A Salon for the Soul: Nakai Masakazu and the Culture Movement in Postwar HiroshimaSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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It was as if the intellectuals who took refuge in the countryside had been set adrift in an unfamiliar sea; with the sudden end of the war, they found themselves at a loss to determine what their task should be
Just weeks after Japan’s surrender to the Allied Powers and only days after the dismantling of the oppressive Peace Preservation Law in October 1945, Nakai Masakazu, head of the Onomichi City Library, hung a placard on the door of the long-neglected library building:
- Kant Lectures to be held here
- Sundays, students welcome
- Wednesdays, women welcome;
- Fridays, open discussion.
Nakai recalls putting up the notice with an "irrepressible feeling of elation" prompted by the ability to speak freely after spending the last decade either in jail or under threat of detention as a suspected antiwar advocate (Nakai Masakazu zenshu [ Collected Works]; Tokyo: 1981, hereafter cited as CW). .In the last year of the war, he had taken refuge in his home town of Onomichi in eastern Hiroshima Prefecture where he was offered the library post. The job was a labor of love: the mayor felt the designated salary would be an insult to a scholar of Nakai’s stature. This sentiment was a sign of respect, notable because Nakai had so recently been unceremoniously deprived of his faculty position in the Philosophy Department of Kyoto Imperial University and charged with "thought crimes."
Nakai’s first "Kant lecture" began with about 20 in the audience; within a few weeks the numbers dropped to 10, then 5. He tried everything — more intriguing content, a more impassioned delivery — but to no avail. From the library window, he could see the profiles of young men just home from war — the audience he most hoped to reach — waiting in line at the movie house next door. .The day came when only his most faithful auditor showed up at the door: Nakai’s own 77-year-old mother (CW, 190-191).
Why did Nakai insist on explicating Kant to a shrinking audience of war-weary, demoralized people? Was this simply naive pretension on the part of an elite intellectual, paternalistic at best, offensively irrelevant at worst? Let us turn first to the sense of urgency that quickened Nakai’s initial attempts: an urgency rooted in a recognition that the war was indeed over, but not but not the conditions that generated it, particularly those less tangible conditions of social life Nakai called culture. If the people of an "aggressor nation" were to acknowledge and transform those conditions, it was absolutely crucial, as he saw it, that they understand what Kant had to say about the human faculties. Yet, despite Nakai’s strength of conviction, the audience remained elusive.
He was, however, prepared to learn from his mistakes. Earlier attempts at coalition building in a new consumer-cooperative movement in the 1930’s had left him with a profound appreciation for the dialectic between theory and practice. Revising his rhetorical address, Nakai simplified his organization and cut back on a specialized lexicon derived from a decades-long dialogue with Anglo-European philosophy. He instead adopted a language more familiar to his intended audience, with allusions to common knowledge. .
The new address made all the difference. By April of 1946, 70 people were attending his Kant lectures regularly; neighboring towns were inviting Nakai to give lectures; and newly-organizing farmers unions in surrounding villages had discovered his talents. It was then that Nakai made note of the fact that he was, in fact, taking part in a "Cultural Enlightenment": a movement that would bring together intellectuals, farmers, laborers, and shopkeepers. Throughout Hiroshima Prefecture these men and women were engaged in an unprecedented experiment to understand their histories — and restructure their souls along with their social existence.
While this creative convergence between a philosopher and a gathering social movement stands as a remarkable episode in its own, it also offers possibilities for recasting the historiographical contours of the early postwar era. Conventionally, observers of modern Japan have paused at the post-defeat period only long enough to sketch a bleak scene of unrelieved devastation: in earlier American versions, postwar history is then entrusted to the Occupation as sole initiator and central agent of democratization. In conservative Japanese versions, defeat and devastation is quickly supplanted by the regeneration of a new Japan — culturally harmonious, socially disciplined, and economically powerful.
But a different picture of the early postwar emerges in the archival traces of the Hiroshima Culture Movement. Even amidst the deprivation left by war, substantial numbers of people committed themselves to an ongoing enterprise toof reshapeing public space in a radically democratic direction. While the American Occupation added a powerful, though provisional, voice to this rearticulation of public space the Hiroshima Culture Movement operated on its own initiative with a vision of peace and democracy that did not necessarily coincide with anthe Occupation agenda. Moreover, the Culture Movement assumed the burdens of history from a prewar and wartime past rather than suppressing memory in the myth of a new beginning.
In Nakai’s view, the first and most crucial requirement for any progressive transformation in post-defeat Hiroshima was an obligation to reflect critically on history, both recent and remote. The past was still very much present because it structured contemporary practices and modes of consciousness. Whether in intimate discussion or in crowded lecture halls, Nakai would bring history home by literally reading it in the local landscape. In his attention to the issue of war responsibility, it was less the sensational Tokyo Trial or the question of the Emperor’s culpability that interested him, but something much more ordinary: the ways in which the everyday lives of farmers and laborers in Hiroshima Prefecture intersected with larger historical issues, particularly Japan’s fifteen-year war in Asia (1931-1945).
In a village topography of imposing residential structures on minuscule plots of land, Nakai deciphered a complex history of patriarchal small landholders. Inside the household, an oppressive hierarchy reigned, subjecting family members, and women in particular, to the abuses of despotic power. At the same time, the limited landed resources of these households made them especially vulnerable to economic pressures from without. In the years leading up to the Pacific War, many from the villages in eastern Hiroshima, pressed by desperation and pride, left for distant opportunities from which they sent back earnings to enrich the family homestead. As Nakai’s contemporary and fellow activist Yamashiro Tomoe has said, Hiroshima, from early Meiji on, consistently ranked among the highest prefectures in levels of out-migration — increasingly to destinations within an expanding Japanese empire in Asia. In the military mobilization that accelerated after the "Manchurian Incident" in 1931, the young men of Hiroshima sons earned a reputation as the "crowning blossom" of the Greater Japanese fighting force.
These interwoven narratives of victimization and aggression took centerpride of place in Nakai’s early lectures, in which wherehe would draw his local audience ointo intimate but uninviting terrain. In a talk before the members of Furukawa’s Farmers Union, Nakai began by reminding his audience that eastern Hiroshima was the birthplace of the "crack troops" of the 41st Brigade, a brigade that became infamous for "the total immolation and massacre of a village along with unthinkable violence against its women." Nakai asked those present to turn their critical faculties upon themselves. "Shouldn’t the first step in our reflection on the war be to understand this as a terrible disgrace and to seek a way to redeem ourselves?" Yamashiro recalled that the audience shuddered, "as if cold water had just run down their back." Nakai continued:
"These `crack troops’ so feared by the Chinese people — the same troops who accomplished the impossible feat of crossing Wusung Creek to become the spearhead of the Nanjin Massacre — sprang from this native soil. So, tell me, how was it that they managed to make the impossible possible?"(Yamashiro Tomoe, What I have Learned: 1990, hereafter cited as WIHL)
As the audience sat in stunned silence, Nakai turned to a less unsettling but equally relevant topic — something he called mitsu no konjou, or "three dispositions," inherited from earlier historical formations (conceived along the progressive lines of Marxist historiography). Deeply rooted in the consciousness of all those present, these dispositions still wrought powerful effects in contemporary life. The first was akirame konjou, a "spirit of resignation" left behind by a "slave society"; the second and third dispositions, mite kure konjou, a "hey, look at me" mentality, and nukegake konjou, a "steal the advantage" outlook — were both inherited from a "feudal society." When members of his audience initially responded with "yeah, that’s me all right, but what’s the big deal?," Nakai recalled a familiar story from The Tale of the Heike — a competition between two Minamoto warriors to be the first to cross the Uji River. Riding up from behind, Sasaki no Takatsuna pointed down at the belly of his rival’s horse and said, as if with sincere concern, "your saddle girth looks loose; tighten it up!" And while the other bent down to check, Sasaki sped out ahead to cross the raging river. This, Nakai, told his audience, is a "steal the advantage" mentality. Then, when Sasaki reaches the other side before his rival, he offers eloquent testimony to the spirit of "hey, look at me" in his boastful proclamation that he, Sasaki no Takatsuna, was indeed the first to cross the Uji river, an act of "name-announcing" that would bring renown to himself and his descendants.
While it may have been incumbent upon a warrior in a feudal society to make his military feats known and to steal a march on his rival, the persistence of such practices in the present, Nakai suggested, only produced contradictions in local social life: a villager, in the spirit of "hey look at me," bankrupts his family by insisting on supplying his daughters with huge dowries or throwing an enormous banquet for a conscripted son. A farmer compares the barley in his neighbor’s field with his own; if the color of his neighbor’s crop is worse than his own, he congratulates himself. And to demonstrate that these same practices could have the most dire consequences in an era of imperialist venture and total war, Nakai brought his audience back to the "crack troops" of the 41st Brigade as they crossed the Wusung on the approach to Shanghai:
The leaders who attempted the successful crossing of Wusung Creek understood perfectly this mentality of "stealing the advantage" in their troops. As soon as the officers gave the command to cross, each ... of the men fought to take the lead; and when the first ones threw themselves forward only to find themselves sucked into the bottomless mud of the creek, the next line of men leapt forward, stepping on the sinking shoulders of their comrades and so advancing one more step forward. It was over the bodies of this second group that the next group scrambled to "steal the advantage" on the others. In this manner, trampling on the sinking bodies of their dying comrades, the 41st Brigade succeeded in crossing Wusung Creek.(WIHL)
Yamashiro recalls that the faces of the young women in the hall visibly paled at Nakai’s words. It was in their direction, that Nakai then spoke:
The hometown sweetheart, whose image no doubt appeared before the eyes of each of these soldiers as he struggled in the mire, was no other than the revered "Yamato daughter" brought up to believe that obedience was her prime virtue. And the soldiers — men who surely would have been loved and respected by you — in their eagerness to steal the advantage over one another, sank into the muddy crucible of Wusung creek.(WIHL)
This obedience, Nakai suggested — whether in the form of awed admiration for a betrothed or submission to the dictates of the ‘family-state" — made the young women in the audience complicit in both a history of oppression within Japanese society and brutal aggression in Asia: "If women fail to reflect critically on this event," he concluded, "it will be impossible to pave the way for peace or democracy here in Hiroshima."(WIHL)
How then did these unsettling recollections of the war translate into socially transformative practices in the post-defeat presentperiod? While Nakai believed that the translation from word to act begins with knowledge, he had long since moved beyond the liberal-humanist faith that knowledge sets man free toward a position that ideology forms "the terrain on which people move and acquire consciousness of their position and struggle." The first time Yamashiro heard Nakai speak, she realized that she too harbored the "three dispositions" and vowed not only to root them out, but to join with other "daughters of a militarist state" in a struggle to reflect critically on the war. Some who followed Nakai’s speaking circuit were able to repeat his stories word-for-word to friends and relatives, many of whom came themselves to hear Nakai in person. More than a few expressed to remake themselves anew through a "revolution of consciousness."
What was needed then and there in the post-defeat present, Nakai argued, was a "methodology for this revolution of consciousness." On behalf of a community of people still carrying deep traces of a long historical engagement with feudalism, Nakai drew on what he knew best — European philosophy — and singled out a crucial moment in Enlightenment thought in which the feudal strictures on thought were, he believed, finally released. Here it is useful to turn back to Kant — especially to the Kant of the Critique of Pure Reason. Kant authorized, in the words of Deleuze, an inversion of "the ancient conception of Wisdom" in which the sage is defined in part by "his `final’ accord with Nature." Instead, the human individual "becomes legislator of nature in which a necessary submission of object to subject prevails." It was this new dignity and autonomy granted to a finite human subject that Nakai hoped to convey to the distressed inhabitants of Hiroshima — a message well suited to the grassroots Enlightenment he hoped to witness.
But a self-aware revolution required something more. This newly dignified subject was duty-bound to subject itself to an "immanent critique" — a self-critical operation, again in the spirit of Kant, but with more immediate and more concrete social effects than Kant might have imagined. Nakai demonstrated just what was at stake in a concrete immanent critique by way of a story he heard from a local farmer:
A group of farmers planned to hold a meeting and decided each was to bring a pint of sake . . . [E]ach arrived with his sake; when the feast was ready and the sake well warmed, they all raised their cups only to discover that what they were drinking was not sake at all, but hot water. Sitting face to face, everyone drank the hot water. Each had made the same sly calculation that none of the others would guess who had brought the hot water; each had figured this ruse would enable him to drink his fill at the expense of his guileless associates. Now, as they all drank their hot water in a circle, each realized that everyone else had been just as clever as himself; and the high spirits of all were suddenly and irreversibly dampened.(CW)
For Nakai, the story was emblematic of things that actually took place in local villages day in and day out. "If one commits such acts of bad faith," he observed, "the structure of a meeting such as this one will necessarily collapse in on itself, beginning with the foundations." What was lacking among these crestfallen farmers was "an appropriate and systematic intellectual foundation of thought; in other words, thought as a mediation has not yet taken shape in their souls." How could they possibly determine their common interest and confront another class if they allowed this "spirit of negation unmediated by thought" to rot their own association from within?
Nakai went on to specify how such an internal mediation might be put into practice:
To become aware of one’s own contradictions, one must first push one’s self to the side and critique that self. To engage in such a critique, one needs something like "a salon of the soul." (CW)
This concept of "salon of the soul" is especially intriguing in the way it seems to prefigure Habermas’s notion of a bourgeois public sphere as it became articulated in the coffee houses and salons of late 18th century Europe; yet, interestingly, Nakai’s "salon" surpassed the Habermasian model both in its capacity for critical introspection and in its range of social awareness. "This salon of the soul," Nakai explained, "is what people sometimes call `thought’ or `ideology.’" Thought itself is a kind of mediation, both within the consciousness of a single individual, among a class with common interests, and between classes within a larger social formation. This critically and socially mediated subjectivity was a working concept Nakai had elaborated earlier, in interwar debates, as an alternative to reactionary conceptions of an ethnic subjectivity defined by the immediacy of its relation to an authentic cultural community. As Nakai saw it, without a revolution of consciousness, without a "salon of the soul," local farmers and workers were bound to sabotage their own possibilities for mutual solidarity and cooperation in post-defeat Hiroshima.(CW)
Nakai’s talks were relevant to other events taking place in Hiroshima Prefecture and in Japan at large. Within weeks of the surrender, workers and farmers movements started to spring up again after what some called "a long winter." Before the end of 1945, farmers’ groups had begun to bring leaders of the state-run Agricultural Associations and local government heads before village equivalents of "people’s court" over issues of land reform, the compulsory state system of crop deliveries, and democratization of distribution. Unions began to form, often on platforms that went beyond improvement of working conditions to demands for production control. While there were indeed examples for such organizing in the "dispute culture" of the interwar years, the intensity and extent of union activity in late 1945 was unprecedented.
Established in Hiroshima, this local organizing moved rapidly in the direction of broad coalition building, towards a "united farmers’ front" and a regional Workers’ League — efforts beset from the outset by factional disputes and sectarian differences. What brought Nakai to the center of these troubled coalition efforts were his own talents for mediation as well as a desire among many participants in the movement for precisely the kind of radically reflexive and critical knowledge Nakai advocated as part of his "enlightenment" enterprise in local villages. In November of 1946, Nakai was elected as the first Chair of a 100,000-member Hiroshima Prefecture Workers’ Culture Association (WCA), an organization committed to creating a new politics of a culture in an expanded public sphere.
Now, tThe task of overcoming fragmentation in the movement had become a very practical and pressing one for Nakai. Just as in the story of the farmers’ gathering, Nakai saw the dissension that threatened possibilities for a united front as an index of feudal remnants still operating in contemporary consciousness, though this time cloaked in democratic rhetoric.
Perhaps with the errors of prewar Marxism — in particular, the retreat into theory — still fresh in his mind, Nakai resolved to give precedence not to the theoretical critique of a feudal institutional legacy, but rather to the practical requisites of cultural enlightenment in the present. Therefore, he proposed a people’s university, first on a small scale in his home town, Onomichi, then a full-scale "Summer University" held in 1947 in 22 towns and villages in eastern Hiroshima, with lecturers drawn both from the local WCA and from major metropolitan universities. According to Fujiwara Hironobu, lecturers, accompanied by local youth, tramped from village to village holding sessions on topics ranging from Marxism and rural economic crisis to mass culture and avant-garde art.
Ando Kinken writes that Nakagawa Shuichi, associate chair of the WCA, noted that this traveling university "fell like precious rain on the parched earth," especially for the young people in the countryside. Village halls were filled to overflowing. By popular demand, a two-hour lecture easily extended into eight hours of continued discussion (Ando Kinken, A Record of "Salt of the Earth": Nakai Masakazu and the Regional Culture Movement, 1976).. A recently demobilized sailor-become-student remarked, "It doesn’t matter what I think about, my whole head is filled with light." And Nakai noted that he too was living through an "age of Renaissance." When the Summer University drew to a close, enthusiasm was at its height. Planning started immediately for another round the following summer; some even suggested holding a people’s university twice a year. And a profusion of small study groups flowered all over the local region.
In hindsight, Nakai would express regret that Japan’s first prefectural elections drew him away from the villages. His eleventh-hour bid for governorship in the spring of 1947 — a bid initiated and supported by a broad, and unusual, "People’s Front" coalition of mostly unaligned grassroots but also socialist and communist groups — failed by a narrow margin. Several years after the Hiroshima Prefectural election, with the Culture Movement a quickly receding reality, Nakai traced its falling trajectory back to the mainstay of the movement, the members of middle and large holding farm households. It was this group of people who made the largest investment and placed the greatest hope in the Culture Movement; and yet many, drawn into machinations over division of hoarded wealth, would be reabsorbed by the patriarchal structures of a powerful family system and ultimately distance themselves from the social experiment in Hiroshima.
In Nakai’s view, this patriarchal family system, like the sectarianism of the labor movement, "smelled of feudalism." A local cultural movement, he concluded, could not be expected to win the fight alone. The sites where power is most highly concentrated — in the National Diet, or in the bureaucracy — must themselves become an object and source of enlightenment. One had to be prepared for a long struggle to institute and organize cultural revolution. Perhaps that is why, in 1948, Nakai chose to leave Onomichi for Tokyo to assume the task of creating the National Diet Library.
Nakai would find himself crushed in the vise-grip of that power as he struggled to give expression to the Diet Library. The Occupation administration, reacting to the inception of America’s Cold War, drew closer to existing concentrations of conservative power in Japan to create what is commonly referred to as the "Reverse Course" in Occupation policy. Caught in the ideological machinery of this consolidation, Nakai would once again be scrutinized and anathematized for leftist leanings, and ultimately disempowered, at least in official circles, during his last years.
The memory of the Hiroshima Culture Movement would eventually succumb to the same combination of forces that silenced Nakai in the early postwar period. This extraordinary historical moment — a moment that interrupted, or disrupted, the transition from one epoch of concentrated power to another — is virtually absent from the annals of postwar Japanese history, excised from dominant versions of the past. Nevertheless, the Hiroshima Culture Movement has reappeared in recent decades as a form of alternative history. Whether through the medium of historical accounts, written memoirs, or oral histories, both Nakai and the movement he inspired have become important historical coordinates for civil rights movements, alternative communities, and educational reform groups that struggle and sometimes thrive in the interstices of power in a post-postwar Japan.
Leslie Pincus is a faculty member in the History department.