Saturday, 30 July 2011

Ikegami Eiko and aesthetic publics in Tokugawa Japan

I've recently been writing a piece (forthcoming in Japanese Studies) on how the classical conceptions of a public sphere or public realm in Habermas and Arendt have been challenged by conceptions put forth by Amino Yoshihiko and other historians as well as by activists in the homeless movmement in Japan. Against those who claim that nothing corresponding to a "Western" notion of the public exists in Japanese history, these historians and activists argue that vigorous and powerful public realms existed in pre-modern Japan, especially in the medieval era before the establishment of the repressive Tokugawa shogunate. What enables them to put forth this argument is that they reconceptualize the idea of the public. Instead of emphasizing speech and deliberation as Habermas and Arendt, a central feature of their idea of the public is what Amino calls muen (no-relation) - a quality that enables people to suspend the status, identities and ties of the surrounding secular world and to create egalitarian arenas open to marginal groups.

These historians succeed in locating strong domestic "publics" in medieval Japan. Striking examples include the horizontal associations of the ikki leagues, the egalitarianism of renga gatherings, and the suspension of secular identities at places associated with the sacred. But they usually don't try to establish any continuity between them and contemporary publics. Instead they tend to portray the Tokugawa era (1600-1868) as an era in which these domestic roots of the public were repressed and whithered away.

It is therefore interesting to find a work that focuses precisely on the Japanese "aesthetic publics" in the Tokugawa era and how they developed. Ikegami Eiko's work Bonds of Civility: Aesthetic Networks and the Political Origins of Japanese Culture (2005) promises to fill in the gap between the medievalists' account of the premodern publics based on muen and the establishment of the modern nation-state Japan after the 1868 Meiji Restoration. The book is also interesting since it makes fruitful use of the pioneering work of Amino and other historians who have followed in his footsteps, such as Matsuoka Shinpei or Katsumata Shizuo, but without sharing their pessimistic outlook on Tokugawa period society.

While admitting that the Tokugawa shogunate was repressive, she argues that Tokugawa society  witnessed a "network revolution" that went hand in hand with a popularization of aesthetic knowledge and civility. It thereby created an equivalent to the horizontal civic associations in European societies. In opposition to those who lament the lack of a genuine public sphere in Japan, she argues that the proliferation of aesthetics publics in this era helped form arenas of freedom from state control where people of various background could associate on equal footing, engaging in free communication characterized by liveliness, sensuality and laughter. ”The stereotype of pre-modern Japanese as people as submissive doormats trodden beneath the heels of militaristic despots fails to convey the vitality of Japanese communicative activities in this period – not to mention modern Japanese cultural practices” (Ikegami 2005:12).

There is much to appreciate in Ikegami's book. Focusing on the relation between art and politics, she provides an interesting and engaging history of Japanese art and aesthetics that gives due attention to its social context. On the way she also delivers an original argument about the origins of the contemporary nationalism that takes pride in Japan as a land of refined beauty and politeness. Here I won’t say much about these matters, where I think she does an excellent job. Instead I will focus on what I think is the main theoretical argument of the book, namely her intervention into the debate of whether anything like the the ”public sphere” existed in Japanese history before Westernization. Unfortunately, it is here that I find the book to be weakest.

The main idea, if I understand Ikegami correctly, is that the proliferation of aesthetic publics shouldn't be viewed simply as an indication of a lack of freedom or of people's wish to escape the world of politics. While it is true that Tokugawa authorities didn't tolerate open challenges to their power, she shows that this picture needs to be balanced against the abundance of freedom in the non-political realm. Even though the "official" realm was structured around vertically or hierarchically organized relations, they coexisted with extensive non-political "inofficial" areas in which horizontal associations proliferated. While the "dominant public" - represented by the so-called kôgi of the shogunate - stressed the maintenance of existing hierarchical relations, ”wide enclaves of free discursive spheres” existed outside this public which authorities had neither the capabilities for nor much interest in controlling.


From medieval times to the Tokugawa era 

The best way to follow her argument is to start with medieval Japan, when the central government was weak and strong horizontal associations emerged in the realm of art as well as in politics. Relying on the research of historians like Amino or Matsuoka, she illustrates the vigor of these associations with za (seated) arts. For instance, linked verse (renga) gatherings under cherry blossoms (hana no moto renga) were liminal events thought to be linked to the netherworld. In accordance with the principle of muen, people from various social backgrounds - from commoners to retired emperors - could participate in these poetry sessions without regard for status. Secular ties were suspended in the felt proximity to the sacred. An illustration of the radical, wild and unbounded nature of this freedom from vertical orders was the popularity of frenzied dancing, thought to be animated by sacred madness (kuruu). This freedom also took political form, as in the horizontal ikki alliances proliferating in the latter half of the Middle Ages, alliances that were often linked socially to preexisting linked-poetry circles.

"Hanami takagari zu" (Unkoku Tôgan, late 16th century): Dance for quieting the blossoms (yasuraihana)
The structure of the field of publics changed drastically with the strengthening of central power during the Tokugawa shogunate. Vertical relations now came to dominate the official public realm. While artistic pursuits like jôruri, poetry, threatre, music, calligraphy, painting, ikebana, bonsai, tea, or fashion grew in popularity, they differed in many respects from their medieval predecessors, becoming more controlled, secular and less subjected to "the spirit of magic" (ibid 137f). The decisive difference was that art was now forced to remain in the non-political realm. ”The Tokugawa aesthetic publics were able to build on the remnants of the medieval za spirit only by confining themselves to the interior realm of watakushi (the private) and accepting the official boundaries set for them by the state” (ibid 127). Although horizontal associations continued to exist, they were now confined to the realm of the non-political aesthetic publics. Ikki become outlawed and the word takes on a new meaning, starting to signify peasant revolt.
Shijô kawara yûrakuzu (early 17th century)

Another striking difference compared to medieval times was the reliance of Tokugawa aesthetic publics on the market. The widespread enthusiasm for learning the arts was fuelled by commercialization. Performing artists and poets able to make a living as teachers rather than having to rely on feudal patrons. Paid agents were used to mobilize amateur artists and poets. Knowledge about the arts was spread through the commercial press, and poetry contests were held with thousands of people from all over the country sending in contributions. Economic development was also important, along with the spread of literacy, in attracting various teachers and masters to rural areas. Ikegami quotes a report by a critical official in the Kantô area from 1826:
Performing artists of various types go out from Edo to visit different areas in the Kantô and generally wander around. These people include masterless samurai, Confucian scholars, painters and calligraphers, haikai masters, ikebana teachers, and masters of igo or shôgi games. They organize meetings, get permits from the local village officials, and earn good money from wealthy people in the area, and encourage luxurious spending. As a result, the peasants get lazy and neglect farming because of their bad influece. (quoted in Ikegami 2005: 206)
While some aesthetic publics were structured hierarchically, as in those arts that relied on the monopoly of certified "houses" (the iemoto system), horizontal loose networks remained vigorous in arts such as haikai-circles. Ikegami discusses the example of Igarashi Hamomo, a woman poet who travelled around to participate in linked-verse gatherings, relying on the hospitality of local members of haikai networks, locating other women poets and helping them organize women-only groups. Referring to haikai as ”network poetry”, she characterizes it as marked by border-crossing, jokes, subversion, travel.
Aesthetic public: the audience of an early kabuki play including two foreigners (Kabuki zukan, ca 1605)
Although these aesthetic enclave publics differed from their medieval predecessors, Ikegami stills sees them as functioning along the lines of the principle of muen. They were enclaves where "people could temporarily suspend the application of feudal norms" and where connections could be formed between people from various social backgrounds (ibid 4). People engaged simply as poets or artists, having decoupled from preexisting identities in the ”official” order. Being relatively egalitarian, these publics included bohemian samurai, rich merchants, village chiefs, artisans, small shopkeepers, and she even mentions fishermen who read poetry in their boats.

With time, she argues, the shell of the formal identities in the Tokugawa order became even more hollow:
Once the aesthetic publics were accepted as important components of the private life in Tokugawa Japan, they quietly produced individuals who considered their aesthetic enclave identities to be more profoundly rooted to their true selves than were their feudal categorical identities. (ibid. 43)
Here Ikegami seems to suggest that the Tokugawa order with its multiplicity of enclaves led to the construction of apolitical or private man as the true man. She thus supplies the social background to an important fact in the history of ideas recorded by Maruyama Masao, namely that Tokugawa scholars like Ogyû Sorai for the first time in Japanese history started to distinguish between a public realm ruled by the Tokugawa order and a private realm where people were free to engage in self-cultivation.

The ostensibly non-political aesthetic publics were not entirely decoupled from political empowerment. One example discussed by Ikegami is Watanabe Kazan (1793-1841), a painter from a samurai family who recorded in his diary the political discussions he participated in during his travels. Travels like that, she writes, provided occasions for learning about political realities, ”an education in political awareness”. Aesthetic publics, then, clearly had the potential to be transformed into political publics:
The pattern of socialization described in the writings of Kazan challenges the prevailing notion that pre-modern non-Western societies such as Tokugawa Japan did not develop spheres of critical discourse regarding political matters. [...] [L]ate Tokugawa Japan began to produce larger numbers of people with a critical political consciousness. This consciousness in turn was supported by numerous spheres of voluntary socialization that made use of the established logic of aesthetic enclave publics. (ibid. 201).
Such travels also contributed to the establishment of networks between villages, traditionally the most powerful base for popular protest. Regions with a high density of haikai networks also had a high level of grassroots participation in political mobilization around the Meiji Restoration (ibid 207). The spread of kokugaku, yonaoshi movements and the ”freedom and people’s rights” movement all benefitted from the networks of the haikai circles (ibid 213-218). Ikegami suggests that those networks also laid the groundwork to such remarkable local initiatives as the 1881 "Itsukaichi constitution" draft. An even more striking example is the 1884 Chichibu Rebellion (also known as the Konmintô Rebellion or Poor People’s Party Rebellion) which also sprung from local haikai circles. Fascinating material discovered by the historian Moriyama Gunjirô shows how the uprising had been preceded by poetry sessions dedicated to Sakura Sôgorô in Nagaru village.
Apparently, just as the medieval ikki horizontal alliances often had linked-verse sessions before their military actions, peasants in this community had two poetry-making sessions to solidify their dedication to their project of protest. (ibid. 219)
She also suggest that prayers to Sakura would have been understood as prayers to cherry blossoms (sakura), the old symbol of the sphere of muen (ibid 219).

"Eejanaika" dancing on the eve of the Meiji Restoration

The definition of publics

My first critical comment concerns Ikegami's definition of the word "public". She defines publics as ”communicative sites that emerge at the points of connection among social and/or cognitive networks” (Ikegami 2005:7). What I find noteworthy here is that she defines the public in terms of a relation between "networks" - publics are where networks "meet and intersect" (ibid 24), or where ”the actions of switching/connecting and decoupling of networks take place” (ibid 48). Networks are thus central to her definition. Problematically, however, I cannot see that she really clarifies what a network is. In her discussion of the concept of network she states simply that they consist not only of concrete interpersonal ties but also cognitive associational maps perceived in the form of narrative stories, and that the term network might be preferable as a substitute to more limited terms like social relations, social structure and values and norms (ibid 46f). This amounts, in my view, to saying that anything in society or culture can be a network. Using a wide concept of network is not bad per se, but an unfortunate consequence is that any social or cultural meeting-point can viewed as a "public" according to her definition, which strikes me as far too wide and imprecise.

This lack of precision is problematical in relation to the following issues:

1) It becomes hard to see how she delineates what she calls the "aesthetic publics". Are these publics not themselves better understood as networks of people with shared interests, rather than as spheres where networks "intersect"? Her accounts of these various publics suggest very clearly, I think, that the former option is correct. If she denies this, seeing them as nothing but spheres for the intersection of networks, then where is the substance that might justify labelling them as "aesthetic"? One might of course also try claiming that both options can be correct at the same time, but then the distinction between public and network collapses.

2) A second problem concerns the old problem of the relation between the public and community. It has long been claimed - by people like Arendt, Richard Sennett, Lyn Lofland, Karatani Kôjin and many more - that publics are social spaces where one "meets the stranger", i.e. a person who is not part of one's own community. By contrast, Ikegami appears to be claiming that publics are rather where one meets a person who is not part of one's own network. But what is the additional benefit introduced by replacing the word community by the word network? Presumably, a network is more open and not as tightly structured as a community. But if networks are per definition open, then the entire idea of speaking of connections between separate networks starts to look shaky. If a network has a connection to another, won't they be part of the same network? And if that is so, then how do we locate the sphere where networks "intersect"?

3) A third problem with the definition is that networks can be connected in secret. If that is so, does it really make sense to define that meeting as ”public”?

4) A final problem appears when she writes that ”identity, culture , and meanings as such are ’emergent properties’ arising from the interplay of human subjectivity in actors involved in network relationships at the communicative sites of publics” (Ikegami 2005:5). This is a very strong claim, because it implies that culture, identity etc cannot arise within networks, or in, say, local or bounded communities. Is that really true?


Japanese aesthetic publics and the Western "public sphere"

She repeatedly contrasts her own approach to that of Habermas. However, she does so in a curiously careless way, almost as if she hadn’t read him. This is a pity, because the result is that she constructs an artificial wall between the aesthetic publics of Tokugawa Japan and the bourgeois public sphere described by him, and that she fails to see the many similarities between the two conceptions.

Let us look at some of the criticism she directs against Habermas. Firstly, she claims that the public is necessarily plural, while he defines it as ”an integrated and unified realm”. This seems unfair, since Habermas is quite explicit in his book that he is not going to treat all public spheres, only the bourgeois one. Secondly, against the "normative" views of the public in Habermas and Nancy Fraser, she emphasizes that ”the field of multiple publics is always charged with the dynamic of power” (ibid. 58).
The efficacy of the message that flows from communicative actions is also influenced by the way in which that public is positioned in the field of multiple publics. Consequently, the concept of the multiplicity of publics brings us to another important question: If publics are necessarily multiple, what are the interrelations between them? [...] Habermas’ historically informed analysis of the public sphere in the West is in fact a case study of this hegemonic process in which one category of the liberal bouregois public sphere gained normative authority in the West. (ibid. 59)
This is a reasonable statement, but surely it is ludicrous to state that Habermas or Fraser are neglecting power relations between the various publics. Habermas himself would quite willingly agree to the fact that his analysis is a case study how the bourgois public sphere was shaped and reshaped by historical struggles in Europe (see his own comment in The Structural Transformation, 1989:xvii.).

What I find perhaps most regrettable is Ikegami's refusal to engage with the bourgeois "literary publics" (literarische Öffentlichkeiten), which Habermas sees as the seedbeds of the openly political bourgeois public sphere that later developed. Referring to the aesthetic publics of Tokugawa Japan, she writes:
Publics of this nature – popular, decentralized, and intuitive – constitute the diametrical opposite of Habermas’ model of the unitary, bourgeois, and rational public sphere of late eighteenth century Europe. (ibid. 381)
They might have been the opposite of the political bourgeois public sphere, but where they really so different from the literary publics? Just as she neglects the literary publics, she also neglects Reinhart Koselleck's discussion of the role of the masonic lodges in the 18th century – despite the fact that here we have a situation in Europe which is strikingly similar to the situation in Tokugawa Japan. In both cases repression meant that publics could only take the form of enclaves since open political dissent was not tolerated within the dominant public.

The difference might be that the enclaves in Europe - whether in the shape of literary salons or masonic lodges - permitted a budding political discourse, which later entered the wider public and helped spark revolutions. But as Ikegami herself notes, this is only a difference in degree, not in kind. The critical discourses recorded by Kazan during his poetic journey, the spread of kokugaku ideology or the formation of rebellions on the basis of haikai networks testify that the transformation of aesthetic publics into political one was well on its way by the late Tokugawa period. She traces the development of the aesthetic publics in Japan up to a point where they seem about to take the leap and reclaim the revolutionary energies they once possessed in medieval times. Unfortunately, her theoretical framework - which posits a rather sterile opposition between the Japanese and European trajectories - is a hindrance in order to understand the dynamics of that process. Rather than simply contrasting Japanese aesthetic publics to the "Western" or Habermasian political public sphere, it would surely have been interesting and fruitful to look also for similarities, especially through a comparison between the aesthetic publics in Japan and the literary publics in Europe.


The question of power

Ikegami makes an important point when she writes that ”the structure of the institutional field of publics in a society is profoundly influenced by the organizational structure of the state” (Ikegami 2005:63). However, I wonder if she goes far enough in clarifying the role of the state.

She makes it perfectly clear that the fact that the Tokugawa state was a repressive state intolerant of political dissent was a crucial factor behind the shape the Tokugawa aesthetic publics assumed. State power was decisive in curtailing the freedom of the earlier medieval publics which had often been very political and oppositional in relation to various powerholders.

However, at the same time she repeatedly emphasizes how the Tokugawa state relied on ”indirect rule”, which in practice meant that it delegated control. This, in combination with the ”Tokugawa network revolution”, which occurred as communicative networks expanded in scale, density and complexity, meant that the state was unable to survey or control the myriad of publics very efficiently.

The resulting picture of the Tokugawa state is not as clear as one could have wished. If the complexity of the networks meant that the state lost control, why were the aesthetic publics so afraid of venturing into the realm of politics? Why was the state able to retain efficient control in the realm of the political public sphere despite its inability to control the proliferating networks? Was there anything that forced the aesthetic publics to be more careful about political speech than enclave publics in Europe, such as the masonic lodges? Although Ikegami's text contains some clues to these questions - spies and the risk for detection, the fear of gruesome punishments, and processes of identity formation that lead to the idea of the non-political human being as the "true" human being - the picture still contains many blanks. Fear of detection and punishment has existed in many societies. Surely, there must have been ways of discussing politics in furtive ways in the networks of the aesthetic publics. How else could rebellions suddenly spring from them? Without clarifying that, the mapping of communication in these publics remains incomplete.



The public as muen or as political deliberation?

As I mentioned in the beginning, I am interested in how the classical formulations of the "public" in Habermas and Arendt are challenged by alternative conceptions of the public in which muen is central. Ikegami's book must surely be seen as a contribution belonging to the latter camp. At the same time, she clearly sees the "aesthetic publics" of the Tokugawa era as operating in a different fashion from the medieval publics analyzed by Amino. She also appears to see important lines of continuity between the Tokugawa publics and present-day Japan - for instance, the preference for tacit modes of communication, the ideology of "Japan" as a country of beauty and politeness, and perhaps also the reluctance to engage in explicit political discourse. Although her book doesn't deal with modern Japan, surely many readers will find it remarkably much like today’s Japan when she writes that in the Tokugawa era "an intensely controlled and hierarchically ordered formal society” coexisted with ”the relaxed and sensual dimension of popular culture” (Ikegami 2005:130).

Does this mean that she views muen as central to the way publics operate in contemporary Japan as well? This question is not so easy to answer. In fact, I believe her book can be read in two quite different ways.

On the one hand, many passages suggest that she sees a long-lived tradition of public life centered on muen as something distinctly Japanese. Such a conception of history appears to lie behind her repeatedly stated contrast betwen the Japanese and European trajectories, with the former being characterized by aesthetic publics operating with sensual and tacit modes of communication and the latter by rational, bourgeois publics of the Habermasian kind.

But on the other hand, her book can also be read as a story of discontinuities. The principle of muen barely managed to survive in the Tokugawa era by being confined to aesthetic "enclave publics", where it was "civilized" and lost its political function. As the Tokugawa order started to crack up and totter, these enclave publics again took on a political role, becoming the birthbed of open rebellion. As I have suggested, this reading foregrounds the similarities to the European patterns - especially to the "literary publics" and their politicization - rather than the differences. Although the principle of muen might still have animated these rebellions, we now see much more of rational political deliberation - for instance in the fervor of the "movement for freedom and people's rights" with their many speeches and pamphlets, the organization of political parties and the drafting of constitutions in villages.

I myself prefer the latter reading, for reasons I've stated above. A consequence of that, however, is that it becomes problematical to suggest any unbroken continuities between the Tokugawa era and today. Japan today is certainly to a great extent apolitical and consumerist - a land of play, shopping, amusement, aesthetics and subcultures. But rather than seeing this as a legacy of Tokugawa society, it is better to view it as a product of shifting historical circumstances in which important factors have been the ability of elites to placate social unrest through economic development and the fact that attempts to challenge power - through the "movement for freedom and people's rights" and the plethora of other movements in prewar and postwar Japan - have repeatedly run aground and produced a sense of defeat.

To summarize, I believe Ikegami vacillates between two standpoints. On the one hand, she claims that Tokugawa aesthetic publics were fundamentally different from the Western political, deliberative publics. On the other hand, her account suggests that they potentially represent something similar to the Western public, since political dissent and opposition actually grew out of the renga and haikai networks, thus following a similar development as the one Habermas traces from the literary to the political publics. This defence, however, tends to erase or weaken her argument that there is something fundamentally different between Japanese and Western notions of the public.


Final words

My criticism is not meant to imply any rejection of the book, which I read with much pleasure. Neither do I think that enclave publics are irrelevant today. They partake of the ambiguity that Adorno and Marcuse detected in the "affirmative character" of art, namely that art both prefigures utopia and sanctifies the status quo. By creating enclaves of substitute freedom, aesthetic publics genuinely help people lead happier lives, sustain their sense of self-worth and fulfillment, and to endure a situation in which they have been made politically powerless.

But does this mean that there is no need for protest or politics, as long as we have enclaves to which we can escape? Near the end Ikegami acknowledges ”certain disquieting features of this proto-modern heritage”, namely the unsolved problem of political discourse. The problem, she states, appears ”when the traditional Japanese non-discursive modes of communication are used outside their proper domains” in which case ”they may serve as a pretext to discourage the linguistic articulation of critical discourse” (Ikegami 2005:381). Rather than reading her simplistically as a defender of the freedom of the aesthetic publics, it makes more sense to read her as saying that they fulfill a legitimate and important role next to the political ones. There are times when we need to save what can be saved and take shelter, but there are also times when we become impatient and desire to venture outside to see the blue sky, and even times when we are forced out of the shelters since they are under attack and about to collapse. Isn't what is happening today, in an increasingly harsh economic climate and increasing concern with surveillance and security, that governments far stronger than the Tokugawa shogunate are destroying the enclaves of the apolitical aesthetes, except for the rich and powerful? How long can the subculture otaku, or the fashion-conscious freeter boys and girls, react to this destruction by gliding away to the next enclave, hoping to find his or her true self there, pretending that protest and the political public don’t matter?

Finally, let me add that there might be something misleading about the opposition between aesthetic and political publics. Nothing says one must abandon art to express oneself politically. There is critical potential in art. But it blossoms only when it leaves the realm of pure art, and allows itself to express whatever it wants to express, including politics.


Ikegami, Eiko (2005) Bonds of Civility: Aesthetic Networks and the Political Origins of Japanese Culture, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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