Anarchist Modernity – Dr. Sho Konishi of Oxford on Japan, Russia and Anarchism (Part 2)

This is part 2 of our interview with Dr. Sho Konishi of Oxford  on his stunning work for Harvard University Press – Anarchist Modernity: Cooperatism and Japanese-Russian Intellectual Relations in Modern Japan. Dr. Konishi’s scholarship has profoundly influenced how I think about Capitalism, the State, Activism and building a progressive future.

You can read part 1 here and Part 3 here.

Asia Art Tours: You highlight throughout the book the incredible diversity of collaboration between individuals, not just between countries but also between the demographics of those countries. (rich & poor, young & old, atheist & religious)

What was it about Russia and Japan at this time that spurred this international, inter-demographic collaboration between so many groups? In our recent era of global protests that remain relatively isolated, what lessons can we take from this historic period for building solidarity?

Dr. Konishi’s Book: Anarchist Modernity

SHO KONISHI: That’s another unique question. For one, cooperatist anarchist modernity was expressed and promoted in the most interesting, intimate, and familiar terms, such as in the tales of dung beetles and other insects translated by Japanese anarchists. It was never promoted as some sort of –ism. In fact, there was no single shared name for it, and it took my perspective of distance in time and space as a historian to uncover it as a phenomenon. They also targeted the manifold, interconnected ideas of Western modernity from all sides and folds. The articulators, or public intellectuals, in this discourse were keenly aware of the interconnected set of ideas that were at work for the civilizational discourse of the West, so to counter that also took an interconnected uprooting practice. As much as English language, Christianity, technology, rationality, whiteness (race), territoriality, military and masculinity were all interconnected, so was the counter culture that uprooted them.

In the case of Japan, high literacy rates also helped, allowing this discourse to become grounded in popular level interests and perceptions of the world. After all, it was an informal ‘politics’ of everyday life. So it was more about popular discourse, one that tied intellectuals to the general populace in very real and concrete ways. Because in Japan ‘everyone’ was reading, anarchist thought easily found its way onto Japanese popular soil not as anarchism per se, but as an ethical set of ideas and practices and understanding of nature. We need to be careful not to fall into the trap of seeing them through the lens of ‘latecomer’ theory, like Gerschenkron, a capitalist interpretation that is quite trendy among elites, or as a latecomer to modernization at large, which was also absorbed and promoted by elites in Japan with new aims and interests in the postwar.

In Japan, mutual aid fit well with existing practices and values, given how cooperatism has long been engrained in the everyday life of this ocean culture where the threat of mass destruction by nature is always imminent. This allowed them to adopt and develop the concept of mutual aid progress more naturally. The ideas were already long embedded in Japanese culture since Tokugawa times and were not foreign to them.

Why Russia and Japan? Many Russians and Japanese looked for a way to combine the cultures of West and East. They engaged with the West, but they had never been colonized. In the modern era, many people of both places characterized themselves as situated between East and West. For Japan, being an Asian country that had not been colonized by European powers was unique, and appears to have been a factor leading to this thought. They did not feel the urgency to throw off the West (or the East); they did not have to prioritize decolonization either. Adherents of cooperatist anarchism were looking for universality, rather than to Japanize or Westernize or Russianize. It was a kind of social thought, an idea of progress that sought to transcend hierarchies of all kinds: East vs. West, national, ethnic, racial, gendered, social, religious, etc.

The Japanese Esperanto Institute- Tokyo, Japan

The nonhierarchical premises of cooperatist anarchism promoted the development of new ideas that interconnected all kinds of people. Esperanto, which promotes linguistic equality, is a good example. Much later, in the latter part of the twentieth century, Esperantists became active in environmental movements like the post-Chernobyl antinuclear activism that sought to both give humanitarian aid to the victims and to promote environmental protections. In fact, environmentalism and Esperantism have long been interconnected. The defense of language rights, particularly among ethnic and national minorities, relates closely to the defense of nature, human rights and equality. Esperantists, and cooperatist anarchists at large, believed that multiplicity, not standardization, generates a better society and sociality.


AAT: I’d like to highlight popular writer of this period: Arishima Takeo, you discuss him as follows: Arishima similarly said in an interview that the success of any future social revolution lay in the hands of a fully able and ready “people”. He explained that as elites, intellectuals like himself had no place as leaders in this movement. Even such luminaries of the anarchist movement as Kropotkin had no role in leading any movement.

Could you discuss how Arishima and other cooperatist anarchists from Japan and Russia, put this into practice? Did this movement emerge organically as a sum of its parts? How did those with elite backgrounds like Arashima contribute without becoming leaders?

Anarchist Arishima Takeo

Another interesting question. Yes, right, Arishima didn’t have a vision of being a revolutionary leader and in fact, none of the historical actors identifiable as anarchist moderns did. That shows just how much this phenomenon was different from say, the Russian Revolution.

Ours is naturally becoming a more anarchist world without intellectuals or leader figures needing to stand at the front of the movement waving their flags. Key figures in Japan were murdered by the state or committed suicide, but the practices and notions that they espoused have long continued naturally up to today. The state wrongly thought that by executing a leader like Kotoku, they would get rid of the movement. Of course, their violent act did rob us of the fascinating books that Kotoku would have written. It is striking that Japanese anarchists never wrote a book of anarchism per se; they only had time to work on it. For Kotoku and others, cooperatist anarchism was no big deal – it was so embedded already in everyday life and the worldviews of ordinary people that they didn’t need a violent revolution to initiate it.

Eventually, cooperatist anarchism took shape as what I have characterized as a ‘cultural revolution’. A key development in the cultural revolution was the redefinition of ‘nature’ as symbiotic and centerless, as opposed to Spencerian Darwinist nature and its hierarchical teleology. Culture was to be aligned with the centreless universe of nature. So-called elites and intellectuals may have had a place in this ‘revolution’, but not a place of power to order society with their own self-protective design. They sought to help articulate ideas or instigate action, but not lead or exercise power over others.

How did Arishima put it into practice? When Arishima was a teacher at Sapporo Agricultural College (now Hokkaido University) where Christianity, rationality, military, science and technology, large-scale agriculture (for colonial practice), and English language were taught, Arishima began teaching about the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin and literature in informal settings such as in the dorm at night, and thus turned the imperial institution into an academy of anarchist ideas.

 Anarchist Shusui Kotoku, he was sentenced to death in the “High Treason” incident

He also funded various anarchists to link with the wider world. He supported the anarchist Osugi Sakae’s trip abroad, for instance. Arishima also gave many public talks in local areas that often opened up critical discourse among locals. So he did a lot of ‘ground work’ before the end.

As his final closing act before he committed suicide, he gifted his farm to the tenants working on the farm that he had inherited from his wealthy father. His liberation of his tenant farmers and gifting them the farm was as perfectly fitting to anarchist thought and practice as any could be. Here again, none of the members of Arishima Farm thought of themselves as anarchist, but their self-organization and practices of mutual aid in response to their liberation almost perfectly accorded with cooperatist anarchism over time. This gave fresh meaning to their everyday practice. They adopted the most advanced levels of irrigation and rice processing technology on their farm. Their revolutionary practices occurred not with a gunshot or murder, but within themselves and out of dreadful fear. There was nothing heroic about it. Without the security provided by their former landowner, they feared for their survival in the arctic winters and severe nature of Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido. The Arishima farmers’ level of material wellbeing was about the same as the other tenant farmers of Hokkaido, with the major difference being that they owned the land on which they farmed. But it was their sense of themselves standing at the forefront of progress that made them stand out from the others. Arishima understood what the farmers’ local knowledge and habits of mutual aid could bring to their shared ownership of the farm. He created the conditions that allowed them to form a new symbiotic relationship with each other on the one hand, and symbiotic with nature on the other. It’s important to point out here that revolution was not about political change, but about how they identified symbiotically with one another as shared owners and laborers on the farm.

Arishima Farm utilized the language and principles of Russian Anarchist Peter Kropotkin 

There was in fact nothing utopian about what these farmers were doing if the term ‘utopia’ is understood as a perfected place of finality. For them, the world is always changing and adapting, constantly forming and reforming. We can have an urge to progress without destroying nature, and an urge to change without bloody and violent revolutions. The ordinary farmers of Arishima Farm made revolutionary acts in order to survive, without destroying things or killing others. The notion of mutual aid for survival is integral to cooperatist anarchism.

We can take the phrase ‘the dexterous hand that reaches to itch the right spot’ in Japanese as a humorous yet reflective phrase suggestive of the functioning of anarchism as its participants viewed it. That is, anarchism served to encourage all individuals to freely develop and practice their own individual talents and in this way to best serve society. It is reflective of a particular cooperatist anarchist idea of equality and democracy whereby every individual nurtures their own unique talents gifted by nature and thereby flexibly and dexterously enhances and improves society, each in their own unique way.

The farm members considered water, air, and soil to be a part of them, and cared for the nature around them cooperatively for their shared survival. They made use of their knowledge of their local natural environment. Due to their respect and valuing of the forces and behavior of nature and their dependence on natural resources, they replaced the emperor’s masculine symbols on their farm, the same symbols that were replicated across every town in Hokkaido, with a stone of the goddesses of nature that humbly emerged from the soil. They embedded the worship stone of the goddesses on the hill, above their meeting place.

Inspired by Arishima Farm, cooperatism became a Hokkaido-wide cooperative movement without a leader. Participants used the language of Kropotkinism taken from the Arishima farm, to globalize their local practices. Across Hokkaido and beyond, people admired and followed what Arishima Farm had achieved – despite the fact that the cooperative living farm members were still living together with their chickens on dirt floors, under snow-covered thatched roofs with no electricity.

Intellectuals like Arishima could never be farmers. Yet Arishima triggered democratic communities by providing positive conditions for action, and giving power to ordinary farmers to realize anarchist modernity on the local scale.


AAT: I’d like to examine the international (often Russian and Japanese) pairings you show collaborating throughout the book’s time period of 1860s-1930s. The first pairing would be Lev Mechnikov with Saigo Takamori during the era of the Meiji Ishin (also known as the Restoration). How were these men connected in their philosophies and why did their contributions to the Meiji Ishin diverge so much from the goals of the Japanese State?

Many competing ideas of the future in the past coexisted. The Japanese revolutionary leader Saigo Takamori’s and the Russian anarchist/populist revolutionary Lev Mechnikov’s ideas of the future were different from the newly formed oligarchs’ ideas of the future that have so often been the object of historians’ interest. The ‘Opening of Japan’ (kaikoku) has long meant the opening to the West and its civilization discourse. That particular interpretation has been the sole historical meaning given to that event as the beginning of modern Japanese history, and we have precluded all other possibilities of the future in the past.

Saigo Takamori, the real “Last Samurai” was not Tom Cruise (or Scarlett Johannson!) but a brilliant Samurai tactician who inspired the Russian anarchist Lev Mechnikov.

To quote Dr. Konishi in AMERICAN HISTORICAL REVIEW (where you can see a photo of Mechnikov in Samurai uniform):  “An examination of Mechnikov’s encounter with Ishin Japan suggests that he identified with Ishin samurai not as relics of Oriental difference, but as cohorts for revolutionary change.”

Both Saigo and Mechnikov saw that what they were doing in Japan had global significance. They did not see Japan as some sort of local peripheral place, but rather that their actions in Japan had global implications. Moreover, they believed that what had been practiced and developed for centuries from within Japan offered a direction for the future. In contrast, those practices and beliefs from an earlier era were treated as backward by both Western powers and the new Japanese state. It was in those ‘evil practices’ from an earlier era, the Tokugawa period, that Mechnikov observed unique seeds of revolution. These seeds of revolution did not exist in what he perceived as a backward Europe. Mechnikov was deeply disappointed by the conservative habits of Western Europeans and didn’t believe they would be able to make the kind of revolutionary changes he observed in Japan, changes that promoted mutual aid and trust beyond family and class. These values led seamlessly to borderless concern for humanity at large. The openness and development of a mutual aid culture demanded by the ocean culture of Japan inspired him to develop further an anarchist theory of civilizational development, based on his alternative understanding and vision of the future. His theory greatly influenced such future leading anarchists as Peter Kropotkin, for whom Mechnikov was a mentor.

Some trust and bonding likely came out of Saigo and Mechnikov’s understanding of mutually shared circumstances. Both had placed themselves on the periphery of power and culture when they began their correspondence. Saigo resigned from the government and began to practice farming in the rural outreaches of a place called Kumamoto in the south. He was disturbed by the poor treatment and impoverishment of the samurai who had carried out the revolutionary changes of the Meiji Ishin (Restoration) in the first place. Mechnikov had directly participated in the failed European revolutions of the mid-nineteenth century, and Saigo, who was a leading figure in the revolutionary Meiji Ishin, was attracted to Mechnikov’s revolutionary experience and his idealism. Both had clear revolutionary ideas that they felt had been not reaching its potential and felt alternative, ground-up work was necessary. They saw injustice in the government. Saigo must have seen some parallels in what revolutionaries were trying to achieve in Europe and the Meiji Ishin that had been ‘betrayed’ in his view. For Mechnikov, maybe Saigo looked like the Garibaldi with whom Mechnikov had fought in Italy. Both were ambivalent about Western modernity as it was being promoted and realized by the government. They perceived that the Japanese state was going down the route of the modern Western state, and they shared a conviction that this was not the right direction for Japan or for Russia, nor for the rest of the world.

Linguist Futabatei Shimei, the ‘Father of modern Japanese language and literature’. He translated Russian literature that criticized capitalist modernity. 

You can imagine the consequences when Mechnikov and other Russian Populist revolutionaries started teaching at the prestigious School of Foreign Studies in Tokyo where the ‘father of modern Japanese language and literature’ Futabatei Shimei was trained as a Russianist. Mechnikov and the revolutionaries who followed him to Japan focused the Russian language programme on studies of Russian Populist revolutionary literature. As a result, Futabatei began translating Russian populist literature as a defense against capitalist modernity of the West. His writings were widely read, and circulated in particular among the activists of the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement whose actions often echoed the Russian revolutionary movement’s.

So the global significance that Mechnikov gave to the Japanese revolution came to be reflected in Russian translation culture in Meiji Japan, a culture that would color the cultural and intellectual life of modern Japan for a long time to come. What is shocking is that scholars weren’t able to see this current over many decades of studying modern Japanese history.


AAT: To conclude, let’s look at the relationship between the Dean of Tokyo’s Orthodox Seminary: Konishi Masutarō and Lev (Leo) Tolstoy. On these figures, you note: Nowhere, except Russia, have the works of Tolstoy been published as many times as in Japan.

What did Tolstoy’s philosophy unlock for Masutarō in his own exploration of faith? And what were the reasons that Tolstoy’s interpretations of faith, and common people captivated Japan’s readers at this moment in time?

(I’m particularly fascinated w. Tolstoy’s concept of God as ‘Gxd’ and its relation to the concept of Heimin in Japan)

Lev Tolstoy remains one of the most popular writers in Japan. He was inspirational to many generations and in particular the anarchists of Japan

It’s not that the philosophy of the Russian writer Lev Tolstoy unlocked new ideas for the Orthodox seminarian Konishi Masutaro. Rather, it was a simultaneous and mutual articulation process and translation project. This is clearly shown in the historical records of their interactions. Yet no one has ever been able to pick up on this relationship that has entirely failed to fit our Eurocentric and hierarchical understandings of the East-West interaction.

The nature of their transnational relationship as mutual and non-hierarchical reflected the premises of cooperatist anarchist modernity. Both of them were interested in Tao te Ching (Lao Tzu) as an antidote to the institution of Christianity. But it was Tolstoi who came to learn from Konishi initially, not the other way around. Konishi was already known as a classical Asian philosophy specialist, ironically because he had been trained in the Russian Orthodox Christian seminary in Japan. The Orthodox Church in Tokyo in turn had absorbed former leaders and teachings of the Kaitokudo, the commoners’ ‘Academy of Virtue’ in Osaka that had taken an independent position from the official Tokugawa regime. Using classical Chinese thought as a way to resist power, the Orthodox Church in Japan stood against Japan’s oligarchs and Western modernity at large. This was in line with its traditions in Russia, but its reliance and teaching of Chinese classics were unusual and unique to the Japanese branch of the Church. Konishi was a graduate of both the Orthodox Christian seminary and the leading Russian Orthodox Seminary in Kiev. He in turn tried to develop with Tolstoi an ethical thought that was ‘universal’ and without hierarchy from the Chinese classics, Tao te Ching. The text guaranteed ontological equality. We could look at their understanding of the divine as Gxd – or God without Being — much in the way that the Tao te ching embodied a divine essence or spirit, or Gxd. Japanese beginning with Konishi translated Tolstoi’s religious writings as expressions of ‘Gxd’. One didn’t need to be Christian to be Tolstoian in Japan, although it’s important to point out that Tolstoi himself did believe in a God with Being. It was Konishi’s and others’ originality of translations and the people who took it that transformed Tolstoi’s religious thought into anarchist religion in Japan.

Japan’s translated Tolstoi uprooted the translated concept of ‘modern religion’ as the Christianity of the West. It was in this context that the idea of ‘religion’ developed as an ethical code that the common people possess. In other words, according to their religious ideas, one didn’t need to be Christian to be civilized. The theoretical implications for this are extremely large. This history gives us a completely new, if not revolutionary way of thinking about the intellectual history of modern Japan.

Why did it work so well? They did not think of themselves as anarchists. So this was not about an ‘ism’ per se, as in a kind of dedication to a utopian ideology. But rather it was a means of making a set of interlocked ideas and practices visible and coherent.

Tolstoy’s Resurrection in Japanese. Tolstoy’s work was translated and disseminated throughout Japan by anarchists who were inspired by his work.

You can read part 1 here and Part 3 here. For Dr. Konishi’s incredible scholarship, please see his book Anarchist Modernity: Cooperatism and Japanese-Russian Intellectual Relations in Modern Japan by Harvard University Press.

Author Matt Dagher-margosian

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