IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 26 | Regions | East Asia



Social Science in Japan

From Marx through Weber

Although several publications in Japanese have provided an overview of social theory in and on Japan, until recently there have been few contributions in Western languages. Two recent publications on the subject in German are therefore especially welcome. One is Wolfgang Schwentker's study on the reception of Max Weber. Max Weber's impact on social science in twentieth-century Japan can hardly be exaggerated and Schwentker's study therefore parallels the history of the development of social science in Japan. A second volume is a collection of papers from the 1996 congress of the 'Association for Sociological Research on Japan', edited by Claudia Derichs and Anja Osiander. This volume provides a good overview of the study of social movements in Modern Japan. *


These two books are remarkable not only for the rigorous attention that they pay to historical facts but also for their clear theoretical frameworks. Unfortunately, theoretical sophistication has not always been a feature of historical studies of social science issues in Japan and for this reason alone the two volumes under review can be considered valuable contributions to the literature.
As opposed to providing a review of these works, this article will provide an overview of the main theories in the development of social science in Japan and, in so doing, will help to situate these two books in their proper context. Before and after the Second World War, social sciences in Japan had different purposes and accents. The chronological evolution of social theory and social movements is described in an elaborate way in the above-mentioned books and therefore we will maintain that division.
Social sciences before 1945
After the Meiji Reform in 1868, hostile feelings towards the West were set aside, to be replaced by an uncritical admiration for 'things Western'. Young Japanese scholars participated in the project of creating the modern Japanese nation-state by contributing to the reception of science from Europe. At the end of the nineteenth century, Japanese social science focused on what kind of nation-state should be created. The first rigorous answer was found in studies by Herbert Spencer, of whose works thirty-two had been translated into Japanese already before the start of the twentieth century. This effort signified the beginning of a culture of translation which would result in a very active interest in all possible works on social science in the West and which would provide Japanese social science with the opportunity to develop rapidly.
Moreover, scholars who wished to contribute to the creation of the Japanese nation-state did not stand alone in their interest in social theory, as activists involved in social movements against authority were also interested. The first stage of social movements in Japan occurred in the last twenty years of the nineteenth-century and the leaders of the largest movement in the 1880s, namely the Movement for Liberty and Human Rights, were attracted by the interpretation of society by the Spencer school. Spencer's ideas on 'representative government' were of extreme interest to this social movement, which sought to pressure the Meiji-oligarchs to establish a constitution and a parliament based on national elections.
The advent of social science in Japan can be situated with Nishi Amane (1829-1897), who introduced and translated most basic concepts on social theory into Japanese, and with Ernest Fenollosa (1853-1908), who introduced Spencer's work during his lectures at Tokyo University. It was not until 1893 that the first chair of sociology was established at Tokyo University and was filled by Toyama Masakazu (1848-1900). During this initial stage, interest was directed at Hegel's and Spencer's governmental state science and to mechanisms of social change under socialism.
The World Wars

Social sciences in Japan experienced a real boom after the First World War, because this was a period of liberalization in which social inquiry became freer and social criticism was tolerated. It was a period of rapid changes that led to the Taisho Democracy and the second stage of social movements in the 1920s, when mass movements for social equality emerged. During this period, European sociologists were invited to teach in Japan and, somewhat later, many German social •IIASN26-P38-01 scientists chose Japan as a destination to escape from persecution by the fascist regime. Emil Lederer (1882-1939) pointed out the usefulness of Max Weber's framework; he taught at Tokyo University for two years and, during his stay, published several critical articles on the need for rationality in behaviour and power in an increasingly complex society. A little later, in 1931, Kurt Singer further addressed Max Weber's definitions of social theory in a very critical way, and it was he who taught Ohtsuka Hisao, later to become one of the most prominent post-war interpreters of Weber's approach to social theory.

Max Weber in 1918

However, only a selected group of intellectuals succeeded in remaining critical of the military regime after it came to power in the 1930s. Fukutake Tadashi (1917-1989), for example, published an article in 1940 in which he concluded that the growth of fascism in Japan resulted in a decline in rationality. Weber's ideas nonetheless remained alive through questions of freedom and values. Another intellectual who contributed to the development of social science during the war was Maruyama Masao who, in 1940, tackled the issue of capitalist spirit, arguing that such a spirit had already existed in Japan in the Tokugawa period. Because of the approaches, then, suggested by Max Weber, social sciences in Japan could bridge the repressive period of the Second World War.
Marxism and the autonomy of the individual (1945­1960)
The defeat of Japan in World War II had great consequences for social theory in Japan. Marxism became the single-most important methodology in social sciences. Aoki Tamotsu points out that post-war Japanese academia developed an allergy towards everything associated with traditional Japan. Marxism offered an alternative framework. Its premise of the liberation of the independent individual from the state controlled by the bourgeoisie fits in with the attempt to create a new society based upon free individuals rather than upon service to the family state as symbolized by the emperor. Gradually, however, the social sciences in the US came to the attention of post-war scholars. American manuals and books were translated into Japanese and, although extremely different from Marxism, American social theory was to form the second pillar of scholarship on society in Japan. Fukutake Tadashi proposed 'democratization' (minshuka) and 'positivism' (jisshoka) as the main paradigms for academic discourse and, by doing so, managed to harmonize the Marxist and the US approaches to social inquiry.
To address these paradigms three approaches could be taken. In the first, adepts of 'post-war enlightenment' use Max Weber's sociology of religion to overcome the opposition between materialism and idealism. Deeply influenced by Max Weber, Ohtsuka Hisao, for example, combined socio-economic structural analysis with religious and moral interpretations and, in doing so, the dominant position of Marx was broken an d Marx and Weber could be •IIASN26-P38-02addressed together and not as opposites.


Karl Marx

The second approach was taken by adepts of Siegmund Freud's psycho-analysis. Initially, immigrant scholars had used this analysis to study Nazism; however, Japanese social scientists such as Shimizu Ikutaro (1907-1988) used it to clearly define the direction for society to move towards. Finally, the third approach was taken by cultural anthropologists, who, like Ruth Benedict, were interested in culture and personality and pursued this interest in a translation of 'individual autonomy' into 'social action'. The dual emphasis on culture and personality opened new perspectives for social science in Japan and was mainly applied by Fukutake Tadashi and Hidaka Rokuro.1

Structuralism and US social science (1960­1980)
After the Korean War, Japan entered a period of 'High Economic Growth', which replaced 'democratization' as a global social goal. Social science turned to the questions as to which social conditions would maintain growth and which social problems would develop because of that growth. Talcott Parsons in particular, and the more empirical approach to social theory in the US in general, provided a framework that was most appealing to the Japanese social scientists. Parsons offered an alternative approach to the still prominent Marxist one, almost unchallenged in Japan in 1960, and thus stimulated a renewed interest in Max Weber. In the socially turbulent context (student revolts and pollution law suits) of the 1960s, many objections were raised against a universal approach to society à la Parsons. Intellectuals interested in the student movements, such as Tokunaga Makoto, perceived bureaucracy through the lens of Weber's concept of rationality. Japanese social science tended to value the US approach to bureaucracy because, contrary to the Weberian approach, it did accept change initiated by the bureaucracy. During this period, in which rationality and the bureaucracy came at the centre of social science in Japan that the so-called 'Max Weber Studies' (weba kenkyu) came to be widely acclaimed. This school acquired a status that matched that of the Marxist school in Japanese social theory.
Even today, Max Weber's ideas occupy a central place in social theory in Japan, although different approaches are being introduced. Inoue Shun, for instance, played a major role in the introduction of the post-modern paradigm into Japanese social science by breaking with modernity in his research into the social function of 'playing'. Others, such as Yamaguchi Setsuro and Imada Takatoshi constructed their theoretical framework drawing from Habermas and Luhman. No uniformity in thought can be seen in the post-modern paradigm.
The main problem with social theory in contemporary Japan is that it does not address the question of what to do with the results of the research and analysis of social reality. In the past, social movements and changing international and domestic order provided the scientists with specific questions to answer. That Japanese society has been very much engaged and that social movements and social change has deeply influenced social theory becomes clear from Wolfgang Schwentker's study on the reception of Max Weber in Japan and from Claudia Derichs and Anja Osiander's compilation of articles on social movements. Be it that this article did not aim at being a review of both mentioned works, it has to be said that both books are well balanced and never lose sight of their primary aim; their theoretical rigour and the historical correctness deserve a wide readership among students and scholars concerned with social science. *
­ Schwentker, Wolfgang, Max Weber in Japan: eine Untersuchung zur Wirkungsgeschichte 1905-1995 Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck (1998), pp. 444.
­ Derichs, Claudia and Anja Osiander, eds., Soziale Bewegungen in Japan Hamburg: Gesellschaft Fur Natur- Und Volkerkunde Ostasiens (1998), pp. 380.

1. Tsutomu, Shiobara et al.,
Nihon no shakaigaku 1: Shakaigaku riron (Japanese Sociology, 1, Social Theory), Tokyo: Tokyo Daigaku Shuppankai (1997), p. 5.

Professor Dimitri Vanoverbeeke is Associate Professor of Japanology at the Catholic University Leuven, Belgium

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 26 | Regions | East Asia