The Fate of David Plath’s Japanese Utopian Groups

In the immediate postwar period, several “utopian groups” became quite prominent in Japan. The four outlined by David W. Plath in his article in American Anthropologist 68.5 (1966) are Ittō En in Kyōto, Atarashiki-mura in Miyazaki-ken, the Shinkyō Commune in Nara-ken, and the Yamagishi Assocation in Mie-ken. It appears that all of these received significant media coverage in the 1950s and 60s. However, none of them are exactly thriving today. They have all taken significantly different paths reflecting their uncertain status in Japanese society.

Shinkyō Commune (心境荘苑)

Shinkyō is located in a rural part of Nara prefecture, as can be seen on my map of the area. It was born out of a village feud sparked by a charismatic economist named Ozaki Masutarō. (Ozaki’s life-encompassing and humanist economic, moral, and metaphysical opinions, offered fiercely but never imposed, are reminiscent of Japanese folk hero Ninomiya Sontoku.) What started as a loose coalition of shunned households soon became a commune where men and women bathed together, looked after each other’s children, and eventually even shared their rice–a startling move for a group of farmers to whom rice meant everything. As Japan industrialized, Ozaki started a tatami-weaving business from scratch that, through his good business sense, quickly came to supply most of Japan’s tatami. Despite these close ties, Shinkyō neither legally incorporated nor aimed to write down any doctrine; the name Shinkyō is a complicated pun which was given by outsiders and reclaimed by insiders. It did not publicize any of its remarkable achievements, and only after it was “discovered” by national media did Ozaki’s wife write a semi-biographical account, Sensei and His Teachings, which was translated into English.

Since the 1966 article, obviously, Ozaki has died, and with him much of the motivation that kept the group’s hearts burning (read Sensei and His Teachings for a fascinating discussion of this). Shinkyō halted manufacture of tatami, switching focus to care for the mentally retarded, and incorporated as a “social welfare corporation”. It is unclear to me how successful this program is; only one person has written about it online. One wonders how a charismatic humanist in the style of Ninomiya or Ozaki would operate in today’s Japan, where neither government works nor communes are especially popular.

Ittō En (一燈園)

I visited Ittō En, which has an English website, in the fall of 2008. Ittō En seems slightly strange to me, neither secluded nor inclusive. It was founded along the lines of Tolstoy’s hermitage, and syncretizes some of the symbols of his Christianity with Japanese animist and pantheist concerns, as well as ascetic practice which I will describe shortly. It was actually founded in rural Manchukuo. Along with the use of shared property and burial in a communal grave, this seems to make it a difficult group to break into. In fact, most people in that area of Kyōto had never heard of it before! But it is nonetheless in the midst of a suburban area. Most of the manpower of commune members has been poured into maintaining an elementary and middle school open to the public, which for some reason Plath passes over in his article.

It seems that Ittō En is struggling to stay relevant today. Its founder, Nishida Tenkō, was a brilliant economist, politician, writer, and moral theorist who spent a day every month cleaning out the toilets of area villagers, even after he was elected to serve in the national Diet. In the 1930s when Nishida did this shugyō, toilets were the least sanitary part of a Japanese home. They were usually holes in the ground with no plumbing system; Nishida was performing a great and humbling service to the public with his monthly rounds. But bizarrely, Ittō En continues this practice today, even after most Japanese people have brought self-cleaning Western toilets into their home. Members, as well as kaishain brought to the commune, go from house to house demanding entry so that toilets can be cleaned. As Ittō En is unfamiliar in the area, this is usually met with a frightened refusal. The site of the commune itself has become somewhat of a museum showing off Nishida’s house and a collection of his writings. I imagine the rest of the life at this commune (~90 people, not many children) has been similarly deadened.

Atarashiki-mura (新しき村)
Wikipedia has an article on Atarashiki-mura (“New Village”) written by someone who lived there. It seems silly to duplicate what is written there, and I have never personally been to the village, so I will just add what Plath says about the subject. This project was started by one Mushakōji Saneatsu, an intellectual who was also spurred by Tolstoy. It resembles other art villages, like Lobo, Texas, in that the small number of people who could afford to live on-site were supported financially by other artists who would come to visit for clean-up festivals. As an artistic commune, its membership turnover was quite high, but it became a farming village in the 1960s it became both solvent and stabilized. It also became, I imagine, more boring to outsiders. Wikipedia says that this utopia is currently moribund, although unlike American communes, its members continue to farm under the communal flag and will likely persist for the rest of their lives.

Yamagishi Association (ヤマギシ会)

Now this group is quite interesting, and I don’t think I have a coherent image of it at present. Even though Plath has a lot to say about it, his presentation is contradicted by the modern group’s website as well as outsider police reports. It was founded by Yamagishi Miyozō, a “self-styled anarchist” according to Plath, who created a new style of group decision-making and incorporation called “Yamagishism”. He emphasizes the group’s dispute resolution and anger management. However, most of its growth occurred after Plath’s article and its own self-description seems to move it closer to a communal farm, like Shinkyō. Stranger still, Japanese media describe it as a religious cult which brainwashes its members. Did I mention it has a Korean branch? The only thing any two sources agree on: both Plath and an outsider describe it as similar to a kibbutz. Definitely a more involved look is needed to really understand this group, as it has little English material at present.

Modern Japanese communes

There are still communes being formed in Japan, although they get none of the press that these received. Here are a few: Ecovillage Index, 茗荷村, 獏原人村, モモの家

Posted: April 26th, 2010 | Japan

How To Read Homi Bhabha

Homi Bhabha is a famously incomprehensible writer in the field of postcolonial studies. He is regarded as the second most unreadable academic in the world, after Judith Butler. In this article I’ll tell you how to interpret his work and make yourself look really smart in your postcolonial grad papers.

The 1980s-era theoretical writings of Homi Bhabha should not be read like a typical academic paper. There is no criticism, thesis, or conclusion. He is not attempting to make any political point or support any belief system. Instead, they are written as works of poetry. They are intended to make readers pay close attention to how he is playing with his subjects, and develop some insight from that which can be applied to their own works. Also, and importantly, he is completely unconcerned with agency. Many of his block-quoted examples seem confusing from a postcolonial perspective–they do not describe the colonized in “empowering” or flattering ways, and one might wonder whether he has any sympathy for them at all. In fact, Bhabha is unattached to any desire to assign blame or credit to anyone. He does not want to pat the natives on the back, but only to describe what is going on.

Bhabha, of course, operates in the tradition of Jacques Derrida, and many of his artistic gimmicks, like repeating the same statements over and over in different contexts, come from Derrida. Operating fully within the tradition of deconstruction, he views the individuals he’s quoting as fellow observers, who had equal rational capacity, rather than objects of criticism. He is not trying to discover some fault in their analysis, but to discover the processes that gave rise to their mode of thinking. In short, Bhabha does not assume the preexistence of a colonizer and colonized. His primary interest is in understanding the complex ways of speaking, writing, and thinking that arose out of the mere act of establishing a colony. Questions like “What is Indian?” or “What is English?” can only be answered by a discourse that separates them. Here we can see why a colonial discourse is different from discussions about the internal problems of a country. Everyone in England is English, but the natives of colonial India cannot be fully British, even though they are subjects of the Queen!

This colonial discourse, in Bhabha’s writing, has several important characteristics. First, colonialism is anti-Enlightenment, because it denies egalitarianism. The colonized as a constructed group are asked to achieve a certain standard of civilization, but they cannot actually achieve it, or else they would cease to be a colony of a mother nation. This gives rise to hybridity, a process where the discourse of the colonists becomes a discourse of the colonized via their responses of acceptance, rejection, or misunderstanding (the last of these three categories is particularly important to Bhabha, since he considers it influential and unacknowledged). Whether they intend it to or not, the natives’ hybridity undermines the colonial discourse and confuses or angers the colonists. Thus, the colonists’ message must be proclaimed again and again, as long as they care about their civilizing project.

Bhabha acknowledges that some natives inevitably feel comfortable being in a colony, an imagined world with a secure leadership. But as above, hybridity is a force that upsets, whether people want it to or not. In the form of mimicry, the futile if well-meaning attempt to achieve full citizenship or humanity within the discursive borders of the colony, the native response becomes “civil disobedience within the discipline of civility”. Their actions upset colonial power, since a colony ruled by its native inhabitants without interference is not really a colony at all, nor are the natives really colonized. Mimicry is therefore “the sign of the inappropriate”, meaning that it is undesirable to the colonist rulers as well as demonstrating the impossibility of fully appropriating the colonists’ power. (This is an obnoxious Derridean pun.)

It appears to me that hybridity includes any disavowal of colonial domination, including resistance, misunderstanding, and an acceptance of rule that denies the negative effects of that rule. Mimicry is more specifically a misreading of the meanings given to institutions by the colonists, and an embrace of those misreadings. It appears in Bhabha’s block-quoted examples as an accident which neither illiterates nor intelligentsia really understand the origin of. But this does not mean that conscious resistance is better for the world than mimicry, because that assumes that the colonist reading is in fact the correct reading. Mimicry, too, is a legitimate, creative act which disrupts the colonists’ intentions. Perhaps the name “mimicry” marginalizes that important process.

This is as far as I’ve got so far. I think that if you take this cheat sheet with you, then you may be able to make some sense out of Homi Bhabha’s gobbledy-gook. Whether his theory has useful application to real-world disputes is a subject for another day entirely.

Posted: April 7th, 2010 | Postcolonialism 1 Comment »