Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Kim Brandt reviews Japan’s Living Politics

Tessa Morris-Suzuki. Japan’s Living Politics: Grassroots Action and the Crises of Democracy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020. 236 pp.

Review by Kim Brandt

14 July 2021

The tendency to imagine that democracy belongs first and foremost to the West is one of the many persistent effects of European and American imperialism. To many, democratic politics in the rest of the world still seem derivative, incomplete, unstable—in short, not quite real. The great merit of Tessa Morris-Suzuki’s new book is that it challenges such presumptions frontally. By identifying present-day rural Japan as a hotbed of radical, cosmopolitan experimentation with grassroots social autonomy, and by insisting on a genealogy for those experiments going back a century and more, Japan’s Living Politics offers a provocative counternarrative about the origins and trajectory of lived democracy. Writing in the depths of the Donald Trump and Shinzo Abe administrations as a dismayed witness to the surge in reactionary populism, Morris-Suzuki expresses pessimism about the future of liberal democratic political systems. She looks instead to Nagano prefecture—the mountainous region northwest of Tokyo—for examples of an alternative, “non-state” approach to politics that can “sustain the values of openness, freedom and justice that democracy is supposed to ensure” while remaining committed to the local, small-scale, and humane (p. 9).   

The second half of the book, especially, offers absorbing, detailed accounts of the kind of experimentation that, in the author’s paraphrase of Jacques Rancière, “breaks the existing order of the visible and sayable” (p. 12): a cooperative hospital engaged in specifically rural healthcare and ecological activism; alternative currency schemes that seek “to separate money as a necessary means of exchange from capital as a force for endless accumulation;” responses to the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011 that include the spread of small-scale “Citizens’ Cooperative Power Stations” drawing on renewable sources of energy (p. 173). While most of these forays into “do-it-yourself politics” are small and ephemeral, Morris-Suzuki argues persuasively that they offer vital, useful lessons in how we might all think and act otherwise in a time of “environmental destruction, rising economic disparities, declining social infrastructure, ethnic and religious prejudice, and rising international military tensions” (p. 9). In any case—and this is perhaps the main point of the book, since Morris-Suzuki is not a political theorist but an historian—the claim is that they are not new and represent only the most recent expressions of an abiding impulse in rural Japan to visionary forms of direct action.

It may well be so. There is a sizeable body of scholarship—the “people’s history” (minshūshi) of the 1960s and 70s, and the peasant rebellion studies of the 1980s, for example––that has long sought to locate wellsprings of native progressive thought and action in the ordinary farming folk of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Japan. Morris-Suzuki turns instead, however, to what would seem a less likely site of rural activism: a loose network of educated young men inspired in the 1910s and 20s to visions of higher love and beauty by the humanism of writers and artists such as Leo Tolstoy, William Blake, William Morris, Auguste Rodin, and Rabindranath Tagore. It is true that in Nagano a surprising number of such “literary youth” (bungaku seinen) initiated projects like the Peasant Art movement and the Free University, which offered local farmers the opportunity for self-betterment through art, philosophy, and literature. Still, there are difficulties with an effort to discover genuinely bottom-up progressive energies in elite-led endeavors which mostly elided critical reflection on questions of class, gender, or racial/ethnic inequity. Morris-Suzuki notes that the “Shirakaba teachers,” young men eager to promote liberal education in rural Nagano schools, were less privileged than the metropolitan intellectuals (members of the Shirakaba or “White Birch” literary group in Tokyo) they admired and emulated (p. 46). But the vertiginous social hierarchies of early twentieth-century Japan structured agrarian society, in which such youth ranked very high indeed, as much as they divided the city from the country. There is little evidence, in any case, that the interwar experiments Morris-Suzuki discusses ever seriously addressed class relations within or beyond the village, much less those of gender or race. Here we might compare something like the “New Village,” a tiny Tolstoyan farming community founded in 1918 by the aristocratic Shirakaba writer Mushanokōji Saneatsu (and discussed as an example of autonomous democracy in chapter 4 of Japan’s Living Politics), to the contemporaneous struggles of the widespread tenant farmer movement against rural landlords.[1] The relative indifference to gender politics among the Shirakaba set and their followers stands in marked contrast, moreover, to the activism of both liberal and left-wing feminists during the same period—including those, such as poet and historian Takamure Itsue, who argued explicitly in relation to women’s concerns for an anarchist, autonomous (museifu) tradition in Japanese villages.[2] 

A related problem in Morris-Suzuki’s approach to the period before 1945 concerns the question of Japanese fascism. In her account, the experiments of the 1910s and 20s were seemingly “obliterated by the tides of history” in the 1930s and 40s, only to reemerge after World War II (p. 203). There is some acknowledgment in the book that there were “fundamental ambiguities at the heart of the prewar search for alternatives” and that these produced “diverse trajectories” for individuals, including active complicity by some (such as the above-mentioned Mushanokōji) with the imperialist wartime state, but the larger narrative arc is reminiscent of the older liberal historiography that emphasized the aberrant nature of Japan’s detour into what was always called “militarism” or “ultra-nationalism” (p. 113). The metaphors Morris-Suzuki favors—of streams and flows, roots and seeds—promote the sense of a recurrent rural impulse for social good that quietly, naturally prevails. The book jacket underscores the point with a handsome close-up photograph of a workworn hand, in the act of planting a rice seedling. While the project of discovering a history of democratic political subjectivity in the rural non-West is undoubtedly right and necessary, it is important to remember that in Japan as elsewhere the spectrum of modern agrarian activism extends to the right as well as the left. In particular, it may be argued that the romantic rural preoccupations of 1920s Japanese elites were connected much more closely to oppressive, ultimately fascist visions of organic community and harmony than to grassroots emancipation.[3] These visions too, it should be noted, represent in Japan an ongoing stream in the contemporary political imaginary. 


[1] In English see, for example, Ann Waswo, “In Search of Equity: Japanese Tenant Unions in the 1920s” in Farmers and Village Life in Twentieth-century Japan, ed. Waswo and Yoshiaki Nishida (New York, 2003), pp. 79–125.

[2] See Vera Mackie, Feminism in Modern Japan (New York, 2003), pp. 91–92. 

[3] I make this argument in Kim Brandt, Kingdom of Beauty: Mingei and the Politics of Folk Art in Imperial Japan (Durham, N.C., 2007).