Friday, September 17, 2010

Kei Hiruta on Japan's Political Philosophy Boom

We are pleased to publish below a guest post by Carnegie-Uehiro Fellow Kei Hiruta.

Observers of Japanese society may be surprised to see an emerging interest in political philosophy in Japan. Mainstream newspapers and popular magazines have been busy interviewing philosophy professors; and bookstores across the country are holding or planning to hold philosophy book fairs. Why is this happening and what is the likely outcome?

The cause of this boom is thanks to Harvard professor Michael Sandel. His renowned lectures at Harvard were recently broadcast on NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) and turned out to be enormously popular. The Japanese translation of his book, Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? has sold about 400,000 copies since its publication in May 2010, and his visit to Japan in late August was enthusiastically welcomed. Yet the boom is more than a Sandel boom; he may be an academic superstar, but he isn't the only actor in the drama.

The kind of political philosophy Sandel exemplifies is indeed new to most of the populace. The relevant distinction here is not so much between Japanese and Western philosophy but between Continental and Anglophone. Because of the strong and persistent German influence over the humanities and social science in Japan, joined by the popularity of postmodern theoretical literature in the last three decades, the analytical and normatively-oriented mode of philosophizing—so familiar to those based at Harvard, Oxford, St. Andrews, or Australian National University—strikes the Japanese audience as refreshingly down-to-earth. In his lecture at the University of Tokyo, Sandel asked whether it is fair that the Major League Baseball player Ichiro Suzuki should be paid 42 times more than the President of the United States or 400 times more than the average Japanese school teacher. This surprised and excited those who had thought that political philosophers would always ask fanciful and impractical questions such as, "What does Karl Marx mean by commodity fetishism?"

The political philosophy boom, like all booms, promises too much. In a recent special issue of the popular magazine Weekly Toyo Keizai, the discipline is reported to offer guidance on tackling various problems, including Japan's continuously high suicide rate and the uncertain future of capitalism. Yet psychologists are better qualified to address the first problem, and political philosophers are as clueless as economists about the second one.

Does this mean that the boom will be followed by disillusionment? Perhaps. A boom brings opportunities to make money, and bad philosophy is already piling up in the market to drive good ones out. If this trend continues, the boom will turn into a bubble.

That would be an unfortunate end of the story because the Japanese have a wide range of social and political issues that can be illuminated by philosophical reflection. Should we abolish the death penalty? Should we accept more immigrants? How should a country deal with historical injustices? Does gender equality require a legal right for a married couple to have different surnames? How should we control pornography without unduly restricting the freedom of expression? These are but a few samples of the issues that have long been on the Japanese political agenda and yet are still in want of reasoned argument. This, without exaggeration, is what political philosophy is able to offer.

What the current boom shows is that ideas are in demand in Japan to assist people to consider, both individually and collectively, how to live in a society where the "second lost decade" seems like it will be followed by a third one. We have every reason to hope that the demand will be met and the boom will turn into something more enduring. Whether the hope will come true is yet to be seen.

Kei Hiruta is Carnegie-Uehiro fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and a research associate in the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at Oxford University.

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