history as a striving and that it was originally expressed in the guise of universal religion (Karatani 2014:193). Apart from his speculation about how the bands of hunters and gatherers must have lived in primordial times, no historical examples are given. What hope does Karatani possibly see in them today, after the rise of the state and the capitalist market which has driven them out of history? Karatani is driven to this extraordinarily weak position by his insistence that mode of exchange D must be free from all entanglement with state and capital. But rather than insisting on an impossible purity lacking in historical substance which can only be speculated to have existed in primordial times before settlement, isn't it better to accept the dialectical entanglement of myth and truth, ideology and truth content, and work with that towards the purity, even though we may never be able to grasp it or realize it fully?

Yet to Karatani it appears that anything that is not a real solution must be rejected. He is not content with a mere Utopian Vor-Schein or promise of happiness. The elusive X he is searching for must be able to function as a mode of exchange, as a way of actually structuring the interaction holding together a society. Even though Karatani's position is weak, this insistence must be respected. Once he pursued the solution in NAM (the New Associationist Movement), which existed 2000-2003 and which was his attempt to start up a social movement against state, capital and nation. At that time, he clearly believed he had found the winning formula in the "associationist" organization of NAM, which he thought would be able to operate according to other modes of exchange that those of state, capital or nation. After the failure of NAM, he has been forced to rely on what appears to be an almost desperate hope that the mode of exchange D will one day be resurrected and realized. 

Even today, however, there are some phenomena that give substance to his hope. In 2011, he participated in the post-Fukushima street demonstrations against nuclear power. In a talk with Matsumoto Hajime, one of the arrangers, he praised Matsumoto's group - a gathering of young people often referred to as the Amateur Riot (Shirôto no ran) - as a resurrection of the primordial bands of hunters and gatherers. 
It's interesting that you engaged in circle activities around homelessness at the university. If we enlarge the picture, the earliest stage of humanity was the society of nomadic hunters and gatherers. Since they didn't settle down, they were like homeless people. They wandered around in groups. So they were like a demonstration. They were equal, sharing all food with each other. At that time, what anthropologists call reciprocity didn't yet exist. Since they were on the move, they had no use of prey and other possessions so they gave them away. Looking at what you have been doing from your very first activities like homelessness, I get the feeling that you are resurrecting this nomadic tradition. (Karatani & Matsumoto 2012:118)
Later in the talk, he also praises the group's attempts to set up their own small alternative economy that helps them survive without support from the state or companies. It's almost as if he sees them as a fulfillment of the dream he once pursued in NAM. 

Amateur Riot - presentday nomads?


Amino, Yoshihiko (2001 [1974]) Môko shûrai, Tokyo: Shôgakukan.

Karatani, Kôjin (2014) Yūdōron – Yanagita Kunio to yamabito, Tokyo: Bungei shunju.

Karatani (2014) “Amino Yoshihiko no komyunizumu”, Gendai shisô, Vol. 42-19 (Feb): 8-11

Karatani, Kôjin & Matsumoto, Hajime (2012) “Seikatsu to ittaika shita demo wa tezuyoi”, pp 116-129, in Genpatsu to demo, soshite minshushugi, Tokyo: Chikuma shobō.

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