We are excited to announce a new title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book series: One Hundred Million Philosophers: Science of Thought and the Culture of Democracy in Postwar Japan, published by the University of Hawaii Press. The book’s author is Adam Bronson, who will become Lecturer in the History of Japan at Durham University in the fall of 2016.
After the devastation of World War II, journalists, scholars, and citizens came together to foster a new culture of democracy in Japan. Adam Bronson explores this effort in a path-breaking study of the Institute for the Science of Thought, one of the most influential associations to emerge in the early postwar years. The institute’s founders believed that the estrangement of intellectuals from the general public had contributed to the rise of fascism. To address this, they sought to develop a “science of thought” that would reconnect the world of ideas with everyday experience and thus reimagine Japan as a democratic nation, home to one hundred million philosophers.
We thank Professor Bronson for taking the time to discuss his book with us. Please read the following Q&A (questions by Trevor Menders, CC ’18) to learn more about the research and questions that drove the project.
How did you come across the Institute for the Science of Thought in your research and what compelled you to explore its role in postwar Japanese culture?
I first traveled to Japan as a high school exchange student in 2000. Out of nervous anticipation before the trip, I read every paperback guidebook on Japan and Japanese culture that I could get my hands on. I read part of Ruth Benedict’s classic analysis of Japanese culture from 1946, Chrysanthemum and the Sword, though I could barely understand any of it at the time. Much of what I read stressed the stark difference between a “disciplinarian and collectivist” Japan and a “freedom-loving and individualist” United States. I arrived in Japan with these popular theories of cultural difference jumbling around in my head, and so I repeatedly felt shocked to find many similarities between the Saitama suburb where I attended a prefectural high school and my suburban hometown in Texas. After returning to the US and entering college, I became interested in learning about the history of different notions of Japanese cultural uniqueness in Japan, Europe, and the US – including notions that clashed with my own anecdotal experience in the country. It was in this connection that I first came across the Institute for the Science of Thought.
I felt compelled to explore the history of the Institute because I believed it offered a new way of approaching longstanding debates about the relationship between culture and democracy before and after World War II in Japan and elsewhere. It is impossible to dislodge anti-democratic notions of cultural essentialism through rational argumentation and careful historical research alone. Such efforts only make sense in the context of larger political, educational, and intellectual movements that reshape the mainstream culture under debate. The Institute for the Science of Thought was one part of such a larger movement. It also straddled the line separating descriptive “social research” from normative “social movements” in a way that is relevant to understanding the challenges and opportunities facing democratic movements today, during a moment characterized by widespread anger at the political and economic status quo.
Was the Institute for the Science of Thought unique in its mission? Did other organizations with similar purpose–the purpose of providing access to intellectual life to the Japanese citizenry–exist? If so, what sort of influence did they exert?
In the fifties, the Institute of the Science of Thought actually expended quite a bit of effort trying to prove that its mission was not unique – that it was just one part of a larger grassroots movement that would eventually transform and democratize Japanese intellectual life from the bottom-up. This is one reason why historians have only recently become fully aware of the significance of the group, 20 years after the group ceased publication of its flagship journal in 1996. There was a deliberately opportunistic side to the Institute’s work that was inseparable from its vision of the democratic intellectual as a facilitator, organizer, and mediator rather than a creative genius. The Institute tried to shine a spotlight on educational and cultural movements – including movements in the newly established People’s Republic of China – that appeared to complement its mission of broadening access to intellectual life.
What were the mechanics of the Institute? How did people become involved? What kinds of social backgrounds did its members come from?
Science of Thought began as a small group of young intellectuals from elite backgrounds in Tokyo, but it eventually evolved into a network of locally organized branches and research circles spanning the length and breadth of Japan. The membership became more socioeconomically diverse over time. Several prominent members were autodidacts, self-taught “amateur intellectuals” without a college degree who were recruited to write articles after writing letters to the editors of the group’s journal. Others became involved in the Institute through political organizations that the founders participated in. Tensions developed among members of different backgrounds and political proclivities who joined the group at different times, and the process by which the internal organization of the Institute became more democratic was a contentious and messy process.
The Institute wanted to establish a connection between the general populace and intellectual history–how did they attempt to create this connection?
One of the founders of the Institute, Maruyama Masao, famously complained that no good translation for “intellectual history” existed in the Japanese language. The neologism usually used to translate “intellectual history” literally means “history of thought” (shisō-shi) – closer to Ideengeschichte or the history of ideas than what is encompassed by the term intellectual history. It is important to note that in this context “thought” (shisō) typically meant a developed system of thought, overlapping with the definition of “ideology.” It was not a catch-all term for whatever pops into a thinker’s head.
I bring up this translation difficulty because much of the Institute’s early activity can be understood as an effort to move away from a less rigorously systematic definition of thought (shisō) in order to bring traditional intellectuals – who prized systematic thinking – into a closer and more productive relationship with the general populace. The same word for systematic “thought” (shisō) was also used in the name “Science of Thought” (Shisō no kagaku), but it was redefined in such a way that it was ascribed to the everyday lives of so-called “ordinary people.” The group first tried to understand the thought of ordinary people through philosophical questionnaires, ethnographic research, and content analyses of films and comic books.
How did this group convey their intellectual ideas? Many of its members were notably influenced by the West, having been educated outside of Asia. Was the general public receptive to their less familiar modes of discourse?
Not at first. During the US Occupation, Tsurumi Shunsuke complained that he had a terrible time selling tickets to the group’s first public lecture – on the subject of democratic communication — because so few people were familiar with the English loanword “communication” used in the title. The group became more effective at communicating with the general public over time, but if we look at the history of the Institute as a whole, a degree of insurmountable distance from the group’s imagined public also spurred the creativity of several of its members.
What is the legacy of this organization in Japan? Did it have a long-standing effect on the role of the academy in Japanese society?
The Institute helped organize and promote new social and political movements that remain important in Japan today. Disciplinary histories of media studies, cultural studies, and communications research in Japan all pay homage to the foundational work of the Institute in a paragraph here and a footnote there. The Institute also helped launch the career of many prominent public intellectuals, some of whom are still active today.
The organization’s legacy beyond the academy is more difficult to quantify in other respects. In contemporary Japan, intellectual and subcultural domains overlap and interact with each other in exciting ways. This phenomenon is better understood with reference to the history of groups like the Institute for the Science of Thought – a part of global intellectual history after World War II – rather than with reference to timeless Japanese cultural characteristics.
Will what you have found in this research project influence your research going forward?
Yes, I am now working on a project on the history of rumors and political culture in twentieth-century Japan. The experience of researching and writing One Hundred Million Philosophers has probably influenced my approach to this subject in more ways than I am consciously aware. Like OHMP, the new project is also concerned with the historical relationship between intellectuals and popular culture, but the broader chronological scope has allowed me to bring certain aspects of this history into sharper relief, especially as regards the changing role of the state in mediating this relationship over time.