A Short Introduction to Criticism in Japan

written by Niinomi Takuya
translated by Shimizu Chatori

  1. Regarding the word “Criticism”

  In Japan, there exist a practice named “criticism” (批評). One dictionary defines this term as follows: “Identifying the pros and cons, the good and bad, the right and wrong of things, and expressing one’s evaluations of it” (Daijisen). Needless to say, the word “criticism”, as well as the practice affiliated with the word exist in other linguistic cultures. However, a gap between the meanings of the same word in Japanese and Western languages can be observed. The overlapping areas of the meaning obviously exists. Nevertheless, as we are able to witness in the following discussions, at least in its narrow sense – it’s an extremely stark perception – the terminology is different from what people call “criticism” in the West. 

  This phenomenon is easily understood when, for example, thought of it analogically with the word “philosophy”. On the European continent, philosophy primarily refers to the tradition of thoughts since ancient Greece. By all means, this lineage encompasses the post-structuralist tide (also known as “contemporary thought” in Japan) in the latter half of the 20th Century. On the contrary, the term “philosophy” used today in the English-speaking countries mostly refers to analytic philosophy. In this context, post-structuralism is named “theory” instead of “philosophy”. 

  This is due to the fact that there lies a difference between the philosophical tradition in the English-speaking countries and that of the continent. This is the result of a custom established from its unique histories in each lineage of philosophy. The difference between the meanings of the word “criticism” in Japan and the West stems from its unique historical backgrounds and are similar to the above case of the term “philosophy” in the English-speaking countries and the continent. Moreover, the above-mentioned definition of “criticism” found in the dictionary, despite it being Japanese, is the definition found in the West. Therefore, it is imperative that we must consider the unique Japanese background and the circumstances surrounding this terminology. 

  Then, what exactly is “criticism” in Japan? Upon laying the groundwork, we see the answer emerge. Criticism often takes the form of sentences. In a narrow sense, it refers to literary criticism, but in a broad sense, it distinguishes itself from fictional novels and poetry, and can be said that it is referred to an act of so-called “critique”. Regardless, we recognize criticism as one of the traditional genres of writing. Therefore, we are able to examine the history of criticism. To give an example, we are able to name Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801) from the Edo period as the foremost person in this field. Alternative choices would include Tsubouchi Shoyo (1859-1935) in the Meiji era. By broadening the range, its history can be estimated to be approximately 200 years.

  However, the term “criticism” that we use now is probable that its history is shorter. The practice began in the 1920s with the Showa era, reached its peak in the 1980s when the Japanese economy was at the pinnacle of prosperity, then deteriorated with the Heisei era. From this perspective, the timespan is about a hundred-years. Some of the most influential people in the fields in this time frame were Hideo Kobayashi (1902-83), Takaaki Yoshimoto (1924-2012), Jun Eto (1932-1999), Shigehiko Hasumi (1936-), Kojin Karatani (1941-), Akira Asada (1957-), and Hiroki Azuma (1971-). 

  So, what are the similarities we are able to infer between their writings? What aspect makes their writings a criticism? To jump to the conclusion first, it is a kind of a queer inversion. In fact, this does not grant the definition to the word “criticism”. The truth is, we must acknowledge that in the first place, what we call “criticism” cannot be defined in a concrete manner. 

  For example, criticism is not defined nor is it limited by its subject. In fact, there are many instances where it has targeted literary and philosophical works. However, as the time passed by, it gradually began dealing with a diverse spectrum of cultures as subjects, including films, fine art, music, and even to sports. Furthermore, since the 2000s onwards, there has been a trend that criticism deals mainly on subcultures such as anime and videogames.

  Criticism is not always found in the academic realm. At the very least, it differs from scholarly treatise based on the accumulation of a specific expertise in one field of research. While it does not rely on one’s expertise, it certainly differs from utter entertainment. Its’ gates are certainly open to the public; however, it includes skepticism about the press and the market forces. It’s not as socially cohesive as journalism, however, it cannot just be classified as a literary hobby. 

  Consequently, the apparent characteristics of criticism can only be explained by negating what is not a criticism, that is, in the form of “criticism is not XX”. When one reads what is categorized as a “criticism” by the authors listed above, it is clearly not as simple as what the dictionary defines as the act of pointing out “the pros and cons, the good and bad, the right and wrong of things”, nor can one find a common style or a narrative. Perhaps it can be said that criticism is best identified as a meta-genre of expression.

  At the same time, as mentioned earlier, we use the term “criticism” as if its definition is self-evident for certain communities. It is not an arduous task to determine whether any sentence is a criticism or not. Moreover, the tradition of criticism is recognized from the history that the unique names mentioned above have cultivated over the years. At least until the early 2010s, there existed a reader base who shared a base of its apprehension. So, what were the readers seeking at that time?

  This is the queer inversion that is mentioned in the earlier paragraphs. It appears as a twist of ethics and existence, a divergence between reality and discourse. In other terms, criticism incorporates a logic which questions the fundamental basis of itself, and by being extremely speculative, it acts as a logic that secures the connection with reality. It is the writings containing such paradox that people call “criticism”.

  This is most unequivocally discussed with the enthusiasm of the related parties in the preface of “Genron 4” titled “The Disease of Criticism” by Hiroki Azuma. This text is available in English. Azuma explains the above-mentioned twist of logic, a disease which derives from Japan’s post-war society. The ideological reversal (Tenkō) during the war and the post-war occupation by the US military had a decisive influence over the discourse in Japan. With this, as mentioned in the beginning of this article, it can be said that the linguistic expression of criticism is a uniquely Japanese one.

  It is reasonable to name this diversion a disease, as Azuma has done. However, Azuma states that such a disease has now been cured. To put it more precisely, Azuma states that the Japanese society functions in a way as if such disease has now been healed, and as though the twist has never existed. This, without doubt, signifies the deterioration of criticism. Needless to say, the contradictions of the post-war society have not yet fully recovered. This is clearly reflected in our diplomatic relations with the United States, as well as the countries of Asia, such as China and South Korea, as well as the domestic problems of Okinawa. Azuma’s series of works, including the preface that we have just discussed, aims to confront the disease once again. That is essentially synonymous with the revival of the practice of criticism. 

  Accordingly, the term “criticism” is used in a unique context in Japan. To say the least, it is troublesome to use the terminology in the synonymous sense as the equivalence of the Western “criticism”. When one searches for a word corresponding to the Western languages, perhaps the closest translation would be a “philosophical essay”. So, what exactly is a “criticism”? What are the contradictions and the queer inversion incorporated in this phenomenon? To answer these questions, I intend to examine specific writings in order to uncover the factual details in the upcoming article. 

(1)  Genron 4 (pg. E03)

(2). A Kokugaku (literally “national study”) scholar. His scholarly works include “Kojiki-den (Commentaries on the Kojiki)” (completed in 1798), a scholarly research of “Kojiki” – which is considered to be the oldest history book in Japan (including myths and stories); and “Genji Monogatari Tama no Ogushi (Commentaries on the tale of Genji)”, which is a commentary of “Genji Monogatari” (1799). He is considered to be the first maestro of classical research in Japan. 

(3). 1603-1868. The era when the Tokugawa family took over and governed the shogun for generations.

(4). A Japanese novelist, translator, and a critic. He wrote the first novel in Japan titled “The Essence of the Novel” (1886). He is also known for translating Shakespeare’s complete works. 

(5). 1868-1912. The name Meiji is not only a historical period, but also a name of an imperial era. It is in this era where the feudal system was dismantled and modernized Western artifacts were widely imported into Japan.

(6). Name of an imperial era. 1926-1989.

(7). Name of an imperial era. 1989-2019.

(8). A critic who is considered to be the founder of modern criticism in Japan. His representative works include “Mujô  to iu koto (On Transience)”” (1942), “Mozart” (1946), and “Kindai Kaiga (Modern Paintings” (1958).

(9). He is considered to be one of the leading critics of post-war Japan. Also well-known as a poet, he had a great influence on the student-led movements of the 1960s. He is also famous for his dialogue with Foucault and Baudrillard who visited Japan. His publications include “The End of Fictions” (1962), “Theory of Communal Fantasy” (1968), etc. He is the father of Yoshimoto Banana.

(10). A critic. He is known as a representative postwar conservative intellectual who has discussed Japan’s defeat of World War II, as well as Japan-US diplomatic issues. His representative works include “Seijuku to Soushitsu” (1967).

(11). A critic and novelist. He was influenced by the French Tematism and applied the theory on his criticism towards films and novels. His criticism had a strong influence not only on the academic podium but also on filmmakers such as Kiyoshi Kurosawa (1955-). From 1997 to 2001, he was president of the University of Tokyo. His works include “Foucault Deleuze Derrida” (1978), “A Critique of the Surface Layer” (1979), etc.

(12). A critic and philosopher. He began his career with literary criticism, and later launched his own social movement theory and associationism upon reading and interpreting philosophical texts such as Kant and Marx. He taught Japanese literature at Yale University from 1975 to 1977. With Akira Asada, he launched the magazine “Critical Space” (1991-2002). His works include “Origins of Modern Japanese Literature” (1980), “Architecture as Metaphor” (1983), “Postmodernism and Criticism” (1985), “Transcritique: On Kant and Marx”(2001), etc.

(13). A critic. He published “Structure and Power – Beyond Semiotics” in 1983 while he was a graduate student at Kyoto University. The book, which introduced and criticized postmodern ideas that were still rarely translated at the time, became a bestseller.

(14). A critic and novelist. While he was still a student at the University of Tokyo in 1993, he published an essay titled “Solzhenitsyn Essay” in the magazine “Critique Space”. His “Ontological, Postal-on Jacques Derrida” (1998) was evaluated highly. His “Postmodern Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals” (2001) is said to have had the most influence on the criticism of the 2000s. In 2010, he launched a Contextuals LLC (now Genron Co., Ltd.), and has since held dialogue events and publications.

(15). See footnote 1.

(16). In the style of “criticism” in Japan, the word at times indicates a certain paradox. Furthermore, this specific usage does not necessarily contain a strong sexual connotation.

(17). “Genron” is a magazine on ideology, published by Genron Co., Ltd. Hiroki Azuma is the editor-in-chief. No. 1, 2 and 4 feature the history of criticism in Japan. “Genron 4” was published in November 2016. The criticisms introduced in this article owe much to this book.

(18).  “Genron” contains a complete English translation of the introduction by Azuma and a summary of other articles in English at the end of each issue.

(19).  However, the current criticism of Azuma is far from the revival of such criticism. This can be found in the preface of “Genron 9” and in the treatise “On the Foolishness of Evil, or the Problem of the Prison Camp and Housing Complex” in “Genron 10”. The former has a full translation, but for the latter, only the abstract is available to be read in English.